Nine brilliant Carnatic compositions on Devi

At seven in the morning, I eagerly looked forward to attending my music class. I was excited about having already learnt two compositions since my gurukulavasam with Dr. S. Ramanathan began at his Triplicane residence. That morning, my guru started with an awe-inspiring Saveri alapana before teaching ‘Durusuga’ by Syama Sastri, a majestic composition that highlights the regal beauty of goddess Tripura Sundari. Though it has three charanams, it’s only the last mudra charanam that is usually sung. The composer pleads for a disease-free life, an apt song for the pandemic. The anupallavi describes her as an ocean of mercy, compassion, and the queen of Pranatharthihara, as Dharmasamvaddhani, and as Tripura Sundari. The first line of the anupallavi is a favourite for niraval singing. The play of words at ‘Bahu para kamalaguna’ is interesting. The first charanam describes the Pranava embodied (omkari). In the second charanam, Syama Sastri says that it is only She (Kamakshi) who can give him refuge as there is no one else equal to her. The composition has many swaraksharams, a trademark of Syama Sastri. The phrase ‘g r n’ in the swara sahityam leading up to the pallavi is unique.

Brilliant alapana

I once travelled with my guru for a concert in Bengaluru. At the hotel, he suddenly told me to bring the shruti box and taught me ‘Pahi parvatha’ in Arabhi, composed by Swati Tirunal. That evening at the concert, he sang the piece, prefixed by a brilliant alapana and suffixed with kalpanaswarams at ‘Pahi parvatha’ using swaraksharam at ‘pa’ of Pahi. The Arabhi in the pallavi itself is a work of art. The samskritam used by the royal composer is exquisite, with ‘Parvanendu’ (for the full moon), ‘kesari’ (for lions), and ‘ditijaali’ (for demons) uncommon words used in the kriti. The description of her locks dancing on her forehead is beautiful (chanchadali lalita alake). Here too there are three charanams, but only the last is usually sung. The composer’s usual mudra is not seen, but there is a reference to the kings of the Vanchi region.

Another kriti that has always amazed me is the Thodi Dhyana kriti of the Kamalamba Navavaranam series. Conventionally sung in Rupaka talam, this tisra eka composition by Muthuswami Dikshitar is power-packed in terms of sahitya and raga. The start of the pallavi on nishadam, and the meandering curves and embellishments spanning the madhya sthayi are noteworthy. I have always felt that Dikshitar has given a glimpse of his alapana style in this free-flowing Thodi. The gamakams are priceless. The word ‘Kamala’ is used throughout the pallavi and anupallavi, but carries a different meaning each time. Kamala-ambike refers to the goddess, Kamalasana refers to Brahma, Kamalalaya refers to the temple tank, and Kamalapade describes her lotus feet. The description of the goddess at macro and microcosmic levels sets the stage for the rest of the Navavarana compositions.

‘Sundari Ni’, the Kalyani kriti by Tyagaraja, extolled as one of the Tiruvotriyur Pancharatnam, is very special to me. It was the main piece in my debut concert at the Madras Music Academy in 1986. Tyagaraja has shared his ecstasy when he sees the goddess. The exciting start on the tara shadjam and the seamless glide of the raga in the word ‘Rupamunu’ and the way the Phalamo is tuned in the anupallavi is simply indescribable. There are three charanams in this kriti and it’s the second that is commonly sung. Tyagaraja talks of the goddess’ hridayaseva in the first two charanams.

Multiple tempos

‘Sankari nive’, by Subbaraya Sastri, is also among my favourites, in the raga Begada. This kriti lends itself to multiple tempos. Despite being a petite Rupaka tala kriti, if sung in vilamba kala, the kriti can sound like a majestic two kalai adi composition. The beginning phrase is wonderful. “Who else is there to protect me on this earth other than you? You are the only sankari and that is why I always seek you,” says the composer. The charana sahityam compiles the virtues of the Devi and the composer implores her to protect her devotees. In addition to the swara sahityam, a trademark of Subbaraya Sastri, there is also a beautiful madhyamakala sahityam. The first part of the swara sahityam has a lovely pattern while the second is entirely in madhyama kala. ‘Sri Kanchi Sadana’ is a challenging line to take up for niraval. The phrase rndp in both the octaves is found only in this kriti. I remember trying this out at a December season concert at The Mylapore Fine Arts Club.

Tiruvarur Ramaswami Pillai has composed only a handful of compositions, but each is a gem. One of them is ‘Ekkalathilum’ a Tamil composition in Purvikalyani. The slow gait, the meandering sangatis, and the wonderful sahityam have always brought tears of joy, even on a concert platform. The swara sahityam is sung only in slow tempo. The kriti starts with a unique phrase, gnddp. The composer has incorporated swaraksharams as observed in the swara sahityam. Both the phrases — gmds and dps — have been woven into this Purvikalyani tapestry. I learnt this from the legendary T. Muktha in the Veena Dhanammal style.

Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar is known for his compositions on Devi and my favourite is, ‘Ni padamula’, in Natabhairavi. The composition starts with swarakasharam ni pa da. The very first phrase establishes the Natabhairavi raga in which we do not find many kritis. This one is fragrant with pure Natabhairavi notes and swarupa. A charming composition with a myriad possibilities for inspirational manodharma. The kriti is in praise of goddess Kantimati and has the raga mudra excellently incorporated as an epithet in the charanam. The madhyamakala of the composition facilitates niraval singing especially in the anupallavi, ‘Gopala sodari gowri’.

Another favourite Devi kriti of mine, composed by Papanasam Sivan, is ‘Unnai allal’ in Kalyani. I particularly like the sahityam and the way he has used the raga to convey the emotion. The composer envisages the goddess as the producer, director, and screenplay writer of a drama called life. He says that he has been given a role to enact in this play and having done so, who can give him retirement other than the goddess herself?

How often do we hear a composition in Nayaki on the Nayaki of the universe? Well, Mayuram Viswanatha Sastri has composed one, set to Rupaka tala. I had the privilege of learning this from T.R. Vaitheeswaran, Viswanatha Sastri’s brother. The pallavi line establishes the raga amazingly. This composition is in praise of goddess Meenakshi. In the charanam, the composer has used gamakam ornamentation with the word ‘Pankaja’. For example, pankaja pada means lotus feet, pankajodbhava — brahma, panjakasana — lakshmi. The madhyamakala sahityam in the charanam flows with Nayaki phrases and also the raga mudra.

These are just nine from among the numerous beautiful compositions on Devi. These are the ones that I have always felt a connection with.

The author is a well-known Carnatic vocalist.

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