“Does 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!
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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) :
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
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) ?