Lost at sea

This is the first in a series in which I discuss compositions that have what seem like very counterintuitive choices of ragas.

Consider the following lyrics (translated):

I was drowned in the ocean of family life; an ocean whose vastness and depth can never be measured. I used to make a lot of false statements which sounded like truth. In the meantime, I put in long hours of physical labor for many days. I used to hide myself from the company of respectable elders. I never used to think of serving You or seeking Your feet. Many major diseases attacked my body. (As I said about the ocean of family life), several waves of illnesses called the disease of birth swayed me! I became an angry mad man and lost my balance. I do not want to suffer like that any more. I want to contemplate on the origin of birth and to destroy its root cause, namely, desire. I want to sing Your glory and survive in this world by Your grace.

You are always the great bridegroom to VaLLi, the damsel of the KuravAs, in whose company You revel! You embrace her lovely shoulders and play with her romantically! I seek Your closeness as You rejoice in the company of VaLLi! You have to make me experience happiness. It is not only Your duty but would also add to Your dignity, Oh MurugA! Those devotees of Yours, who sing Your glory without fail several times a day, are blessed by You to live in Your company forever worshipping You!

People love to deem this place, ThiruththaNigai, to be the land of SivA in this world; and You have Your abode here, standing as the Curer of the disease of birth, Oh Great One!

Take a few minutes to think about which raga might suit such lyrics. Which come to mind? My list includes Shubhapantuvarali and Darbari Kaanada (given the sheer weight and horrendousness of the past life recounted) or perhaps Pantuvarali, to go with this moment of catharsis. Perhaps either Poorvikalayani or Hamsanandam (which I associate with some mix of scolding, lament and desperation). Maybe Bhairavi, to acknowledge past mistakes in all their seriousness and find the resolve to follow a new, clearly difficult path (the contemplation of the origin of birth in order to destroy desire). Maybe the ‘safe’ choice of Sindhu Bhairavi , whose unvarnished pathos with a tinge of hope would aptly reflect the abjectness of the singer — both the abjectness of how far they’ve fallen and the abjectness of surrender to the Muruga.

The last, very last raga I would ever associate with such words is Senchurutti — that raga of abundant joy and warm embrace. And yet here its is:

I listened to this Thiruppugazh verse (Nilayada Samudiram)set to music, and enjoyed it well before I had any understanding the lyrics. I fell in love with this particular rendition as soon as it was released in 1998 and have listened to it and fallen in love with it a number of times. It is only recently, when attempting to try and sing it myself that I actually hunted down the words and the translation, which I found here (the translation quoted above, from this page, is by Gopala Sundaram).

And I was stunned by what I read! With it being set to Senchurruti, I just assumed that the verse was either a joyous ode to one’s own relationship with the deity or perhaps a more typically neutral recitation of the attributes of the Lord. The last thing I expected to be reading was was an unrelentingly self-flagellating account of the lost time of a lost soul. This was not someone going easy on themselves!

Even accounting for the fact that the author (the 15th century saint Arunagirinathar) has now found new resolve and direction, note that he has now set a new target for himself that seems barely imaginable, and perhaps almost as hopeless as before. The protagonist is not merely satisfied in resolving to devote himself to Muruga. No less than the affections of Muruga, in the same manner as bestowed on Valli, is enough. How has such a dramatic and audacious arc — from an absolutely pitiful life to being so demanding of the Lord himself — found a home in a raga such as Senchurutti?

And yet this weird and counterintuitive choice works, and how! Partly, I suppose it is because the fervor of the new devotee overwhelms the both the desperation of the past and and the uncertainty of future outcomes. All that matters is the joyous certainty of current resolve.


But I think there is another reason that Senchurutti works so well.

In his book Emotional Success, David DeSteno makes the case for harnessing three emotions in particular — gratitude, compassion and pride — to achieve goals. The thesis (and science) is that the usual cognitive techniques such as habit, grit, rational self-talk and so on, that we use to ‘force’ ourselves to make better life choices, and in particular better inter-temporal choices in which pleasure now is sacrificed for a better future outcome, are not nearly as reliable as we assume. We are as likely to use our cognition to rationalize bad choices as we are to use them to make better ones. Moreover, the more we rely on cognitive techniques to engender motivation and perseverance and other such traits, the less efficacious these techniques become.

On the other hand, if we are able to cultivate and trigger in ourselves gratitude, compassion and pride, then in different specific ways, these emotions change the way our minds perceive inter-temporal trade-offs, making better choices more automatic. All of this is based on the latest research on emotions, wonderfully summarized in the book ‘How Emotions are Made’ by Lisa Feldman Barrett. As the title suggests, she argues convincingly that that emotions do not arise as automatic, hardwired reactions to external stimuli. Rather they are actively constructed by each of us. I highly recommend both books.

In his discussion of compassion, DeSteno makes the argument that just as compassion towards others makes us treat them better, resulting in better outcomes for us and them in the future, compassion towards ourselves has a similar effect:

If compassion only helped us inhibit poor treatment of others, I would not be spending so much time on it in this book. But like gratitude and pride, that is not the case. What ties these three emotions together is that their ability to make us willing to sacrifice to aid others can be coopted to help our future selves.

For many, teaching perseverance — the ability to keep working hard to reach a goal — means “tiger momming” themselves or their kids. They critically rehash failures in an attempt to make themselves or others work harder the next time. But our work on compassion suggests that there might be another way to go — using compassion while acknowledging failures with a sense of warmth and forgiveness [emphasis added]. While many initially think that this sensitive approach could lead to a complacency and a subsequent reduced effort, it turns out that the compassionate route is the better way to go. Feeling compassion doesn’t mean accepting poor performance; it doesn’t make people blind to failure. To the contrary, when feeling compassion, whether for ourselves or others, it makes us want to help them do better, become better, but without causing any additional pain… [Compassion] should acknowledge failure, while motivating a desire to sacrifice enjoyment in the moment in order to improve the future but without punishing or belittling oneself.

He then goes on to cite all the evidence to show that compassion directed at oneself, especially at one’s past self, does exactly that.

Perhaps whoever tuned this verse to Senchurutti intuitively understood all of this. That no matter how harshly our protagonist’s words may seem to be judging his past self, he could do with a strong dose of “a sense of warmth and forgiveness” while acknowledging past errors. Only with such a compassionate view of his own past self could he possibly make a fist of walking away from all that he knows, and winning over Muruga.

And for a warm, forgiving embrace, where better to turn than to Senchurutti? Perhaps the choice of raga is deeply intuitive after all.



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Vishnu Vasudev

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