Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi's genius is felt and experienced in all of his compositions, writes Chitravina N. Ravikiran in the first of his two-part series on the composer.
One of the greatest composers that India has produced, Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi (also referred to as Venkata Subbaiyer) is said to have lived sometime between 1700 and 1765 AD. He composed hundreds of brilliant songs in Sanskrit and Tamil and a few in Marathi. Around 500 have survived of which more than 60 per cent have been published. Though his versatility and predilection for music, dance, drama and poetry are obvious even at first glance, the depth and breadth of his works demand years of study by scholars of music, Sanskrit, Tamil and Srividya worship.
For over 200 years, these compositions were almost hidden from the mainstream music field but preserved by a small number of family members and a close circle of disciples. Around 1940, they gained wider exposure through noted Harikatha exponent Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar, a direct descendant of Venkata Kavi's brother. Those who learnt from him include artistes such as Rudrapatnam Brothers, Aruna Sairam, Savitry Sathyamurthy and Kunjumani Bhagavatar, nephew of Papanasam Sivan.
Today, his torch is borne primarily by Alamelu and Subbaraman. The latter's thesis on Venkata Kavi's Tamil compositions proves the poet's erudition in Sangam literature, divya prabandhams, tevarams and tiruppugazh. Similar studies by others have established his mastery over Lalitopakhyanam, Periya Puranam, and the works of Kalidasa, Jayadeva and others.
Growing awareness of Venkata Kavi's colossal contributions has increased his aura among music lovers and also among musicians and musicologists of competence, objectivity and integrity. The doyen Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer was so awe-struck by these compositions that he pronounced: “sangeeta mummanihalodu samamaaha idam petrulla vaaggeyakaarar Venkatasubbayier” (Venkata Kavi is in the same echelon as the Carnatic Trinity).
However, one of the earliest artistes to realise Kavi's greatness was G.N. Balasubramaniam. A luminous musician and composer himself, he wrote a glowing article in the 1950s for a Tamil magazine.
The Music Academy, Journal (Vol XXVII) mentions a demonstration by Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar in the 1955 Music Conference and records that “Venkata Kavi's 190th Anniversary fell a few days ago”. The president of the conference, Marungapuri Gopalakrishna Iyer said, “These compositions, the echoes of which could be seen in the works of the Trinity, could thus be deemed as filling the gap between Purandaradasa and Kshetragna on the one hand and the Trinity on the other.”
Thus Venkata Kavi's creations dispel the widespread belief that Carnatic music suffered through a dark age between the periods of Purandaradasa and the Trinity. His sophisticated compositions with dazzling fast passages and gait (gati) changes bear testimony to the evolved state of music of the period. But they also demand huge efforts from the artistes. Viewed against this backdrop, perhaps a striking contribution of the Trinity (especially Tyagaraja) was to make compositions more accessible by decreasing or eliminating such demanding sections.
To a reasonable and intelligent scholar, the works of a composer are the best evidence, more than accounts or eulogies by others. Secondary corroborations, if available, are only a bonus (when not powered by myths). The primary evidence of the large body of available compositions in a fairly consistent style and quality (and continuity of themes in operatic works based on Bhagavatam, Ramayanam and so forth) is the most eloquent proof of Venkata Kavi's thoughts, attitude and mastery. As Prof. T.V. Subba Rao affirmed, “These creations blend bhava, raga, tala, sahitya, shabda and swara.”
Venkata Kavi's compositions also give an indication of the places he visited such as Chennai, Kanchipuram, Madurai, Tiruvarur, Udupi, Pandharpur and Pazhani. His references to historic personalities such as Jayadeva and Purandaradasa provide a vital clue to his time period, since Tulasidasa seems to have been chronologically the last personality the poet mentioned.
Venkata Kavi has employed compositional forms like krti, tillana and chindu apart from shlokas, free verses and poems. As Rangaramanuja Iyengar notes in The History of South Indian Music, “Venkata Kavi's krti pattern is quite varied” and “The tillana attained aesthetic heights in his hands.”
Weighty masterpieces such as Padminivallabha (Dhanyasi), Prasannagopalakrishnam (Dvijayavanti) and Rajagopala (Manji) are deep and meditative while Mundivarumishai (Bhairavi) and Ennadan inbam (Devagandhari) are full of sublime charm. Besides, there are pieces with just two sections like Senapate (Gowla) and those like the saptaratna krtis which have a pallavi, anupallavi and up to 10 charanams. His handling of ragas like Nadanamakriya, Deshakshi, Paras, Manji and Balahamsa are distinctive.
Few composers have employed madhyamakalas with the degree of creativity and craftsmanship as Venkata Kavi.
As Sangeeta Kalanidhi T.N. Seshagopalan asserts, “A very improper view has gained currency among musicians — a plethora of words is an impediment to evocative appeal. Venkata Kavi's works emphatically debunk this.” The faster sections make his creations more fluid, attractive and multi-dimensional. Moreover, he has created unique musical movements by inserting these contrasting sections between two slower passages within a section and not merely at its conclusion.
Venkata Kavi's pre-climactic passages in songs like Kuzhaloodi (Kambhodhi), Marakatamanimaya (Arabhi) and finishes in Alavadennalo (Paras) and Bhuvanamoha (Dhanyasi) are melo-rhythmically so effective even sans percussion accompaniment at times.
Venkata Kavi has embellished more than a few compositions with names of ragas, talas, gamakas and other music-related details. There are also interesting consonant (vadi-samvadi) phrases in krtis like Ekadantam (Nattai) and plentiful instances of swarakshara (matching lyrics for the solfa notes). He also used the concept of anchor charanams (secondary refrain around which other charanams are built) especially in his saptaratna krtis.
Chitravina N. Ravikiran is musician, composer and author of books such as Life and Contributions of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi.