December ragas

Poetics of performance

T.M. Krishna , in this, the first in a series of articles on our classical heritage and their manifestations today, looks at the Natya Sastra and its aesthetics of performing spaces?

The most common way of looking at the classical systems of India has been as one classical system that split into two forms: Hindustani music and Karnataka (referred to commonly as Carnatic) music. In reality, most changes and developments in society were far more complex and movements take place through a process of multiple influences.

I hope that, in the next few weeks, we can look at the musical forms of different eras in relation to Carnatic music. This is not to create a historical hierarchy but more to give us an insight into the complexity of metamorphosis. The journey will be through the eyes of musical treatises and singing traditions that we are aware of.

Over the coming weeks we will move from the Natya Shastra to the development of the Desi Tradition, peep into the music of the Silapadigaaram in Tamizh heartland and its singing traditions, moving on to the Vijayanagara Empire, to Thanjavur and finally, the citadel of music today, Chennai.

The most revered text in Indian performing arts is the Natya Sastra. The period given to the text varies from 200 BC to 200 AD and the geographical location is debated among scholars, with some believing that it was written in Kashmir but some do believe that it could be somewhere in the southern part of what is India today. The word Bharata is not only a name but also means an actor; therefore some scholars believe that the Natya Sastra was not authored by one individual but is a work of many actors and evolved through centuries; similar to the belief regarding the Mahabharata and the meaning of Vyasa.

Natya, the form

The term Natya itself does not refer to dance but to the form of presentation that includes Natya (Natya here is a component of Natya the form), melodic music (Gana) and percussive instruments (Vadhya). In order to avoid confusion we shall refer to the component Natya as Abhinaya.

Abhinaya includes, gesture, speech, involuntary reaction, costumes and accessories. Therefore, this is an amalgam of what we call dance and drama in the modern context. This is a very different aesthetic expression. The elements that constitute drama and elements that contribute dance belong together as one form.

Bharata refers to two types of music: Gana and Gandharva. Gana refers to the music that forms part of Natya, and Gandharva, which we may call 'Art music', has an independent identity beyond the triumvirate of Natya.

Music does not refer only to singing but also to the playing of wind and stringed instruments that can produce a melody. It seems that all that can produce melody, whether human or instrumental, come under music. The focus is on the production of melodic variations.

The songs sung as part of Gana in the Natya presentation were called Dhruvas. The language of the songs that have texts is Prakrit. These were sung for various situations in the drama including entry or exit of a character, heightened emotions, to divert audience's attention who are experiencing a certain Rasa and songs for pure dance movements or steps. While the melody was played Cymbals (Ghana) accompanied them. Some of the stringed instruments mentioned are CitraVina, Vipanchi and a secondary category comprises Kachchapi, Ghosaka. Among the wind instruments, Bharata talks about the Vamsa, Nadi, Tudakini and Samkha. Unfortunately there are no details on their construction.

Vadya referred to instruments made of stretched membranes. This category refers to percussion and those instruments that are not melody producing even if they can be tuned to a note. Some percussive instruments mentioned are the Mrdanga, Panava, Dardara and some secondary instruments like Bheri, and Jhallari.

How do the three parts come together to form Natya? How do different parts make a whole? Are they just collections put together or do they give the whole a character? What is the basis of the relationship between the parts and whole? Abhinavagupta raises questions of this nature in his commentaries on the Natya Sastra regarding the relationship of the three elements of Natya. The three elements of Natya, though having separate entities, come together sacrificing their independent forms to provide Rasa in the form of Natya wherein there is a seamless relationship between what we perceive today as independent forms in dance, drama and music (both melodic and percussive). Today's Koodiattam or Yakshagana seem to have a similar Natya form.

Aesthetic experience

An important aspect of Natya was to evoke Rasa. Rasa is expressed as an aesthetic experience of the audience, which is the result of a context, a reaction and a transient feeling in the drama, expressed through Abhinaya resulting in a dominant or permanent mood. This experience is obviously beyond emotion and is aesthetic in nature. The Natya Sastra talks about Rasa as being derived only from the Natya form i.e. the coming together of Gana, Vadhya and Abhinaya in the presentation of Natya. Yet, when removed from this form of Natya, they don't evoke Rasa. It is interesting that Rasa is related to a visual representation of emotions (Bhava) within a story backed by Gana (melody) and Vadhya (percussion). We have later on related even poetry in terms of Rasa. So is this Rasa evoked from the Bhava born out of the poetry? Similarly, does pure art music sans lyrical content evoke a Rasa? This would be an interesting subject for discussion. There are some scholars who believe that it should be inferred that Rasa does include other arts.

Music in its purely art form is known as Gandharva. It is considered a very sacred form with the music meant only for the gods. It's considered a ritual and has a lot of rules and regulations regarding performance. There is no question of pleasing an audience or looking for appreciation. The benefits of performing this form is said to reach only the performers. These forms are presented before the start of a Natya presentation. The compositional forms mentioned in Gandharva are Gitakas and Nirgitas. Gitakas, as compositional forms, seem to be more determined by the Tala and are complex in nature. There are seven types of Gitakas mentioned. The language used in these compositions is Sanskrit and the content is mainly on Shiva. The Nirgitas are more oriented towards instrumental melody. They are two parts wherein one is the playing of the melodies on Vinas and the second is singing linguistically meaningless syllables, for example Jhantum, Jagatiya. There are many varieties of these forms.

The presentation of Natya had preparatory parts called Purvaranga, which included Gandharva music (pure music sans Natya), and then a Tandava Vidhi (a special presentation we will discuss next week) followed by a Sutradhara coming in reciting verses followed by rituals of removing all the obstacles carried out and then the events that lead to the Drama.

Different structure

What was the structure of the music? On a very fundamental level, the music was not based on a fixed tonic. That would mean that we would not have a constant fixed pitch to which the Thambura can be tuned irrespective of whatever music is performed. The music was based on various scales (Murchanas), which took their Svara intervals from one of two Svara groupings called Shadja-grama and Madhyama-grama. There was also another grouping known as Gandhara-grama.

A Svara had its identity along with the interval from its lower Svara and the interval was measured in terms of a unit called Sruti. There were also Jaathis, based on which melodies could be structured that had intervallic arrangement derived only from the Shadja or Madhyama gramas. Each Jaathi had more characteristics described like the note on which a tune had to begin in it (Graha Svara), its tonic note (Amsa Svara) and the note at which a melody must end (Nyasa Svara) and a few more features. Two Svaras, Ga and Ni had possible variants named Antara Gandhara and Kakali Nishada but these positions were not treated as full-fledged Svaras. All music in both Gandharva and Gana were sung on the basis of Jaathis as melodic sources.


The rhythmical aspects of music have also been dealt with at both an intellectual level and at the level of execution. Ghana instruments (Cymbals) were directly related to maintaining of Tala. Talas had three basic time units Laghu, Guru and Pluta. A notional time interval known as Matra is given and defined on the basis of the time taken to utter five short syllables. Each part of the Tala mentioned above was measured on this basis. Lagu was one Matra, Guru was two Matras and Pluta was three Matras. Laya is defined as the period of rest or the time duration between two actions. Talas were divided by Kriyas that were the divisions of the Tala shown through hand and finger movements of both the silent and non-silent types. The length of the Tala was defined by Marga, which is the total duration covered by the Tala, determined by the duration of each Kriya in the Tala, this obviously would affect the speed of the Tala. Bharata mentions three Margas. He also deals with extensions of Talas. This is a process of increasing Kriyas (divisions) in the Tala from its basic Kriya equals syllable form. This extension increases the total duration of the Tala but does not create any change to the Laya of the Tala, as the duration between every Kriya remains the same.

As we can see, the music of the Natya Sastra was highly evolved, defined and sophisticated and definitely centred on theatrics being the heart and soul of its presentation even though Gandharva as a form did exist. There were few more texts post the Natya Shastra that enumerate this same form of music

Though some terms mentioned in the Natya Sastra are still used, their context is different. Therefore we should not conclude that since these terms are present now the music we perform now is connected with the Natya Sastra. One aspect that is important is that there is no mention of improvisation, as we understand it in Indian classical systems today. This music seems to have died on its own and other traditions took over. It can also be speculated that, may be, some parts of this tradition with influences of local regions where it was practised gave rise to another system that took over the reins, so to speak.

Season of music, and commerce

Today, the Madras music season has acquired its own cultural ambience but, then as now, its evolution is intricately linked to commercial foundations.

Sriram V.

In many ways, the December season is the IPL of Carnatic Music. This is a sharply focused and brief period when the art form is performed at multiple venues and showcased across media. It receives a burst in patronage both by way of corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. There is a spurt in demand for a whole host of allied services and logistically it is a nightmare, especially if you are an artiste, organiser or sabha-hopping music fan. And it is a test of stamina for the performers. Of course, in terms of values, the music season is nowhere near the IPL but the parallels are there.

Two takes

Opinion remains sharply divided on this unique cultural phenomenon. The ayes have it that this is a time for celebration of the arts. The nays claim that the season suffers from an excess in numbers — sabhas, artistes, performances, in short,everything except audiences, for, the same faces are seen everywhere. They also claim that the season has gone commercial. What is interesting is that the two statements of the nay-sayers are contradictory. If the season did suffer from a poor audience turnout, it would not be the commercial success it is. For, otherwise, how do we account for so many fringe services and events that have cropped up over the years and for the ready corporate sponsorship?

The December music season began with the Music Academy, a body founded by freedom-fighters and artistes, filled with high-minded intentions. But when it came to its actual running, viability became a vital issue. Even as the Academy grappled with this, the Indian Fine Arts Society began conducting its own season from 1933. The IFAS was dominated by the Arya Vaishya Chettys of Madras, who were generous patrons of music. It was perhaps the first instance of a sabha owing its existence to corporate sponsorship. That meant remuneration to artistes was much higher and this forced the Academy to revise its stance.

The organisation decided to seek patronage. But if it needed the support of those in power, it had to drop its nationalistic stance. It did so in a manner that gives it all credit for finesse. It released an advertisement stating that it existed 'wholly, solely and only for music' and then proceeded to solicit the support of everyone, from the Governor downwards. Each programme was sponsored by one leading light of Madras society and when the Governor, Lord Erskine, came forward to support the dance performance of Balasaraswathi, the Academy was jubilant. Since then, corporate support and finance have been integral aspects of the season. Indeed, without them, the season would not even be viable.

Historical documents

Another fund-raiser was the souvenir. Once again, the Music Academy was the pioneer, introducing the concept in 1935. Led by its dynamic President, K.V. Krishnaswami Iyer and his able second-in-command, K. Srinivasan of The Hindu, the Academy solicited advertisements which, thanks to the high profile of its members, came in plenty. Soon other sabhas followed suit. Over the years, these publications have become valuable historical records. They have concert details, rare advertisements and learned articles written by famous musicians and scholars. The print industry must be going into overdrive in December for, apart from diaries and calendars, there are season schedules, invitations and song-booklets to be brought out.

The sabha canteen is perhaps the best-known aspect of the season. The four to five hour programmes of the season meant that catering facilities had to be close at hand. Early souvenirs of sabhas, therefore, carried advertisements of restaurants and cafes that were close by. In 1938, the Music Academy conducted its entire season in the compound of the Woodlands Hotel on Westcott Road. K. Krishna Rao, the founder of the chain, had just embarked on his first hotel and the season brought him publicity and patronage. War-time restrictions forced the Music Academy to move from open-air venues to the vast and cavernous Senate House for the conduct of its 1939 Music Conference and there was not an eatery in sight. Ambi's Cafe of Broadway set up a canteen on the premises and proudly carried the legend 'Caterers to the Academy'. The sabha canteen was thus born. Just like musicians, there have been catering stars too. 'Kashi Halwa' Krishnamurthy, who shifted to catering after having been M.S. Subbulakshmi's cook for years, was reportedly one such. Today we have stars such as 'Arusuvai Arasu' Natarajan and 'Gnanambika' Jayaraman, masters of their art. The crowds in the canteens are often much larger than inside the sabhas. But with the right to cater being awarded to the highest bidder, everyone is happy — the sabhas, the caterers and those who come to eat. Once the stronghold of authentic South Indian cuisine, today we see all kinds of (strictly vegetarian) food on offer. The canteens have a beneficial side effect for the caterers. This is where their food is sampled and based on this, families with weddings in the forthcoming Thai Masam, sign them up.

Entry of advertising

In the 1940s, the Tamil Isai Sangam, thanks to its Chettiar heritage, built a fine edifice for itself, which soon began generating revenue as well. The Music Academy desired to follow suit. It hired its own PR executive, K.S. Subramaniam, who released advertisements claiming that "it paid to advertise in the Academy's Season". The RR Sabha was then the Music Academy's venue and soon the open space at the entrance and the interior of the hall were covered with banners and product advertisements. This helped, but to a limited extent. Then came T.T. Krishnamachari, who, as Industries Minister of the Government of India, managed to rope in large chunks of corporate sponsorship to make the auditorium a reality. The lobby of the Music Academy continues to remain a space much in demand for advertisements, for where else do you get such a focussed target group of medium to high-income individuals?

As December became associated with music, gramophone companies began timing their releases with it. Large advertisements from Saraswathi Stores, HMV and Broadcast labels would appear in the pages of the newspapers. Reviews of these plates would be carried on columns next to those that featured season news. In the 1970s and 1980s, the season coincided with the release of cassettes. The highlight would be AVM's releases of concerts of the same season, just a day or two after they had been performed. Special sales of music cassettes began and today CDs have taken over. Rather surprisingly, even with the remarkable growth of downloads, crowds at these sales have not diminished.

Madras may not be known for haute-couture but the season has in its own way been a showcase for fashions. Perhaps MS, with her special Muthu Chetty-woven 'blues', and GNB, with his kadukkans and personally blended perfumes, triggered it off. A couple of years ago, a leading publication even interviewed artistes on what they would be wearing for the season. Some artistes have appeared in garment ads as well.

The NRI element

The season is when the NRI vends his way to Madras, a trend that began in the late 1980s when the diaspora acquired a critical mass. This has spawned a hospitality industry by way of paying-guest accommodation, serviced apartments and budget hotels. The travel industry too sees an upsurge. The arrival of the NRI benefits the performers too. This is when they are heard and booked for performance tours overseas. That the season is a showcase for talent is accepted by most artistes. Otherwise how do you explain the fact that most of them perform for reduced rates — a special season discount as it were? The media too benefits. It suddenly finds more than enough content — reviews, interviews, and exclusive columns. Ananda Vikatan was the pioneer in this for its issues in December in the 1940s would be filled with musical matters. Today there are special editions of tabloids for the season. The All India Radio began broadcasting excerpts from season concerts in the 1950s. Now TV networks do the same.

To be sure, there have been some negative aspects. Some corporate sponsors are known to dictate terms to sabhas, especially when it comes to the choice of musicians. Some sabhas are known to accept payments from artistes for a performance opportunity and that dilutes quality. The banners and advertisements can be hideous and create a most non-musical atmosphere and the lead sponsor, when invited to inaugurate the festival, may display his abysmal ignorance of the art. But all that is par for the course.

Let's face it. The arts, like everything else, needs to be supported by a strong commercial foundation to survive. The season has done just that, building up its business side over the years. And as long as the two go hand-in-hand, without violating the each other's space, there is no reason why the season should not happen, year after year.

(The author can be contacted at

Pilgrims of music

When you listen to great composers like Tyagaraja and Dikshitar, you travel with them, drinking in the mystique of sacred places.

Lakshmi Viswanathan

An interesting fact emerges as we study the great composers and their lives. They were the original travellers. They were not your modern holiday enthusiasts looking to laze on beaches or view wildlife. They were more like today's bussing pilgrims. Except that they either walked, went in palanquins, bullock carts, or on horseback. The early bards, like the four Shaivite saints and the 12 Vaishnavite saints, were driven by passion and devotion. But that did not exclude them from enjoying the beauty of the places they visited. Their own songs tell us of a landscape replete with flora and fauna of exotic variety. We do not need to look further than the boy-saint Sambandar's songs to partake of his sensitivity to the countryside, which housed his beloved Shiva's abodes. He describes rivers, roaring sea-waves, chirping birds, dancing peacocks, humming bees and lotus ponds. These ancient composers not only performed miracles along the banks of the Cauvery, but also immortalised the myths and legends associated with each place. 'Paadal petra Sthalam' — (places of worship sanctified by song) became and continue to be the signifier for places which are featured in the anthology of saint-composers.

Inspiring landscapes

Later composers too followed the path of the saints. Thanjavur became the hub from where roads went winding through paddy fields to near and distant places of worship. They inspired a remarkable outpouring of melody and poetry. And what nurtured this luscious path was the Cauvery. She is the mother of all inspiration? to kings, saints, poets, and composers. Perhaps the greatest gift to our culture is the fact that history repeated itself in a beautiful way in each century and poets and composers wandered through temple towns and told their story in new ragas and in new languages. Some of the finest composers of the old Thanjavur kingdom sang, like the saints, in Tamizh. But their language was simpler and accessible to the common man. Take the case of Arunachala Kavi who re-told the story of Rama. Or Goplakrishna Bharathi who visited a select list of sacred spots and brought them to life in an inimitable way. Today, we can follow his trail. Visit Tirupungur, or Anandatandavapuram and Chidambaram and bask in the atmosphere of these sylvan locations. Located near Mayiladuthurai, Anandatandavapuram is the place where Goplakrishna Bharathi spent years of his life composing songs. I had the distinct privilege of presenting my dance performance 'Nandanar Charitram' in this village, which celebrates the poet's birthday without fail. It is one of the last of the 'gramams' (villages), which has beautiful but fading old houses. Typical features such as pillared verandahs, thinnais (stone benches), solid wooden front doors, rezhi (hall way), koodam (living room), mitham (courtyard), thavaram (work space), kinar (well) and so on, are a delight for visitors. Only a handful of aged people still live there, maintaining the homes with the help of their children and grand-children who live in far-away places. They come to these ancestral homes every year to celebrate their poet, and soak in the aura of devotion his songs create. Truly this is living heritage!

Tyagaraja the composer par-excellence was also a traveller. When he sings of 'heaven-on-earth' (Bhooloka Vaikuntam), in 'O Rangasayee', he brings to life a vivid picture of Srirangam, the island shrine. The bubbling Cauvery and the swaying palms recur in many of Tyagaraja's lyrics, making us re-visit his favourite landscape. The poet and devotee in Tyagaraja blend beauty and mythology in his songs, using the places he visited as a pretty backdrop.

Orbits of wonder

Undoubtedly the most methodical traveller was Muthuswami Dikshitar. One can produce a guide for the modern pilgrim with his songs. Whether he describes the intricate data of the nine planets or the five elements, he contextualises his songs in each sacred shrine. From Kalahasthi to Kutralam, one can travel with him and marvel at the wealth of detail a scholar like him could weave into language and melody. A committed tourist of his time, Dikshitar was energised by the beauty and spiritual aura of each place he visited. He wrote his songs, sang them and left an indelible impression which lifts us into an orbit of deep wonder. For example, no music enthusiast would visit Mannargudi and admire the icon of Rajagopala in the temple without being haunted by Dikshitar's Saveri raga krithi. One is awestruck by the magnificent pillared corridors of Rameswaram temple, but not without humming Dikshitar's 'Ramanatham Bhajeham' in Pantuvarali.

The interested 'rasika' is moved by the innumerable associations of places with our great pilgrim composers. Our new generation of musicians would do well to visit them and drink deep in the flow of Bhakti, nurtured by sacred rivers and magnificent temples. Our music, like all our arts, has mystical and magical connections with sacred spaces. Being aware of such fine layers in our culture is the best tribute we can pay to our great musical pilgrims — the great composers.

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Printable version | May 1, 2021 6:50:58 AM |

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