Updated: June 7, 2012 16:59 IST

Between notes

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Kutraala Kurinji by Kovi Manisekharan. Photo: Special Arrangement
Kutraala Kurinji by Kovi Manisekharan. Photo: Special Arrangement

Manisekharan's Sahitya Akademi award winning work Kutraala Kurinji is set in the world of music

Kutraala Kurinji by Kovi Manisekharan

Translated into Kannada by Padmini Srinivas, Sahitya Akademi, Rs. 110

Kovi Manisekharan is a well-known writer in Tamil. His novels have been very popular for a variety of reasons. He is acknowledged as a writer who can ably manipulate the possibilities of Tamil language both as ‘pure' with beautiful archaic structures (senthamil) and also as ‘amalgam' with Sanskrit structures (manipiravala nada) for fictional effects. He is said to be a leftist in his ideological leanings. He has authored over 27 novels besides plays and short stories. He has also directed two films.

The present one “Kutraala Kurrinji” won Sahitya Akademi Award in 1990. This is deemed to be a historical novel which is located at a time when the trinities of Carnatic music — Thyagaraja, Shyama Shastri and Muthuswamy Dikshitar were alive in the Maratha dominated Tanjavur in Tamilnadu. The period of the novel is the last part of 18 and the beginning of 19 centuries, when the presence of the British were largely felt as the exploiting class. The story is about an untouchable girl, Kurrinji, (born to an orthodox father and a pariah mother) who achieves great heights in music by sheer talent combined with sincerity and devotion. Her love for her beloved (who is a high caste Hindu), her commitment to Tamil as the language of music, her open affront to the establishment which encouraged casteism and treated women more as an object of desire rather than sensitive knowledgeable beings, win her a lot of admirers and quite a few foes. She breathes her last while giving a concert.

Kurrinji hails from Kuttraalam. In the first chapter, which is called BhopaaLa, she makes a slight change in the notation of Natakuranji (which is sung by her mentor Muthuswami Dikshitar in the novel) to suit her musical needs and calls it, Kutraala Kurrinji. From then on, every emotion — from the most tender to the crudest, is described in terms musical notations (arohana and avarohana). Almost all the chapters in the novel have the names of ragas like Shudda Dhanyasi, Arabhi, Bhairavi, Mukhari, Todi, etc. Some of the chapters are named after a genre. For instance, Raga-Tana-Pallavi. The events in the novel are described using musical notes like rishaba, nishada, etc. Her physical attraction towards her beloved is described as Bashaanga.

Manisekharan has made an earnest effort to recreate the period. In such an effort, the narrative has become mythical rather than historical, centred around a girl from the lower caste. Her commitment to singing only in Tamil is impeccable. She knows Sanskrit and admires the divinity of Telugu compositions of Thyagaraja. She discusses the intricacies of Carnatic music with doyens like Thyagaraja and Bharatiyar with ease – she can even say ‘no' when they ask her to sing in a particular raga. Her beloved, (whose relationship with her is both platonic and physical), is murdered in a mysterious way. She appears to be stoic, but dies during her next concert, as an epilogue to the musical myth.

The probable reason why the author has chosen to use a ‘musical idiom' is that the novel is about a musician. Novels with ‘music' as dominant theme are not new in Kannada. Anakru's Sandhyaraaga, Tarasu's Hamsageethe, Masti's Subbanna, andBhyrappa's Mandra are significant narratives which belong to this genre. But the Tamil novel, Kutraala Kurrinji in Kannada may appear bizarre to Kannada readers. The problem with the novel is the overuse of the musical idiom. All the Kannada novels cited above, whether historical or modern, work at the realistic level in their narration. Musical idiom, though used in an exemplary way in Kurrinji, has made the novel opaque to certain subtleties. One wonders whether the above problem is to do with translation. However, it appears that Padmini Srinivas, the translator of the novel, has been faithful to the original. Perhaps this novel reads well in the original. But, because of the changed context in which the narrative is relocated, the novel seems outlandish.

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