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The Vinjamuri sisters — end of an era in folk music

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on March 26, 2019 Published on March 26, 2019

The mention of folk music in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, especially in the generations spanning the 1950’s to the 1990’s, immediately brings to mind the Vinjamuri sisters — Anasuya and Seetha.

While they enthralled audiences with their lively and energetic folk songs on radio, the sisters’ mellifluous voice lent a magical tone to the musical creations of renowned poets Devulapalli Krishnasastry, Sri Sri and others in Telugu cinema, too.

In the passing of Anasuya Devi in Houston on Sunday at the ripe age of 98, folk music has not just lost a star, but, in effect, has seen the end of an era. Seetha Devi also passed away in the US in 2016.

A child prodigy and gifted singer, Anasuya made her singing debut at the age of 8, with a gramophone record of her songs. Thereafter, for a good seven decades, she sang, wrote, researched and lived folk songs to the delight of millions of her listeners across the world.

Born into a family steeped in the arts

The early influence of the Vinjamuri sisters was their father, Vinjamuri Venkata Lakshmi Narasimha Rao, a theatre artiste who encouraged the family members, including women, to learn languages and read literature. In later years, their maternal uncle and renowned poet and writer, Devulapalli Krishna Sastri, was also a great motivator.

Born in May 1920 in Kakinada, Andhra Pradesh, Anasuya was also adept at playing the harmonium. During the freedom struggle, she popularised the song ‘Jaya, Jaya, Jaya Priya Bharata Janani’ composed by Krishna Sastry.

Her rendition of this song and folk music reportedly impressed Mahatma Gandhi, Subhash Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, winning her accolades.

Encouraged by her father, Anasuya Devi used the folk medium effectively to spread the message of social equality and women’s emancipation in the highly patriarchal society of those times. Through hard work she became versatile in the literary and cultural environment of Kakinada, Tenali and later Madras and Hyderabad, picking up, along the way, classical music too. The Vinjamuri sisters were the first women to perform concerts in public forums, regaling audiences in Andhra Pradesh.

For those familiar with the box-office hits of Telugu cinema in yesteryears, the tune of the famous song Manasuna Mallela in Malleswari was based on ‘Chandana charchita’, a song rendered by Anasuya in 1937.

Similarly, in Rojulu Marayi, the super-hit song, Eruvaka Sagaro was based on Chukkala Cheerakattukoni, a private song rendered by the Vinjamuri sisters in 1932, recalled, V.A.K. Ranga Rao, a music historian.

Seetha Devi, too, contributed music for the 1980 award winning film Maa Bhoomi produced by B Narasinga Rao. Her composition in the film titled Bandenaka Bandikatti Padhaharu Bandlu Katti, sung by the revolutionary poet Gaddar, is legendary and won the Nandi Award.

An encounter with the Vinjamuri sisters

In the early 1980’s, I had a close brush with the Vinjamuri sisters. In a free-wheeling interview with Seetha Devi, who was with the AIR, Hyderabad station, I highlighted her work, life and contribution to folk songs through radio, cinema, etc, in a newspaper article.

Since the article focused on Seetha Devi, her contribution dominated the narrative. Anasuya Devi, who lived in Madras, reportedly got upset as she was believed to be the greater contributor to folk music. A meeting followed with Ratna Papa, her daughter and well-known classical dancer, where she gave a detailed insight into the phenomenal contribution of Anasuya Devi.

To her credit Anasuya Devi has documented her work in seven books on folk songs. Two of the well-known ones -- Bhava Geetalu and Jhanapada Geyalu, a compilation of folk songs, were released in Chennai in a function in 2008.

Her popularity and fame got her many awards, including ‘Queen of Folk Music’ in Paris and a Lifetime Achievement Award in the US. The Andhra University in Visakhapatnam awarded her the title Kala Prapoorna and a honorary doctorate back in 1978. The sisters were star attractions in World Telugu Conferences held in the US, Malaysia and India.

Anasuya Devi brought out her autobiography titled Asamana Anasuya. In this is captured the life and essence of an eminent folk artiste, harmonium player, radio commentator and music composer.

Published on March 26, 2019
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