Madhyamavati — a whirlwind of calm

Going down

Vishnu Vasudev
8 min readOct 15, 2019

I have developed a hypothesis so vague that it may actually be a feeling. It is that by and large, the movement that we focus on Carnatic music (and perhaps all music) is the upward. In free-style alapana movement the distinct trajectory is up, from the lower Sa to the upper notes. And while many songs (maybe most) start by going downward into the lower notes, the function of the downward trajectory seems to be to establish the raga, before all the ‘sangathis’ (different ‘composed’ variations of the same line) explore different ways of going up again. The emotional high point in any song for a listener also tends to be when we hover around a high note, not quite reaching the next higher resting point, teasing and uncertain until we finally get there. This upward tendency must have something to do with brain-wiring, but there is no obvious reason for this penchant for the up.

All of this upward magnetism reflects in our emotional response to raga music. The terms that come to mind are usually around a feeling of elevation or exhilaration or a feeling yearning and stretching — of compassion, devotion, longing or love of some sort. Very rarely is the vocabulary inward or downward. Yes, we do sometimes use the vocabulary of calm, and satisfaction, but that is usually upon reflecting on the experience as a whole (such as the whole concert), when looking back, rather than as a description of what we felt during a particular piece. It’s more akin to the overall ‘life is good’ calmness and satisfaction of having gone through any great experience — a brilliant movie, a thought-provoking book, or Federer winning Wimbledon as he must. [No one would say they were enveloped by calm and satisfaction while watching Federer play].

It’s also interesting that of the nine classical rasas, eight are outward-looking or contextual / reactive (hasyam / laughter, shringaram / romance, raudram / anger etc.). Only one, shantam or peace / tranquility is actually non-contextual and inward. According to Wikipedia, it is also acknowledged to be be distinct:

Shānta-rasa functions as an equal member of the set of rasas, but it is simultaneously distinct as being the most clear form of aesthetic bliss. Abhinavagupta likens it to the string of a jeweled necklace; while it may not be the most appealing for most people, it is the string that gives form to the necklace, allowing the jewels of the other eight rasas to be relished.

Madhyamavati affects me in a very unique way. It is one of those few ragas in which the overall sense of trajectory is overwhelmingly and ineffably downward. I don’t know why exactly. It has the effect of calming, grounding and going inward. It stills everything. But unlike other calming ragas (say Neelambari or Yadukulakamboji), it is also emphatically pulsating and energetic. It’s a totally weird and brilliant combination. The best analogy I can come up with is that it is like water finding its own level, not passively or lethargically, but by seeking out every last possible crevice or cavity to fill. Or imagine an emergency situation, say a flood or a fire. And imagine someone infinitely capable and trustworthy holding firmly on to you and guiding you out. Your heart is pumping blood furiously, your legs may be tiring, but you are calm, because you know you are going inexorably toward safety.

I think of Madhyamavati as this whirlwind of calm.

One after another

I discovered Thyagaraja’s Evaricharira very recently. Here is a fabulous rendering by Mahrajapuram Santhanam. This is from a concert in which he was accompanied by Vellore Ramabhadran on the mridangam and M.S. Gopalakrishnan on the violin. The song begins at ~45:25, with an alapana.

In this song, Thyagaraja marvels at Rama’s bows and arrows, asking where they came from. He describes how one arrow splits into tens, hundreds, thousands, confounding enemies, before describing a few specific feats of protection and of offense by Rama. This song feels very much like the aural version of an awesome shower of arrows — a rapid-fire, protective blanket of swaras.

Settling on Ri

Thyagaraja seems to have composed 14–15 songs in Madhyamavati — here are just a few more. Venkatesha Ninnu Sevimpa is also a song I discovered quite late in my listening journey. Here is a lovely rendition by Pantula Rama. It begins with a 13-minute alapana (vocal + violin) and includes an extensive passage of kalpanaswara.

You would have noticed in the kalpanaswara passage, that apart from the tonic Sa, she usually comes to ‘rest’ on Ri. This is one of the big differences between Madhyamavathi and the Hindustani raga Megh, which have the same notes (Sa Ri Ma Pa Ni Sa). In Megh, you never rest on Ri, only traverse through it. With Madhyamavathi both Ri and Ni are very important notes and are given great big “gamaka” treatments (that is they are pulled and pushed). I particularly like swara passage here for its extensive exploration of the lower octave, which suits Pantula Rama’s rich voice.

Four beats per step or five?

A very popular Madhyamavati piece is the short and sweet Nagumomu Galavani. It’s one among a set of songs known as the Utsava Sampradaya kritis. This set of songs, following the ‘bhajana’ sampradaya have a simple structure, with each stanza following the same, usually simple tune. On festival (utsava) days, each song is meant to be sung at a different time of the day to the deity, and typically has a specific role (waking up the deity, announcing readiness to take visitors, putting him back to sleep etc.).

Here is the latest Sangita Kalanidhi, S.Sowmya’s rendition.

During a lecture-demonstration in 2015, MSN Murthy and Pantula Rama argued that the current ‘standard’ version of Nagumomu (as sung by Sowmya, for instance) is in the ‘wrong’ gait (or gati). They posit that the lyrics are more suited to a gait in which each unit of the eight-beat adi-tala cycle is divided into five sub-units (khanda), rather than the standard gait of four sub-units (chatushra). They render both versions as part of the lec-dem (discussion starts at 24:30). See if you are convinced.

Alliterative Alakalla Ladaga

Alakalalla ladaga has makes use of alliterations to re-emphasize the pulsating effect that Thyagaraja so often brings out in Madhyamavati. I strongly urge you NOT to look up the meaning of the lyrics — it’s sort of creepy! Here are G. Ravikiran’s vocal and U.Shrinivas’s mandolin renditions.

One each for Parvathi and Shiva

Vinayakuni valenu is one of the few Thyagaraja krithis in Madhyamavathi that is not on Rama / Vishnu. The deity is Kamakshi (mother of Vinayaka) in Kanchi. It is also different in that it does not begin with a focus on the lower end of the octave — it seems to shoot straight up. Here is a rendition by M.S. Subbulakshmi, with a neraval improvisation on the Anupallavi line ‘Anaatha rakshaki Shri Kamakshi’, at the upper end of the octave.

And since we’ve covered Kamakshi, here is a Thyagaraja song on Shiva, Deva Sri Tapasthirthapura Nivasa. Here are two renditions, one again by M.S. Subbulakshmi, and a second extensive one by flutist Kudamaloor Janardanan.

Rama katha

Perhaps the Thyagaraja song in Madhyamavathi most often rendered in concerts as a ‘main piece’ is the grand Rama Katha Sudha. Here are two versions by past masters. The first is on the nadaswaram by Sheik Chinna Moulana. The second a vocal rendition by G.N. Balasubramaniam.

The Madhyamavati-DKP combo

My earliest introduction to Madhyamavati as an active listener was through two clear and emphatic renditions by D.K. Pattammal. The first is Parthasarathi Nannu Palimpa Rada, by ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar. I was just captivated by the brief neraval and swaras at “Sarva dharma paripalaka, sarvaloka sharanya

The second is Dharma Samvardhanim by Muthuswami Dikshitar. This song does not have the same pulsating feel of many of Thyagaraja’s songs in Madhyamavati. The rhythm is more emphatic and even, like the base drums in an orchestra.

Shyama Shastri swoops in with Palinchu Kamakshi

Shyama Shastri was the earliest / eldest of the Trinity, and also the least prolific and varied in his choice of ragas (as far as we know). But inevitably, of the few pieces he composed in a particular raga, one or the other established themselves as absolute benchmark-worthy gems. When one thinks of Madhyamavati, the first song that comes to mind is his sweeping Palinchu Kamakshi.

I associate the singer Sanjay Subrahmanyam with Madhyamavati. For the label Charsur Digital works, he has recorded Palinchu Kamakshi as part of the album ‘Trinity’ and Vinayakuni Valenu as part of the album ‘Kanchi’. CDW albums are not available on any streaming platforms, so here is another recording of him singing Palinchu Kamakshi (the audio quality is not great, but will have to do).

And here is a lovely restrained version by the violinist Charumathi Raghuraman.

One last rendition, this time by Ramnad Krishnan. Suffused with a certain tenderness, as is his wont.

Two short favourites

Sticking with Ramnad Krishnan, here is him singing the very popular Karpagame by Papanasam Sivan. This recording from a live concert at the Kapaleeshwarar temple in Mylapore. The song is on Karpagambal, the consort deity at that very temple. This song is usually rendered as is, without a whole lot of improvisation. Perhaps given the venue, Krishnan gives the song fairly substantial treatment. Also note the distinctive tone of the violin. That much fuller, but slightly more scratchy tone is that of a 7-string violin invented by the great Chowdiah. The violinist on this occassion is V. Sethuramiah, a disciple of Chowdiah’s.

Another very popular song is Purandara Dasa’s Bhagyada Lakshmi Baramma. Here is a rendition by the vocalist T.V. Ramprasadh. In some communities this Kannada song is often sung as a way to welcome a new bride into the groom’s family. The idea being that the bride is valued and respected as Lakshmi herself. Ramprasadh is an uncle of mine, and one of the highlights of my wedding ceremony was his singing this song to welcome my wife into the family.

And here is a quite operatic veena rendition by R.K. Suryanarayana. Madhyamavati begins at 6:17.

[The song is also sometimes rendered in Shri Raga, which is close to but quite distinct from Madhyamavati. Here is M.L. Vasanthakumari’s iconic Shri raga version.

Ragam Tanam Pallavi

And finally, here are two instrumental Ragam-Tanam-Pallavis in Madhyamavathi. The first is a relatively compact but complete RTP on the guitar by Prasanna. A percussion solo, beginning at ~23:00, follows the RTP.

The second is by the flutist K.S. Gopalakrishnan. The unusual, but not unheard of thing about this RTP is that the tanam section (starting at about 9.30) is accompanied by mridangam. The artistes end with a ragamalika of swaras in Sahana, Hindolam, Malayamarutham and Bihag before circling back in reverse order to Madhyamavathi.

Thank you for listening!



Vishnu Vasudev

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