Reimagining Sangam-era songs with a Carnatic touch

T.M. Krishna and Perumal Murugan find the Carnatic music connection in Sangam Literature

Updated - February 14, 2024 04:27 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 04:17 pm IST - CHENNAI:

Finding the Song in Sangam Poetry: T.M. Krishna in conversation with Perumal Murugan at The Hindu Pavilion held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on January 26, 2024.

Finding the Song in Sangam Poetry: T.M. Krishna in conversation with Perumal Murugan at The Hindu Pavilion held at Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao concert hall in Chennai on January 26, 2024. | Photo Credit: B .Jothi Ramalingam

Carnatic singer T.M. Krishna and Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, who have collaborated recently in Introducing Sangam Poetry into Carnatic music said the work was important because it engages with contemporary politics and makes Sangam works accessible to today’s world.

The duo, who are long-time collaborators, took part in a bilingual session ‘Finding the song in Sangam Poetry’ during the first day of The Hindu Lift Fest 2024 at The Hindu Pavillion, near Sir Mutha Venkatasubba Rao Concert Hall, in Chennai on January 26.

Infusing Sangam poetry into the Carnatic repertoire

“We believe it is important because it offers alternative themes for Carnatic music and a moving space, bringing back ideas from the past that have resonance for contemporary politics. It also has very important thoughts on caste,” said Mr. Krishna, who went on to sing the lines Semmannil Peitha Mazhi Pole, a Sangam poetry rendered into a keerthana format by Mr. Murugan.

Mr. Murugan explained that today caste has emerged as an important subject, but a Tamil song penned 2,000 years ago talks about a love affair between two, who were not relatives, not from the same place, not from the same background, but attracted to each other and came together like how rainwater acquires the colour of the red sand on which it falls.

Breathing space

Dealing with the question whether a composition set to a raga alone could be called Carnatic music, Mr. Krishna, the Magsaysay award winner, felt that a composition should give a breathing space for a musician to fly with it. “Some of the compositions in this Sangam collection give me the breathing space whilst others may not,” he said and sang Mullaimalare Yen Poothai, a Puranaanooru song, set to Mukari raga to explain that it gave him the space to improvise (niraval).

On the other hand, he had struggled to tune Iniavane, a recreation of Avvaiyar’s poem in praise of Athiyaman, one of the philanthropist kings, since it refused to fit into the traditional Carnatic music keerthana format.

When Mr. Krishna said one of the things that was allowed in Carnatic music was expansion of small vowel, Mr. Murugan said one had to be careful while pronouncing Tamil words because this could result in a change in the meaning as in the case of the word Kelir in the song Yaathum Oore Yaavarum Kelir. Kelir in this verse means relatives. If it is expanded, it would mean listen to.

In recreation, he had retained the old words and used modern words where the old world could not be understood by everyone.

Mr. Murugan also touched upon the difference between poetry and musical compositions. In poetry, he said the punchline that gives force to the theme is in the last line while in musical compositions it needs to be at the beginning. “The word Sempulapeyal neer pola is in the last line of the Sangam poetry and its recreation for musical composition started with the last line,” he said.

According to Mr. Krishna, rhyming was a very important aspect of Carnatic music and keerthanas in Telugu and Sanskrit had adopted it from Tamil, particularly from bhakti literature.

The interaction also explained the proximity between the Tamil society and nature and the song Therai Seluthu in which the hero advises his charioteer to hold the tongue of the bell as it would disturb the insects collecting nectar and mating. Mr. Krishna rendered the song set to Saranga raga in accord with the speed of the movement of the chariot.

Mr. Murugan also brought to the notice of the audience the Sangam literature keerthanas penned by Tamil poet Bharathidasan, padams by Thanjai Ponnaiah Pillai, the grandson of Ponnaiah Pillai of the Thanjavur Quartet and the Palli Sollukku Palanundu song of the late Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi, who borrowed the idea from the Sangam works.

Mr. Krishna said Bharathidasan also translated Thyagaraja’s Telugu keerthanas into Tamil though he was closely associated with the Dravidian Movement. “This shows us that we cannot stuff everyone into a box,” he said.

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