Hiding in plain sight — Dikshitar’s Vibhakti kritis

A reading of T.L. Venkatarama Aiyar’s biography of Muthuswami Dikshitar [Part I]

I have long had an affinity for Muthuswami Dikshitar, from as soon as I began to know his music. It started with a faint realization that his compositions were quite distinctive and easy to recognize. At the first instance, this was largely because almost all were in Sanskrit rather than Telugu or Tamil. There was also a feeling of awe at the majesty of of some of his compositions — which seemed less songs and more bespoke vessels to contain something much larger. As opposed to the raw emotive appeal or fawning intensity of say Thyagaraja or Shyama Shastri, Dikshitar seemed far more deliberate and restrained in his approach. This appealed to my imagined self-image of stoicism.

Then I learnt, in bits and snatches, of the wide-ranging influences that are apparent in his music — the exposure to Hindustani raags during his stay at Kashi, his playful Nottu-swara sahitya, all in the Western major scale (Shankarabharanam’s scale), sans gamakas, but still somehow, Carnatic music. And the way he has effortlessly incorporated very dhrupad-like elements in many of his compositions.

Then I started understanding a little bit of the genius of his lyrics and the breadth of knowledge packed in his songs. [Largely a very particular type of ritualistic and religious knowledge. Thyagaraja displays a far greater understanding of the human condition]. I have gone so far as to trying to read his mind on more than one occasion (here and here). When I joined Twitter in 2009, I was delighted that his mudra gurugha was not taken, and made it my handle. It is a decision I have regretted ever since — the sheer conceit of it, even if in subconscious homage. But I cannot undo it.

Here are a few things I found myself wondering — was he representative of his mileu, or a rebel of some sort? Did he actively seek to push musical boundaries, or was this simply what came naturally to him? Did his openness to musical influences arise from an innate liberalism or conversely, did his musical journey change his outlook on other aspects of his life? Was his life also filled with lots of supposed bursting into spontaneous song in front of deities? Can spontaneity and precise craftsmanship really go together? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Indians had been in the habit of maintaining a journal or writing long letters like all and sundry in Victorian England seem to have?

And yet in all this time, I had not bothered to read a proper biography of him. Partly, I think I expected any biography to be like the miracle-filled melodramatic comic hagiography of Thyagaraja I had read as a child, and therefore pointless and partly, I was pretty sure such a biography did not exist.

That changed about a week ago, when I discovered T.L. Venkatarama Aiyer’s biography of Dikshitar, available for download here. It was published in 1968 by the National Book Trust as part of the ‘National Biography Series’, and priced at Rs. 2.00. Venkatarama Aiyar was a student of ‘Ambi’ Dikshitar, who was biologically the great grandson (and legally the grandson — it involved adoption) of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s brother Baluswami Dikshitar. He was also the cousin and student of the singer-composer Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagvatar. Besides being an eminent scholar of Carnatic Music, and being awarded the prestigious Sangitha Kalanidhi award from the Music Academy, Aiyar was also an reputed lawyer and judge.

What got me into the book was the very first paragraph in which he makes clear of his intent to try and keep this account of a life as far from hagiography as possible:

But it should be borne in mind that it is for the aesthetic excellence, and spiritual loftiness of the kritis of these composers that we pay homage to them, and that a biography is valuable only as revealing to us the greatness of the composer and as throwing light on his compositions. I have accordingly narrated in the biography only those incidents and anecdotes which are supported by ancient and reliable tradition or by the content of the kritis themselves.

I found the rest of the 101-page book a very quick and fascinating read. At times the account reads like our national anthem — a progression of geography, as the itinerant wandered from one kshetra to another and composed prolifically to the deities in and around those towns. For all the breadth of influences that find utterance in his music (grammar, ritual, philosophy, musical theory, Hindustani ragas), the motives for his actions do come across as somewhat narrowly devotional. He seems most anxious when he cannot get to the next kshetra. As may be expected in a biography of a famous man who lived in the 19th century, there is little of the personal, though Aiyar does attempt valiantly to imagine what different protagonists felt at crucial partings and reunions.

There are a few miracle-like events, but Aiyar is very careful in their treatment, prefacing the more incredulous ones with “it is said”. For instance, “It is said that…Chinnaswami had suddenly lost his eyes, but regained them by the grace of Venkateshwara to whom Ramaswami Diskhitar offered Puja and prayer.” But when it relates to a lived reality, he is appropriately deferential. There is the incident of Dikshitar in Tiruttani. An old man approaches him, asks him to close his eyes and puts a piece of candy in his mouth. Dikshitar opens his eyes to find the man gone, and in his place, a vision of Subrahmanya. Dikshitar believes that the old man was Subrahmanya himself at that the candy was gnana . Whether the old man was in fact God and knowledge can be boiled down to a sweet is immaterial. What matters is that Dikshitar believed it to be true.

Even if not quite a revealing excavation of Dikshitar’s mind, I got a lot from Aiyar’s magnificent attempt — some new knowledge, mainly about the music and of Dikshitar, and much food for thought. In the rest of this post, I’ll focus on what I learnt of his Vibhakti kritis (with lots of links to music). By definition, this will be a reflection of my ignorance, but I hope you find at least some of it interesting nonetheless. This is the first in a series of posts on my reading of the biography.

Aiyar lists out four full sets of Vibhakti kritis and mentions a few songs from a fifth set. Each set consists of eight kritis. I had heard of Dikshitar’s Vibhakti kritis before, and without doubt have heard many of them. I had a vague notion that each set of kritis was dedicated to a particular deity. I always assumed that ‘Vibhakti’ was related to bhakti or devotion — perhaps signifying an enhanced form of bhakti, or a particular sort of bhakti. I’ve also been mildly annoyed that many of these songs have very similar sounding names, making recall very difficult.

It is only on reading the biography that I understood that the term vibhakti has nothing to do with bhakti, and everything to do with conjugation in Sanskrit. [For those of you who studied Sanskrit in school, remember akaraantah pulingah Rama shabdah?]. Basically, the way a noun is written in a sentence in Sanskrit is based on four elements — the gender, the ending (a, u etc.) the number (single, two, or plural), and function (vibhakti). Here are the eight cases(vibhaktis), and some examples:

So what Dikshitar was doing is for a particular deity, he composed one song each in each of the vibhaktis. This is why the names of the songs are so similar to each other. He first did this at the age of about 25, when visiting Tiruttani (and immediately upon having his vision of Subrahmanya). It is difficult to know how he arrived at this vibhakti scheme. Did he have it planned all along? Or, having compose one in one vibhakti and the second in another purely by chance, did he decide “why not?” and proceed with the remaining six? Or perhaps as he realized he was in the mood to create more than a few songs, he scouted his mind for an orderly scheme on which to scaffold his creativity ? Whatever the genesis, the method seems to have pleased him, resulting in the five sets of vibhakti krithis over the course of his life.

Here they are in chronological order. As I read through these lists, two things struck me. First, there were quite a few songs in ragas that are rarely heard these days. Second, there were songs in these lists that were in fairly well known ragas, but are rarely rendered nonetheless (again ‘rare’ being a subjective assessment based on my listening history).

Of these, the Mayamalavagowla and Anandabhairavi pieces are very well known. I have rarely heard the Padi kriti, and only recently heard the Purvi piece for the first time — T.M. Krishna has sung it at a First Edition Arts-organized concert. Balahamsa is pretty well known , and many composers have created songs in the raga (Thyagaraja’s pieces being particularly well known), but I don’t recall having heard this Dikshitar kriti. I have not heard anything in Bhanumathi but knew of the raga’s existence (the fourth raga in the raganga system, equivalent to but not the same as Vanaspathi in the Melakarta scheme).

What surprised me most in this list are Guruguhaya in Sama and Sri Guruguha Murthe in Udayaravichandrika, and for the same reason. Annapoorne is a very well known song in Sama, but Guruguhaya is rarely heard. Similarly, Dikshitar’s Subramanyena is a very well known song in Suddha Dhanyasi (which according to some is effectively the same as Udayaravichandrika, and according to others is only slightly different). But Guruguha Murthe is virtually unheard of. Why such skewed levels of popularity?

Here are recordings of six of the eight Guruguha vibhakti krithis.

Shri Guruna Palitsomi (raga Padi), sung by S. Ramanathan
Shri Guruguhasya (raga Purvi), sung by T.M. Krishna
Guruguha Swamini (raga Bhanumathi), sung by T.M. Krishna and disciples
Guruguhad anyam (raga Balahmsa), sung by T.M. Krishna and disciples
Sri Guruguha Murthe (raga Udayaravichandrika) sung by Vijayalakshmy Subramaniam

And finally, S.Sowmya singing Guruguhaya in Sama.

This is the list that really opened my eyes to how unfamiliar I am with Dikshitar’s repertoire. Among the songs of the Abhayamba Vibhakti series, if I am being honest, I find myself familiar with only one of them — Dakshayani in Todi. And I am horrified to find that I cannot recall ever hearing a song of Dikshitar’s in Sahana before looking up this one. Of the remaining six, I find myself able to name many other Dikshitar songs in those ragas, but cannot recall any of the six. Without saying any more, here is some music.

Abhayamba Jagadamba (raga Kalyani) rendered by Kalpakam Swaminathan on the veena.
Abhayamba Jagadamba (raga Kalyani), sung by Vijay Siva
Aryam Abhayamam (raga Bhairavi), sung by the Chinmaya Sisters
Girijaya Ajaya (raga Shankarabharanam), sung by Chinmaya Sisters
Abhayambikayai (raga Yadukulakambhoji), sung by BV Raman and BV Lakshmanan
Abhayambikayaha (raga Kedaragowla), sung by Sita Rajan and students

Again, apart from the Begada and Yadukulakambhoji pieces, all the others are pretty much new to me. When thinking of Salaga Bhairavi, Rudrapriya and Viravasantham (also known as Varunapriya), other popular songs, and only those songs come to mind. Padavini (by Thyagaraja) in Salaga Bhairavi, Amba Paradevathe (by Krishnaswami Ayya) in Rudrapriya and Emani Pogadudura (by Thyagaraja) in Viravasantham are the songs that come to mind when thinking of those ragas. The Saranga kriti is totally overshadowed by Dikshitar’s own Arunachalanatham. I had no clue, prior to reading this list that Dikshitar had even composed in Darbar. Here are some of these songs:

Thyagarajo Virajate (raga Atana), sung by T.N. Seshagopalan
Thyagarajena Samrakshitoham (raga Salaga Bhairava), sung Prameela Gurumurthy
Thyagarajad anyam (raga Darbar), sung by Neela Ramgopal
Thyagarajasya Bhakto (raga Rudrapriya), sung by Suguna Varadachari [song begins at 1:06]
Thyagaraje Kritye Krityam (raga Saranga) sung by T.M. Krishna [partial]
Viravasantha Thyagaraja (raga Viravasantha), sung by Amritha Murali

Two things struck me about this list. First, the somewhat whimsical ‘theme’ for this set of kritis — ragas ending in ‘Gowla’. I’m generally quite skeptical of such superficial attempts at creativity / audience capture. I loathe the famous ‘Ranjani’ ragamalika, with the successive use of ragas whose names end with ‘ranjani’. I heard of a prominent artist singing ragam-tanam-pallavi ragamalika swaras in ‘Hamsa’ ragas — Hamsadhwani, Hamsanandam, Hamsavinodini. Yikes! Now that I know Dikshitar himself is not beyond such gimmicks, maybe I’ll be a little more open-minded. It could also be argued that the two constructs— eight songs in in eight vibhaktis and eight songs in eight ‘gowlas’ are not too far apart in the whimsy scale. [There is nothing wrong with whimsy, but it needs to be clever. I have speculated earlier that Dikshitar may be willfully teasing us in his song Sri Lakshmi Varaham, in a very clever way].

The second striking feature of this list are the two songs in very rare ragas — Purvagowla and Chhayagowla. I am not sure that anyone else composed in these ragas — maybe Dikshitar created these to arrive at eight ‘gowla’ ragas? Here is a recording of the Malladi brothers singing the Purvagowla kriti:

Nilotpalambikayam (raga Purvagowla), sung by Malladi Brothers

Of the remaining six songs, the only one I really recognize is the Ritigowla kriti. Here is a rendition by Balamuralikrishna, in a 1975 concert marking the bicentenary of Muthuswami Dikshitar:

I don’t know about you, but by this point in our survey of Vibhakti kritis, I am no longer surprised at my ignorance. I do not have even a passing acquaintance with any of these eight. I am not surprised, but still totally baffled by how many familiar ragas are on this list, and why these songs are not as popular as some others. Take for instance Madhurambikayam in Desi Simhavaram (Hemavathi). Dikshitar has composed only three songs in the raga, one of which is the well known, and popular — Shri Kanthimathim. When Shri Kanthimathim is so popular, why is Madhurambikayam so unheard? Similarly with the pieces in Atana, Begada, Devakriya and Kalyani.

Here are some of the songs.

Madhuramba Jayati (raga Paras), sung by BV Raman and BV Lakshmanan
Madhuramaba (raga Devakriya), singers unidentified
Sri Minakshi (raga Gauri), sung by Aravindhan Ranganathan
Madhurambikayam (raga Desisimhavaram), sung by S. Rajam
Sri Madhurambike (raga Kalyani), singers unidentified

So there you have it — after about two decades of active listening to Carnatic music, I find myself entirely exposed. This is Dikshitar, not an obscure composer. And there are numerous websites that list his “group kritis”, including Vibhakti kritis, and I find myself unfamiliar with most of them.

The larger question is, how have some songs become so much more popular than others? When they are of the same raga, and of the same composer? Why is Guruguhaya not as popular as Annapoorne (Sama raga). Why is Aryam Abhayambam, in Bhairavi virtually unheard of? I don’t know the answer, but it may be a combination of some or all of the following:

At the end of the day, the raga is supreme, and the song is merely a vehicle for the full expression of a raga. So once a musician has mastered a finite number of kritis in a raga by a particular composer, she may not find the need to go out and learn more. The marginal utility of learning a new kriti in the raga, by the same composer, diminishes.

Okay, if each artiste masters a finite number of songs of a particular raga-composer combo, why is there not a more even distribution of the songs among the artistes? Why has everyone learnt so many of the same songs, at the expense of others. This, I think has a lot to do with luck of two kinds. First, songs propagate through disciples. So if very early on the in the disciple tree, one disciple fell for song A in a big way, and another for song B, and the first disciple had many more students, then song A becomes better known. Second, any kriti is a living thing, which gets tweaked, polished and recreated over time. So if a particularly popular artiste presents the song in a particularly moving and pleasing manner, that song and that version becomes popular, and adopted, mimicked and recreated by others.

Third, as great a genius as Dikshitar was, as vehicles and embodiment of a raga, maybe some songs are in fact ‘superior’ to others in the same raga. I wouldn’t know, but it would be great if someone who does did differential analyses of these songs to dissect if and why some may legitimately ‘deserve’ to be more popular than others. [I am sure this is already being done].

Finally, there used to be a time when the commercial release of albums in cassette or CD form was the mainstay of artistes. In that era, in a crowded commercial field, there was incentive to stand out by recording more 'rare' kritis or thematic albums. That era has long gone. Now the lifeblood of an artiste is concerts and social media based broadcast of these concerts. In a concert, a connect with the audience is paramount. There is an unsaid pact between the artiste and the audience, to share in a familiar experience. The chances of success improve when the artiste sings known 'hits' rather than unknown kritis. Yes, some artistes make it a point to introduce the public to new songs, but it requires a certain amount of confidence and dedicated research to be able to pull it of successfully. I wonder if this transition from the recorded era to the live concert era has contributed to the phenomenon.

Having said all this, I find myself left with a sense of bafflement — that so many of these songs, hiding in plain sight, are not heard more often (at least by me).

And I find myself in renewed awe of Dikshitar — not just of the vastness of his works, but his ability to affect and engage for so long, someone such as myself, who has known so little of his works for so long.

Many websites mention a sixth vibhakti series, on Rama or Ramachandra. However, Aiyar’s biography does not. Some of these sites say that unlike the other vibhakti kritis, the Rama vibhakti songs are not all on one deity, but on different Rama deities at various temples that Dikshitar visited toward the end of his life. This could be a case of ex post facto clubbing of songs into a series.

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