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Appreciating Carnatic music Series: #6: Pretrinity composers.

By Prithi Narasimhan, Carnatic Vocalist and Director of Carnatica Gurukul
and Carnatica Archival Center for Music, USA.

After a hiatus of 2 months, I am back to writing my series. I had taken a break to go to Chennai to experience the December music season in Chennai. This is like a music carnival where several organizations and temples host Carnatic music concerts starting mid-November to January, promoting classical music and art. Many aspiring students across the globe, upcoming talents and established legends perform concerts. I am now
happy to resume this article series with a detailed account on Carnatic music composers.
Carnatic Music is predominantly sung through compositions, often referred to as keerthanams or krithis. The term “Vaggeyakara” is very unique to Carnatic music. It refers to the person who does the job of a “lyricist” as well as a “composer”.

There are several composers who have created compositions that have been preserved for centuries by passing down to descendants over several generations. Recently, onDecember 8 th 2019, I conducted a program with my senior students called “Travel with Composers” in the Karyasiddhi Hanuman temple in Frisco, TX. My students presented 20 compositions covering compositions from 7th century to modern composers. Now why is this relevant? Understand the lineage of composers is very important to any avid rasika of Carnatic music and the program was a humble effort to help my students understand the importance of what they are singing. We are at a point in this series where it makes logical sense to share the scripts we created for the program, highlighting the works of various composers. I thank my friend Mr. Vasu Swami for helping me create the scripts for the program and in this article, I will be using a lot of the content from the scripts he put together for my program.
The “Trinity of Carnatic music” namely Tyagaraja swamy, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri are the most popular Vaggeyakaras known to us but there are a number of other composers who have immensely contributed to Carnatic music. Composers in Carnatic music can be easily classified as pre-trinity, trinity and post-trinity composers. This article will discuss key highlights, specific to pre- trinity composers, from my “Journey through Composers” program.
As we were getting ready to start the program, the first piece presented by the students was composition from the 7th century. This song is more often heard during the “margazhi season” and the composer “Kothai Devi” or Andal, as she ispopularly known, is credited with the great Tamil works “Tiruppavai” and “Nachiar Tirumozhi”. This is also the first paasuram of “Tiruppaavai”. Did you guess it right? Yes, it is “Margazhi Thingal”in the ragam naattai, talam Adhi. Following this was Jayadeva’s ashtapathi from the 12 th century. Ashtapathi means ‘eight-steps’ which refers to the fact that each hymn is made of eight couplets (eight sets of two lines). Ashtapadis or Ashtapadi refers to the Sanskrit hymns of the Geetha Govinda, composed by Jayadeva in the 12th Century. The ashtapadis, which describe the beauty of Lord Krishna and the love between Krishna and the gopis, are considered a masterpiece in esoteric spirituality and the theme of ‘Divine romance’. The composition presented was Pashyathi Dishi Dishi”, the 12 th Ashtapadhi from the Geetha Govindham set to ragam Desh, a raga that has its origin in the Hindustani system and adhi talam.

Our next composer from the 15 th century is hailed as the “Andhra Pada KavitaPitamaha” which translates to “The godfather of Telugu song writing” in English. He is said to have written over 32000 Keerthanas in praise of Lord Venkateshwara and of these only 12000 are known now. Though he was well known in his days, his music went missing for four centuries and were found written on copper plates, in a hidden room opposite the Hundi of the Tirumala temple in the 19 th century. The song presented was “Madhava Kesava”, a composition by Annamacharya set to ragam Mohanam, talam Adhi. The next composition “Agaramum Aagi” (set to Suddha Saveri ragam and Adhi thalam) was from Tiruppugazh, written by Arunagirinathar. Arunagirinathar is one of Tiruvannamalai’s most famous saints and a renowned devotee of Lord Muruga. He lived at the foot of Mount Arunachala in the 15th century.

To be glorified by one’s own guru is a rarity and a blessing. Vyasatirtha, his guru wrote “Dāsarendare purandara dāsarayya” in one of his songs. A wealthy merchant of gold, silver and other miscellaneous jewellery from Karnataka, who gave away all his material riches to become a Haridasa (literally meaning a servant of Lord Hari or Lord Krishna), he systematized the method of teaching Carnatic music which is followed to the present day. He introduce the raga Mayamalavagowla as the basic scale for music instruction and fashioned a series of graded lessons such as swaravalis, janta varisai, alankaras, daatu varisai and krithis. He is called the “Sangitha Pithamaha” of Carnatic music and yes, it was Purandaradasa’s Pillangoviya in the ragam Kaapi set to Adhi talam in tisra nadai, presented, following theTiruppugazh.

Following this was Muthu Thandavar, who lived in the 16th century, was not educated or cultured in the usually accepted sense of the terms. He dressed in rags and failed to clean his body properly. In disgust at his behaviour, his parents sent him out of the house. He roamed around and finally came to Chidambaram where he began singing in front of Nataraja’s shrine. Mutthuthandavar, Marimuttha Pillai and Arunachala Kavirayar are refered to as the Tamizh  Moova or Trinity of Carnatic Music who composed in Tamil. Students presented “Sevikka Vendum Ayya” a song praising the Kshetra Chidambaram, the abode of Lord Nataraja in the ragam Andolika, adhi talam.

Next, we discussed the composer Bhakta Ramadasu or Bhadrachala Ramadasu, he was a 17th-century vaggeyakara and a devotee of Lord Rama. Hiscontemporaries include stalwarts such as Annamacharya, Tyagaraja and Shyama Sastri. It is said the trinity composer Tyagaraja (who will be discussed inmy next article) was inspired by Bhadrachala Ramadas. In the krithi ‘Kaligiyunte,’ set to raga “Keeravani”, Tyagaraja asks Rama “Had I only devoutly worshipped your feet as the cream of devotees like Prahlaada, Narada, Paraashara and Raamadasa did, would you not have ordained a favorable destiny for me?” The composition presented was “Rama Daya Judave”, a krithi of Shri.BhadrachalaRamadasu in the ragam Dhanyasi, adhi talam.

During a lecture demonstration by Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar in December 1955, The Music Academy Madras Experts’ Committee noted that this composer’s compositions filled a gap between Purandara Dasa (1484-1564) and the Carnatic Music Trinity of Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, who lived around 1760s-1840s. His Saptaratnas (seven gems) aredazzling creations resembling the Pancharatna kritis of Tyagaraja, though he is said to have lived much before Tyagaraja. It is none other than Oothukaadu Venkata Kavi. We presented the saptharathna krithi ‘Bhajanamruta’ in Nattai, where the 18th century composer pays tributes to great philosophers and spiritualists and cites numerous mythological and historical devotees of Vishnu as well as Shiva.

Our next composer, saint and advaita philosopher Shri Sadasiva Brahmendra is from the 18 th century whose compositions are mainly in Sanskrit. The composer is known to have been in recluse, trance like state and was completely immersed in the supreme bramman. My students to render “Manasa Sancharare”, a composition in the ragam Sama, talam adhi.
I will discuss the trinity and some post-trinity and modern composers in my next article. Again, Sincere thanks to my friend Mr. Vasu Swami for the efforts he took to collect the information for the program.

Picture Credit: Tribe.org

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