Muthuswami Dikshitar found a common ground by clothing Sanskrit lyrics in western tunes

The idea that musicianship rests on the three pillars of melody, rhythm and expression is one that cuts across cultural boundaries. How can this be introduced in school curricula?

We don’t have to go too far to look for an answer. We have with us a precious legacy handed over by Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835). This treasure is a compendium of ‘nottuswara sahityas’ - a genre of music that was born when he wrote Sanskrit lyrics to western tunes that he heard at Fort St. George, Madras - during the period of his stay in Manali (north of Madras) in the 1790s.

Dikshitar was born in Tiruvarur, near Thanjavur, and he spent much of his life in Tamil Nadu during a period when the East India Company was expanding its holdings in India. Dikshitar travelled widely. He covered his birthplace Tiruvarur, Manali near Chennai, Banaras in North India, Kanchi, Thanjavur, Madurai and Ettayapuram, composing kritis in praise of several temples en-route. About 472 compositions are attributed to Dikshitar, of which 39 fall under nottuswara. The lyrical content in some of these compositions is a succinct presentation of the themes seen in some of his compositions while the tunes are based upon a range of colonial songs.

Genius at work

The diversity in tunes to which Dikshitar set his lyrics and the seamless manner in which he integrated stotra lyrics complete with alliterative prosodic rules of the kriti with alien tunes truly reflect his genius. How is this genre of 19th century Indo-colonial music relevant to music education in the 21 century?

First of all, these compositions are magical. They are easily accessible to young children. They provide a delectable alternative to nursery rhymes. Secondly, even four-year-olds can learn them by repeated listening.

The easy accessibility of tunes thus makes them ideal educational material for children and it gracefully facilitates a natural discovery of two of the pillars of musicianship namely melody and rhythm. In fact they are featured as abhyasa gitas in the ‘Prathamabhyasa Pustakamu’ published in 1905 by Subbarama Dikshitar as an appendix to the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini.

Thirdly, the easy accessibility of these compositions again enables children to grasp the Sanskrit lyrics. Based on simple tunes, they are rich in lyrical content. The alliteration in the lyrics follow various prosodic rules. Learning these compositions at an early age brings with it good Sanskrit diction, a skill that facilitates good diction in other Indian languages as well.

Fourth, by learning these compositions, children actually are celebrating an ancient heritage. The Indo-Colonial music of Dikshitar makes clear references to sthalapuranas and other details pertaining to temples in Kanchipuram, Chidambaram and other places.

Fifth, these compositions allow for flexibility in expression. They can be presented as solo renditions, as simple gitams in the scale of raga Sankarabharanam. They can also be presented with piano or guitar accompaniment or with layers of simple choral polyphony.

Sixth, this genre of music would also fill the need for a common Indian musical repertoire that is sorely lacking today.

Lastly, there is a lesson in history that is passed on to primary schoolers, just by virtue of learning this music. The very fact that an orthodox composer of the 1800s wrote Sanskrit lyrics to western tunes is more than a mere passing footnote in Indian history. It shows the sparkling creativity of the composer, his inclusiveness that is so characteristic of the Indian spirit and his innovation that is beyond comparison - all of which can be a source of inspiration for children as they move on to a globalised world of tomorrow.

(Kanniks Kannikeswaran (www.kanniks.com) is a composer, music educator and scholar whose research on this topic won him awards at the Madras Music Academy. His widely acclaimed recording ‘Vismaya - An Indo Celtic Musical Journey’ is the first ever recorded compilation of the entire genre of Nottuswara sahityas.)