GouLa shaareera, the phrase describing the low frequency of a male singing voice, was taken to its lowest heights (if such a thing is possible) by M D Ramanathan (1923-1984). My mother had listened to several of MDR’s live concerts and she recalls that any MDR concert used to be nothing short of a class room for aspiring musicians. When I listen to some of the old recordings of MDR, my ears are mesmerised by the soul-stirring tonal quality of the B-pitch chaapu from Palghat Mani Iyer’s mridanga. Of late, I have also started noticing the beauty of MDR’s singing (not just his reverberating baritone voice). Hence, leaving my temptation to discuss Mani Iyer’s chaapu for a while, in the following short essay, I wish to touch upon just one among myriad important aspects of MDR’s singing. MDR used to sing many compositions from anupallavi (the second stanza of a composition). What is the ouchitya (aptness) and benefit of doing so? I will just use this question as a reference point to examine aspects of MDR’s singing and discuss the importance of sāhitya (lyrics) in Carnatic kritis.
To begin with, we should familiarise ourselves with the structure of a Carnatic musical composition (a typical kriti). I wish to make my life easier by paraphrasing Prof S R Janakiraman, who has explained the structure of a Carnatic kriti in a comprehensive article (Janakiraman, 1977). According to Prof SRJ, the divisions of pallavi, anupallavi and charana in kriti (perhaps all other forms of Carnatic composition) could be traced to the structural features of medieval essays or prabhandhas. He says and I quote “generally the procedure should be that in the pallavi the musical theme must be initiated…developed a little further in the anupallavi and further enlarged in the charana, [which] must be the sum total. The same thing holds good [for] the contents of Saahitya as well. An idea is thrown in the pallavi, a little amplified in the anupallavi and substantiated in the charana”.
Given the above framework, the aptness of rendering a kriti from anupallavi can be analysed in two ways. Prof SRJ explains one of them and I again quote him “tradition has recognized the taking up of anupallavi first in most of the padaas of Kshetrajna…and some of the kritis of Thyagaraja too has warranted such a treatment. Not only the musical setting but also the theme of saahithya bas favoured such a procedure evidently so designed by the composer himself”. To rephrase SRJ, it could be that the raising intonation of Thyaagaraja’s anupallavi grabs the attention of the audience more effectively than his more sombre pallavi. It could also be that the saahitya of pallavi makes better sense when it is sung as a continuation of an anupallavi (not the other way round). MDR, as learned a musician and teacher he was, certainly was aware of these nuances and hence must have found it apt to sing many kritis beginning from anupallavi.
MDR, in one of his many lectures (recorded), has described the elements going into the perfect rendering of a musical composition and specifically he talks about kritis. MDR says that an ideal presentation of a kriti needs the support of a perfect voice, a perfect understanding of the real significance and meaning of the kriti, a background knowledge of the composer, rather the heart of the composer, kavi hridaya…and an imagination about how the composer would have conceived the rendering of the kriti. MDR has also said that the singer [in addition to knowing the raaga bhaava and taaLa] should be familiar with major South Indian languages, be aware of the Indian puraaNaas (mythology), and he or she should have a philosophical approach to singing Carnatic kritis. MDR tried to follow his own prescription, did so admirably and indeed his singing came close to a hypothetical ideal. Singers like MDR were conscious of their pronunciation and meaning of sāhitya.
You might turn around and ask “what about instrumental music?”. I see no reason why instrumental music should be oblivious to kriti saahitya. By being loyal to the original composer, the instrumental rendering is not restricting its scope. On the contrary, a veena, a flute, or a violin can enhance the composition by exploring the manOdharma (kavi hridaya) of the composer. The composer’s manOdharma includes both the raaga and the sāhitya. Instrumentalists who ignore the latter do so at their peril. Some may completely abandon composed music on whatever basis, and it is their loss, not ours. Some of us may also question the importance of sāhitya for a common listener, who most likely does not speak or understand the language (words) of our great composers. However, please remember that it is not important whether a common listener understands the sāhitya or its meaning because he also would not be familiar with all the raagaas. A common Carnatic concert buff often enjoys the concert as a package, and occasionally he may associate aspects of music with certain emotions and often is not bothered about the layered details. He may enjoy some compositions (in his native tongue) more than he does others. It is up to the performer to decide what he or she wants to offer.
Beginning a kriti from its anupallavi has three aspects. The first two are (i) Rāga bhāva and a strategy to capture the audience attention, and (ii) Sāhitya roopa and a reason to make the rendering more meaningful. The third aspect looks at the kriti holistically. As Prof SRJ points out, a kriti is a musical essay. It has its arguments and a broad structure. Carnatic kritis with a devotional or social reformatory theme often state their main hypothesis in the pallavi and then the anupallavi provides a supporting statement, followed by charana (a collection of stanzas) that provides all the evidence. Sometimes it makes more sense to begin with a supporting statement or even some evidence. Sometimes it is useful to cite someone with credibility and gradually build a case for your main hypothesis or conclusion For instance, M L Vasantha Kumari or R K Srikantan used to present an independent ugābhOga or a shlOka before venturing into a full composition of Purandara dāsa.
I think the most important of all the qualities listed by MDR, has to be the ability of a singer to interpret kavi hridaya (the heart of the composer) that makes the difference between a mere rendering and a real musical experience. Without the composer, there would be no composition. Most experts recognize kalpita (composed and structured) and manOdharma (spontaneous and exploratory) as two integral parts of Carnatic music. However, the distinction between the two is blurred if we go back to the composer himself. The original composers, be it Purandara dāsa or Thyāgaraja, did not conceive their compositions without a manOdharma (kavi hridaya). A singer or an instrumentalist has the responsibility to blend the manOdharma of the composer with the free-flowing spirit of his/her own imagination. Some singers like MDR, were able to understand kavi hridaya better than others. MDR was a refined composer himself. The composer would certainly know how to build his case but the singer (who is separated in time) needs to understand the mind of the composer when he tries to recreate the same experience. There is of course tremendous individual freedom in Carnatic music. But, of what use is talent which has no regard for its past trajectory?
- Janakiraman S R (1977) The Significance of the Division of Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charana in Musical Compositions, The Journal of the Madras Music Academy, Vol 48.