B for Begada

The Moods of Water; Ceramic Mural, detail. Rekha Goyal

“If we were to study the older natural ragas, we would find that their melodic form is not linear. This works in the raga’s interest. It is the divagating, curved movement of melody that gives to raga its character and in a sense, colour.”

So says TM Krishna in his book ‘A Southern Music’ and I wouldn’t be surprised if he had Begada coursing through his mind as he wrote these words.

Begada is divagating, it is curved. It is old and natural. It is unmistakable. And it is quintessentially Carnatic.

It does everything in its power to avoid being straight-jacketed into one type of raga or the other based on mere technicalities. The Ma note used in Begada is absolutely unique — neither as low as the lower Shuddha Madhyama or as sharp as the higher Prati Madhyama. It also uses two Ni notes,not interchangeably, but based on the context in which they are used. There are smooth downward glides, sharp upward jumps, and little hops going this way and that.

When I think of Begada, I invariably think of water and fluidity. Of a smoothly flowing stream that maintains its speed come what may, of a rapid cataract changing direction, of a calm pond hiding many eddies, of a waterfall. But this water body never runs wild, and always exudes optimism and wisdom, dignity and commune, substance without ego. Above all, it is a welcoming raga, that turns no one away.

Divagating and curved, and oh so smooth

Let me begin with two pieces that really opened my eyes to Begada. The first is Abhimanamenadu galgu Rama composed by Patnam Subramanya Iyer. The rendition I heard was by Ramnad Krishnan. This is from an LP produced by Nonesuch / Explorer when Krishnan was resident at Wesleyan University. The song begins at 19.40. There is an alapana (free style exposition of the raga) to begin with, and a short burst of kalpanaswaras (solfa-syllable improvisation to the tala cycle) at the end.

Abhimanamendadu galgu Rama; Patnam Subramaniam Iyer (composer); Ramnad Krishnan (vocal); V. Thyagarajan (violin); T. Ranganathan (mridangam); V. Nagarajan (kanjira).

I discovered this LP at the Middlebury College Music Library, when I was 18. At this stage in my musical journey, I responded to this piece of music in an instinctive, emotional level, which is still one of the best ways to engage with Carnatic Music. The words, their meaning, did not matter. What mattered was the rhythm, the flow and what the raga was “saying” to me. The alapana was like someone speaking to me in an Indian language, full of intonation — understanding, coaxing, optimistic.

There are many things I like about the piece. First, the brisk pace of the rendition, almost relentless, maintaining a smooth momentum while the music itself moved up and down, left and right. Second, Ramnad Krishnan’s “soft” style of singing seemed so suited to the raga — his style seemed “soft” and gentle, but still robust and precise, without being soppy. [If you are interested, TM Krishna tries to break down and analyse the uniqueness of Ramnad Krishnan in this video.]Third, the way the accompanists are literally in concert — adding so much, without ever being intrusive. I especially appreciate the democratic spirit of T.Ranganathan on the mridangam, sharing equal time with the V. Nagarajan on the kanjira. [See the section “stage dynamics” in this post, for a more detailed discussion].I also fell in love with the tone of Nagarajan’s kanjira. [Nagarajan was a top-flight mridangam player in his own right, which he played right handed. Then due to an illness, he lost partial use of his right hand. He then retrained himself to be able to play the kanjira (a small single-sided drum, like a tambourine) with his left hand, and excelled in that instrument too].

But most of all, the reason I never tire of going back to this song is that slight tug or “pull” and then descent at the beginning of both the anupallavi (second stanza, “ibharaja…”) and charnam (third stanza, “anna vastramu”). For some reason it pulls directly at my heart, like someone putting their arm around my shoulders and taking me along, interested and engaged.

Thyagaraja’s meditation in Begada

The other piece that really drew me into Begada was Doraiswamy Iyengar’s rendition of Thyagaraja’s Nadopasana. He too starts with a brief alapana, and ends with kalpanaswara. It is followed by a short solo on the mridangam by Vellore Ramabhadran. Iyengar was from the Mysore “school” of veena playing, one characterized by relatively less “pulling” of strings, relying instead on skipping between notes (even employing a “split finger” technique on the left hand / finger board to achieve this) and more frequent plucking on the right hand. Like Ramnad Krishnan’s style, it can be thought of as a “soft” style, but precise and robust. Here’s the piece:

Nadopasana; Thyagaraja (composer); Mysore Doraiswamy Iyengar (veena); Vellore Ramabhadran (mridangam)

In this composition, Thyagaraja talks of the virtues of “Nadopasana” (prayer, or meditation on sound or music) and attributes the powers of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma to this practice. It is therefore an reflective and expansive composition, bringing out a different aspect of Begada.

[TM Krishna sang this piece at the iconic Afghan Church in Mumbai last year in the company of the equally iconic ghatam maestro Vikku Vinayakaram. They experimented in two ways. First, Vikku, accompanied TMK during the 13-minute alapana that preceded the piece. This is unusual (ususally alapanas do not have percussion accompaniment). Even more unusual was that there was no mridangam or violin accompaniment during the rendition of Nadopasana either. Most shocking of all, was that he sang a two-speed neraval improvisation at the line “tantri…” (first speed starts at about 6.25, and the second at about 7.55). TMK very rarely sings two-speed neravals these days, so this was a treat.]

Here are two further pieces composed by Thyagaraja. They are both “short and sweet” and obviously cheery, even jaunty, and marked by passages at a faster tempo at the end of the pieces. The first is Nee pada pankajamula, sung by Professor B. Balasubrahmaniyan, who teaches at Wesleyan University.

And here is Ramakrishnan Murthy’s rendition of Bhaktuni Charitramu:

One final Begada composition from Thyagaraja — Lokavana Chatura. It is difficult to come up with a “correct” translation for the word “chatura” in this context. Thyagaraja is describing Rama as the one who expertly protects, manages, or essentially animates all the worlds. With such an expansive ambit for Rama, it is not surprising that Thyagaraja’s conception of Begada (like in Nadopasana) is back to being expansive and enveloping. Here is Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s rendition:

Two iconic versions of Vallabha Nayakasya

Vallabha Nayakasya is a popular composition of Muthuswami Dikhsitar in the raga Begada. It is a short little piece in Rupaka tala (6-beats) and packs a punch. Like most of Dikshitar’s compositions it is a Sanskrit composition.

First, listen to Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s rendition. This is the iconic, standard-setting version of this song — I suspect many musicians have tried to mimic Semmangudi when trying to assimilate this song into their own repertoires.

Vallabha Nayakasya; Muthuswami Dikshitar (composer); Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer (vocal); accompanists unknown

As is typical of Dikshitar’s compositions, there is an extensive use alliterations and specific syllabic structures that adds to the beauty of the song. The pallavi has “va” syllable repeated, the anupallavi, “pa”. And then in the “madhayama-kala” (faster tempo) portion of the charanam, there’s the beautiful “kaali kalaa maalini kamalaakshi…”. And of course all through the song, the use of “asya” at the end of most lines.

Now, having listened to Semmangudi’s version, listen to MD Ramanathan’s equally iconic version:

Vallabha Nayakasya; Muthuswamy Dikshitar (composer); M.D. Ramanathan (vocal); T.N. Krishnan (violin); Karaikudi Mani (mridangam)

[Detailed discussion follows, feel free to skip and move on to next section for more music]

Now there are two obvious differences — the voice / pitch, and the tempo at which each has sung the song. But beyond that, the styles are also totally different in several ways. I’ll just point out a few of these differences, so that you get a feel for how two people singing the same “composed” song can sound so different. Neither version is right or wrong, just different from each other, and that’s the point.

The first thing you will notice is that Semmangudi sings “Vallabha Nayakasya Bhakto…Bhavami” whereas MDR repeats “Vallabha Nayakasa” twice, each time letting the next cycle of the tala ‘blank’, where the “bhavami” might have been sung. Only then does he move on to a full “Vallabha Nayakasya Bhakto…bhavami”. Even then, the first time he sings “bhavami”, he lets it extend through. This is part of his style — the use of pauses, and extensions.

He does this again later in the composition in the line “Mallika jaati Champaka haarasya”. He first pauses at “Mallika…”extending it. Then “Mallika jaati Champaka…” and only then “Mallika jaati Champaka haarasaya manimaalasya”. In contrast, in Semmangudi’s rendition, the first time you hear “Mallika”, he sings straight through: “Mallika jaati Champaka haarasya, manimaalasya”

Going back to the beginning of the song, to “Vallabha nayakasya bhakto”you will also notice that in Semmangudi’s version, there is a marked “bhakto-o o-o o” staccato effect that is missing in MDR’s version. In MDR’s version, in contrast, what is pronounced is the slide down in “naayakasya”. The slide seems to start from naayakasya, and naayakasya seems to be joined at the hip to the end of vallabha — so it sounds like “vallabhanaayakasya”, with the pronounced slide down starting at the na syllable. This slide is also present in Semmangudi’s version, but seems less pronounced. The words vallabha and naayakasya are distinct, with a perceptible gap between the two, and the slide seems to begin from aa in naayakasya, rathter than the na. So versus “Vallabhanaayaksaya”, it sounds like “Vallabha naayakasya”, where bold indicates the start of the slide.

At “pallava pada…”, Semmangudi’s interpretation of the sangathis (composed variations of a given line) include a clearly demarcated even tempo treatment of pal-lav-va-pa-da, where as MDR moves quite quickly to the sangathi in which the first syllable is elongated and drawn out “pallll-ava”.

These are all seemingly small differences, but end up having a large impact on the aural perception of the song. And to appreciate the differences, you don’t need to know what exactly is going on — you will experience these differences anyway. This is how practitioners leave their mark on, and make “their own” a composition that after all is supposed to be “standard” for everyone. This is what makes listeners prefer one singer’s version over another, or one singer over another, or even make them feel like listening to one person one day another a next, depending on their mood.

There are differences in the kalpanaswaras that follow the piece as well. MDR’s exposition starts at a slow tempo, and he again uses pauses and patterns effectively. He is also one of the few musicians who had the confidence to repeat the same set of notes thrice (Pa-Ma-Ga-Ma-Ri). Semmangudi’s is much more even keel and structured, slowly introducing a new note one cycle after another, and reaching the upper octaves only in the last flourish.

This should also give you a sense of how incredibly difficult it must be to be an accompanying violinist or percussionist, having to match the style of the main performer — in terms of not just tempo, but aesthetics. Imagine having learned and practiced a piece all your life in one way, and then having to accompany musicians as varied as Semmangudi and MDR on two consecutive days!

Same composition, same Sanjay, two Begadas

We’ve heard two iconic versions of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Vallabha Nayakasya, by two different masters. Now let’s look another master — Sanjay Subrahmanyan singing the same composition — Dikshitar’s Thyagarajaya Namaste — on two different occasions. This time, focus on the alapana preceding the the composition.

Here’s the first one:

Thyagarajaya Namaste v1; Muthuswami Dikshitar (Composer); Sanjay Subrahmanyam (vocal); accompanists unknown

The alapana in this rendition follows the typical form of starting at the lower end of the octave, exploring a little bit up and down, coming back to the note, then moving slowly up to a higher note, doing a bit of a walkabout around it and so on. Then reaching the higher part of the octave and beyond, and a few rapid traverses up and down and concluding back at base. Given the twisting nature of Begada, there is quite a bit of movement, but the overall approach is fairly systematic and the overall feeling calming and reassuring.

Now listen to this version (starting at about 43:00).

Thyagarajaya Namaste v1; Muthuswami Dikshitar (Composer); Sanjay Subrahmanyam (vocal); S. Varadarajan (violin); Neyveli Venkatesh (mridangam); Anirudh Athreya (kanjira)

Now both the alapanas are of about the same length (~8–8.5 minutes). But I think you will agree that the second one seems a lot “busier” and dynamic. The same basic alapana structure is followed, building up from low to high, and summarization across the octave. But the movement up the octave seems quicker, and he stays in the upper reaches longer. The strokes and glides between notes broader, interspersed with quite a few jumps as well. The overall effect is just as pleasing, but in a different way — the overall effect is more exploratory vs. reassuring, energizing vs. calming.

I hope this “controlled experiment” illustrates a little bit of the sheer depth of experience that is waiting to be explored. A single raga, in the hands of a single skilled musician can still provide many different experiences. In fact the main challenge for a musician is precisely this — keeping her conception of a raga “fresh”, day after day, week after week, decade after decade. And since they are investing so much in this process, it makes it all the more worthwhile for listeners like us to go back again and again, however familiar the composition, the raga or the musician.

Two and two

Some more favourites — two krithis and two varnams.

First krithi — Anudinamu Kavumayya, by “Poochi” Ramanathapuram Srinivasa Iyengar. He was a disciple of Patnam Subramanya Iyer, who had the strange predilection for giving his disciples animal nicknames. “Poochi” means insect in Tamil. Another famous disciple was “Tiger” Varadacharya. My father has a cassette recorded a an AIR concert of Maharajapuram Santhanam from the ’60s or ’70s, in which he had sung this song, with extensive improvisation at “kanakaruchi nirupamu”. This is my favourite rendition of this song, but I cannot find a version on the net. [the way he “pulled” at niruuupam-u-u-u is still fresh in my memory].So here is T.V. Sankaranarayanan instead:

Second krithi — Shankari Neeve, composed by Subbaraya Shastri. Not only was he a great composer in his own right, he was the son and disciple of one among the trinity (Shyama Shastri), while also learning from the other two (Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar). Here is M.L. Vasanthakumari. There is about a 9-minute alapana followed by a song. One of the specialties of the song is the “chitta swara” passage (solfa-syllable passages that have been composed by the creator of the song), beginning “Ri…Sa”.

You can listen to a flute version of the piece by N. Ramani — Begada alapana, followed by Shankari neeve. Strangely, like MLV, he too has a disproportionately long alapana (~10 minutes) for the length of the piece (~6 minutes). I’m not sure if there’s something about this song that brings this on.

Subbaraya Shastri’s father Shyama Shastri did not compose much in Begada, and did not compose many varnams either. He did however compose Dayanidhe which is a varnam in Begada.[A varnam is a specific form of composition which is design to encapsulate all the key aspects of a raga in a succinct manner.]. Here is Maharajapuram Santhanam:

By far, the most popular varnam in Begada is Intha Chalamu by Veena Kuppaiyer. In the admittedly artificial Begada spectrum of reassuring vs. invigorating, I think of Dayanidhe as the former, and Intha Chalamu as the latter.

Here is a rendition by the exuberant G.N. Balasubramaniam

Total immersion

And finally, here is piece that is close to an hour long. Nominally, the piece is Nadopasana by Thyagaraja, but really the krithi just provides the excuse for T.R. Mahalingam (“Flute Mali”) to fully get into Begada. He is obviously having fun and is trying to push the envelope, both in the alapana and in the swara passage that follows the krithi. Mali’s style is characterized by long pauses — his alapanas tend to deal in phrases of music, rather than in well planned edifices that build up a raga. His kalapanaswara style also somewhat unusual. There is seemingly no systematic build up in tempo — slower passages can follow faster ones, and he does explore mathematical patterns quite a bit. But in all this he never loses sight of the primary aim of bringing out the essence of a raga, which he does expertly. His music is certainly an acquired taste, but one that is fairly easy to acquire.

There are likely hundreds of compositions in Begada, or at least scores of them. This post just brought you a few. It is one of my favourite ragas, and do hope that you develop a love for it as well. Thank you for listening.

Previous posts in this series: A for Atana

Coming up next: C/V for Chakravaham/Vegavahini.

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