Personas & Masks. Are you wondering how I have come upon this rather unlikely topic for Carnatic Music? Well, I was listening to this beautiful kriti by Tyagaraja in which he asks of his God ‘Are you ridiculing me?’ and it struck me that prayer is something that strips us of all our masks, doesn’t it?
Saints or sinners, we will all admit to putting on one or more personas to get through life. Our work persona is quite different from our home persona which may again be different to our social persona. In fact, the Latin word persona means mask. Part of the need for masks is in response to society’s demands that we are seen to be ‘normal’, ‘cultured’, ‘business like’, ‘civilized’, etc. Part of it is our own deep-seated insecurities and shortcomings. Can we ever be our true selves even in front of our closest friends or family? I reckon not. Are we our true selves even in front of the mirror? Not always. There will always be some barrier, some veil behind which we hide.
Every now and then, when in deep grief and great fear, and especially in prayer, the veil drops and we are revealed for what or who we are. Even Meera sang once, साजि सिंगार बांधि पग घुंघरू लोक-लाज तजि नाची ‘dressing up, tying bells on my feet, I danced without embarrassment (shame)’. She had let her veil drop, physically and metaphorically, in her quest for God. Society mocked her then but reveres her now.
In Tyagaraja’s composition today, he is aware of having dropped the mask but is still uncertain about how he will be perceived, not by society but by God. ‘Are you ridiculing me?’ asks Tyagaraja to his Lord Rama. ‘Is my public extolling of you ridiculous?’. There he is, singing song after song, laying his heart at the feet of God for all to see, what if he was just making himself an object of ridicule? ‘If out of fear, out of doubt or out of grief, seeking you if I ask for refuge, will you mock me?’ says Tyagaraja. For lyrics and translation, see footnote.
I am very fond of this lovely composition, especially on the violin. But first listen to the majestic voice of the Maestro Maharajapuram Santhanam.
For an instrumental, I will pick my favourite instrument-the violin, by my favourite Maestro, Lalgudi Jayaraman. I have also excellent renditions by Kanyakumari and a masterly performance on the Veena by Jayanthi Kumaresh which I enjoy very much.
Footnote (Lyrics) :
Language : Telugu
As I do not speak Telugu, the song is transcribed in Devanagari script. Lyrics are from multiple internet sources, aurally verified.
परियाचकमा माट पदि गुरिलो पॊगडिनदि
वॆरपुननुमानम्बुन वॆसनम्बुन ने कोरि
शरणागत रक्षक निन्नु सन्ततमुनु शरणानग
ऒक मुनिकै द्रौपदि द्वारक निलया शरणानग
ऒक माटकु विभीषणुडु ओर्व लेक शरणानग
सकलेश्वर प्रह्लादुडु जालिचे शरणानग
हित करुणडै ब्रोचितिवे त्यागराजुनि माट
pariyAchakamA mATa padi gurilO pogaDinadi
verapunanumAnambuna vesanambuna nE kOri
sharaNAgata rakshaka ninnu santatamunu sharaNAnaga
oka munikai draupadi dwAraka nilayA sharaNAnaga
oka mATaku vibhIshaNuDu Orva lEka sharaNAnaga
sakalEshwara prahlAduDu jAlichE sharaNAnaga
hita karuNaDai brOchitivE tyAgarAjuni mATa
(based on internet sources)
Are my words ridiculous ? Is my public extolling of you ridiculous?
Out of fear, out of doubt and out of grief, seeking you always, if I say ‘give me refuge’ O Protector of those who seek your refuge, am I being ridiculous?
When Draupadi, fearing Durvasa, said ‘O resident of Dwaraka, give me refuge’, when Vibhishana, unable to bear the harsh words (implied, of Ravana his brother), said ‘Give me refuge’, when Prahlada, out of grief, said ‘Give me refuge’, did you not benevolently protect them? If so, are the words of this Tyagaraja ridiculous?
Footnote (Raga) :
The scales of Vanaspati are as follows :
Aarohanam (Ascending) : S R1 G1 M1 P D2 N2 S’
Avarohanam (Descending) : S’ N2 D2 P M1 G1 R1 S
Vanaspati is a the 4th raga on the Melakarta Scale.
There is a very similar raga in Dikshithar school called Bhanumati; the only difference is that it drops the G1 in the Aarohanam. Muthuswami Dikshithar composed three songs in this raga of which Guruguha Swamini is well known. Other than these, there are only a few lesser known compositions in these ragas. Like other vivadi ragas, this too had a moody effect on me.
Note : The 12 notes in the octave are named as below. Please note that C is used as Sa for the sake of simplicity as the scale is relative in Carnatic Music. Also note that the scales paint only a superficial picture of the raga as the gamakas(ornamentations) are a very important part of a raga.