Mahendravada Bappana Sastry has many other claims to fame but sadly he is among the many musician-composers of high calibre, who were widely admired during their time but whose contributions have since faded from public memory

Mahendravada Bapanna Sastry with his disciples and friends at an event
Mahendravada Bapanna Sastry with his disciples and friends at an event

The last few weeks have seen a series of Thyagaraja Aradhana functions across the Telugu States and even south India. At such a time, it is fitting to remember those musician-composers who despite their limited resources took the initiative to organise Thyagaraja Aradhana festival in the interior areas. One of them was the brilliant musician-composer Mahendravada Bappana Sastry (1904–1979). He conducted this function for many years in and around his native village of Injaram in Andhra Pradesh. 

Even more laudable is that he is also one of the even fewer musicians, who built a temple to Thyagaraja. He got this constructed in Injaram, and even today, the small but simple temple, draws many music lovers especially during the annual Thyagaraja Aradhana. 

Bappana Sastry has many other claims to fame but sadly he is among the many musician-composers of high calibre, who were widely admired during their time but whose contributions have since faded from public memory.  

This is surprising and regrettable considering he passed away only a few decades ago and also left behind a published body of all his compositions, complete with notation unlike many other composers, who left no records behind. 

Bapanna Sastry was born in Injaram village (near Yanam) in Andhra Pradesh into a learned family of scholars, poets and musicians. His first guru was Regilla Jagannatha Sastry of Pithapuram. He underwent advanced training under Sriman Sringaram Alahasingaracharyulu. 

His first performance in Bhimavaram was followed by concerts across south India and present-day Orissa, and over AIR – all widely acclaimed by critics and the public alike. This and his later achievements as a vaggeyakara (composer) were reasons why stalwarts among his peers like Sangeeta Kalanidhi Nedunuri Krishnamurthy and Vinjamuri Varadaraja Iyengar respected and admired him. 

Bapanna Sastry was noted for complete command over shruthi and laya and richly creative manodharma. He was a master of laya. His performances and compositions reveal his grip over rhythm. He would do swarakalpana without putting the thalam! 

Once he began swarakalpana, he would become so immersed in it, that the audience and accompanying musicians could not fathom when he would give the mukthaayi and when he would begin the pallavi. He would show the thalam only when he began the pallavi. This was a big challenge to the accompanying percussionists and violinist.

He had a bass voice and sang at a shruti (pitch) of 0.5. Despite this, and the lack of microphones his voice would reach a large audience, such was his vocal strength.

As a vaggeyakara, he is credited with around 195 compositions, including 150 krithis, 30 thanavarnams and 15 javalis. They are all in Telugu and published in a three-volume book Harihara Kruthimanjari in 1964. “However, only the first two volumes are available today,” reveals his grandnephew and vocalist Mahendravada Ramachandra Murty.  

Bapanna Sastry’s entire oeuvre as a composer is a testimony to his talent and creativity. Analysing their sahithya and listening to the renditions one is impressed by their high musical values. In his compositions, one sees a beautiful harmony between maathu and dhaathu (words and music). The krithis are soaked in bhakti and vairagya bhavams and use popular ragas and thalams.

The varnams are tightly woven, musically rich creations and like the krithis, they bring out the raga chaaya very well. His javalis too are richly melodious and well-constructed. The Behag ragam javali “Andarilo Govinduni Choodare, Indarilo Sundarude Cheliya” is especially impressive. His mudra was Bapanna Kavi Nutha and Bapanna Nutha. A third mudra, Bapanna Kavi Poshani, is revealed in Vani Purani (Mayamalavagowla).  

Bapanna Sastry’s disciples include Peddada Suryakumari, Sripada Ramamurthy, ML Narasimham, and Kodamarthi Sambasiva Rao, all vocalists. Others were nadaswaram player and vocalist Shaikh Madina and Vainika Nayudu Sathyavathi. 

Within his family too, Bapanna Sastry had students. These included his brother’s sons Mahendravada Kameswara Rao and Mahendravada Subba Rao, both well-known violinists. His grandnephew Mahendravada Ramachandra Murty also learnt briefly under him. Another nephew, violinist Thaatapudi Venkata Subbaraya Sastry, was also his disciple.

Bapanna Sastry passed away in 1979 in Injaram.

In a small way, Bapanna Sastry’s legacy is being kept alive by his disciples and descendants. His grandnephew Mahendravada Ramachandra Murty renders and teaches his compositions. 

Ramachandra Murty’s younger brother Narasimha Murty, a violinist, also teaches these compositions. Peddada Suryakumari also occasionally renders and teaches her guru’s lyrics and is thus helping spread their fragrance. Vainika Dwibhashyam Nagesh Babu also renders the compositions.

The Thyagaraja Temple, which Bapanna Sastry made has been renovated and is being maintained by his descendants. His grandnephew Mahendravada Ramachandra Murty conducts the Thyagaraja Aradhana here regularly. 

However, much more is needed to be done to revive Bapanna Sastry’s rich legacy and propagate his compositions which have high musical merit.