The four pillars of vocal music

Sumitra Vasudev.Photo: Special arrangement  

In a recent series of lecture-demonstrations organised by Sruti magazine and The Music Forum, Sumithra Vasudev delineated the essence of the treatise Chaturdandi Prakashika of Venkatamakhi.

Explaining the meaning of the title as illuminating the four pillars for practising vocal music — alapa, thaya, geeta and prabandha — in the author's time around 1620 C, she noted that there were separate dandis for vadya and natya as mentioned by Venkatamakhi himself. She restricted her presentation to the text of the treatise.

Also referred to as Venkata or Venkateswara, Venkatamakhi was born to Govinda Dikshita and Nagamamba. Govinda Dikshita, a minister during the period of Nayak Kings especially of Raghunatha Nayak was a scholar and was the author of Sangita Sudha . Venkatamakhi presents his elder brother Yagnanarayana Dikshita as a learned personality and an expert in many sastras in the treatise. He mentions Tanappacharya as his parama guru in his work. He also had illustrious disciples such as Rajachudamani Dikshitar and Neekanta Sastri.

The four dandis

Chaturdandi Prakashika which has ten prakaranams or chapters deal with the four forms of practising music in the 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th chapters. “According to a verse enumerating the contents at the beginning of the work, there is said to be 10 chapters but only eight chapters and two-thirds of the 9th chapter is available to us,” she said noting that the striking feature of Chaturdandi Prakashika is its practice-based approach.

While alapa is not set to any tala and does not have meaningful words, Venkatamakhi describes thaya as form in which a rhythmic flow is defined. Geetam is referred in a restrictive form where the sections of the song and the talas are mentioned. Prabandha can be related to today's keerthana and its variations. It is clearly defined as composed of six angas and four dhatus and has reference to Sangita Ratnakara of Sarngadeva, she said.

Singing phrases in Kambhoji, Sumithra explained Akshiptika and vidari that give the outline for alapa singing.

Genesis of Mela ragas

Sumithra spoke about the alankarams that the work documents, the 15 types of gamakas and four types of swarams — vadi samvadi, vivadi, anuvadi from the treatise. Moving ahead, Sumithra explained how Venkatamakhi defined the 22 srutis, scaled down the number of vikruti swaras to five and with seven suddha swarams, formed the basis for computing the mathematical scheme that gave rise to 72 melas. She pointed out, how he authoritatively stated that this rule would not be debated even if the three-eyed Siva challenged it.

According to Venkatamakhi, Mela raga should have all the seven swaras. But the term Mela mentioned by Venkatamakhi should not be confused with the melakarta scheme, we know of today. In the Mela prakaranam Venkatamakhi has mentioned that there were only 19 melas existed in his time and he created a mela and named it Simharavam (equivalent to today's Hemavati raga in the melakartha scheme). The other melas were only mathematically existing then, she mentioned.

Later, following this ideology, Muddu Venkatamakhi, said to be Venkatamakhi’s descendant, created the system of Raganga ragas with the nomenclature Kanakambari, Phenadhyuti and so on. The work we know as Raga Lakshanam, mentions the names of the raganga ragas and has bare information of the janya ragas.

“Much later, Ramaswami Dikshitar, father of Muthuswamy Dikshitar learnt the contents of Chaturdandi Prakashika and passed on the manuscript and knowledge to his descendants Subbarama Dikshitar and his son Muthuswami Dikshitar from whom Subramanya Sastri, a scholar in Sanskrit sourced the work and the publication what we have through the Music Academy today came to us,” she said tracing the history.

‘Sangraha Chudamani’ of Govindacharya describes the Melakartha system with Kanakagi, Rathnagi as nomenclature mentions that all the seven swaras should be in the order both in ascent and descent. Whereas, in Raganga raga system, the rule is that the seven swaras should be present in a raga put together. She concluded saying, “In spite of many debates, the 72 melakartha raga system exists because of Venkatamakhi and Chaturdandi Prakashika .”