The charisma of composers

The growth of music and dance during the rule of the Marathas and Nayaks in Thanjavur is very significant. T.M. Krishna, in the last of his series, traces the contribution of composers during that time.

January 31, 2011 03:26 pm | Updated November 13, 2021 09:58 am IST

The musical trinity. Photo: Special Arrangement

The musical trinity. Photo: Special Arrangement

Most musical forms that are in practice in Carnatic music as part of the art music repertoire and the dance music repertoire can be traced to the rule of the Nayaks and Marathas in Thanjavur.

King Raghunatha Nayak (1600 – 1634) was a scholar, composer, vina player and a great patron of arts. During his period, it is quite clear that the form of art music presentation was the Chaturdandi form consisting of Alapa, Thaya, Gita and Prabandha. There is said to be a lot of notations of this form of presentation belonging to this period at the Saraswathi Mahal Library (Thanjavur). In the sphere of dance though we do find musical forms mentioned such as Perani, Jakkini, Korvai, Sabda Chintamani etc. We do know that, during the reign of Raghunatha and again during the reign of his successor Vijayaraghava Nayak (1633 – 1673), Kshetrayya the composer of Shringara Padas (Pallavi/Anupallavi/Charana form) from Muvva visited Thanjavur and even composed padas in praise of Vijayaraghava Nayak but it is clear that, in spite of his influence, the Nayak rulers still preferred the older Prabandha form of art music presentation. There are numerous Yakshaganas composed by the Nayak kings themselves. We do find one composer of this period Peda Dasari whose Keertana in raga Devagandhari is found in the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini.

In the later Maratha period, we come across numerous composers and compositions but most of them seem in relation to dance presentations rather than art music. Almost all the forms of compositions that are in vogue today are connected to this period. Secondly, the Pada form was firmly established and all the compositional structures were variants of the same pallavi/anupallavi/charana form be it a Varna (colloquially ‘varnam'), Swarajathi, Ragamalika or Thillana.

Melattur Virabhadrayya is found to be probably the first composer who used the svarajathi form. This is not the Svarajathi as found in the compositions of Syama Sastri. The older Svarajathi form was similar to the Varna with the main difference being the existence of Jathis as an important part of the structure. Virabhadrayya was also probably the first composer of the Varna, Ragamalikas and Thillanas. Other than this, he also composed Keertanas. Therefore, Virabhadrayya's contribution to compositional music is immense. He was also the guru of Ramasvami Dikshitar, the father of Muthusvami Dikshitar who himself was a composer, mainly the Varnas and Ragamalikas.

A name synonymous with the Varna is, of course, Pachimiriyam Adiyappayaa, composer of the famous Bhairavi Varna Viriboni. Today, the two types of Varnas namely Pada Varna and Tana Varna are differentiated on the basis of the existence of Sahitya for the svaras passages in the former and the lack of the same in the later.

Varna compositions

This is definitely a later development. Originally, both these forms had sahitya for the svara passages and the difference between them was in the far more fluid padam style structuring of the pallavi and anupallavi in the padavarna vis a vis a rigid structuring in the Tana Varna. It is also important to note that Varnas of that period concluded by connecting the Charana with the Pallavi.

The later Varna compositions have done away with this structure. One of the early composers of the Sringara Padas post-Kshetrayya seems to have been Giriraja Kavi who adorned the courts of the early Marathas rulers.

He composed numerous Sringara Padas and even employed Desiya ragas like Brindavani. Other composers immediately after him who used the Sringara Pada form were Vasudeva Kavi, Soma Kavi and Rama Bharathi.

There were many composers who followed suit and composed Shringara Pada, Varna, Svarajathi and Keertanas. This includes composers like Kavi Mathrubhutayya, Pallavi Gopalayya, Sonti Venkatasubbiah, Arunachala Kavirayar, Muthu Thandavar, Papavinasa Mudaliar, and Margadarshi Seshaiyengar. In many cases, the music of the composers mentioned above is lost or very few are available.

The Maratha kings themselves were prolific composers including Shahaji, Thulaja I, Ekoji II, Sarabhoji II who composed numerous padas, musical operas, Kuravanji's, Daru, yakshagana etc.

The watershed moment, of course, is the advent of Tyagaraja, Muthusvami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. It is interesting that, in the period before these three, there were svarajatis, Tana Varnas and keertanas composed but we are not sure where they were exactly used. We know that most other compositional forms were probably used in dance and that there were musical operas composed and performed. Even accounts of musical contests that we hear about only relate to elaboration of Ragas or Pallavi contests. Therefore, what an art music performance consisted of is an unanswered question. In the period of the Nayak kings it is evident that the Chaturdandi form was presented both in a vocal and vina presentation. But in the period after this the musical forms are more operatic and dance related.

The Musical Trinity of Tyagaraja, Muthusvami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri were very different from one another. We do notice that Syama Sastri seems like the traditionalist among the three with most of his compositions being in ragas that are found in older treatises. The exceptions in his case are only Chintamani and Kalgada. Muthusvami Dikshitar, unlike his father, concentrated on the Keertana form and even improvised on it with the Pallavi/Anupallavi structure Keertana. He remained loyal to the Venkatamakhin tradition and gave form to most ragas mentioned in the Ragalakshana attributed to Muddu Venkatamakhin.

Tyagaraja was an innovator who created ragas and broke away from older ragas. In fact, the main reason the treatise Sangraha Choodamani has validity is because of the compositions of Tyagaraja in many of the ragas mentioned in the treatise that are not found earlier. We also need to mention Gopalakrishna Bharathi, a very important and significant composer who was a junior contemporary of the Trinity.

The post-Trinity period saw many composers, some disciples of the trinity who themselves became prolific composers of Keertanas, Varnas, Thillanas, Swarajathis, Jathiswarams, Shabdams and Javali (which is a post-Trinity form). This included composers like Subbaraya Sastri, the Tanjore Quartet, Patnam Subramanya Iyer, Veena Kuppaier and many others.

Even in the post-Trinity period, it does seem that very few compositions were sung in art music presentations but by the turn of the century (1900), it's evident that Tyagaraja Keertanas had become popular due to the extensive use of the same in Harikatha expositions and entered concert music. Compositions of Muthusvami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri gained prominence only slowly but nevertheless by the early periods of the 20th century, the Keertana content in concerts had become as important as manodharma sangeetha including many other composers in the presentation.

The objective of the present series was only to give an introduction to the musical history in India from the angle of Carnatic music and therefore at times, I have been unable to go into the nuances or details. It is evident that music has obviously developed and changed at multiple layers due to multiple influences and is not a result of linear connection of dots. Today we view tradition either as what we learn from our teachers/schools of music or our sense of tradition, begins with the 20th century. Both these standpoints are incomplete. An understanding of tradition within the larger canvas of musical changes over centuries is needed to actually give us a far clearer picture of where we stand today and why we stand here. For those who believe that tradition is only a weak link, a deeper study into history only reveals that tradition is a strong but hidden link that needs to be unravelled. As musicians, we must look into the past; and understand its nature and influence on the present before we try creating the future.

I must finally thank the numerous scholars whose work I continue to study to improve my understanding of our history. I must specifically thank Dr. N. Ramanathan and Dr. R.S. Jayalakshmi for helping me put this series together.

The writer is a Chennai-based Carnatic vocalist.


In the article “Centred upon centuries” in the Magazine dated January 23, 2011, it must read “The Maratha rulers of Thanjavur were also major contributors to musicology” and not as published.

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