Language old and new!

Laudable effort: Vasundhra Rajagopal.

Laudable effort: Vasundhra Rajagopal.  


The words are difficult to crack but once set to music they mesmerise.

Surinditta chenkezh ulaip-pongarimaa

Tolaiyaip-piriyaadu chendreydi eidaadu

Irinditt-idang-kondu adangaata tanvaai

Irukooru seida Perumaan...

Sorry, but I can’t make even a rough translation of the above lines from ‘Periya Tirumozhi,’ the magnum opus of the eighth-century Tamil poet-saint Tirumangai Azhwar — which figured (along with extracts from the spiritual poetry of some of his peers) in a thematic Carnatic music recital by Vasundhra Rajagopal at Hamsadhwani in Chennai recently.

And mind you, I happen to be a true Tamil who used to score very high marks in the Tamil exams as a young student, and am well aware of ancient Tamil literary traditions. And yet, all I can say about these lines — and that too, only because I am looking at them in the given context! — is that they have something to do with the trials and triumph of Lord Rama.

The collective works of the twelve venerable Azhwars, who are believed to have lived and written devotional poetry in the course of the 4th to the 8th centuries, are known as the ‘Naalaayira Divya Prabandham’ (4,000 Sacred Verses) dedicated to Lord Vishnu in His many manifestations, one of which is His incarnation as Rama. And most of the texts of our ancient Tamil poets are extremely difficult to understand; they always need a clear translation, and sometimes even an annotation, to aid our comprehension.

Attending an all-Tamil music recital so soon after an all-Telugu session exclusively featuring Annamacharya’s songs (‘Distinctly mellifluous,’ Friday Review, April 3) was a quantum jump really, marking a U-turn from the silky smoothness of Telugu to the guttural sounds of Tamil. But what made a special impression on me is that although I don’t know Telugu too well, I found it much easier to understand the 15th-century lyrics of Annamayya than the 4th-to-8th-century texts of the Azhwars.

Language no barrier

Of course, on several occasions in recent months I have expressed the conviction that language is never a barrier to fine music. Citing the examples of the German and Latin lyrics of the great oratorios ‘St. John Passion’ and ‘St. Mathew Passion’ by Bach and ‘Via Crucis’ by Liszt, and the nostalgic songs of the Portuguese urban folk music tradition known as Fado, I had pointed out that if the music is great and if we are merely aware of its context, our ignorance of the language and the actual lyrics wouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the music or even letting it move our spirit intensely (Musicscan, >, March 21, June 13 and June 27, 2008).

The Azhwars were poet-saints and not composers of music. But some talented and enterprising musicians of our times have undertaken to set some of the ancient Tamil poetry to Carnatic music. The most notable example of this kind of venture (which can be quite an adventure, really!) is provided by the superb musical arrangements for Tiruppugazh made and disseminated by Delhi-based R.S. Raghavan.

Vasundhra Rajagopal in Chennai is engaged in a similar activity, a specific area of her interest being the sacred verses of the Azhwars. Among other things, she presents in musical terms a series of stanzas extracted from their poetry and strung together by the scholar Periyavachan Pillai under the title ‘Naalaayira Divya Prabandha Paasurappadi Ramayanam.’ Selecting a suitable raga for each of the stanzas (33 in all) and arranging the musical score for all of them must have been a tremendous effort which deserves recognition.

Moreover, Vasundhra achieves excellence as a singer also, with a pleasing voice and a clear melodic vision. And particularly with the fine violin interludes provided by Usha Rajagopalan in the Hamsadhwani recital, she easily broke through the language barrier and held the close attention of a large audience in spite of the obscure lyrics.

Chaucer’s English

Thinking about these intricacies of language old and new makes me think of the way English was spelt and must have sounded long before it had evolved into its present written and spoken forms. Take the case of Middle English, the medium of Geoffrey Chaucer, the most famous medieval English poet who lived in the 15th century. The Prologue from his best-known work ‘The Canterbury Tales’ begins like this:

‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour Of which vertu engendred is the flour...”

(When April with its sweet showers Has pierced the drought of March to the root, And drenched every vein in such liquid By virtue of which blossoms the flower...)

And if you wish to hear some authentic audio samples of Middle English, just search online for ‘Canterbury Tales YouTube,’ and you can hear some excellent recitations and even some music set to Chaucer’s poems. But Chaucer’s English is more like Annmacharya’s Telugu so far as resemblance to the language of the 20th century is concerned. To find an English parallel to the Tamil texts of our Azhwars and their ancestors, one must go back several more centuries to their own times, when the language of England was Anglo-Saxon, or Old English.

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