Art & Culture

Dadasaheb Phalke honour for K Viswanath is Sankarabharanam for the master himself

Sandeep Balakrishna
Sandeep BalakrishnaApr 26, 2017 | 09:23

Dadasaheb Phalke honour for K Viswanath is Sankarabharanam for the master himself

"I offer a hundred thousand salutations to the donor who extended his hands to guard the flame of pure traditional classical music which was fluttering under the assault of the tornado of Western music," says a visibly touched Shankara Sastri, moments before he can begin the final concert of his life. 

It wouldn't be hyperbolic to say that these words apply every bit to the maker of the film they are a part of: the winner of this year's Dadasaheb Phalke Award, Kasinathuni Viswanath.


Also addressed with the honorific "Kala Tapaswi", K Viswanath's renown as an iconic filmmaker rests even today on his 1980 classic Sankarabharanam (The Ornament of Lord Shankara), although he directed 25 films before it.

We can put Sankarabharanam in perspective when we recall that the film was released in exactly one theatre in Hyderabad, on a contract basis, for merely seven days.

It opened mostly to an empty hall, but as word spread, Viswanath's classical ode became one of the biggest commercial successes in Telugu film history, running at the movies continuously for about a year.

sankara_042617031629.jpgJV Somayajulu in Sankarabharanam.

The legacy of Sankarabharanam has stood the test of time, cutting across at least two generations. Scores of Telugu films either incorporated or were inspired by the characters, situations, scenes, dialogues, and lyrical bits of Sankarabharanam.

CNN-India included it in its 2013 centennial list of Indian cinema as one of the "100 greatest Indian films of all time", while Forbes put lead actor, JV Somayajulu's performance in its list of "25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema".

But the actual impact of Sankarabharanam was truly felt among the masses. Two instances can be cited.


The first: this singular film not only suddenly reopened the eyes of Indians to the greatness of their own classical music, but there was an almost overnight demand for its teachers, and those like me who were trying their hand at learning the form asked our respective teachers to teach us traditional compositions used in the film - Brochevarevarura (composed by Mysore Vasudevacharya), Samaja Varagamana (by Saint Thyagaraja), and Manasa Sancharare (the Vedanta, Sadasiva Brahmendra). 

The second: when the film's crew toured (undivided) Andhra Pradesh after it completed 100 days, JV Somayajulu had to pay special attention to his attire and demeanour among the public, who had elevated him to the status of a saint.

It is said, back in the day, he had it tough trying to wear shirts and trousers or, more dangerously, taking a short smoke-break.

The reason for dwelling at length on Sankarabharanam doesn't merely lie in the fact that it was K Viswanath's landmark work, but also because it initiated a clean break from the sort of films he had made till then, as also for the reason that it inspired other filmmakers to venture into this territory, which was regarded commercially unsafe.


A majority of K Viswanath's movies until Sankarabharanam were mostly social dramas like Atma Gowravam, Undamma Bottu Pedata, and Nindu Hrudayalu, which earned him acclaim as a director to reckon with.

But four women-centric movies - Chelleli Kapuram, Sarada, O Seeta Katha and Jeevana Jyoti, brought him recognition as a filmmaker embodying sensitivity, nuance and refinement, apart from one who assured commercial success.

Starting his career as a sound designer in 1957 at a studio in Madras, K Viswanath went on to become a writer and assistant director to the legendary Telugu filmmaker, Adurthi Subba Rao.

He made his directorial debut with the 1965 hit Atma Gowravam starring Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, which fetched him the Nandi Award for the year.

Viswanath also holds the distinction of having directed the leading stars of all generations of Telugu cinema - from N T Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageshwara Rao to Shoban Babu, Ghattamaneni Krishna, Chiranjeevi, and even Venkatesh.

Artists from non-Telugu cinema he has directed include Rishi Kapoor, Rakesh Roshan, Mithun Chakbraborthy, Anil Kapoor, Girish Karnad and Mammooty.

But it was with and after Sankarabharanam that Viswanath carved out a niche for himself in Telugu cinema. This was a period of vacuum after the eclipse of stars like Krishna, Shoban Babu and to an extent, Krishnamraju.

Chiranjeevi and his contemporaries like Balakrishna, Nagarjuna and Venkatesh would later fill this vacuum and dominate Telugu cinema with a slew of mindless formulaic films.

Viswanath focused on the themes of classical music, dance, and art set in a backdrop of fast changing values and a rapid abandonment of ancient Indian traditions. These films reveal his deep knowledge of Indian aesthetics, classicism, and his experience and insights into Telugu culture (referred to as Telugu-tanam) and their artistic application on celluloid.

Pure classicism in Telugu cinema ended after the generation of actors, writers, and directors including NT Rama Rao, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao, SV Ranga Rao, Savitri, Jamuna, Samudrala Raghavacharya (and his son), KV Reddy, K Kameshwara Rao, et al.

sagara_sangamam-song_042617031518.jpgSagara Sangamam

Stars like NT Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageshwara Rao eventually moved away from epics and mythological (Pouranikas), and concentrated more on contemporary themes that were thoroughly devoid of classicism.

At the time, classical poetry, music and dialogue were few of the prerequisite features that characterised movies with epic and mythological themes such as Maya Bazaar, Sri Krishna Pandaveeyam, Nartanashala, Lava Kusha, Pandava Vanavasam and Satya Harishchandra.

And so, when K Viswanath made Sankarabharanam, he was met with a vastly-changed audience profile that could no longer understand or appreciate this native classicism in cinema - and actors who couldn't quite match the stature of the likes of NTR and SV Ranga Rao.

This is why Viswanath distilled the essence of various aspects of his classicism and served it in compelling onscreen narratives the contemporary audience could appreciate.

A superb instance of this narrative style is a poignant scene in Sagara Sangamam, arguably the finest of Viswanath's movies. A drunk and hungry Kamal Hassan, defeated by life's circumstances, refuses to enter the house of his close friend Sarath Babu because it is the occasion of Janmashtami. He says, "Sister-in-law has decorated the house with the footsteps of Bala (Baby) Krishna with great devotion. How can I enter this home in this state?"

The background music is set to a flute rendition of the Kannada devotional lyric "Krishna nee begane baaro (Krishna my child, come soon)" while Hassan's character is called Balakrishna. The use of the flute completes the unity of this magnificent scene.

The subtlety of his cinematic excellence is made prominent by his depictions of rural Telugu life - the tradition of Rama Katha in Swati Muthyam, the musical and lyrical beauty showcased in Sutradharulu, and the scene towards the climax in Swarna Kamalam, where the film's protagonist, Bhanupriya, realises the true value of art through her experiences as a classical dancer.

The way Viswanath brings out the profundity of the ethical and moral values of the "simple, common" rural folk is equally remarkable.

For instance, in a scene from his film, Sutradharulu, Akkineni Nageshwara Rao - the Harikatha (stories of Vishnu) exponent - says to his partner: "Like a doctor who doesn't kill even an evil patient because it is his professional dharma to give treatment, we have accepted this from the evil Zamindar as a gift for our traditional music. Now throw it all in the Godavari."

Such nuance, subtlety and a high sense of refinement characterise almost all his films, from the dialogue to the lyric and the scene composition. In every respect, his movies don't allow aesthetics to descend on that step that separates it from obscenity.

And Viswanath had a formidable team in tow, which helped translate his narrative and cinematic vision into reality. Some of the talent he unearthed, nurtured, and gifted them to Telugu cinema. And he was gifted with the ability to spot and discern excellence in existing talent.

Viswanath's lifelong association with the iconic music director KV Mahadevan also gave us the immortal music of Siri Siri Muvva, Sankarabharanam, and Swati Kiranam among others. His memorable collaborations with Ilaiyaraaja gave cinema Sagara Sangamam, Swati Muthyam, and Swarna Kamalam. To this medley was added the voice of Viswanath’s cousin, the legendary playback singer, SP Balasubrahmanyam.

Viswanath's Dadasaheb Phalke honour has come a little too late.

To me, as the audience, even if the master filmmaker had made no other movie, but Sankarabharanam or Sagara Sangamam, Viswanath would've still had an eminent spot in cinematic annals.

To borrow a line from Sankarabharanam, the Dadasaheb Phalke award is the "Shankaragala nigalamu" (the glowing necklace called the Raga Shankarabharana around Lord Shiva's neck) to Viswanath's cinematic career.

Last updated: April 26, 2017 | 15:25
Please log in
I agree with DailyO's privacy policy