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Classical Notes: Musical people

"Sargam! Get ready. I will take you to the Kapali temple to see the statues of the..." "Nayanmars" completed Sargam, as she came running down the stairs.

"See Sargam!" Amma pointed at the figurines as they entered the Siva Sannidhi.

"Amma, Were all of them composers?" Sargam queried.

"Hmm... Many among them were wellversed in music. However, there were three main composers. I have already told you about Sambandar. In the same period lived another saint called Tirunavukkarsar. He lived up to the age of 81 and composed many songs. As a mark of respect Sambandar addressed him as Appar and his name stuck. Another saint called Sundarar appeared in the 9th century A.D. The songs of these three saints are collectively called the Tevaram. They were set in a variety of 'Panns'."

"Amma, but what does 'Tevaram' mean?"

"You see Sargam, at that time Tamil music had four kinds of compositions - Mudal Nadai, Varam and so on. Varam was that which was rich both in music and poetry. 'Te' means God. Therefore, the Varam which, was sung in praise of Te (God), was known as 'Tevaram'. Do you know they are the earliest musical compositions available to us?"

"Amma, I have read that Lava and Kusha sang the Ramayana in front of Rama." Sargam asserted.

"Smart!" Amma complimented. "For that matter Sargam, we hear of another musical work called the 'Paripadal'. But the music of all these works is now lost. Historically therefore, the Tevaram is the earliest musical composition."

"How did they get lost? Didn't anybody write down the tunes?" Sargam appeared perturbed.

"The practice of writing down songs came much later. Earlier, it was all taught by word of mouth. For that matter, even the text of the Tevaram was lost. Fortunately it was unearthed from a Vinayakar Koil in Tirunaraiyur by one Nambiyandar Nambi. He did it with the help of the Chola king Rajaraja-I (983-1013 A.D.). They were then reset to tune by a lady called Valli Amma. She was a descendant of the Yazh player...."

"Tiruneelakanta Yazhapanar Amma?" Sargam questioned.

"Yes! Yes! and to prevent this from happening again, a special group of people were appointed in the Shiva temples. They learnt Tevarams and taught them to others and thus the knowledge passed from generation to generation and has come down to us. These groups of people are called the Oduvars. In fact even last week, I met an Oduvar. How beautifully he sang!" Amma exclaimed on remembering the recital. "Anyway, this King Rajaraja-I himself appointed 48 people to sing the hymns of the Tevaram to the accompaniment of percussion instruments like the Udukkai and the Maddalam. By the way, he also promoted dance-dramas, which had about 400 ladies dancing in them. All these are mentioned in the inscriptions found in the big Thanjavur temple."

"Wow!" marvelled Sargam. She mentally decided to look for the inscriptions on her next visit to Thanjavur. "Anyway going further, there appeared in the 12th century, a person called Sekkizhar. He was a minister of the Chola King - Anabaya. He wrote a book called the Periyapuranam. Apart from describing the lives of the 63 saints, he talks about the musical history of the period. Another important musical saint of this period was Manikavachigar. His compositions were called the 'Tiruvachagam' (divine speech). These were all however set in the same pann (tune) which is the equivalent of our Mohana raga.

There was also another group of people called Siddhars who composed songs in folk melodies!"

"So" Sargam smiled "We 'Tamils' are musical people."

"Sure" Amma agreed, as she slipped into her thoughts about the great Tamil composers of the past - Arunagirinathar, Gopalakrishna Bharati, and.... Oh! and she should remember to sell Sargam about the world's first woman composer...

"Amma!" Sargam tugged at her sari. "Shouldn't we be leaving for the Papanasam Sivam day celebrations?"

"Oh yes!" Amma exclaimed. As she hurried with her child towards the door, one could hear her saying "And he was another great Tamil composer who died just about 40 years ago...."


(To be continued)

Illustrations by S. RAJAM

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