During the Navaratri festival, there’s a very old tradition of singing some or all of the Navaratri kritis of Swati Tirunal and the Nava’avarana kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi.

Maragata-manimaya-maalini, Neela-ratna-mani-bhooshinyaa, Maanikya -manohara- veenaa -dharanaam, Hema-ratna-aabharana-dhaarini, Mangalakara-kumkumadhara-mandahaasita-mukha-vilaasini, Mandasmita -vilasita- mukhaara -vindaam.

(adorned by a garland of emeralds, adorned by a garland of blue diamonds, carrying a beautiful veena inlaid with gems, adorned by ornaments of gold and rubies with an auspicious vermillion mark on the forehead, and a radiant smile on the face)

Whose lyrics are these? If you promptly answered: “Muthuswami Dikshitar’s,” you’d be 50 per cent right, for the second lines in the above sets are indeed taken from some of his sacred Sanskrit songs, including the famous kriti “Maamava Meenakshi.”

So whose lyrics are the first lines? They are from some of the Nava’avarana kritis of Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, whose impressive skills as an 18th century composer in Sanskrit as well as Tamil we had noted in this column two weeks ago (September 28).

Roots in Sanskrit

Most Indian languages have their roots buried very deep in ancient Sanskrit.

Even Tamil, which is a distinctly different ancient language, has gradually borrowed and absorbed innumerable expressions from Sanskrit in the course of many centuries.

Therefore it’s no exaggeration to say that a certain sense of Sanskrit flows in the blood of all Indians. That’s why we have a way of sensing the meaning of many words and turns of phrases when we hear sacred Sanskrit verses recited in our temples or Sanskrit songs rendered in our concert halls, and we are usually conscious of the overall significance of what we hear even if a precise translation of the texts is beyond our understanding.

Since all Carnatic music is governed by a strong spiritual orientation, the boundaries of mantras and music tend to overlap constantly — so that when the performers achieve extreme excellence and the music touches the hearts of the listeners, the concert hall is transformed into a place of collective worship. And when eloquent lyrics of the songs not only celebrate the divine qualities of the Deities but also describe their immaculate and imposing appearance, the listeners tend to recall some of the finest visual impressions of the idols they had worshipped in the temples from time to time.

And the most radiant and memorable ones among such impressions are those obtained on very auspicious days and festive occasions, when the divine sculptures are covered with shining golden armour or dressed in rich silks, and are adorned with glowing jewellery and garlands of colourful flowers or sacred leaves.

Mystic background

During the annual Navaratri festival spread over nine successive evenings — when special prayers are offered in all shrines devoted to the Supreme Goddess in Her different manifestations, and round-robin get-togethers are organised by social groups of women in their homes — there’s a very old tradition of singing some or all of the Navaratri kritis of Swati Tirunal and the Nava’avarana kritis of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi.

This year the festival starts today, and perhaps it wasn’t just a coincidence that a workshop on the Venkata Kavi songs (which are less familiar to music students) was conducted in Chennai very recently by Chitraveena Ravikiran, who then flew away to America to organise similar exercises on the same theme just a few days ago in San Diego.

Venkata Kavi’s Nava’avarana kritis, just like Dikshitar’s, has certain ritualistic connotations relevant to the worship of the Supreme Goddess in an esoteric mode involving a mystic diagram known as Srichakra or Holy Wheel. This geomerical picture consists of several concentric circles, inverted triangles and lotus petals arranged in nine tiers called Aavaranas (veils), which symbolise progressive levels of spiritual attainment, moving from the edge to the centre.

Ravikiran’s workshop in Chennai was not an academic course concerned with this specialised cult, although some brief explanations in this regard were necessary since Venkata Kavi has incorporated recurring references to it in the nine songs dedicated to the nine Aavaranas, and also in the meditative prelude, all addressed to the Goddess Kamakshi of Kanchipuram.

For a detailed analysis of the sahitya, Ravikiran recommended the excellent book “Kamakshi Nava’avarana Kritis” by S. Sankaranarayanan.

What the master did discuss in detail were the melodic features of the songs and certain extremely intricate rhythmic patterns adopted by the composer in some of them.

But his objective was not to talk much, but to show the participating musicians and music students how to render the songs tunefully and with the proper cadence, repeating each phrase in a chorus after him.

And such was the concentration of the class that somewhere along the marathon six-hour session the workshop was transformed into a place of worship, and even as a mere observer I had an extended vision of Kanchi Kamakshi.