Classical notes: Songs aplenty


"Sargam!" Amma called out.

Sargam came down the stairs. "Gosh Amma, you scared me. How did your voice become so harsh?"

"I have a cold. Therefore I have a bombaka voice."

"What do you mean? A bombaka voice?" Sargam laughed.

"Well, that is how Sarngdeva in his Sangita Ratnakara defines harsh voices," explained Amma.

"Hey! Isn't that the same book that you once told me was like an encyclopaedia?"

"Yes, it sure is like one," said Amma and continued. "Sarngdeva's family was originally from Kashmir but had moved to Devagiri in Deccan. He worked as an accountant in the court of the Yadava King Jaitrapala, but his passion, was music. He was also a Sanskrit scholar and he wrote a wonderful book in Sanskrit on music called the Sangita Ratnakara. It has seven chapters and five thousand verses. In these chapters he talks in detail about swaras, ragas, prabandhas, gamakas, talas, instruments and even about dance."

"Wow! He certainly sounds like superman doesn't he?"

"Well, he did say that he did not have any doubts on the subject and called himself as Nissanka Sarngadeva-meaning Sarngdeva without doubts." Amma continued. "He talks about the way in which sound is produced in the body, and Sargam, where is your friend Sruti? I want to tell her the Sarngadeva talks about 22 srutis."

"Gosh, 22 srutis!" Thought Sargam, one was bad enough.

"Sruti is the smallest musical sound that one can hear. It is out of these srutis that swaras are born."

"Different types and combinations of swaras give birth to different ragas." Sargam added in a singsong manner. By now she had learnt quite a few songs from her teacher and Amma had also taught her about carnatic music through her lovely stories.

"Clever girl, can you guess how many ragas has he named?" Amma quizzed.

"Maybe 50?" Sargam lingered on the word hesitatingly.

"Way off mark Sargam, the answer is 253 ragas. Of course, now we have a little more than 2000 ragas," said Amma and Sargam pretended to faint.

"More ragas naturally meant more songs and more songs meant more composers and Sarngdeva talks in detail about these. You remember Sargam, I had earlier told you that songs called prabhandas were popular in those times. They had four sections. It was this which gradually shaped into today's songs with three parts-the beginning, the middle and the concluding section."

"It is called the pallavi, empallavi and charanam Amma, have you forgotten?" Said Sargam with a mischievous glint in her eye.

"And he says that composers are those who compose both the words and the tunes for a song..."

"Naturally Amma, because one who composes only the words is called a poet," Sargam interrupted and added, "You know Amma, for the class talent show we are having a five instrument orchestra and the song has a very lively rhythm." Sargam demonstrated it on the table.

"Lovely Sargam, do you realise that it is the tala which disciplines a song? And even in those days Sarngdeva talks about so many varieties of tala and many, many varieties of percussion instruments like mrdanga, mardala and so on. He devotes a whole chapter to the different kinds of musical instruments. And with various combinations of those instruments, they had different kinds of orchestras."

As Amma talked, Sargam imagined herself singing to the accompaniment of many instruments. She heard Amma saying "Sargam, you know carnatic music is rarely sung flat. The swaras are sung with beautiful movements of the voice called gamakas and Sarngdeva says there are fifteen varieties of such gamakas. He concludes the book with a chapter on dance."

"Sargam! Are you daydreaming?"

"I had gone into the world of Sarngdeva; you startled me with that bombaka voice of yours Amma," said Sargam laughing.