Discovery of a composer is akin to discovering an ancient city or culture or a site of archaeological value. The value of the discovery does not diminish because of the delay in the discovery or that it was not available earlier. Infact, it only makes the discovery more priceless considering the world has a fresh treasure to cherish.
Here are some aspects that have to be carefully studied to understand the process of discovery of this composer's works and understand some possible questions of authenticity that are being researched till date.
Introduction and popularization
Venkata Kavi's works were primarily popularized by Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar, who was a descendant of the poet's nephew. This legendary harikatha performer took a lot of efforts to immortalize the mega-composer's works through his inimitable harikatha performances. But the absence of adequate information made it difficult for him to corroborate facts about his ancestor-composer. Since he was more a performer and barely a researcher, there were bound to be some clouded inferences that could have been made while establishing information about this composer.
Faith in information
Many of the information available about the composer have been accepted with mere faith as quoted by Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar's disciples, Shri Subbaraman and Vidushi Alamelu. It is quite understandable that there is a lot of ambiguity in terms of birth dates of one's own ancestors as nobody took special efforts in documenting these with precision. So while we don't discredit the time period or birth dates of our own ancestors, there can be no reason why the information about such a great composer's period should be discredited or disbelieved only because his works were popularized much later.
Survival of the heritage over the last few centuries
Shri K R Rajagopalan (a statistician from Madras Christian College) has made an attempt to trace the path in a book published in the 1970-s as summarized below. Shri Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar's hand-written book has also mentioned the names of some of the disciples, fans and followers.
According to K R Rajagopalan, Rudra pashupati (a nadaswaram artiste) and Kattu Krishna Iyer (his nephew), were two disciples of Venkata Kavi, who wrote down some of the composer's songs. Other disciples included Kutti kavi (who called himself so because he was a small poet and Venkata Kavi was mahakavi – mega poet), Ganapati Muni, Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar who is said to have received the legacy through his father's sister's husband, Shrinivasa Shastriyar, a palace musician in Baroda.
While there are some little discrepancies in some of the names as mentioned by Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar and K R Rajagopalan, most of the records about Venkata Kavi's disciples help in understanding the lineage to a certain extent and how the compositions have been passed on.
However, despite this, many of his works are still yet to see the light of day. This leaves some of his operas incomplete due to lack of sources. Due to this, the perspectives about the Carnatic music history from 300 years before could itself be questionable or incomplete.
Questions of Legitimacy
A few common questions that have been raised about this composer and his existence are listed below and the answers to these has not only been explained here but under various subjects covered in the site.
How can his compositions be established to be his?
How can his period of existence be established?
Why were his works missing for many years and why has there been no reference to his existence anywhere else?
Have some pieces of Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar and others gotten mixed up with Venkata Kavi's?
Was he the same as Swarnakkadu Venkata Subbiah?
Could one person have created such a rich legacy of works in so many dimensions?
Answers to many of these questions are addressed below
Establishing authenticity of his compositions
The following points clearly establish that Venkata Kavi's compositions are authentic and are his original creations
His operas have a continuity of thought and expression and bear the stamp of his style. Using them as a benchmark, we can assess the consistency in his style, approach and quality in other Tamil compositions.
The navaavarana krtis are replete with his style and the 8th aavarana krti also has his signature.
Extrapolating from the navaavaranams style, we can easily make out that the Saptaratnas, Anjaneya saptaratnas typically depict his style of creation.
The medium fast or fast paced passages, complex talas, gati changes and kalai changes reveal the near impossibility of another person tuning them from scratch.
Establishing his time-period
Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar's school believed that Venkata Kavi's period must have been around late 1600-1730s but certain other factors seem to point more towards 1700-1765 as the rough period. An important pointer is the Music Academy journal that mentions 1955 as the 190th death anniversary of the composer. Internal evidence also vouches for some of these. Since the poet has cited and saluted several luminaries in his works, one can clearly infer from the historical timeline that Tulasidasa and Bhadrachala are the last two to be mentioned and eulogized by him. These two saints lived and died before the 17th century. Stylistically Venkata Kavi's compositions belong to a totally different zone and it does not bear much resemblance to the Trinity or latter day compositions. The Marathi compositions of Venkata Kavi show that he was deeply influenced by the Maratha rulers who ruled Tanjavur during that period.
Delay in discovery
Venkata Kavi's compositions were safeguarded very carefully within the family for a long time. Only in the 1940s, Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar started popularizing the composer's works through his thematic musical discourses. He also taught several students in Chennai, Bangalore, Mumbai, Madurai and other cities but many of them were non-performing artistes.
Doubt of mix-up with Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar's compositions
Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar's disciples, Alamelu and Subbaraman, assertively mention that their guru has not composed more than 3-4 songs which can also be found mentioned in his hand-written book and that the tunes of Venkata Kavi that he sang were all learnt by him from his sisters and others in the family.
Mix-up with Swarnakkadu Venkatasubbiah
Many important facts clearly establish that they were two different personalities.
Swarnakkadu Venkata Subbiah (SVS) was not a composer at all. There has been no mention anywhere about his capabilities as a composer.
None of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi's (OVK) compositions are in telugu which was SV's native language.
The quality and scholarship of OVK's pieces clearly prove that they could not have been composed by somebody whose native language was not Tamil.
Rangaramanuja Iyengar clearly mentions in his book that SV never left his hometown and was a simple devotee of Shiva and Vishnu. This fact can be clearly used to infer that OVK was a different person considering he has composed on so many deities at different temples.
The above points are fair indicators that Venkata Kavi could not have been an imaginary personality and that he was a true composer whose contributions are unparalleled in the history of Carnatic Music.