I belong to Thanjavur. Therefore, the songs of Tyagaraja were literally the melodies I woke up to. My mother sang and played them on the veena as her personal offering to Lord Rama. Learning to sing from a young age helped me put together a rich repertoire — from the demanding Pancharatnas to evocative kritis in melodious ragas .
With the early foundation laid by great gurus such as Kancheepuram Ellappa, I understood dance as visual music. After years of mastering and performing the traditional pieces of Bharatanatyam, I took up the challenge of expanding my repertoire with other inspiring music.
An exclusive performance based on Tyagaraja’s compositions, a special programme for Doordarshan in 1986, made me go deep into a study of chosen compositions. The work was pure pleasure, and the result, amazing. The rare Harikhambodi piece, ‘Sri Raghuvara’ with swaras and sahithya proved to be an engaging opener. I choreographed for the kriti ‘Ksheerasagara Sayana’ in Devagandhari.
His songs give enough scope for elaboration with the phrases repeated in a variety of sangatis. With subtle and suggestive abhinaya, I wove the episodes of Gajendra Moksha and Draupadi into the choreography with telling effect.
A challenging task
Taking a few phrases and elaborating on the theme is what abhinaya is all about. Thus I embarked on depicting episodes of the Ramayana using appropriate Tyagaraja kritis. Though in the beginning it appeared extremely challenging, it slowly evolved into an exercise of musical exploration and imagination. With ‘Ela nee dayaradha’ (Bala Kanakamaya) in Atana Raga, I introduced the child Rama and his siblings, moving on to portray their gurukula vasam. Artistic licence is a permissible luxury in dance interpretation. But one has to tread carefully. However, I was determined to make the best of this opportunity to explore the works of a great composer. I had to unfold the salient episodes of the Ramayana with the little nuggets provided by Tyagaraja. They are really hidden treasures.
The story goes that Tyagaraja composed ‘Nannupalimpa’ in Mohana Raga, seeing his brother walking towards him with a picture of Rama. Also I felt, the words ‘Na prana nadha’, described Sita’s emotions when she first set her eyes on the young Rama entering Mithila. This is what I tried to portray... how Sita’s heart skipped a beat when she saw Rama and how the women of Mithila were mesmerised too.
One cannot find Tyagaraja dwelling at length on any episode of the Ramayana. Sometimes just a single phrase, rendered beautifully, can move you. One such was D.K. Pattammal’s rendition of the kriti ‘Sri Rama Padama’ in Amrithavahini. The soulful blend of music and lyrics in the phrase, ‘Soora Ahalyanu joochi brochithivi’ inspired me to choreograph this kriti for the Ahalya moksham episode.
In ‘Nadhupai,’ (Madhyamavathi), a phrase caught my imagination — ‘Ajanubahuyuga Sri Janaki Pathi — describing Rama’s long, well-built arms. During a demonstration at the Music Academy, Chennai, with my sister Vidushi Charumathi Ramachandran doing a perfect niraval of Ajanubahu, I came up with a detailed description of not only Rama’s majestic personality, but also wove into it the entire episode of the Sita Swayamvaram, culminating in Rama lifting the bow of Siva effortlessly.
A rare kriti is ‘Vachamakochara’ in Kaikavasi. Nobody can sing it with the verve and vigour of M.S. Subbulakshmi. While looking for a suitable song to elaborate on the Maricha episode, I found this gem. Using instruments to do the niraval, I could build on Sita’s mood, her falling prey to deception and her abduction by Ravana. Attracted by the simple lyrics and plaintive tune I used ‘Nannu Vidachi’ (Ritigowla) and transposed it from the pathos of Prahlada to the plight of Sita in Ashoka Vanam. It worked beautifully. So did ‘Eti Janmam’ in Varali. The lyrics of Tyagaraja and the ragas that he has used are the delight of a connoisseur. In his golden mesh of raga and bhava I wove in the abhinaya.
I must point out that it is possible to dance to many of Tyagaraja’s kritis, provided the dancer can evoke the bhakti rasa. Tyagaraja sings with an intimacy that is both moving and poetic, quite like the songs of Bhadrachala Ramadas. The longing of the jivatma for the paramatma creates a certain mood worthy of mature abhinaya.
On the other hand, it is difficult to dance to the Pancharatna kritis. The one that I chose was ‘Sadinchene’ (Arabhi), largely because it talks about Krishna, the playful lover.
Subtleties in lyrics
The sub-text of Tyagaraja’s kritis is spiritual. However, if one studies the songs carefully, one can find myriad moods, which are helpful in portraying Navarasas. With this in mind, I choreographed ‘Navarasa Sita’ and enjoyed discovering the many subtleties of the lyrics. One such is in the kriti in Khambodi, ‘Ma Janaki,’ where Tyagaraja alludes to Sita’s anger at Ravana’s advances. And when Hanuman jumps in as the saviour, what better jingling melody does one need than Tyagaraja's ‘Pahi Rama Dhoota!’
For me, a great source of inspiration has been the singing of the great masters of the twentieth century. They maintained not only the oral tradition of the sishya paramparas, but also brought their own creativity to Tyagaraja’s compositions.
Some indeed will remain special because as true artistes they have left an indelible impression on us with their individual touch. Here I must acknowledge the late musicologist T.S. Parthasarathy, whose book and personal interactions were invaluable.
Exploring the lyrics of Tyagaraja and dwelling on his inimitable melodies is a dance-journey worth undertaking. One may find many a pearl in this ocean, provided one dives deep. Tyagaraja's compositions for dance have the unique advantage of carrying the audience to a state of rasanubhava.
Lakshmi Viswanathan is producing a special show this year to mark Tyagaraja’s 250th birth anniversary