Chitravina N. Ravikiran brings to light Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi's rhythmic and lyrical genius in the concluding part of his series on the composer.
Venkata Kavi's choice and mastery over both Sanskrit and Tamil — each with completely independent grammar and norms — is almost unique among music composers. In compositions such as Chintittavar (Nattai), his Tamil is as erudite as his Sanskrit. Many of his Sanskrit pieces have the conversational felicity of his native Tamil rather than just descriptions with an odd verb inserted randomly. But the stand-out feature in either language is the personalised emotive appeal.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer affirmed that Venkata Kavi's Sanskrit was “as first rate” as his Tamil. “inda samskruta krtihal, avarudaiya tamizh keertanaihalai polave, mudal taramaanavai...”
The composer has shown a penchant for extrapolating Tamil style rules in some of his Sanskrit compositions such as Satyamparam (Shankarabharanam) where brahma has been used to rhyme with janma. Conversely, he has ‘Sanskritised' Tamil compositions such as Tyagarajaparamesha (Chakravakam). “sharanagata varunalaya karunalaya kamalalaya tatam ahalaa aaroor Tyagaraja”
Studying Venkata Kavi's works is a definite learning curve for any music, literature and culture-aficionado. His colossal vocabulary is almost concealed in the elegance of his expressions. Seldom-used words such as dukoola, aakalpa, rohishajaa would only stand out if one was intent on word meanings. References to azhwars, nayanmars, rare incidents and hardly known devotees such as Devala, Saraswatha, Pippalada expressed with poetic imagination testify to his exhaustive knowledge.
Range of emotions
Perhaps the most striking feature of his lyrics is the spontaneous combination of power and elegance. Even without music, his soul-stirring words express a whole range of emotions, portray scenes vividly but with a clear current of sublime devotion. Passages such as tadhikka taam ena viditta talamum tudikka daam ena madittu gati pera (Alavadennalo – Paras), mukhadhara smita rashimikara smarana (Kshanameva - Bhoopalam) and are as much about divine inspiration as they are about skill and scholarship.
Yet, the colloquial, casual style in a handful of songs (that got known initially) such as Alaippayude (Kanada) and Kuzhaloodimanamellam (Kambodhi) confused scholars when viewed against Madhuramadhura (Athana) or Padmavatiramanam (Poorvikalyani) which were in a different league. It has only recently been appreciated that the first two are examples of operatic pieces composed from the perspective of Krishna's gopis, who were essentially simple people.
Melodic variations are an integral part of several composers and the Tyagaraja school has taken it to great heights. While these feature abundantly in Venkata Kavi's works, it is fascinating to note that he also employed lyrical variations in compositions such as Mahashaya (Abhogi), keeping a major part of the melody constant but changing the lyrics.
Venkata Kavi has blazed a rhythmic trail that few have ventured into. His choice of intricate talas such as Khanda Dhruvam (17 units) and Mishra Atam (18) would alone proclaim his class. But the manner in which he has handled them without sacrificing melodic or lyrical appeal reaffirms his stature. He has also employed features such as changing gait (gati-bhedam) from chaturashram (4 units) to tishram (3) or khandam (5).
But his change of unit beat measure from 8 in the first 2 sections to 4 in the final section (from 2 kalais to 1 kalai) in Sadanandamayi (Hindolam) in a complex tala like the 20-unit Sankeerna Mathyam is unparalleled.
Further examination reveals that he has composed not merely keeping the whole tala in mind but also its constituent parts. For instance, instead of merely bisecting an 18 unit tala like Mishra Atam, he would sometimes structure his lyrics along its parts of 7+7+2+2. However, he took partitioning the tala in equal measures also to great heights in songs like Yogayogeshwari (Anandabhairavi, Khanda Triputa) where the fast passage in the 2nd section is split into 4 equal parts of 2.25 units each. Further, he has dexterously handed take-off and landing points before or after the beat (ateeta, anagata eduppu).
Apart from the oft-seen even or random patterns (sama or vishama yati), Venkata Kavi has employed increasing patterns (srotovaham) in pieces like Mummadavezha (Nattai) and decreasing ones (gopuchcham) in Jatadhara (Todi).
It is not known whether Venkata Kavi had formal training in dance but his descriptions of dances involving Krishna, Vinayaka and Shiva are so vivid that most top-notch dancers have gravitated towards them. In compositions such as Aadinaan (Sama), which describes Subramanya and Vinayaka playing together, his eye for detail stands out. His versatility and variety in embedding jatis (rhythmic syllables) in compositions like Vaiyamalandu (Nadanamakriya) and Vanamali (Nattaikkuranji) give further scope for dancers. The jatis, swaras and yatis readily fall into place and seamlessly blend with abhinaya-centric lyrics.
As Dr. Vyjayantimala Bali says, “His divine creations are inspiring; his references to rare episodes and treatment of themes like Ramayana are refreshingly original.” It is important to note that in his times, Oottukkadu was a major centre for bhagavata mela tradition which blended music, dance and drama. The composer has also cited specific types of dances like kutuka, chalachala and haahaakaara natana in his compositions.
Based on the degree of effort required to savour compositions fully, scholars have compared Tyagaraja's compositions to the grape, Syama Sastri's to the banana and Dikshitar's to the coconut. Venkata Kavi's approach, which unquestionably forms one of the five distinct styles in Carnatic music, can be likened to the mango, which is as alluring with or without the skin. They are dazzling, yet deep. All the above notwithstanding, only a small body of his works has been studied so far, a smaller set that have been learnt and presented in mainstream performances. Therefore, only a small part of his genius and mammoth contributions has been understood. Further studies by objective scholars would enrich several fields.
To facilitate all these, several audio or video CDs featuring his rare creations have been brought and live workshops have been made available to students on websites like www.acharyanet.com.
The writer is musician, composer and author of books like Life and Contributions of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi.