It was supposedly a landmark trial. The first one of its kind. A legendary carnatic musician, and teacher par-excellence stood accused for the crime of mutilating the Sahitya (lyrics of a song) of a particularly famous carnatic composition kODu rEDu (కోడు రేడు/कोडु रेडु/கோடு ரேடு), literally meaning Line King in Telugu. The song of course has no relation to Lion King.

The musician was the legendary Curnool Nadhamuni Jessappa Bhagavatar. Although born in Curnool, he was not a Teluguite, and had moved from Curnool to Chennai when he was very young. This actually caused furor after the trial, when a rasika organization from Curnool wanted him to remove Curnool from his name as he no longer deserved it given the nature of his offense. Surviving details about the Bhagavatar are sketchy. It is clear that he was an enigmatic figure in the carnatic world. Before this trial, he commanded respect from all his peers, and had won admiration and adoration from rasikas all over. It was also claimed that he bore a slight resemblance to the acclaimed Hollywood star Jack Nicholson. Whether that was really true or nor is not we do not know for sure, but we know that it did enhance his enigma.

The plaintiffs bringing the charge were some Canatic Music fans (rasikas ), who were particularly fed up with the constant mutilation of Sahitya by many carnatic musicians and finally decided to put an end to it. The prosecution was led by the ace-lawyer Tenali Kasi.

Jessappa Bhagavatar’s prime disciple was Laya Tarangini Chandrika, a lady of solid reputation herself. For numerological reasons, she decided to initialize her titles, and drop the last “a” in her name, and hence went as L.T. Chandrik.

Detailed records of the trial are somehow lost to us except for a small chapter in a book written by a part-English part-Indian reporter Arun. S. Orkin whose family apparently also owned a pest control company in the USA. He is supposed to have witnessed the trial and provides a riveting account of the last day of the trial in his book.

(Excerpts from the cross examination of the Bhagavatar (KNJB) by the lead prosecutor Kasi)
Kasi: A moment ago, you said that you specifically taught Chandrik compositions like kODu rEDu such that the Sahitya wasn’t mutilated?
KNJB: That’s right.
Kasi: And Chandrik was clear on what you taught and what you wanted?
KNJB: Crystal.
Kasi: Any chance Chandrik ignored the lessons?
KNJB: (sarcastically) Ignored the lessons?
Kasi: Any chance she just forgot about it?
Kasi: Any chance Chandrik left your office and said, “The Bhagavathar thaatha is wrong! Just old fashioned.”
Kasi: When Chandrik taught the junior sishyas , and specifically told them the importance of not mutilating the Sahitya when singing, any chance they ignored her?
KNJB: Have you spent time learning Carnatic Music, son?
Kasi: No Bhagavatarvaal.
KNJB: Ever sung in a front of an audience?
Kasi: No Bhagavatarvaal.
KNJB: Ever put your career in the hands of whims and fancies of old mamas and mamis , young presumptuous rasikas, and senile pompous critics?
Kasi: No Bhagavatarvaal.
KNJB: We follow lessons son. We follow lessons or our music career dies. It’s that simple. Are we clear?
Kasi: Yes Bhagavatarvaal.
KNJB: (loudly) Are we clear?
Kasi: Crystal.

Kasi pauses for a while internally thinking if he should go all out or not. After a moment’s contemplation, he continues

Kasi: Bhagavatarval, I have just one more question. If you specifically taught Chandrika that Sahitya isn’t to be mutilated, and your lessons are always followed, why is the Sahitya being mutilated by sishyas of your school?

The Bhagavataar is silent. As the silence bores on, he starts to shifts uncomfortably.

KNJB: (hesitantly) Sometimes the sishyas take matters into their own hands …
Kasi: (Assertively) No no no Bhagavatarval! You made it clear just a moment ago that your sishyas never take matters into their own hands. You said that your sishyas follow lessons or their music careers die. So Sahitya shouldn’t have been in any danger at all from your sishyas, should it have Bhagavatarval?
KNJB: (after a pause, sneers) You little, insignificant kattukkuTTi.
KNJB’s Lawyer: Your Honor, I request a recess to –.
Kasi: (cutting him off) I’d like an answer to the question, Judge.
Judge: The court will wait for an answer.
Kasi: Bhagavatarval?

(KNJB is still at a loss for words and Kasi decides to go for the jugular)

Kasi: Chandrika taught kODU reDu with the wrong words didn’t she? Because that’s how you taught Chandrika! Isnt that Bhagavatarval?
KNJB’s Lawyer: I Object! (to no avail)
Kasi: And it went bad, you cut these sishyas loose.
KNJB’s Lawyer: Your Honor! (to still no avail)
Kasi: You doctored the pattu pustakams
KNJB’s Lawyer: Dammit Kasi!
Kasi: I’ll ask for the fourth time. You taught-
KNJB: (Cutting him off) You want answers?
Kasi: I think I’m entitled to them.
KNJB: (loudly) You want answers?
Kasi: (even louder) I WANT THE TRUTH!
KNJB: Son, we live in a world that has music. And that music has to be nurtured and cherished by people who know it. Who’s gonna do it? You? Your whiny assistant? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Sahitya and you curse the musicians. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Sahitya‘s mutilation, while tragic, is sometimes needed to beautify music for wider acceptance. And my teachings and performances without Sahitya Suddham, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, still brings joy to countless rasikas
KNJB: (continuing) You don’t want the truth! Because deep down, in places you don’t talk about at parties, pandals and koottams, you want me on that stage. You need me on that stage. We use words like raga, tala, layam…we use these words as the backbone to a music we spend our life learning, breathing and living. You use ’em as a punchline when bragging to your friends about your hobbies! I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and enjoys the music we musicians provide, then questions the manner in which we provide it! I’d rather you just said thank you and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a tampura and start singing on stage. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you’re entitled to!
Kasi: Curnool Nadhamuni Jessappa Bhagavatar! Did you change kODu reDu?
KNJB: (quietly) I did the job rasikas want me to do.

So concluded the trial. Bhagavatar, having admitted to the crime in court was convicted and told not to sing kODu rEDu ever again. His punishment included taking basic Telugu lessons from the rasikas themselves. Needless to say he couldn’t take the ignominy and went into depression, and later became very famous as a cinema playback singer. However, there were many mourned the loss of a giant to the carnatic music world.

Special Note:I feel obliged to add this special note just in case some people may take this post too seriously and get offended. It is of course a parody of a famous scene in a popular Hollywood movie A Few Good Men. It is not intended to poke fun at people who complain about Sahitya mutilation. I most certainly understand the validity of many of their complaints, although in a few cases they seem a bit excessive to me. Nor is it intended to poke fun at musicians as I think I do understand their side of the story. However, this of course does not condone all the mutilations. Maybe that is why I thought it was funny how this gripping scene from the movie seem to strangely correlate to the issue of Sahitya Suddham in carnatic music.