A minor example of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s major lyrical cache

There are many identities of Vishnu. Not only does he have ten official avatars, he even has a thousand official names (Sahasranamam). He manifests as numerous deities, and being who he is, has many wonderous attributes. Given all of this, it is fair to say that his identity as the father of Kama (or ‘Cupid’ to use the very bad transposition to English) is a fairly obscure one. Apparently according to the Matsya Purana, upon being burnt to ash by Shiva, Kama was reincarnated as Pradyumna, the son of Krishna and Rukmini.

Muthuswami Dikshitar is of course well known for the beauty of his compositions. Keshav Desiraju in Of Gifted Voice (a biography of MS Subbulakshmi) summarizes his genius succinctly:

He was a superlative poet with an exquisite sense of rhythm, of the placement of words and the use of literary embellishments…[Muthusvami Dikshitar] was a master in the creation and use of words.

To do this so perfectly — choose the right words and syllables, fit them in the right places in the rhythm cycle, create a sense of poetry without robbing the text of meaning and to do all of this keeping the raga and emotive impetus of the composition front and center — requires not just a mastery of the grammar of music, but a vast reserve of lyrical raw material to draw upon.

Just how vast this reserve was for Muthuswami Dikshitar hit me when I was struck by his description of Vishnu as the father of Kama. This identity of Vishnu would not come readily to mind to most people, past, present or future. And yet, on scouring through the lyrics of Dikshitar compositions, I found that there are at least nine different ways in which Dikshitar has referred to Vishnu as the father of Kama. There could very well be more that I have missed. Here they are:

Of these names for Kama, it is interesting to note that Anga-ja and Bhava-ja mean ‘born of’ the body and emotion respectively. So Vishnu is the father of the one born of anga and bhava! Shambaravairi is another compound — Shambara refers to an asura who fought with Pradyumna, and vairi means ‘enemy of’. [Some online translations refer to Shambara as another name for Shiva and Shambaravairi would therefore mean Kama, the enemy of Shiva. But I could find no independent reference to Shambara as Shiva].

Kama of course features in Dikshitar’s kritis in multiple contexts other than as a son of Vishnu. For instance Shiva is referred to often as the enemy or destroyer of Kama. Kama is also supposedly lustrous and bright or beautiful. Many deities are described as as lustrous or beautiful as countless Kamas. Or as surpassing even Kama in beauty. Occasionally Kama appears as himself, not as a comparator or in a compound-relation to another. Usually, he is listed among several other gods who worship or respect the subject of the composition.

Some of the other ways in which Kama is referred to by Dikshitar (but not when describing Vishnu as his father) include Pura, Ananga and Manasija (born of the mind).

I have created a playlist of as many songs as I could find from the table above, in Spotify. Do listen if you get a chance:

Spotify — Janaka

Finally, I found a single reference to Lakshmi as Kama’s mother. It is in the song Mahalakshmi Karuna Rasa in the raga Madhava Manohari. She is referred to as Mara Janani. Here is Vijay Siva’s rendition:

Thank you.

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Vishnu Vasudev

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