There is an old saying that things happen for a reason. Others might contend that it is our ‘prarabdha’ karma that takes its course. One may well ask, how did Sri Avudai Akkal come into our lives? Let me set it out, as best I can, of what happened.
The July-September 2019 (Vol.56, No.3) issue of Mountain Path, a quarterly publication of Sri Ramanasramam contained an article featuring the lives of two Saints, St Teresa of Avila (Spain) and Sri Avudai Akkal (Shenkottai, India). Both these women lived some 350 years ago and though separated by geography, their spiritual outpourings, according to the author, Dr Kanchana Natarajan, had similar mystical trajectories.
I had heard and read about Tamil women Saints, Auvaiyar, Aandal and more recently Aandavan Pichai but not of Akkal. Dr Natarajan’s article made reference to an earlier article of hers on Akkal in the Jan-March 2010 issue of Mountain Path. Fortunately, this was available online from the website of Sri Ramanasramam. That led me to consult, as we light heartedly say, Swami Googleananda and thence many weblinks on Akkal including articles in the newspaper The Hindu and references to the book Transgressing Boundaries- The Songs of Shenkottai Avudai Akkal (ISBN 978 93 81017 16 6).
I ordered and devoured these readings and thanks to Dr Natarajan advising people to contact her with any information on Akkal, I emailed her complimenting her on the book and asking for more details on the CD of Bombay Sisters featuring 10 songs of Akkal. Incidentally, it was these songs of Bombay Sisters and four pages (Avvadayakkal, pages 357-360) in the Lives of Saints (a publication of Sri Shivananda Ashram, ISBN 81-7052-095-9) that had set Dr Natarajan on her extensive field research on Akkal.
Much that I had googled and asked people here in Sydney and families well versed in Carnatic music whether they had this particular CD of Bombay Sisters, I was getting nowhere. To my utter surprise, none of the Carnatic music teachers I knew had heard of Akkal. I discovered later even our top tier musicians- male and female vocalists and accompanying artistes were all unaware of Akkal but were supportive of my enquiries and encouraged me to share with them whatever I had chanced to find of Akkal’s songs.
As a last desperate act, I wrote to Dr Natarajan asking her to send me a song or two copied on to WhatsApp (even if it meant breaching copyrights for a larger purpose!) and the cover of the CD to track down. While no audio was made available, Dr Natarajan had kindly sent me the cover of the CD and the address of Sri Gnanananda Niketan in Tirukoilur, Tamilnadu to make enquiries on their availability.
In parallel, I contacted my classmate Sri R Venkatraman whose brother Sri R Nagarajan, is the Secretary of Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore, Chennai. I called Sri Nagarajan and sought his help to get the phone number for Bombay Sisters and contacted them. While polite with an international phone intrusion, their daughter took the call and asked that I send an email with the details I was looking for. Shortly thereafter, I was advised that the sisters would ask their recording company and come back to me about their CD of Akkal songs.
Luck was turning in my favour now as the Niketan had the CDs and copies of the Tamil book of Akkal’s teachings (Paadal Thiratu). These were promptly ordered and on arrival, I took to the Tamil book as a duck to water absorbed in the uplifting philosophy and lyrics of Akkal.
I took the liberty to again contact Bombay Sisters saying I had found their CD of Akkal songs as well as the book of Akkal songs and that they may now be able to get them from the Niketan should they so desire.
With the CD with me and the lyrics of all the Tamil songs from the Paadal Thriatu, I made a copy of the lyrics and sent them to Bombay Sisters to help me identify the raga of each of the songs in their CD as a few seemed uncommon to me. They were kind enough to send me the raga of each track and that helped close a significant missing link.
I must add here that Track 1 of the CD has a beautiful introduction of Akkal by Swami Nityananda Giri. Listening to him, it becomes abundantly clear of the special reverence we all owe Akkal, both for her Advaita teachings and songs. But for Swamiji’s introduction, we would not know that many people had worked hard leading to the production of the CD and that our musical delight hearing Akkal’s songs is entirely due to vocalists Smt C. Saroja and Smt C. Lalitha and Sri L Krishnan who set the music for the ten songs.
Readers may note that Akkal’s first song in the CD is Ethanai Naal Thedi Vandeno (How many days have I searched for Thee!). I can verily say, it is equally true of this search for Bombay Sisters’ music of Akkal’s songs!
I had not only approached several musicians referred earlier, but also learned scholars and Harikatha exponents. These people like the many musicians were also totally unaware of the teachings and songs of Sri Avudai Akkal.
By now it would be clear that Akkal’s songs were not known widely amongst Carnatic musicians barring Bombay Sisters Smt C. Saroja and Smt C. Lalitha, and a select few vocalists who were personally advised by Dr Natarajan to sing Akkal songs. I was therefore convinced that much work needs to be done to ‘mainstream’ both Akkal’s Vedantic work as well as her lyrics that were well suited for Carnatic music.
Knowing that my friend Sri Robert Butler in London would find the Tamil lyrics of Akkal uplifting as I did, I suggested that if his time permits, it would be wonderful if he could translate these verses into English, and perhaps have it published in Mountain Path. Robert was delighted and co-opted Smt Nalini Malarkan to work with us on this to which she readily consented.
Let me now take you aside on an important family connection with Akkal. My wife’s aunt (Athai), Smt Haimavathi Ammal (Haimavathi Ramanathan) is 95 years old and recalls sitting with the late Smt Gomathi Rajangam and writing a bound notebook full of Akkal songs in Varanasi. Some of those Akkal songs that Athai recollected and wrote down may well be in the Paadal Thiratu. We may never know unless the notebook is found somewhere, perhaps even in the Niketan archives!
You may well ask as to why I harbour hope that this Athai’s notebook could be amongst the collection of manuscripts at the Niketan? Well, in a private correspondence with Dr Natarajan, she says:
‘According to Swamiji, many years back when he went to Kashi, a big sack of texts was given to him by Gomathi. She wanted Swamiji to edit and the print the same. It was with Swamiji for many years. He finally edited and published the book.” (the book is the Paadal Thiratu, our source document for Akkal’s Advaitic work and songs).
In the weeks prior to writing this note, we made a commitment, call it our ‘sankalpa’ to sponsor an Akkal program at Rasika Ranjani Sabha in Mylapore, Chennai in September 2020. We envisage a keynote address or two on Advaita and Akkal’s teachings and Carnatic music concerts of Akkal songs by both well-known and up-coming musicians.
Given the above family connection of Athai and her Akkal songs, it seemed fitting if only we could prevail upon Athai to pen a few words of her Akkal experience. We are all grateful that Athai has now done this for us, thanks largely to the untiring efforts of her daughter Smt Sankari Amrithakumar. We have now heard first hand from Smt Sankari that she has vivid memories of school days in the late 1950s of her mother and a number of ladies visiting their home and singing song after song of Akkal while she and her siblings were trying to study!
Sri Robert Butler, Smt Nalini Malarkan and I, pray that this project is successful and that all readers and listeners of Akkal’s teachings and songs would benefit from it. That Akkal’s works are largely an unexplored treasure would indeed be an understatement. It would be truly wonderful to dedicate a day to Akkal’s teachings and songs beyond 2020. Towards this, we seek your support in joining us in this endeavour.
Swami Nityanandagiri of Sri Gnananda Nitetan has blessed that the grace of Satguru help us with this Akkal project and guide us all in our spiritual journey within.