C/V for Chakravaham / Vegavahini

A straightforward shot at redemption

Chakravaham is the first “linear” raga in this series. Like in many other music systems, there are 12 notes in the Carnatic system. However, we ever use up to seven notes at a time in a given raga. Chakravaham is one of 72 Melakartha ragas that have the same seven notes in its ascent (aarohana) and descent (avarohana), linearly placed. So it is a straightforward raga, with few hidden traps — more or less every combination of notes is kosher, and no note is particularly special in any way.

For all its straightforwardness, I’ve found it capable of evoking a fairly nuanced emotional response. It always seems to be on the cusp of something, some sort of reckoning. In this moment, I imagine it evoking a mix of pride in the past, tinged with regret in what may have been, a tiny hope of a miracle, and a simultaneous surrender to one’s fate.

From the magnificent Into the Silence, by Wade Davis, Vintage Books, 2012. In which he asks “not whether George Mallory was the first to reach the summit of Everest, but rather why he kept climbing on that fateful day”.

For instance, a regiment in the face of one last battle at the end of a magnificent campaign — an encounter in which the odds are stacked against them. There is pride and camaraderie, but also many “what if”s and the very slender hope of a miracle. Or two lovers trying desperately to salvage a once meaningful relationship, yet knowing deep within that they’ve wandered too far. Or George Mallory, in 1924 at the First Step, before his fateful last push towards the peak of Mt. Everest

It can be a raga of restrained melodrama.

The song that really got me into Chakravaham is Thyagaraja’s Etula Brotuvo. Here are two renditions — one by Jon B. Higgins, and the other by the Alathur Brothers (Srinivasa Iyer and Sivasubramania Iyer; not really brothers).

I did not know the meaning of the lyrics of this song until I looked it up for this post. See what I found:

O RAma, visible only to those who are thinking only of Him. I don’t know how you are going to protect me.

My history is horrible to hear. I roamed about like a stray bull intent only on voracious feeding. Just for livelihood I indulged in flattering the rich misers.

Associating with wicked men, I committed despicable acts and became notorious. I don’t know how you are going to protect this TyAgarAja with compassion.

Perhaps there’s not much pride in one’s past, but he is certainly looking back with some regret, and in the slender hope of miraculous redemption, all using a bit of reverse psychology.

Here is one final rendition, this time on the Veena by Chitti Babu. The song is preceded by a short alapana.

The other popular Chakravaham composition by Thyagaraja is Sugunamule Cheppukonti. Again, I looked up the lyrics just now — and found that this song too has a theme of regret and redemption. In it Thyagaraja asks Rama to forgive him for not being manifestly pious. He has not been dipping himself in holy rivers or reciting the Vedas or giving to charity. He hasn’t been doing all these things because he was ignorant of them. All he has been doing in good faith is to chant Rama’s name, and he does hope this is enough, that his ignorance is not held against him. This is Thyagaraja in classic bhakti mode. And in his equally classic mild-emotional-blackmail mode (what would it say of Rama if he cannot recognize true devotion?).

Here is Vijay Siva singing the song in a live concert. There is alapana as well as neraval improvisation at the line Shri Naayaka Kshamiyunchunu (“I seek your forgiveness”).

Sugunamule Cheppukonti; Thyagaraja (composer); Vijay Siva (vocal); Dr. R. Hemalatha (violin), J. Vaidyanathan (mridangam), B.S. Purshotham (kanjira)

And here is M.S Subbulakshmi singing the same song. Her neraval is at the previous line — snaanaadi su-karmambulu, Veda dhyaanambu leruga” (“I was not aware of good-karma-accruing acts like dips in holy rivers and reciting the Vedas”). The neraval is followed by a passage of kalpana swaras.

Sugunamule Cheppukonti; Thyagaraja (composer); M.S. Subbulakshmi (vocal); Accompanists unknown

Vegavahini three ways

The same raga — Chakravaham — is known as Vegavahini (or Toyevegavahini) in the Raganga system of ragas followed by Muthuswami Dikshitar. Dikshitar has composed a few songs in Vegavahini that are in “Chakravaham mode”, i.e. using a fairly linear conception of the raga. Both are on Ganesha. Here are Gajananayutham sung by Voleti Venkateshwarulu, and Vinyaka Vignanashaka sung by M.L. Vasanthakumari.

Voleti was a fan of Hindustani music and especially of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He would often bring in touches of Hindustani raga in his improvisation. M.S. Gopalakrishnan, accompanying him on the violin was also a very accomplished violinist in the Hindustani tradition. It is not surprising therefore that they bring in touches of the Hindustani Ahir Bhairav in their last rounds of swara improvisation, especially around the “Ri” note. [In theory there is only a difference in one note — Ni — between Chakravaham / Vegavahini and the previous Melakartha raga, Mayamalavagowla. MMG is an important and well known raga in Carnatic music, so there is a tendency when composing or singing in C/V to focus on the Dha and Ni notes, where the difference between the two ragas is the most obvious. It is somewhat unusual therefore for a singer to focus on the lower part of the octave, around “Ri”, when improvising in C/V].

I find the feel of these songs quite different from Thyagaraja’s Chakravaham compositions — they seem to be worshipful and tributary and without much pathos.

When most people think of Vegavahini raga however, the composition that immediately comes to mind is Dikshitar’s majestic Veena, Pustaka Dharini. This composition on Saraswathi is in a version of Vegavahini that seems to be an older, organic version, before attempts were made to straight-jacket it into the linear “Chakaravaham” mode. Its aarohana would be something like this: SMGM-PDNS-PNDNS, skipping SRGM.

Here is Rama Ravi, senior disciple of T.Brinda of the Dhannammal school singing the song at a recent event by First Edition Arts.

Veena Pustaka Dharini; Muthuswami Dikshitar (composer); Rama Ravi (vocal); Dr. Nanditha Ravi (vocal support); R.K. Sriramkumar (violin); K. Arunprakash (mridangam); N. Guruprasad (ghatam)

And here is T.V. Ramprasadh’s rendition (beginning at 6.40). The Sa-Ma-Ga-Ma usage in this version of Vegavahini comes out clearly in the swara improvisation at the end of the piece.

Veena Pustaka Dharini; Muthuswami Dikshitar (composer); T.V. Ramprasadh (vocal); Mysore Srinath (violin); Trichur Narendran (mridangam); V.Suresh (ghatam)

So we’ve seen two versions of Vegavahini from Dikshitar.

Interestingly, Thyagaraja too found the need to compose in Vegavahini, in a version that is separate from the linear Chakravaham mode. He has composed Challaga Naato in Vegavahini. His version however is different from both Chakravaham and Dikshitar’s “Veena Pustaka” conception of the raga. His Vegavahini is also “vakra” in the aarohana (and therefore different from the linear Chakravaham), but only in the second half of the octave. So the aarohana would be: SRGM-PDNDS.

The only rendition of this song I have found is from a lecture demonstration by the inimitable Prof. S.R. Janakiraman on Sangeethapriya.org. In fact all the ‘gyaan’ I have tried to give you in this section is from this lec-dem. SRJ is both a musician and musicologist known for his entertaining, insightful and somewhat bombastic “lec-dems”. Sangeethapriya.org is a great storehouse of hundreds and hundreds of concerts and radio performances by musicians past and present, from private collections. It is probably the single most valuable Carnatic Music resource available online. You need to log in with a Google or Yahoo account to access these recordings.

So there you have it, the three shades of Vegavahini, as expressed in the compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar and Thyagaraja:

The short and the long of it

Moving on from Thyagaraja and Dikshitar. Here are three pieces.

The first is a rendition of Sarojanabha composed by Maharaja Swathi Tirunal. This is by Parasalla Ponnammal, who strangely came into the limelight only in her eighties. In 2006, she was the first woman to sing at the famed Navatri Mandapam concert series at the Padmanabha temple in Trivandrum. In doing this she broke an over 300-year taboo (much older, incidentally, than any presumed Sabarimala taboo). Here is a recording (with poor lighting) from the same venue in 2015, when she was over 90 years old.

And a short verse from the Thiruppugazh, sung by T.M. Krishna:

Finally, a Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi by Sanjay Subrahmanyam, in which he takes the same first line of the Thiruppugazh verse (Apakaaranindai…) as his Pallavi line. I especially like the slow passage swara improvisation at the end. [The audio is a bit muffled in parts, but passes quickly].

And that’s a wrap. Thank you.

Next up in the series D for Dhanyasi. Previous posts in this series:

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Vishnu Vasudev

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