A musical bridge across eras

If Chitravina N. Ravikiran has his way, couplets from the famous Tirukkural may soon be part of the Carnatic repertoire

Updated - March 21, 2016 12:28 pm IST

Published - March 19, 2016 04:39 pm IST

Chitravina N. Ravikiran has tuned the 1,330 couplets of the Tirukkural and made them concert-ready.

Chitravina N. Ravikiran has tuned the 1,330 couplets of the Tirukkural and made them concert-ready.

Last December, while preparing for his session at The Hindu Lit for Life 2016, Gopalkrishna Gandhi selected 34 couplets from the Tamil classic Tirukkural and asked musician Chitravina N. Ravikiran to set them to tune. Gandhi had just translated into English what he called “Tiruvalluvar’s undimming work,” written sometime between 2 BCE and 5 CE, and he felt a musical presentation would add sparkle to a discussion around one of the crown jewels of Tamil literature. Ravikiran did what was asked, but a few days later, he got thinking. Why stop with 34 couplets? Why not all 1,330? After all, this wasn’t his first brush with Sangam-era literature. Over a decade ago, for a dance drama titled ‘In the Long White Moonlight,’ in San Francisco, he’d tuned verses from the Agananooru and Purananooru . “My idea was to see whether I could maintain the integrity of Tiruvalluvar’s lines and still set it to music in a manner that is concert-ready,” he said over Skype from Minneapolis.

The challenge, thus, wasn’t simply about turning something to be read into something to be sung, but composing formal pieces in the pallavi-anupallavi-charanam format that can be performed on the Carnatic concert stage. Ravikiran felt that each group of 10 couplets — an Adhikaram — could be treated like a varnam or a kriti , with ample scope for the improvisatory parts ( niraval , kalapanaswaram ).

As an instance, he cited Adhikaram 65 (on Solvanmai , Power of Speech), which he tuned in Reethigowlai . Ravikiran did not elaborate, but take a look at the first couplet in this Adhikaram , which, in Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s translation, goes thus: ‘Of gifts that gifted ministers have the gift of the gifted tongue/Stands first, for on that one gift great schemes are hung.’ Note how the loop-de-loop revisits of the ‘g’ sound in the verse are reminiscent of the repetitions of ‘ga’ in the ascending and descending scales of the raga .

The Tirukkural is no stranger to the Carnatic cosmos. Composers like Mayuram Viswanatha Shastri and Ramani Bharadwaj have tuned these couplets, and singers like Chidambaram C.S. Jayaraman and M.M. Dandapani Desikar have performed full-fledged Tirukkural concerts. But the work existed in a distant orbit, rarely glimpsed. It was, in fact, at the cinema that many people heard the Tirukkural sung. K. Balachander’s banner, Kavithalaya, opened its films with the first couplet in the background, and it wasn’t until Ravikiran stumbled into a recording by Desikar that he realised someone had set this ancient text to Carnatic music.

To this primarily sedate music, Ravikiran added a dash of the swashbuckling when he announced he was going to tune all 1,330 couplets in under 50 hours. At first, this reminded people of his earlier feats of endurance — like the non-stop 24-hour concert in 1985 — when he was 18. “But this is different,” he said. “This is not some Guinness stunt.” This was cold, scientific calculation, the equivalent of a stuntman knowing exactly when to swerve the car in a lane of oncoming traffic. “I have composed over 700 pieces of Carnatic music. When I am in an inspired zone, I end up composing 8 to 10 songs a day. So, 50 hours was just a realistic estimate.” Then again, maybe it was not. He finished in 16 hours — which works out to about 83 couplets an hour, spread out over three days (January 12-14) — at the International Institute for Tamil Studies in Chennai. “I wanted a public place,” Ravikiran said, “so things would be transparent, and people could see for themselves how much time I took.” He isn’t just talking about those present at the venue. His students were giving live updates on Facebook, so the world could see the maestro perform without a safety net.

Like many English-medium-educated Tamilians, Ravikiran was not overly familiar with the Tirukkural . When he opened the text at this event was pretty much his first start-to-end reading. He turned to a page. A raga flashed in his mind. He went about bending the raga to the rhythm and metre of the words, the words to the contours of the raga . Ravikiran said, unsurprisingly, that it was an unconscious process, though he deliberately used lighter raga s like Neelamani and Ahir Bhairav in the romantic portions. (The Tirukkural is divided into three chapters: Being Good, Being Politic, Being in Love.) The last Adhikaram , however, posed little problem. As is custom in Carnatic concerts, it is in the Shreeraga .

Ravikiran has used Carnatic, Hindustani and folk scales. The final count of raga s came to 169 — typically one raga per Adhikaram , unless it was a ragamalika , with segues into several raga s. Sometimes, several tala s too. “ Tala is key here,” Ravikiran said, “to maintain the integrity of Tiruvalluvar’s metre, where the second line of the couplet is shorter than the first. Otherwise, it can sound very crowded in the first line and spaced out in the second.”

Ravikiran has sent scratch recordings of these compositions to 75 artistes, including Sudha Ragunathan, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Aruna Sairam, Sowmya, Unnikrishnan and Nithyasree Mahadevan — their rendering will eventually be loaded on YouTube.

It will be interesting to see if performers take to the Tirukkural the way they have to, say, the Tiruppavai , saint Andal’s verses in praise of Lord Vishnu, tuned definitively by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

Ravikiran said, “Carnatic music, by itself, never prescribes itself to be religious. It has been used as a medium for spreading religious and spiritual views, but (Subramania) Bharati’s songs are sung on stage too.” Case in point: ‘Chinnachiru kiliye’, in which the predominant emotion is love. “As an instrumentalist,” he said, “I know that music is bigger than religion or language. Whenever I play pure Carnatic music, whether in Brazil or China or Japan, people appreciate it. My idea was to bring the Tirukkural to the mainstream concert platform. I wanted to show it could be done."

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