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‘Shankarabaranam’: A Treatise on art and culture wrapped in a savior’s tale

Not only by virtue of its craft, “Shankarabaranam” has had an impact on audiences from multiple generations through its conversations about globalization in the fine arts, loss of cultural roots and perception of art in a hierarchical society. (Photo: Sankarabharanam Official Poster)

Even 39 years after its first release, K. Vishwanath’s Telugu film ‘Sankarabharanam’ still stands the test of time as one of the greatest path-breaking films ever made in Indian cinema. 

At its time, “Shankarabaranam” had many more factors going against it than in favor. Vishwanath’s approach towards the teacher-prodigy narrative was considered audacious at its time, especially in the Telugu audience, who were not conditioned towards viewing an offbeat treatise on art and humanity and a film with progressive views that were norm-breaking at its time. Yet, “Shankarabaranam” drove heaps of Telugu audiences into the theater and emerged to be the highest-grossing film of 1979. Critically, the film is lauded as “One of the greatest Indian Films ever made” by CNN-India, and JV Somayajulu’s performance is cited by Forbes as one of the “25 Greatest Acting Performances of Indian Cinema.” The film received four Indian National Film Awards and was seen in various film festivals across the world, from the Asia-Pacific to Moscow. 

Not only by virtue of its craft, “Shankarabaranam” has had an impact on audiences from multiple generations through its conversations about globalization in the fine arts, loss of cultural roots and perception of art in a hierarchical society. To achieve this, the film traces the dynamic between a higher-caste musician Shankara Sastry and his disciple Tulasi, who is from a backward caste, and how it affects them and the people around them.

To many audiences, “Shankarabaranam” was an epiphany on losing one’s roots in the face of globalization. The film can be divided into two chapters — Middle-Aged Shankara Sastry and Old-Age Shankara Sastry — embodying the different stages of art and culture in contemporary Andhra Pradesh. The former revolves around Sastry, at a time where he, like his music, was a thriving, honored and had an authoritarian reception in his society. The latter part revolves around a worn-out Sastry where he, similar to his art, is nonchalant in the face of the people due to the changing times, emotionally vulnerable yet obsessively passionate. Like him, Sastry’s art and culture gradually faded in the rise of globalization. His rage is intense yet is underplayed and simple. 

Neither Sastry nor his creator Viswanath are apathetic towards globalization. This is evident in a scene where Sastry encounters a group of pop singers and the latter banter about how Indian music is inferior to the western music, but Sastry ends with saying, “Music is Divine. Whether it is Indian or Western.” Shankarabaranam’s diplomatic approach toward globalization and the deterioration of regional cultures makes it a distinctive commentary on art. It does not paint anyone as the good guy or bad guy, but has a more egalitarian view towards art and cultures. This egalitarian view is also conveyed when Sastry gives space to Tulasi in his home when she was harassed by the local feudal lord and is then ridiculed by the village for his actions and accuse him of being a womanizer. In Sastry’s head, art and culture are pure — everyone is equal in the eyes of art. He does not care about the fact that Tulasi is socially backward; he sees the art in her and supports her.

Beneath the art parable, “Shankarabaranam” is the encapsulation of the human experience — a tale of the savior and the saved. Shankara Sastry saves Tulasi several times: when she is desperate to run away from her marriage, gets raped by the young feudal lord and when she was belittled by the village due to her caste. Tulasi saves Sastry when he is in need of money for his daughter’s marriage and keen to reinvigorate his art to a generation that is unaware of its prominence. Shankara Sastry advocates for saving the deeply rooted arts which are deteriorating. Tulasi’s son (coincidentally played by an actress named Tulasi) saves the grace of the art when Shankara Sastry passes his musical inheritance to him through the bracelet that he received in a felicitation. In the middle of the film, Shankara Sastry literally cries “Brochevarevarura” (Who will save). These incidents accumulate to an overarching narrative about humans saving themselves from a society that undermines one’s humanity. 

By all means, “Shankarabharanam” is not a bombastic tale of the savior; its beauty lies in its simplicity. The savior complex is understated; it’s basic and stated with its protagonists, but gets complex and sublime as it explores its themes within the secondary characters like Tulasi’s Son and Sastry’s Lawyer Friend (played by the wise-cracking Allu Ramalingaiah). Some of the small acts contributed to these characters help in establishing the bigger picture. For instance, Shankara’s friend stands by him at all times, especially when he brings Tulasi to his house. 

The cries of hopelessness and desperation are communicated through the pacifying music from K.V. Mahadevan and other archaic Carnatic musicians such as Tyagaraja. The intensity of the narrative is balanced by serene writing from Vishwanath and the witty and thoughtful dialogues from Jandhyala. Balu Mahendra’s soothing cinematography matches the film’s emphasis on poetry and music loaded with visual metaphors: Sastry’s feet, which symbolizes the authority of the guru (or the mentor), and Sastry’s bracelet, which symbolizes Sastry’s legacy, later passed on to Tulasi’s son.

“Shankarabaranam” is a tale deeply rooted in the Telugu culture. It unabashedly embraces the archaic beauty of the language, a trademark of Jandhyala. As culturally specific as it is with its choice of music and religious allusions, what makes “Shankarabaranam” universal is its commentary on oppression and overcoming oppression with the aid of art. 

Vishwanath has been one of the most effective, if not the most effective, Indian filmmakers in making and commenting on art simultaneously. His success lies in communicating the state of art in contemporary Telugu culture, and the deterioration of art and culture through riveting human stories. “Shankarabaranam” not only awakened an awareness for preserving art, but it also marked the rise of an idiosyncratic filmmaker who could make his voice speak to hounds of audiences, spanning from different generations. The film stands the test of time.

“Shankarabaranam” is available for streaming on Amazon Prime with Telugu Audio and English Subtitles.

Contact Jayanth Naga Sai Pasupulati at jayanthnagasai91 ‘at’ gmail.com.

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