Delivering the R. Srinivasa Tatachari Endowment lecture, at Kuppuswami Sastri Research Institute, Dr. Raama Kausalya offered glimpses of music that can be inferred from Ettuthogai, which is an anthology of eight works of the Sangam era. The operative word is ‘inferred,’ because most of the details can only be guessed at from similes and descriptions. For example, muzhavu , a skin instrument, is compared to the base of the vengi ( Pterocarpus bilobus) , panai (palmyrah), or punnai ( Calophyllum inophyllum ) trees. So the muzhavu must have been big. One verse says that singers, who had partaken of a feast provided by a generous patron, got mixed up about which pann to sing, indicating that there were different panns for different times of the day.
Flutes had five or seven holes. Three types of murasu are mentioned. The murasu was treated with regard so much so that anyone who sat on the pedestal provided for it, was executed. The murasu was bathed, decorated and even offered pinda (oblation)!
When an army had to be given instructions in the thick of the battle, the murasu and thannumai would be struck, different beats conveying different instructions. So if the enemy punctured a hole in these instruments he could disable communication in the army. The parai and conch were auspicious instruments used at weddings, says Kurunthogai. The parai was also struck to alert people, when there was a flood.
The importance given to talam can be gauged from the fact that while describing Lord Siva’s dance, the word ‘kaappa’ (protecting) is used, to refer to Goddess Uma keeping the beat. The word 'palliyam' indicates that orchestras must have been in vogue. A verse says a group of people walking at a dainty pace (mennadai) , is evocative of different instruments producing a harmonic effect.
Women used music to indicate their romantic attachments. There is a description of two women singing of their lovers, even as they pound rice. One of them cleverly sings of Lord Muruga, but is in fact obliquely referring to her lover. The other does not resort to such subterfuge, and so everyone gets to know who her lover is.
Even thieves seem to have gone about their business with musical accompaniment. They would announce their arrival by striking the thannumai. Before a farmer stepped into his field at harvest time, he would strike an ari parai, so that birds nesting in the fields could fly off to safety.
Musicians were held in high regard. One verse says that a paanan was gifted so many cows, that their movement cleaved out a path on the ground. Paripadal refers to Mahavishnu Himself as yazhpaanan. Music in the Sangam era was as much a part of a peasant’s life as of a king’s.
Dr. Kausalya's lecture demonstration for the Indian Fine Arts Society, was on the Tiruvaiyaru kshetra kritis of saint Tyagaraja. Eleven are in praise of Goddess Dharmasamvarddhini, and four in praise of Panchanadeeswarar. If ‘Vidichakra’ (Yamunakalyani) captures the scene outside Ambal's shrine on a Friday, ‘Mucchada Brahma’ (Madhyamavati) is about the utsava murthy of Panchanadeeswarar, being taken round the streets of Tiruvaiyaru. Even Brahma is not as blessed as those who witness this procession, says Tyagaraja. Bhagavatas, singing the praises of Vishnu, accompany the deity.
The Sanskrit words that gush forth make some segments of the kritis sound like musical ashtotrams, elaborated Dr. Kausalya. Anuprasa (alliteration) is evident in all the kritis. Sometimes Tyagaraja adopts a round-about way to describe Ambal, and this only adds to the charm of the kritis. For example, in ‘Amba Ninnu’ (Arabhi), the Goddess is referred to as the sister of the One, whose son killed Sambasura. The reference here is to Lord Krishna, whose son Pradyumna killed Sambasura.
In ‘Innala’ (Subhapantuvarali), Tyagaraja requests the Goddess to embrace him as a mother embraces her child. He shows that his request is based on a precedent, for she once came down to the earth to give milk to a hungry child, the reference being to Thirugnanasambandar. For Panchanadeeswarar, Tyagaraja has a more demanding tone, as seen in ‘Ilalo Pranataarthi’ (Atana).
Madhuvanthi Badri sang selected portions of the kritis, and the bhava in her singing transported one to Thiruvaiyaru.
Link with Nature
Sounds of musical instruments are described using examples from nature. A few examples:
Muzhavu - gushing waterfall or a roll of thunder
Thudi - call of the kottaan (spot bellied eagle owl).
A creeper swaying in the wind is compared to a dancer, the wind being the nattuvanaar!