A for Atana

The first in an alphabetic run through some lovely Carnatic ragas, and some of my favourite pieces in them

Vishnu Vasudev
5 min readOct 12, 2018

Ilalo Pranatarthi

One of my earliest introductions to Atana was Maharajapuram Santhanam’s rendition of the song Ilalo pranatharthi composed by Thyagaraja. It was from Music Today’s ‘Thyagaraja Masterpieces’ series (possibly one of Santhanam’s last recordings). I was just finishing school and getting into college — this was also the time that I really started getting into Carnatic music. The rush of energy I felt just made me go “whoa!”.

Maharajapuram Santhanam with Vellore Ramabhadran on mridangam. Other accompanists unknown. 1992

Ever since then, and for a long, long time, I listened to Atana every time I needed to get pumped up with energy and confidence — whether before an exam, interview or a match. After listening to Atana, my typical frame of mind is “This is me, I can do this.”

It is not surprising that Ilalo pranatharthi is in Atana. Thyagaraja is at the end of his tether in this song, at his combative peak, lashing out at Shiva in a no-hold-barred bout of emotional blackmail. There is nothing in this song that redeems Shiva — I would even argue that if he had composed the song in these times, he might have been booked for hurting the religious sentiments of someone or the other. It takes a lot of courage to take on Shiva like this, no wonder he chose Atana for the task.

Who gave you the name “praNatArtihara” (Remover of the sufferings of one who worship) and “shankara” (Meritorious) ?

There has been no compassion for me, lying prostrated at your feet like a dog, weakened, having waited so long.

Did I not prostrate with my hands, feet, chest, forehead and shoulders totouch the ground? did I not beseech You saying ‘Give me refuge’?

Oh Lord of the five rivers “Panchanadisha” (at Thiruvaiyaru), praised by Thyagaraja, [who gave you the name…]

Yet, as martial as the raga tends to be, filled with ‘veera rasa’ (caused largely by the rapid ascent and push with “ma-pa-ni” and an emphasis on the upper parts of the octave), the raga provides an unexpected scope for tenderness and reconciliation. And for me, it is almost impossible interplay of emotion that makes this raga so special.

Other Thyagaraja compositions

Thyagaraja has been prolific in this raga. Possibly the most popular song in Atana is his Ela nee dayaraadu. This is also called Balakanakamaya after the first line of its anupallavi. [It’s become customary to start this song with the anupallavi rather than pallavi]. The beauty of this song is in its syllabic structure and use of alliterations, which gives the song a pulsating energy. Here is a 1981 rendition by K.V. Narayanaswamy, with improvisation at “Ra ra devaadideva”.

K.V. Narayanaswamy (vocal) with Chalakudy Narayanaswamy (violin) and Palghat Raghu (mridangam). 1981

Anupama Gunambudhi sung by ML Vasanthakumari, with a short alapana preceding the song, and a bit of improvisation at “Rajakula kalashaabdi”. Given some of the “fast” passages in this composition, I imagine this song would be very difficult to play on an instrument like the veena, but I could be wrong.

A short Rama Naamamu by the inimitable Madurai Somu. There are few singers who can match him in consistently wringing out the emotional essence of a raga from any composition.

And finally, Chede Buddhi Maanura. I discovered this song only recently, while watching one of T.M. Krishna’s fantastic lecture-demonstrations for First Edition Arts. The recording below is by Vijay Siva. (the song starts at 5.45). One of the special features of this composition is that it starts on an off-beat just before the tala cycle begins.

Vijay Siva (vocal). Accompanists unknown.

Of Planets

Muthuswamy Dikshitar has very few compositions in Atana, and the only one I have come across is Brihaspathe Tarapathe. This is one of his Navagraha Krithis (Songs on the Nine ‘Planets’), and is on Brihaspathi (Jupiter). Dikshitar’s treatment of Atana is somewhat different to Thyagaraja’s in this song (and perhaps in his other compositions as well). It if far more leisurely and expansive. It can even be said to be surprisingly calming.

I am quite intrigued by Dikshitar’s use of ragas in his Navagraha Krithis. Atana, usually such an agitating or at least energetically provocative raga is used superbly to convey the majestic calm of Brihaspathi. Suruti, usually such a calm and poignantly reflective raga is used in Angarakam Ashrayamyaham (on Mars, literally the red-bodied one, and the God of War). Not at all intuitive choices — I’ve always thought that Suruti for Brihaspathe and Atana for Angarakam would have been more obvious choices. But then I listen to the songs and go “aah, wow!”. It’s like encountering a completely new flavour combination and wondering “how could the chef have possibly thought of that?”

Brihaspathe, sung by Malladi Suri Babu (with vocal support from Narayana Sharma):

A popular Purandara Dasa krithi that has been set to Atana (by whom, I don’t quite know)is Sakala Graha Bala Neene. This Kannada song is not really about the planets — quite the opposite — it attributes the strength of all the planets to Vishnu. [One artist who has sung this song very often and very well is T.V. Sankaranarayanan. His guru, Madurai Mani Iyer however never did, since he was an ardent devotee of the navagraha and thought singing the song would be insulting to them].

Here is the very young but very poised Rahul Vellal with his rendition:

A daughter, her father and two avatars of Vishnu

Old verses are often rendered in Carnatic ragas, either as structured compositions, and as vehicles for free-style ragamalika exploration. Atana is popular in this context as well, because of its distinctiveness. Here are two examples. Both are in Tamil.

The first is a verse from Andal’s Thiruppavai. In this a gopi is lazing in bed, thinking about the previous time she was in the company of Krishna. She is so immersed in her pleasant nostalgia / half-sleep that she is about to miss out on an appointment to meet with him again with other gopis. What a conundrum! Hence the urgency of Atana in trying to get her awake and out of her reverie. Here is M.L. Vasanthakumari again:

And finally a couple of verses sung by T.M.Krishna on the Kurma avatar, for a special ‘Dashavataram’ concert. There apparently is no composition on Kurma, so he or his friend, musician and scholar, R.K. Sriramkumar (who also accompanies him on the violin in this concert) set a few verses on Kurma by Periyazhwar to Atana. Periyazhvar was a 9th century saint, one of 12 famous devotees of Vishnu known as the Azhvars. He was also known as Vishnuchitta, and is the one who found an abandoned baby girl and brought her up as her own, naming her Kodhai. Kodhai would eventually be known to the world as Andal, the only woman of the 12 Azhvars.

Hope you enjoyed this little survey of Atana compositions. Next up, B for Begada. Thanks for listening.



Vishnu Vasudev

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.