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Vol. XXXIV No. 2, May 1-15, 2024

Tributes: Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao – A man of peerless erudition

-- by S.R. Madhu

It was an extraordinary scene. Several people in the 250-strong audience at Tag Centre, Alwarpet, were shedding copious tears, either unaware or unconscious of their streaming eyes.

The occasion: a mesmeric presentation on “Lord of the seven hills” way back in 2007, by Dr. Pappu Venugopala Rao. Stunning large-sized video images of Lord Venkateswara, dazzlingly bedecked and bejewelled, made the audience ecstatic. They were transported to Tirupati. A sweet surprise at the end – laddoos, brought personally by a priest from Tirupati.

Who doesn’t know about the Tirupati experience? You book well in advance, then take your place in one of the queues that snake their way along severalwinding routes to the Lord. When the precious moment comes, you manage barely half a minute of darshan before you get eased or pushed out. But the Pappu presentation brought the Lord to Tag Centre and you feasted your eyes on the divine for a full 100 minutes. No wonder many devotees in the audience couldn’t control their emotions.

Dr. Pappu passed away in Chennai at the residence of his son, Patanjali Shastri, on April 7, 2024, plunging the worlds of academia, music and the arts, and his many friends and aficionados in India and the US, into grief.

He was an awesome scholar. He had three master’s degrees and three PhDs including a D.Litt in Indology, and knew eight languages. He had a thorough knowledge of literature, history, education, philosophy, religion, music and dance. He was an accomplished musicologist. He could churn out instant verse. He organised Natyasastra workshops round the world. He composed 22 dance dramas, mostly in Sanskrit. He pioneered lecture demonstrations in Kuchipudi dance. He has authored 22 books and scores of research papers. His book Flowers at His Feet offered insights into the works of Annamacharya, the great Carnatic music composer. His book The Science of Sri Cakra was a magnum opus. It analyzed the complex geometry involved, which has many sacred connotations in Hinduism. The book came with a CD of music by stalwarts such as M. Balamuralikrishna, and a commentary. A few other books: Fragrance of Padams, Nritta Ratnavali, Five Gems of Saint Thyagaraja (co-authored with Neyveli Santhanagopalan).

Perhaps Dr. Pappu’s most monumental work, a translation into English plus commentary on the Natya Sastra – the ancient encyclopedic Sanskrit treatise by Bharata Muni which has captivated scholars of music, dance and drama round the world – is likely to be launched a few months from now – both in Hyderabad and in California at the University of Silicon Andhra. The eagerly awaited 3,000-page three-volume work will be a splendid testament to Dr. Pappu’s ability and versatility as a scholar.

Dr. Pappu was an ashtaavadani, one who could perform eight tasks simultaneously. You win the title when you pass a rigorous examination of scholarship and mental gymnastics. What happens in a test of ashtaavadanam is that a group of scholars attacks you simultaneously with questions and problems. For example, one person plays chess with you, another person specifies a topic and asks you to compose an instant verse on it, a third person gives you a date and you must say instantly on which day of the week that date falls, a bell keeps ringing and you are asked how many times the bell has rung, another person keeps jabbering and diverting your attention.

He served the American Institute of Indian Studies in Chennai for 32 years, helping scores of American scholars and researchers with their projects on India. He retired as Associate Director General, later served as consultant to the same institute. He worked closely with American academics. He was for many years the chairman of the Board of Trustees, University of Silicon Andhra, California, USA, where he made invaluable contributions to the departments of Telugu and Sanskrit.

Dr. Pappu was Secretary of the Music Academy, Madras and in that capacity convenor of its annual conference. He edited the translation into English of Subbarama Dikshitar’s 1904 Telugu magnum opus Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini. This was published by the Music Academy. He helped steer the Music Academy-Tag Digital Archives, in co-operation with its spearhead and major donor, Mr. R.T. Chari.

V Sriram, music historian and Secretary of the Music Academy, says Dr. Pappu was a great help with his second book, a biography of Bangalore Nagaratnamma. “I learned a great deal from his encyclopedic knowledge, his wisdom and insights on music and its allied arts”.

Perhaps Dr. Pappu’s most regular public interaction was through Mr. R.T. Chari’s South India Heritage Programme, which ran for 18 years from 2002 to 2020. He was one of Chari’s most trusted advisers. He delivered 14 lectures (on topics such as “Contribution of Telugu-speaking people to Chennai’s culture”, “The Thirumala temple – Tallapaka Annamacharya”, “Melattur Bhagavata Mela Natyam”, “Mohini Attam”) also as many as 63 separate “Pravachanam” lectures or religious discourses on the Vedas, the Puranas, Ramayana, Mahabharata and so on, during the period 2012-19. Mr. Chari says, “He had a genius for simplifying and clarifying the most esoteric aspects of our religion, our heritage, our philosophy”.

He won many awards and titles in three disciplines – dance, music and literature – such as Natya Kala Sagara, Natyakala Visharada, Sangita Samrat, Avadana Sekhara. An award for all-round scholarship was conferred on him by the Sangeet Natak Akademi.

In his death, the world has lost its most distinguished scholar on south India’s heritage.

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  1. Vinay Kumar says:

    I read the article on Dr Pappu and his association with the Silicon Valley University in California.
    Just for information the said university has been found out to be a fake institution catering to students from Andhra to enter US on fake degree programs.
    It has been de recognised.

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