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Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi – Short Biography

More formally known as Oothukkadu Venkata Subbaiyer, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi dedicated his life (1700 – 1765 CE) to ‘Kaliya Narthana Krishna’— the name of the presiding deity in Oothukkadu town, which is featured like a secondary signature in his many compositions. Here is a short biography of Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi.

He was born Venkata Subramaniam, the eldest of five children, to Tamil Smarta parents Subbu Kutti Iyer and Venkamma in Mannargudi near Thanjavur. Later they moved to the village of Oothukkadu.

Venkata Kavi’s family deity was Goddess Kamakshi, but his mind and heart were enraptured by Kalinga Narthana Krishna. The great poet composed on a staggering range of topics. He composed operas on the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Srimad Bhagavatam. Around 200 of his songs in his Bhagavatam opera musically bring to life scenes from the tenth canto of the Purana, colorfully depicting Sri Krishna Leelas. He also composed songs on Vinayaka, Saraswati, Siva, Karttikeya, Devi (including the famous Kamakshi Navavarana kritis), Rama and Anjaneya.

In addition, he composed songs on great saints such as Shuka Brahmarishi, Valmiki, Vyasa, Kannappa Nayanar, Jayadeva, Andal and Bhadrachala Ramadasu.

His compositions show that he was inspired by the devotion of the 12 Alvars, 63 Nayanmars
and composer-saints such as Purandaradasa and Tulsidas.

During the Maratha rule in the Tanjore region between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Bhagavata Mela tradition flourished in South India, especially in villages like Oothukkadu. Our virtuosic composer Venkata Kavi was influenced by this tradition, which might explain his many operas and works that were suited for music, dance and theater, as well as the handful of songs in Marathi. Venkata Kavi was never keen on publicizing his music, and would sing his songs in isolation, mostly at night, once refusing to sing at the king’s court upon invitation. Venkata Kavi was married to his devotional music, and remained a celibate for life.

As a youth, he wanted to learn formally from a great musician called Shri Krishna Yogi. However, Krishna Yogi did not accept him as a disciple, for reasons unknown. The disappointed Venkata Kavi went to his mother, who advised him to surrender to Bhagavan Sri Krishna in the Kalinga Narthana temple. It is believed that Bhagavan Sri Krishna appeared before Venkata Kavi and blessed him with musical knowledge. Thereafter, Venkata Kavi started composing and referred to Bhagavan Sri Krishna as his guru in many songs.

We have around 600 of his compositions today, which were originally scribed in palm leaf manuscripts by his family. His dazzling creations are known for their unpretentious devotion, humility and state of blissful exuberance. Like other saintly composers in his time, Venkata Kavi traveled to temple towns such as Srirangam, Kanchipuram, Madurai, Udupi, Pandharpur, Chennai, Sikkil, Palani and Tiruvarur. We know this through the songs he dedicated to the presiding Deities of these holy lands.

When conversing with Bhagavan, he sang in Sanskrit. When he sang about (and as) the folk of Vrindavan, he used colloquial Tamil. To communicate deep philosophical truths, he
wrote in scholarly Tamil. Venkata Kavi’s creations are incredibly rhythmic and so full of rhyme that if one were to simply read the lyrics, the appropriate tala would fall into place! His songs melt our hearts with devotion for the mischievous young Bhagavan Sri Krishna. These compositions were not popular in his own time, largely due to the fact that he did not take on disciples who would propagate them.
His works were brought to the mainstream in the 1940s by legendary Harikatha exponent
Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar, one of Venkata Kavi’s brother’s descendants.

Venkata Kavi composed several musical operas as well as ragamalikas
in Tamil. His hugely popular Tamil songs include the mellifluous Alai Payude” and “Pal Vadiyum Mugam.” His song “Maadu Meikum Kanne” is an enchanting dialogue between little Krishna and his mother Yashoda, in which she tells him not to go outside, and he gives her a long list of reasons as to why he should do just that!

“Thaye Yashoda,” another masterpiece, was secretly noted down and learned by Rudra Pashupati, a nadaswaram player of Tanjore court who admired Venkata Kavi’s soul-stirring renderings. In this song, the Gopis of Vrindavan complain to Yashoda about the incessant pranks of her mischievous son Gopalakrishnan.

SourceHinduism Today Magazine Oct-Nov-Dec 2022 edition.