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Time Travel Through Carnatic Music

Sujit Sudhaman

||  Sri Gurubhyo Namah ||

Sampradaya Samudbhavam: VAgEyakAra

Time Travel through Carnatic Music

On June 13, 2020, Smt. Aparna Balaji of the Abhyaas School of Music presented “VAgEyakAra,”  a lecture demonstration.  This was the 3rd in the program series titled “Sampradayena Samudhbhavam,” under  the auspices of NE-SRS Brundavan.  The earlier two lectures were on Bhakti and Lalitha Kala. This program, though held online was just as impactful, thanks to the painstaking efforts of the Abhyaas team.

“VAgEyakAra” was an introduction to the composers and compositions in Carnatic music over the last millennium.  Smt. Aparna, accompanied by her daughter and son, started off the session, with a devotional invocation to Lord Ganesha – “Gajavadana Beduve, Gowri Thanaya” composed by none other than the Pitamaha of Carnatic Music, Sri Purandara Dasa.

Smt. Aparna then proceeded to highlight the key factors which inspired the Vageyakaras to compose their musical masterpieces. The core themes revolved around Bhakti (Devotion) and Jnana (Knowledge of the Divine), supported by the substratum of well-structured music, which would lead one and all towards Moksha.  They drew their inspiration from the forms of the deities in major temples, stories and anecdotes based on Puranas, principles of Dharma, and to a large extent, their own personal life experiences. For one, to truly appreciate the compositions of these Vageyakaras, it is important to understand the Bhava, lyrics and the Raga and the Tala it is set to.

From the nature of compositions, the focus then shifted to the timeline in the progression of Carnatic music.  The timeline was partitioned into three time periods, hinging on the era of the Trinity – Sri Syama Sastri, Thyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar, during late 18th century and early 19th century.  The three periods were thus classified as Pre-Trinity, Trinity and Post-Trinity.  Smt. Aparna and family took the audience on a magnificent time travel across these three periods spanning many centuries, as we could visualize each of the Vageyakaras and enjoy the evolution of music over these time periods.

The Pre-Trinity era started with Jayadeva, in the 13th century, who is famous for Geeta Govinda, which is sung in divine weddings such as Radha Kalyana.  Jayadeva was referred to as the Prathama Vageyakara for he was the first to couple his lyrical expressions with Raga and Thala.  Smt. Aparna and family rendered melodiously, an extract from one of the Prabandhas of Geeta Govinda.

Smt. Aparna paid tribute to two very prominent composers – Tallapaka Annamacharya and Arunagiri Nathan.  She sang mellifluously a popular composition “Madhava Keshava Madhusudana” from Annamacharya, and a Thiruppugal from Arunagiri Nathan, stating that it was in Ancient Tamil and required some effort to understand.

The attention then shifted to Sri Purandara Dasa, and with a great sense of gratitude, devotion and reverence, Smt. Aparna talked about his immense contributions to Carnatic music.   She mentioned about the sheer volume of work – about 475000 compositions in Kannada and Sanskrit.  Sri Purandara Dasa helped structure basic lessons and made Carnatic music accessible and easier to learn for common man. 

Smt. Aparna and family then sang the krithi “Ragi Thandeera,” where Sri Purandara Dasa deftly plays with the word “Ragi” which means millet and also uses it as a post fix verb meaning “to become,”  saying “Become worthy, Become fit to receive blessings of the Lord, etc.,”

The next in the Pre-Trinity era was Bhadrachala Ramadasa, whose compositions were mainly in Telugu and were entirely on Sri Rama.  His Ankita Nama was Bhadradi and he explored various Raga and Thala in his compositions. 

Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi was another renowned composer in this period.  Smt. Aparna mentioned that he had more than 500 compositions during the 17th century composed in Tamil, Sanskrit and Marathi.  His compositions have a lot of rhythmic structure and he was a pioneer in bringing musical compositions to dance, especially, Bharata Natyam.  He was inspired by Sri Purandara Dasa and was also an ardent devotee of Lord Krishna.  Smt. Aparna and family then performed a soulful and scintillating rendition of “Swagatam Krishna, Sharanagatam Krishna.”

The next stop in our time travel was the Trinity period, where we discover three of the greatest composers of the late 18th and early 19th centuries Shyma Sastri, Thyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar

Shyama Sastri composed mainly in Telugu and Sanskrit, with the Ankita nama of Shyama Krishna.  He had a good blend of lyrical, melodic and rhythmic aspects in his compositions.  His songs mainly focused on Goddess Parvathi. 

Thyagaraja, the second of the Trinity poets, was a revolutionary and his compositions maximized the use of Pallavi – expanded as Pa: referring to Lyrics, La: Laya or Rhythm, and Vi : pertaining to melody.  All his compositions were in Telugu and dedicated to Rama.  Smt. Aparna went on to say that his compositions ranged from being very simple to very complex.  Also, when planning for the positioning of his songs in concerts, it was very easy for the singer, because Thyagaraja’s compositions could fit anywhere – in the beginning, middle or towards the end of a concert.  One of his noted songs, “Bantu Reethi Kolu” was rendered exceptionally well by Smt. Aparna and family.

Muthuswamy Dikshitar was the third pillar in the Trinity.  His compositions were mainly in Sanskrit and were directed towards many Deities, and he used the Ankita nama of  Sree GuruGuha.  His compositions had a lot of hidden Bhava. Smt. Aparna clearly outlined that it requires a lot of training and skills to do justice to his compositions.  

Some of the other Trinity era composers were Thanjavur Quartet, Swathi Tirunal, Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai. Thanjavur brothers (Chinnaiah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu) were direct disciples of Muthuswamy Dikshitar.  Swathi Tirunal was versatile and composed in many languages – Sanskrit, Malayalam, Hindi, Telugu, and Kannada.  Smt. Aparna also mentioned that Dr. Balamuralikrishna has explored Swathi Tirunal’s compositions and his renditions bring out the intricacies of Swathi Tirunal’s compositions

Our time travel continued closer to the modern period as Smt. Aparna started talking about the Post-Trinity period.  One of the notable composers is Mahakavi Subramanya Bharathiyar, who mainly composed in Tamil.  He is also known to have sung his own compositions.  His compositions carry a lot of social messages for upliftment of women, and motivational content pertaining to the freedom movement.  Smt. Aparna also sang a composition from another well known composer Gopalakrishna Bharathi.  Other Vageyakaras included Mysore Vasudevachar, Koteeswara Iyer, Papanasam Sivam, Subbaraya Sastri who were deeply influenced by the Trinity composers and melodic rhythm and evidence of the Pallavi-Anu Pallavi model is seen in their works.

Late 20th century saw significant contributions to Ragas, Thillanas from the likes of Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna, Dr. Lalgudi Jayaraman, and Prof. T.R. Subramaniam. 

This time travel through the lens of Carnatic music was mind boggling and provided the enraptured audience, an excellent perspective of  the Vageyakaras.  With the immaculate and soulful rendition of the krithis by Smt. Aparna and family, the two hour session passed by very quickly – endorsing Einstein’s theory that time is relative to the experience that we are having! 

In her concluding remarks, Smt. Aparna made us realize that the Vageyakaras make us think, wonder and dig deeper about what life is all about, driving us towards Moksha.  In that context, she indicated that Music teachers are considered more as Acharyas rather than Spiritual Gurus.  However,  one should realize that Bhakti through Music is a definitive path towards Moksha, and the Acharyas take on the role of a Spiritual Guru, in that sense.

This brings me to the verse from Vijaya Dasa who states that “Guru Purandara Dasare, Nimma Charana Kamalava Nambide,” where Vijaya Dasa accepts Purandara Dasa as his Guru and surrenders at his feet, stating that worshipping the Bhakta of the Lord, is equivalent to worshipping the Lord Himself.

In summary, despite this being a non-interactive session, Smt. Aparna’s presentation was thorough and enchanting, leaving the audience spellbound and eagerly awaiting the next three presentations of Sampradaya Samudbhavam! 

|| Sarvam Shri Krishnarpanam Asthu||



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