Bhanumati: The Best of Indian Musicals?

with 2 comments

Bhanumati (1925-2005) is a great singer, actor, dancer, director, and film producer of South Indian films from early 50’s.One should watch movies or song clips from her early career to enjoy her sweet young voice. Savi rahe is one example for the melody and sweetness. She also charms with her graceaful and confident classical dance performance as one can see in Rara na saamy.

Pilichina biguvatara from Malliswari is yet another great one to enjoy Bhanumati’s sweet voice and her subtle and sublime, yet graceful, dance with fantastic body language and facial expressions of a young girl trying to seduce her lover. Watch how beautifully she uses her hands and fingers and with so much ease and effortlessness.

Special Thanks to Youtube, and to many movie lovers that took the effort to upload several classical clips, we can get to watch and listen to so many wonderful classics with so much ease1

I wonder sometimes what would have happened to Indian heritage in arts, music, philosophy and knowledge coming from Vedas, Gita and other classics without the Brahmin faithful?

Bhanumati is one such talent coming from Brahmin sect. Even Steve Jobs, the great Product Manager of our times, noted Brahman in his autobiography2.

What she produced during her life span makes her a super woman. No wonder she was aptly called asthavadhani. The word astha in Sanskrit stands for number eight and avadhani3 means the master. She is called so because she had mastery over eight or more areas spanning  dance, acting, writing  literature, languages, and movie making. She did all of these with ease, variety, and prowess.

How could a young girl from such rural area as current day Prakasam District in Andhrapradesh province in India come to learn and master dance (Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi,etc), music (Hindustani, Carnatic), play back singing, acting, writing, and multiple languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi) so well as she did?

No wonder, C. N. Annadurai, considered the great leader of Tamilnadu by Tamilians, gave her the title of “Nadippukku Ilakkanam” (means Grammar for acting) which is a well deserving title. He performance in Pilchina biguvata clearly teaches grammar of dancing and acting to aspiring young artists.

For her song scenes in movies she did her own playback singing. Later she would write stories and scripts. In essense, she provided complete end-to-end experience similar to what Jobs did with his products. While Savitri is considred greatest actress of all times in Telugu films (and thus her title – Maha natini) Bhanumati deserves credit for the all round performance. A friend of mine believes Savitri (acting) + Susheela (playback singing) provide for greater experience than Bhanumati (acting) + Bhanumati(playback singing).

This example may mean that Job’s vertical model works when greats like him are in charge. But horizontal model also works as not every individual is gifted with all talents. When we pool and combine talents the result produced can yield great experience. The ideal solution may be hybrid approach and that is what real world is about. That is what Jobs did – he let thousands of developers produce Apps for iPhone thus enhancing the experience of the overall product while he limited himself to the hardware and OS. This is bit tangent to the topic of the post and worth a separate post for those interested in technology evolution. Watch for post on this separately.

I agree with my friend’s view point on Bhanumati vs. Savitri. As ANR says in his tribute to Savitri – there is one sun, one earth, one moon and likewise there is only one great actress – that is Savitri. He further, concerned that some may find weakness in his argument given scientific data that there are multiple suns, multiple moons, he goes on to equate her to the single and infinite sky for her infinite heart and towering performance. Definitely, she must be great to have won such eloquent praise from ANR and for having many fans like my friend. However, Bhanumati still deserves credit for the all round performance. Also, her career proves how education can help sustain female actors in entertainment industry. Savitri and Silk Smitha careers and personal lives seem to have parallels in how their life came to end in the end and so sadly.

Delivering complete experience in movies could work only if talented actors like her are at the helm of affairs just as Gates said about Jobs. In recent times there is not one I can name that comes close to Bhanumati in Indian film industry or anywhere. Her early film performance can be compared to Madonna who herself is another great multi-talented female artist with movie musical hits such as ‘Evita’ and in particular the song ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ from that movie.

Bhanumati has voice that makes one wonder if she has an analog piano stuck somewhere in her voice system. Her singing flows so smoothly. Check Sa virahe and it remains the most melogious rendetion of Jayadeva’s composition. Check ‘Akasa veedilo’ from Malliswari. The alapana is so faultless and worth listening multiple times.

If Bhanumati voice from her songs and in particular ones like Sa virahe are digitized and scanned we may find no modulation errors.  She has so much control of her voice whether going up or coming down. In terms of technical aspects of voice she could be one of the all time greats of Indian singing. Western world has many good female singers such as Celine Dione and they may even perform better on voice control and technical aspects. But given the Indian context each of the acclaimed Indian singers deserve uncomparable praise.

Those with knowledge of Sanskrit/Hindi, Telugu or even w/o knowing any Indian language would find the songs in the side bar melodious to listen to.

Sa virahe
composition:Jayadev Goswami
Language: Sanskrit
Film:Virpanarayana, 1953
Pilchina biguvatara
Composition:Devulapalli Krishnashastry
Film:Malliswari, 1951
Manasuna Mallelamala
composition: Devulapalli Krishnashastry
Language: Telugu
Film: Malliswari,1951
Rara na sami rara
Film:Virpanarayana, 1953
Whatever will be, will be
composition: remix
Language: English, Telugu
Film: Todu Needa
Akasa Veedhilo Haayigaa Egirevu
Composition:Devulapalli Krishnashastry
Nagumomu Galaneni
Coverage of her career on TV9


  1. I had to walk 3 miles to get to a theater to watch a movie when I was a kid. Now it takes just 3 seconds to get to Youtube to watch such great performances of past. Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined so convenient access to movies as we do today. One day iPad + Youtube + Google Psychic may combine to give us ultimate Vittala Charya experience -pick iPad and it stars playing movie or song that is in your mind! It is like how Savitri (Sashirekha) sees what is in her mind (Abhimanyu) when she opens the magic mirror box in Mayabazar.
  2. Though it is worth praising the Brahman sect for their perseverance in carrying their traditions and Indian classic works and arts, one shouldn’t draw too much into Steve Jobs reference to them. There are greats across all religions and social strata. Kabir, a great of muslim poet of medieval India is one such example of great talent outside of Brahman sect. There are several others. So we need to respect the greatness of individual self first. More on this idea of individual appreciation in a separate post as it relates to Bhanumati , Savitri, Mangalam Palli Balamuralikrishna, Rajanikanth, Thyagarja and many artists and saints and how they have been appereciated by Tamilians though each of these greats have come from another region and culture.
  3. In Telugu literary world, performing astha  or satha avadhanam is a must for one to be considered great pundit or master.  It is more like a real-time intellectual stand off. Though most of the questions and trivia that get thrown at the avadhani during an astha or satha avadhanam are related to Sanskrit classics and a mix of Telugu works , one needs to be able to hop between various literary works. Not only that, the avadhani also need to compose  poems  or parodies and jokes in real-time using  current day happenings to enthrall the audience . It is a great stage act that has no parallel in other languages and cultures. Though there are some avadhanis today (like Medasani Mohan),  the one  that  etched the  magic of avadhanam in my mind forever is someone who performed  avadhanam in  Delhi in 1989-90.  I believe it is at Sirifort auditorium or Andhra Bhavan.  Love to find out who the  avadhani was that performed in Delhi then.
  4. See Wikipedia for list of movies, songs and life history of Bhanumati
  5. Suggestions for top 5 songs of Bhanumati’s for inclusion in the side bar are welcome.
  6. Excellent and detailed coverage of her career and accomplishments by Saravanan

Written by ellanti

December 25, 2011 at 5:31 am

2 Responses

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  1. భానుమతి నిస్సందేహముగ బహుముఖప్ర్ర్రజ్ఞాశాలే. అన్ని కళలను ఒకే వ్సక్తి ప్రదర్శించగలగటము నిస్సందేహముగ అరుదే. నేపథ్యగానము ఇంకా ప్రాచుర్యము పొందని నాలుగో దశకము వరకు తెలుగు సినీరంగానికి తప్పకుండా ఆవిడ మకుటము లేని మహారాణే. 50ల నుంచి ఆ అవసరము లేకుండా పోయింది. సుశీల, లీల లాంటి గొప్ప గాయనీమణులు నేపథ్యగానాన్ని, సావిత్రి, జమున లాంటి మేటి అందమైన కళాకారులు తెలుగు చిత్రరంగాన్ని పరిపుష్టము చేయటము మొదలు పెట్టారు.

    Continuing your analogy – if I am building a computer solution I would pick the best possible parts even if they happen to be from different companies. As an integrator (Director in the case of movies) I will ensure that I get the best ones and make sure they work together. Steve jobs did that successfully. He made sure that they worked well together providing an unique end-user experience.

    Suresh Kaja

    December 25, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    • Good point. As different skill sets (acting, singing, dialogues) are no longer needed to be from same person there is greater choice for the director to pick the best and deliver a better movie experience. But 50s were different and talent like her needed. That is similar western musicals and broadways that needed multi-faceted talents to keep the show rolling.

      As we generalize our analogy, we must be cautious when to apply and when not to. As Tanikella Barini pointed out in his article Savitri in the Dec 2011 edition of namasteandhra.com, there are multiple styles of acting – what Indian pundits call navarasas. He specifically points out an example where Savitri delivers unique expression for each word of the line.

      ‘నీవే నా నను తలచినదీ అనే లైనె పాడుతుంటె ‘నీవేనా’ అనే పదానికి ఒక ఎక్సెప్రెషన్, నను అనే పదానికి మరొక ఎక్సెప్రెషన్, ‘తలచినదీ ‘ పదానికి ఇంకొక ఎక్సెప్రెషన్ ఇన్స్తుంది.

      ఇలా.. ప్రతి పదానికి ఇచ్చిన ఎక్సెప్రెషన్ ఎవ్వకుంద అభినయించె ఎకైక నటి శావిత్రి.

      If for each style of acting if we can pick the best in that category (e.g Minaakumari for sorrowful acting, Jamuna for mondi roles, and so on) then the overal character gets played by so many and we no longer have the integrated one-ness. So multi-faceted talent still is relavent when one wants to provide the overall best solution.


      December 27, 2011 at 6:03 am

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