The Silapadigaaram is not only a story of love and misunderstanding, but also a text with a wealth of detail about the music of its time. T.M. Krishna uncovers the intricate relationship between the Tamizh landscape and melody that it reflects.

The Silapadigaaram is the story of a married couple Kovalan and Kannagi whose lives are disturbed by the entry of the courtesan Madhavi into Kovalan's life. Smitten by Madhavi's beauty and skills in music and dance, Kovalan showers her with gifts and wealth. A misunderstanding causes this relationship to break. Kovalan comes back to Kannagi and their financial position forces a move from the Chozha kingdom to Madurai, the capital of the Pandyas. In Madurai, Kovalan is accused of stealing the queen's anklet when he was actually trying to sell Kannagi's anklet and is executed. A furious Kannagi proves in court that the anklet was indeed hers leading to the death of the king who dies in remorse. Kannagi's curse burns Madurai and she moves to the Chera kingdom where she leaves this world and unites with Kovalan. Hearing this story the Chera king orders the building of a temple in her memory as he considers her a goddess.

Guide to music

The Silapadigaaram is authored by Ilango Adigal and approximately dated to the 2nd century AD. Unlike texts like the Natya Sastra, Dattitam etc, this is not a musical treatise but built into the story are details about the music and dance of the times and it is a veritable guide to understanding their society.

In the Silapadigaaram, we notice that details on the music are short, indicative and brief in nature, scattered over the text. Therefore how do we understand the music? Many centuries later — between the 9th and 12th centuries — two commentaries on the Silapadigaaram, the Arumpada urai and Adiyaarkkunallaar, used the material in the epic along with other texts on music like the Pancha Marabu (most others are not available now) and created a theory based on their interpretation of the same. Therefore we need to clearly understand that there are two parts to this material; first details in the Silapadigaaram and second the commentaries. The huge time lag between the original and the commentaries is an issue since we cannot be sure about how the changes in the music and practices of the times of the commentators influenced their perspective.

About six chapters in the Silapadigaaram contain substantial information on music. Out of these the Arangetru Kaadhai and the Aaychiyar kuravai are very important. In the Silapadigaaram there is a clear indication that there were two traditions of music. The older tradition is the Thondrupodumarai and the newer Vamburumarabu.

While talking about the Thondrupadumurai the commentators mention the Naarperum pann (the four major panns). This is when four types of lands are associated with a specific pann (a melodic source), and an instrument, Yazh (a form of harp), Parai (skin instrument) and deity. We also find Mullai, another type of land also with similar associations (see box).

Notes (svaras) are known as Narambu. Narambu are the gut strings used in the Yazh. Each string of the Yazh was tuned to one note therefore this association of Narambu to note. In the Aaychiyar Kuravai, Ilango Adigal describes a dance by seven girls in a circular formation. This is a metaphor for the seven Narambu (svaras). The seven nerambu are known as Kural (Sa), Thutham (Ri), Kaikkilai (ga), Uzhai (ma), Ili (pa), Villari (da), Tharam (ni). This circular formation is known as a Vattapalai. Commentators place these seven notes in a circle that has twelve places. These twelve places are associated with the twelve zodiacs. The commentators derive this association due to some indications in the Silapadigaaram. The commentators have specified the zodiac in which each Narambu is positioned. Therefore you have seven notes positioned in seven zodiacs out of the twelve. The position of the Kural (sa) is fixed in the Thondrupadumurai at the zodiac Libra (thula), which lies to the left side of the circle. The maatrai (sruti) interval difference between each of these notes is not given in the Silapadigaaram but in the commentary. This circle of notes is the basis of evolving the Naarperum pann. Through a process known as Ilikramam, the note positions for the Naarperum pann are derived by a verse of association between the notes given in the commentaries. The association is one of every fifth note or every eight position in the circle.

In the chapter Arangetru kaadhai that appears in the story before the Aaychiyar Koothu, there is a mention of the newer tradition Vamburumarabu. A process of changes in the interval between the Narambu (svaras), later called Alagu maatram by commentators, is applied, and the position of kural ( sa) is moved to the right side of the circle in Taurus (rishabha). Through this process we derive new positions for all the notes in the Circle Vattapalai for Vamburumarabu. From this by a process of Kural thiribu, seven palai-s (scales) are derived. I am not going into the technical details. When this same process of kural thiribu is applied to the Paalai yazh in the older system, we get seven palai-s. They are Cembalai, Padumalaipalai, Sevvazhi, Arumpalai, Kodipalai, Vilaripalai, Merchempalai. They are the same seven in the newer tradition but in a different sequence as the position of kural (sa) has been moved.

Varied interpretation

Among modern scholars there have been varied interpretations to the methods mentioned. Aabraham Pandithar has used the position of the notes in both the older and newer system in two circles and derived the Naarperum pann. Vipulanandar does not agree with the intervals between the notes suggested and works on the same interval difference as the Natya Sastra. Dr S. Ramanathan, has, in the process of Alagu maatram in Vamburumarabu, differed with the other scholars. He has also gone on to give the complete structure for the Mullaitheembaani even though the Silapadigaaram only indicates four notes; he has inferred its structure and given it a five-note form. Another scholar V.P.Kamakshisundaram has a very different interpretation to both the process of finding the Naarperum pann and the Kural thiribu method for the Palai-s.

The original text of the Silapadhigaaram only uses the word pani and this is interpreted as thalam. Interestingly the commentators talk about five types of pani starting with the chachatputa, which in fact is also one of the five thalas mentioned in the Sangita Ratnakara.

The musical forms known as “Uru” are mentioned in the sixth chapter Kadalaadu Kaadhai. The two forms mentioned are Maayonpaani and Naalvagaipaani. The commentators talk about many other forms and they have many sub-classes. The word Pani here has a connotation of musical form.

Instruments found in the Silapadigaaram include melodic instruments like the Kuzhal (flute), Yazh (a form of harp) and Veena. Percussion instruments include the Thannumai, Muzhavu, Murasu, Aamandrika.

There is no doubt that the music of the times was a thriving tradition but it is the later commentators, and not Ilango Adigal, who have elaborated on the musical details in the text. Some scholars of the 20th century have tried to equate the palai-s of the Silapadhigaaram to modern ragas. The original commentators of the Silapadigaaram have not made this association between raga and palai. The concept of the modern raga is determined because we have a fixed tonic system. We cannot be sure that the music of the Silapadigaaram was fixed tonic, though the importance to the first note Kural (sa) is clear. Secondly we do find that at a very basic level the palai-s giving each note in the decreasing order the first position is similar to the moorchanas in the Natya Sastra. Therefore it would be similar to trying to equate each moorchana in the sadja grama of the Natya Sastra to ragas. Scholars are still debating about whether there is any connection between the Natya Sastra and the music of the Silapadigaaram. Both these were musical traditions that belonged to a different era and the best we can do is to celebrate them without trying to derive any contemporary relevance. The panns that come in later in the Tevarams may have been using the same names but history does indicate that there may have been many changes that could lead us to believe that the nature of pann had changed.

T.M. Krishna is a Carnatic Vocalist based in Chennai

(This story was amended on January 11, 2011)

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