Although it had its origin in Orissa, Gitagovindam (Ashtapadi) continues to be a phenomenon even today thanks to its pan-Indian acceptance. The 12th century composition of poet Jayadeva reached Kerala within a century of its creation. Here, it was rendered by temple musicians of the Marar community to the accompaniment of the edakka at the Sopanam (steps) of the sanctum sanctorum. The style of singing, known as Sopana Sangeetham, was unique to this land. However, women were not allowed to perform it. But Carnatic musician Girija Balakrishnan was so enamoured by this branch of music that she started learning it at an early age. Orthodoxy and tradition prevents her from rendering it at the Sopanam, but over the past decade and more, her Ashtapadi concerts have become a star attraction in almost all major temple festivals of Malabar.
The first and perhaps the only female singer of Ashtapadi, Girija explained in an interview the nuances of this genre of music and also her assiduous efforts to learn it.
Flair for music
I belong to Aanamangad in Perinthalmanna, Malappuram district. As a child, I evinced great interest in light music. Naturally, school youth festivals were opportunities to prove my skills which I did, right from the lower primary classes. In the higher classes, I won prizes at the district level for Sanskrit recitations also. My mother was well disposed towards music and her readings of the Ramayana had left a lasting impression in my mind.
Initiation into classical music
Academic studies prevented me from taking music seriously. In-depth training in music was possible only after my marriage and after I landed a job. I must mention here the unstinted support of my husband, Balakrishnan Aanamangad, in my pursuit of music. Both of us are school teachers. My husband has many lyrics to his credit that have been adopted into typical Carnatic compositions. My first guru in Carnatic music was Shyamala teacher. Thereafter I was trained by Vasanthi teacher of the Sadanam Academy, Pathirippala. I had two children by that time and Pathirippala was far from where we stayed. But I braved all these challenges and continued learning for eight years. It gave me a strong foundation in music. Later on, I graduated in Carnatic music from Madras University as well.
Into Sopana Sangeetham
It was Manjalur Surendran who initiated me into Sopana Sangeetham. I was captivated by the ambience which this branch of music generated, especially when sung to the accompaniment of the edakka. I was also encouraged by Gangadharan, my professor of Malayalam in Government College, Perinthalmanna, to continue my learning. That's how I became a disciple of Janardanan Nedungadi of Guruvayur, who, I feel, is the living legend of Ashtapadi. A gifted musician apart, he is a scholar well versed in the Gitagovindam. His Ashtapadi rendition at Guruvayur temple for decades had fetched him international recognition. His tradition in this field is long. His guru was his own father, Anujan Thirumulpad, who was the musician at the same temple. The sruti alignment of his recital, clarity of diction, raga bhava and rendition of the verses that lay emphasis on the meaning – all are unparalleled. For my guru, I was his daughter and he compelled me to stay at his home for practice. He would go on teaching me for hours together, forgetting all his other engagements.
Keeping sruti on the edakka, I have sung in numerous temple festivals among which the major ones include Thirumandhamkunnu, Thiruwalluamala, Thirunavaya, Nayarambalam, Ramamangalam, Kottakkal, Vazhankada and Guruvayur. At all these temples, I had to perform at the ‘thiirumuttam' only and not at the Sopanam. At Thirumandhamkunnu, I have sung regularly for 15 years. I am also a regular invitee to the Poonthanam Day celebrations. A woman playing the edakka has not been to the liking of some traditionalists; but I do it with the permission of my guru. In Ashtapadi concerts, pakka melams such as violin, flute, mridangam and so on are used. I am happy to say that people have welcomed my concerts wholeheartedly all these years. For many of them, opportunities to listen to Ashtapadi are very few as only big temples can afford to employ a permanent singer. I have also had concerts in which a separate artiste for the edakka has been engaged while I keep rhythm by beating on the gong (chengala). This is the style followed by my guru. I have been performing regularly in ‘Utsav,' an annual festival of cultural programmes organised by the government in Perinthalmanna. There have been invitations from outside Kerala but, so far, I could not honour them owing to different reasons.
I am a graded artiste of All India Radio. And so is my daughter Anjali Krishnan. Almost all the Malayalam TV channels have telecast my programmes, some of them live. Two of my students have won recognition in the State school youth festival. From July onwards I have begun giving free training to a few select students in Carnatic music. I will train them in Ashtapadi only if they are interested.