Sogasuga Mrdanga Talamu

MridangamDoes Carnatic music really need lyrics? Isn’t it better off without them?” I was asked recently.  This was not the first time I have heard comments dismissing the sahitya in Carnatic Music (CM).  Some make comparisons with Western Classical Music where there are no lyrics at all or Hindustani Classical Music where the lyrics play a much more minor part than in CM.

CM performances are a balance between the kalpita sangeeta (composed music, including lyrics) and the kalpana sangeeta (improvised music). The musicians show their own creativity and expertise in the kalpana sangeeta and therefore in their eyes it may take on a higher level of importance.  T.M.Krishna says in this interview that ‘the lyrical element of a composition is subordinate to the musicality of it’ and gives a very convincing demonstration to make his case. From an instrumentalist’s point of view, flautist Janardanan says in an interview that he would have a wider audience if the emphasis was not on playing kritis.

I am not a musician; I am a mere untutored shrota. To me, it seems as if the kalpita sangeeta is like the foundation and the girders of a building to which the musician add soaring facades and features with their notes. What would that building be without a foundation? Ragas don’t have a stand-alone existence in my world; instead ragas invoke sahitya and sahitya invoke ragas. And both invoke real life memories. When I see an aarati being performed on an auspicious occasion, kurinji springs forth in my mind as I sing ‘Seeta Kalyanam Vaibogame’ to myself. If someone casually asks ‘yaar adu?’ (who is that) my mind questions itself in bhairavi, singing ‘yaaro ivar yaaro, enna pero?’. If I hear abheri, I instantly say to myself ‘Nagumomu’; I did that even before I knew what nagumomu meant. As a great lover of CM, I cannot imagine it without its sahityam.

To make my case, I present the song Sogasuga Mrdanga Talamu by Tyagaraja in which he defines the components of a kriti (composition) as yati (the framework or pattern in which swaras and words are arranged), vishrama (peacefulness), true devotion, sweetness and navarasa or the nine moods (love, laughter, fury, compassion, aversion, terror, heroism, wonder, peacefulness). The songs, says Tyagaraja, should be imbued with the meaning of the Upanishads, have a purity of notes and sung to the accompaniment of mRdanga. It is evident that sahitya plays a central part in Tyagaraja’s definition of music; why should it be otherwise with us? There is a short lec-dem of this song here. Set to the energy infusing raga Sriranjani, it is a very popular song sung by many musicians.

To present this song today, I have chosen a rendition by Voleti Venkateshwarulu which I like very much. His pacing is brisk and energetic; one finds oneself nodding one’s head in happy resonance!

Alternative link : Click here

To contrast with the briskness, listen now to a leisurely exploration of the raga and song by M.D.Ramanathan. The song and raga take on another mood altogether. I was admittedly uncertain at first, wondering how Sriranjani would sound at such a pace, but now I am a convert..I like it very well indeed!

Footnote (Lyrics and Translation) :

Composer : Tyagaraja
Raga : Sriranjani
Language : Telugu

(Note: I do not speak Telugu; the lyrics have been validated aurally but the translation is dependent on various web resources)

सॊगसुगा मृदङ्ग ताळमु
जत कूर्चि निनु सॊक्क जेयु धीरुडॆव्वडो

निगम शिरोर्थमु गल्गिन
निज वाक्कुलतो स्वर शुद्धमुतो

यति विश्रम सद्भक्ति विरति द्राक्षा रस नव-रस
युत कृतिचे भजियिञ्चु (alt: भजियिञ्चे) युक्ति त्यागराजुनि तरमा श्री राम

Transliteration :

sogasugA mRdanga tALamu
jata kUrchi ninu sokka jEyu dhIruDevvaDO

nigama shirOrthamu galgina
nija vAkkulatO swara shuddhamutO

yati vishrAma sad-bhakti virati drAkshA rasa nava rasa-
yuta kRtichE bhajiyinchu (alt: bhajiyinchE) yukti tyAgarAjuni taramA shrI rAma


Who (evvaDO) is the wise one (dhIruDu) who enchants you (ninu sokka jEyu) by charmingly (sogasugA) harmonizing (jata kUrchi) the beat (tALamu) and the drum (mRdanga)?

With true (nija) words (vakkulatO) conveying (galgina) the highest meaning (shirOrthamu)  of the Upanishads (nigama) in pure notes (swara shuddhamutO)?

Is it possible (taramA) for Tyagaraja to worship you (bhajiyinchu) by creating kritis (kRitichE) endowed with (yuta) yati (a pleasing framework),  vishrAma (peacefulness), true devotion (sad-bhakti), caesura or pauses in verse(virati), sweetness like grape juice (drAksha rasa) and the nine moods (nava rasa) ?


Filed under Carnatic Music, Compositions in Telugu, Tyagaraja

21 responses to “Sogasuga Mrdanga Talamu

  1. K Ramesh

    Before I started following this blog I was strictly in the “no lyrics” camp. In fact I thumbed my nose at any theory of music and pontificated that if the music was nice to listen to, that was all that mattered.

    Now I see it differently , thanks to you. “Knowing” a little bit enhances the experience. Understanding the meaning of the lyrics adds a flavour to the enjoyment. It doesn’t help that most of the lyrics are in languages I do not understand, but when a krithi has been discussed in this forum, it tends to stick in the mind.

    On a slight tangent, indeed the mridanga is “sogasuga” to listen to when in the hands of a talented player. And there is an abundance of expert players nowadays – right from the venerable Sivaraman to a whole host of the next and third generation of players. In the last music season in Bangalore there were many scintillating thanis (which made it all the more galling to see the exodus at the start of the thani). One memorable thani by K V Prasad is fresh in the mind.

    • I think Ramesh that for listeners who are not too familiar with the music, the instrumental renditions are much more easier to appreciate. In fact, when I started introducing CM to my son, I started by recommending certain instrumentals. He actually didn’t like the vocals. But after becoming more and more familiar with the music, he tells me now that he much prefers vocals. And this when he doesn’t really understand even one Indian language!!

      Indeed there we have some excellent mridangam players, don’t we? I struggle, frankly, with understanding complicated kanakkus; I prefer to just be a ‘dumb listener’. I don’t understand how people can walk out like you say – how disrespectful to the artist! One need not have knowledge, one need not have appreciation, but surely one can manage a bit of good manners? Sigh!
      Cheers. Suja

  2. Great post! I also like lyrics very much. To me, it adds meaning to music. But there are others who find adequate enjoyment in the moods and rhythms of the music and find no need for superimposed meaning. To some of them, lyrics may seem like an impurity mixed into the purity of wordless sound!
    I guess it depends on whether one prefers to enjoy music cerebrally + viscerally or just viscerally. It might be a left brain, right brain thing.
    There is another aspect. If bhakti music is a form of meditation and if thoughts are a hurdle to meditation and further if thoughts feed on words, then the question is: do lyrics serve to reduce or increase thoughts? I don’t know – it may depend on the person 🙂

    • Thank you for your very interesting comment Sriram. It is interesting that even though you like lyrics, you consider ‘wordless sound’ as ultimately more ‘pure’!! Is that true, I wonder? Is a perfect Shadjam – a sound wave produced at a certain frequency – any different in purity depending on the instrument which produces them ? For surely, the voice box is just another instrument?
      You have a point about the meditative quality of music – I find both Hindustani Music and Instrumental Music more meditative for I don’t get disturbed by the words. On the other hand, I find Carnatic Music to be more Bhakti inducing. You are right, finally it all depends on the individual!

      • >>the voice box is just another instrument
        You know I was thinking exactly the same thing after I posted my comment. And then it struck me, voice does not mean the same thing as words e.g. I love elaborate aalapanas

        btw, I don’t mean to pass any sort of judgement when I say purity (who am I to do so). It just that when we take one aspect as a foundation, other aspects seem like adjuncts. e.g. in reading poetry, lyrics are the foundation and the intonations are the adjunct.

        Thanks for your reply and for your superb blog.

  3. Carnatic music without sahitya is like Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark! If you leave out Tyagaraja ‘s words from “Sogasuga…” what are you left with?

    • 🙂 Well, the raga alapana and the kalpana swarams in Sriranjani, I suppose – which I truly enjoy but yes, I agree, it is rather like Hamlet without the Prince 🙂 Cheers. Suja

  4. Jay

    Hello Suja,

    You have researched this topic well that needs to be commended. The lecdem and the links were particularly insightful.

    Art is primarily creative expression contrasted with mimesis. The poet’s
    creativity that went into making the poetry becomes a static base upon which the musician layers the creative expression, which is a dynamic act such that no two renditions are exactly the same. Here for both CM and HM, the avenue for expression (in its extremely simplified form) is through the ragam structure. The rendition of a raga by the exponent, distinct from a composition, which I will address later is akin to the sanskrit poet. There’s a sense of impersonality. In classical sanskrit poetry, the removal of the person was not a limitation, rather an opportunity for freedom and used to convey suggestions. A similar expressive mode is inherent in the contours of the ragam. When Krishna says “the aesthetic movement in my own experience at that point drives me to move there” – he alludes to space, which is a temporal zone. In my own limited experience, I find it far easier to imitate and sing (have you heard of the great Kishore Kumar’s intro to Shivaranjani from RDB ?), whereas while playing the veena, once I get the geetam identified with the ragam, there’s a certain freedom and accompanying joy in meandering outside the confines of the exact song yet staying within bounds. The verse has a structure, grammar and meter that needs to be congruent to the rendition in the composed final product.

    Music appreciation in general starts as a sensate experience (simple sounds and its qualities), moving on to an analogic mode where identifications based upon patterns (your examples) and then progressively to the most complex analytic mode where the attention becomes more discerning. Depending upon the shrota they dwell in the realm between the analogic and analysis mode. The artiste meanwhile use analogy mode to kick start and reach the more complex stage in an attempt to realize the potential they feel viscerally to fulfil their creative whim. If you think about it, sometimes when you sift through your mind, the words of any verse of a song, as you dwell upon brings forth a clarity and admiration in your own self. That same verse when rendered in a song, depending upon a host of factors may not carry that same impact. And those associations you describe, I think those are borne out of our accumulated experiences that
    have left an impression. Many years back, a colleague at work, a westerner quite interested in percussion, didn’t find our panoply of Indian percussions remarkable.

    Changing gear, would you know the kriti of Purandaradasa that is referred to by Sri Seshadri that has the profound phrase from the kathopanishad (aNor aNeeyan, mahato maheeyaan), i.e. subtler than the subtlest, …


    • Oh Wow Jay, what an erudite comment! Thank you for taking the time to write; your thoughts adds many interesting facets to the topic.

      You have pointed out that music appreciation goes through multiple stages, from a purely sensate experience, to analogic and then analytic. I would like add that the shrota would normally cycle through all these ways of appreciation within a concert, even within a single kriti. For me personally, the alapana is always a sensate experience where I allow my mind to come into focus, eliminating all other distractions. At the end of the alapana, the mind is primed for the next step. The sahitya takes me into the analogic frame of mind, remembering words, remembering other performances, remembering events, adding this event to the sum total of my experience. Instead of just absorbing passively as I do during an alapana, I am a more active listener, often singing ahead in my mind, adding to my pleasure in being a participant. When it comes to kalpana swarams or nerval, this is when I turn my analytic self to come forth. I listen with interest to the musical structures formed, trying to analyse and predict future patterns, adding the patterns to the font of knowledge I have about the raga. I am not that different to others I think; perhaps everyone has their own way of traversing between the modes of music appreciation. TMK was asked in his interview if he would envisage an alapana only concert, and he said why not? Your ‘modes of music appreciation’ is the reason for not having an alapana only concert; we shrotas don’t want to be in only one mode of listening but want to traverse all the modes with joy.

      As to the phrase Sri Seshadri has used (smaller than the atom, greater than infinity) it is from Jagadodharana.

      Cheers. Suja

    • Kishore singing Shivaranjani? The first thing that comes to mind if Mere Naina Sawan Badhon…did you mean this or something else? A bit of googling…and I found this –

      • Jay

        Thanks Suja for the kriti. I never knew that Jagadodharana had this phrase tucked in it!

        Yes, it is ‘mere nainan saawan bhadon’. It has been told that RDB approached Kishore and said, there’s this song in Shivranjini and Kishore said “raag kee aisee kee thaisee, tum pehle Lata ku gavao” With great hesitancy RDB followed through, and then Kishore listened to Lata’s rendition and perfected it. Isn’t it interesting that the male version has been more popular. On Shivranjini, it’s interesting to play mere nainan (with additional N2), tere mere beech mein, jaane kahaan – which is most true to ragam. If you notice all these songs have shades of melancholic hue wrapped around. There was a wonderful composer in Malayalam, Raveendran who has a beautiful song that does not share the same mood : One of his masterful composition ends up paying tribute to sangeetham: I found this list of Raveendran’s songs organized by ragam:

        You are not an average listener by any measure and qualify as a critic.
        The conventions that have been established have a social context too. Today’s concerts are essentially based upon the ‘kutcheri dharma’ propounded by Sambamoorthy primarily to standardize on a format and get more of listeners engaged.

      • Thanks Jay for the links; will certainly explore them when I can. Cheers.

      • Thanks for the links Jay. I will explore them when I return back home from my holiday. Sounds interesting!

  5. eeshwar1

    Hi Suja, Excellent Post. Words are as important to a song as the musical notes as they provide color/dimension to the emotions evoked by the plain notes. While the musical notes alone could still be music, it will be more discernible/enjoyable for the people through the words that accompany them. Also, there is the beauty of the poetry itself.

    P. S. There seems to be a typo here “CM performances are a balance between the kalipta sangeeta (composed music, including lyrics)”, I think you meant Kalpita instead of Kalipta..

    • Thank you! It seems that our thoughts are on sync in this matter 🙂 Indeed words add colour and dimension, well put!

      Thank you for pointing out the typo; I read my words so many times to edit/correct and yet some mistakes slip past! Much obliged 🙂
      Cheers. Suja

  6. srinin

    This is a debate that will never be resolved. I think there cannot be a rigid rule on what music is and how it should be performed or enjoyed. All art is personal in the sense that the creator of the art defines it the way he/she sees it. Thus the complete contrast between Saint Thyagaraja and Sri TM Krishna.

    Similarly, the ‘shrota’ (in the case of music) also differs. The way they enjoy music. Some need words and meaning; for some musicality is the preference.

    I have a similar background to yours – brought up in a house where sisters were learning music and so practicing at home and a regular stream of music teachers visiting home. A brief attempt to learn it (violin) met with lots of obstacles and had to give up. So settled down to hearing music (mostly CM) thereafter.

    So, I prefer music with ‘text. as TM Krishna puts it. But I can understand that music is beyond language and words and compositions and when it is not CM, I can enjoy it sans ‘sahitya’. I am sure it is the case with a large number of rasikas.

    • You are right- music in all its states- the creation, the performance and the appreciation – is a personal experience and each individual will have their own ideas on what is good or bad. My son sometimes plays some very odd music on his guitar which sounds completely ‘abaswaram’ to me, yet I know his music is much appreciated by his peers 🙂 I was merely stating my personal preference and appreciation of sahitya in CM. But as you say, for each one of us who appreciate sahitya in CM, there will be another who doesn’t!
      Cheers. Suja

      • srinin

        Yes, ‘music’ means different things to different people. It is like ‘saguna brahmam’ and ‘nirguna brahmam’ in the Hindu philosophy. Some time back I was hearing a piece “100 gypsy violins”. It was so nice even though there were no words to it as it was an orchestra of violins.

        Yet, when it comes to CM, words/sahitya add another dimension to the experience!

  7. srinin

    I was thinking about music sans sahityam some more and then it struck me… how many listeners of CM really understand all the sahityam? Tamil rasikas of Thyagaraja krithis or Purandaradasa devarnamas; Telugu rasikas of Papanasam Sivan; Kannadigas of Arunachala Kavi; and any of these of Muthuswamy Dikshithar’s Sanskrit compositions except the names of deities, locations and a few adjectives like ‘karuna nidhi’, ‘bhaktha vatsala’ etc.
    Given this, how much do we really need sahityam to enjoy CM? What do you think?

    • A very valid point there. In fact, I myself have taken interest in the meaning of kritis only for the last so many years; until then I was happy enough to listen to CM and pick whatever meaning I could and kind of guess the rest (very wrongly in most cases!). So there is no barrier to enjoying CM without understanding the lyrics. However, that is different from having NO lyrics. Even when I do not understand the words, I love the sound and rhythm of the words and the bhakti bhava which the words invoke. Plus I like the changes in the texture of the sound as the song progresses through alapana-sahityam-neraval-swarams. As an example, take something very familiar like Jagadanandakaraka. Frankly, the translation is too long for me to keep it all in mind, even though I do remember the gist of the matter. But still, when I hear an instrumental version, my mind brings in remembered phrases from the song and my experience is enhanced by these partly meaningless syllables in my mind. But of course, I cannot and do not claim that others experience CM in the same way; this is just my own personal view.

      • srinin

        In one of your posts in this thread of comments, you have described the sensate, analog and analytic modes of experiencing music within a song itself in response to Jay’s scholarly exposition on the topic. I have never looked at this type of analysis but I agree I travel the same passage as you do! I am wondering how many of us do the same and we would all agree that nobody coached us into this way of appreciating CM!

        In a way perhaps, TMK gets answered in this. That variety is the spice of life and music appreciation too. And hence an alapana-only concert may not draw much audience. It is like going to a feast and having only one type of dish, say sweet items, only being served. In which case it is not an unwillingness to experience newer forms of the art but the monotony of modes of experience that keeps us from warmly embracing the new format.
        I am not sure if I am extending the logic of phased appreciation to defend the current kutcheri format! 😛 Surely I am willing to savor an alapana only concert once a while though. 🙂

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