Kopparapu poets, brothers well known for ‘avadhanam’ and extempore poetry, lived in the early twentieth century.
The brothers occupy a place of pride, not only in Telugu literature, but also in the annals of modern Indian literature.
The first half of the twentieth century was truly a golden age for Telugu literature, after a similar such phase during Sri Krishnadevaraya’s reign. The period between 1950 and 1980 saw great literary output across various genres too, but the early twentieth century saw the revival of ‘avadhanam’ – a great literary form in Telugu.
Kopparapu Sodara Kavulu – ‘the poet-brothers of Kopparam’ – were two of the foremost exponents of this form. Their talent and achievements have been described as manavatita or beyond human capacity, in the era of many janta-kavulu (pairs of poets). The prominent pairs at the time were the great Tirupati-Venkata Kavulu, Venkata-Ramakrishna Kavulu, Venkata-Parvateeswara Kavulu and Pingali-Katuri Kavulu.
What is avadhanam? Meaning focus or attention, avadhanam is a literary form that focuses on dharana (memory) and ashu-kavitvam (extempore poetry). The performer of this literary feat, sometimes called a sahitya-krida or a literary sport, is the avadhani, who takes questions simultaneously by a group of pricchakas (questioners).
Most questions require an answer in the form of an extempore metrical poem (chandobaddha-padyam), and there are some that require attention, like during the feat, flowers thrown at the avadhani or the rings of a bell. He has to state the number of flowers thrown, or the number of bells rung at the end of the event. This is not enough; there is a designated disrupter – aprastuta prasangi – who cherrypicks some irrelevant topics and implores avadhani to answer, even as he begins to answer.
Avadhanam has categories – Nishddhakshari, Nyastakshari, Vyastakshari, Samasya-Puranam, Purana-pathanam, Varnana, Dattapadi, Chitra-Kavyam and more. The number of pricchakas is eight in an ashtavadhanam, 16 in a dwigunita-ashtavadhanam, 100 in a shatavadhanam and 1,000 in a sahasravadhanam.
The poet-duo Sri Venkata Subbaraya Kavi and Sri Venkataramana Kavi were born in 1885 and 1887 respectively in a family of scholars, in Kopparam village, near Narasaraopet (Prakasam district). Kopparapu means ‘of Kopparam’. By 16, they were composing extempore poetry. Both were Durga and Anjaneya Upasakas. They exhibited prowess in many samsthanams (principalities) across Andhra Pradesh. The duo was known for their speed and great skill in composition. While a shatavadhanam takes more than two days, they have the credit of finishing two in a single day.
Kopparapu Sodarulu, it is said, once composed more than 400 poems in a single hour, which means a poem under 10 seconds (some say the number is 300, and others, 500). Avadhanis of today, like Madugula Nagaphani Sarma and Sri Garikipati Narasimha Rao, have said that this cannot be emulated. Most would take more than an hour to recite 300 memorised poems.
Once, the duo challenged king Vijayarama Gajapati Raju of Vizianagaram. The challenge – if they stop to take a break from ashu-kavitvam/extempore poetry, their hands can be chopped off (aashuvaaginayeni hastavicchedanambu). They stretched their hands and recited, for more than a half-hour, to the astonishment of everyone around.
On another occasion, they composed a whole kavya – ‘Bhishma-Jananam’ – consisting more than 100 poems, in a half-hour.
The duo wore around two to three kilograms of gold, gifted in the form of kankanams, gandapenderams and gold medals. They were accompanied by a private security guard.
Avadhanam is a great feat, but critics and avadhanis have said that it puts a leash on the free flow of creativity because of the conditions it imposes. A padyam is not just a chatushpaath (a whole of four pada that comprises a padyam) set to a meter, but has to have a strong poetic expression with rasa/bhava. Padyam composed during avadhanams often suffer in this regard, but greats like Kopparapu Sodarulu have shown that it is possible to compose great poetry in avadhanams. Their admirers and pricchakas included giants – Sri Kavyakantha Vashishta Ganapati Muni, Sri Veturi Prabhakara Sastry, Sri Kasi Krishnacharya and Sri Vedula Venkataraya Sastry.
Their rivalry with another highly famous avadhani duo, Tirupati-Venkata Kavulu, turned into poetic volleys and is legendary. The two poet pairs later put their rivalry behind and praised each other. We can only imagine how thrilling it would have been for sahiti-rasikas or literary-connoisseurs, who watched this unfold. Their younger brother, Bucchirama Kavi, was an avadhani too. The duo’s sons Seetharama Prasada Rao and Mallikarjuna Rao shone in this art. A poet rightly said “Kavitha puttillu kopparapu sodarula illu (Kopparapu family/house is the maternal home of poetry).”
Some interesting snippets. The brothers were travelling to visit Kanakadurga Ammavari temple of Vijayawada and the elder brother got sick in Eluru. They had to stay there for a long time. People came to know and started visiting them. One of them asked the duo about the fever (maybe expecting a poem in return). Without a blink came the reply.
gaLakaraphAlabhAgamuna graaleDu haalahalAhihavyavA
hula tyajiyimpa vAru kaDu ugrata booni tadeeyulau prajan
When Shiva and Parvati wanted to have some ekaantam, Shiva kept aside his serpents, poison and the third eye. Spurned, upset, but unable to do anything directly to their master, they turned to troubling his bhaktas, as that hurts the lord. Descending on the Earth, scouting for devotees, they found the Kopparapu brothers and their poison and fire caused the fever.
The brothers were once asked to say a padyam on ‘clock’ or ‘gadiyaramu’, as it is called in Telugu. A clock was relatively new at the time. Here was their reply.
gaDiyArambupayukta vastuvulanagrasthAnamun pondu
ayyuDuchandrArkulu kAnarAka jaladammugrambugA krammunayyeDa
kAlamberiginchu saindhavuni nADIyantramE uunnachO
kaDu kashTambagu kAde gAnDivi pratignan teerpaga chakrikin
The clock is one of the most useful things. It gives you knowledge of the time when the sun, moon and stars are obscured by clouds. Nothing extraordinary so far, but their pratibha shows up in the next line – If this device was around during the Mahabharata war, it would have come in handy for Jayadratha or Saindhava, who was tricked into believing it was sunset, by Krishna, and it would have been tougher for Krishna to execute his plan to kill him.
The brothers are said to have composed more than three lakh poems. The spontaneous nature of most of them meant that they were not written down and were lost. The lightning speed did not help. They did write many kavyams, like Daiva Sankalpam and Krishnakaruna Prabhaavam. Machavarapu Sarma, their grandson, has taken it upon himself to unearth as many as he can and publish.
Kopparapu Kavula Kalapeetham, which was established in 2002, has been discussing this great pair of poets and awarding a ‘Kopparapu Puraskaram’ to literary and musical giants.
Venkata Subbaraya Kavi died at 42. What they did in their lifetime is nothing short of phenomenal. They occupy a place of pride, not only in Telugu literature, but also in the annals of modern Indian literature. For a generation mostly clueless about heritage and increasingly turning to cinema and away from Indian literature, the feats of this duo will provide great inspiration. The great Sri Kavyakantha Ganapati Muni had this to say:
angavAngvachanabhangabhAginau sUrisamsadi kutah parAjayaH |
subbarAyaramanau mahakavI vEnkaTohi yuvayoh dwayoh puraH ||
Where would defeat come from for these poets when they have Venkata (trouble remover) in the front? (Both had ‘Venkata’ in front of their names.)
Sri Veturi Prabhakara Sastry put it simply: Vahvare palikina palukulanni padyamulayye emi cheppudun.
Each word they speak turns into a poem. They probably spoke mostly in meter, considering the speed and number of poems they composed.
Note: The padyams mentioned here are from the video lectures of Sri Garikipati Narasimha Rao posted under Kopparapu Kavula Kalapeetham on Youtube. Mistakes in chhandas are the author’s.