Poromboke Ragas — Carnatic music for the interested uninitiated

Vishnu Vasudev
8 min readMar 18, 2017


Early this year, I had written a piece on the “Chennai Poromboke Paadal”. Since then, I have been inspired to introduce Carnatic music to the interested uninitiated, through short posts on specific pieces that I have given me listening pleasure, even joy. My listening journey, like all journeys started more or less at zero. And along the way one or the other piece of Carnatic music piqued a curiosity more than another, enough for me to want to know more and more — about what I was listening to, how it might have been different, who was singing the piece, who had composed it, what made me react to it the way that I did, and what else was out there. With this blog, I hope to catalyze that journey for you — even if it does not lead to a long winding self-navigated journey, then I hope it will provide you with a few guided tours to dead ends that are entertaining cul-de-sacs nonetheless. In doing so, I will also draw upon previous writings on Carnatic music, from a previous blog. Here is the first installment.

A few days ago, the video and song “Chennai Poromboke Paadal” was released. It is a Carnatic music piece featuring the vocalist TM Krishna. Do have a look / listen — it is a fine work of art.

What excites me (more so than the message) is that it is a landmark piece of Carnatic music.

Carnatic music is like other forms of classical music, steeped in tradition and customs and has a long, sometimes apocryphal history. Our own holy trinity of composers, Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, were roughly contemporaneous to Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, a few centuries ago. By force of genius and prolific output, they set the precedent for composers and practitioners that followed. Being human, their music was driven variously by raw emotion, academic rigour and the intuition of experience. This why their music has such staying power. Being of their times, the lyrical content of their compositions was devotional — taking the form paeans to to Rama, Shiva, Shakti, Subramanya, the Nine Planets. Even within this construct, they covered remarkable ground — whether cribbing about the emptiness of pompous scholars, calling for the stilling of the mind, hinting at family politics, pondering the importance of wealth for happiness, and in more than a few glorious compositions, staring gobsmacked at the majesty of music itself. At the end of the day however, it was still a paean, and they ended hands folded, head bowed in unquestioning obeisance.

When your pioneers are such giants, there is a tendency to try and take all you can from their examples. You stop yourself from experimenting too much with the mould in the fear of not being able to put it back together again with any sort of congruence. So our later composers and performers, for the most part, reverentially restricted themselves to the same devotional themes. This is understandable — our audiences (and venues) have changed in many ways over time, but for the most part are still religious and worship the same gods. For those of us who are not as moved by religion, there is more than enough in the music itself to keep us engaged, immersed, riveted. And there are enough of all of us for musicians to perform and eat.

This straitjacketing of Carnatic music as religious, devotional and obsequious may be understandable, but is unfortunate. The issue has been compounded the the lazy and active marketing of it as such. This has had two major consequences. First, a limiting of the range and appreciation of instrumental Carnatic music. More importantly, it has limited the relevance and reach of Carnatic music. It can say a lot more to a many more. [It already does, but sadly most of us do not realize this — Rahman’s and Ilayaraja’s music is suffused with Carnatic music].

Which is why Poromboke Paadal, with little exaggeration, could be real landmark in Carnatic music. It speaks directly to a wider audience on a topic that is socially relevant, in vernacular that is local and contemporary, and packaged for social media. We have not had such an immediately socially relevant song, since the days of the freedom struggle when we had a whole host of patriotic Carnatic anthems.

Poromboke Paadal may or may not do its part in saving Ennore Creek, but there is a chance that it can be the the first step in two journeys — drawing in new audiences to sample our existing Carnatic cache, and expanding and rounding off the cache to include songs on love, longing, belonging, ambition, cowardice, frivolity, our smallness, our largeness — in short, songs about life as we experience it. This would be in keeping with the best traditions of Carnatic music — after all, our Trinity sang about what mattered most to them.

With this post, I hope to make my limited, decidedly amateur contribution towards making Carnatic music a little more “poromboke” — not for you, or for me, but accessible to us all. The composition is a classic example of a raga-malika (composition of many ragas), in this case with six ragas. These compositions are typically sung toward the end of a concert (though perhaps not at a TM Krishna concert — which we’ll get into another time!).

For each stanza, I’ll give you the raga, why I think the composer (R.K. Shriramkumar, a leading Carnatic violinist) may have chosen this raga, and a few links to compositions in this raga for further listening — one vocal, and one instrumental. Here goes:

Stanza 1: “Porombokku unnaka ille…”: The idea of Poromboke (the commons) is inherently local, traditional, shared. The raga Anandabhairavi has been chosen to explain this concept and to go with the simple lyrics. The raga is an old raga with folk antecedents. Often used in lilting gaits and during events such as weddings, and even for lullabies. When talking of communal resources and trying to reach a wider audience, where better to start than Anandabhairavi, with its familiar and comforting cadences.

Listen to Paluke Bangaramayana (Telugu); composed by Bhadrachala Ramdas, sung by Balamuralikrishna.

Listen to Thyagaraja Yoga Vaibhavam (Sanskrit); composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar, played on the mandolin by U. Shrinivas.

Stanza 2: “Vellam pona…”: The song tries to make a carefully constructed argument, tying two meanings of poromboke together, and uses rhetoric as a device. This stanza gently asks the first of these rhetorical questions — “does it really make sense to put concrete on lake beds, is this what we have learnt from floods so recent?” It needs to bring the listener along for the ride in an open frame of mind, willing to listen. Begada fits the bill perfectly — welcoming, cheerful, positive, optimistic. You would be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t want to listen to what Begada has to say. In part, what makes Begada so friendly is that it has a “crooked” structure, going up a few notes and back down again before hitting the top note, and uses distinctive glides on the descent — glides that are teasing and fun to slide down, for example, in the “concrete” phrase. Perhaps it takes a slightly cheeky raga like Begada to be able to pull off a word like “concrete” with confidence!

Listen to Intha Chalamu [varnam] (Telugu); composed by Veenai Kuppaiyer, played on the flute by N.Ramani.

Listen to Vallabha Nayakasya (Sanskrit); composed by Muthuswamy Dikshitar, sung by MS Subbulakshmi.

Stanza 3: “Unne nagarathille”: They’ve chosen Hameerkalyani for this stanza. It has antecedents in Hindustani music (Kedar is the equivalent north Indian raga) and perfectly suited to first gently and lovingly remind the listener, with just a hint of a scold, that the rivers did not choose to flow through your city, it was you who built your cities around them, and then to set up the the romantic metaphor of the poromboke lake waiting for the rains. Hameerkalyani elevates poromboke by directly pulling at our heartstrings. It is a reflective and romantic raga, both at once.

Listen to Purahara Nandana (Sanskrit) [please click on the button labeled “Purahara”]; composed by Muthuswamy Dikshitar, sung by Maharajapuram Santhanam.

Listen to Venkata Saila Vihara (Telugu); composed by Subbaraya Shastri, played on the veena by Doraiswamy Iyengar

Stanza 4: “Ennurale”: The overriding emotion in this stanza is pathos — it is a lament, reaching a crescendo with the absurdity of even thinking about never mind successfully accomplishing the separation of river and ocean. The video also conveys the magnitude of this absurdity with visuals of huge pylons and the use of “acres” in the lyrics. But they do not want to get you into a morose frame of mind. This is not yet the crux of the argument, though we are slowly leading up to it. Devagandhari is perfectly suited for this mood and message. It has an inherently pleasing and positive combination of notes, but makes use of expansive phrases which convey the scale of the blunder, the very injustice of the separation. [As an aside, Devagandhari is closely linked to Arabhi, a very popular Carnatic raga — it is not always obvious which is which].

Listen to Enneramum (Tamil); composed by Gopalakrishna Bharati, sung by K.V. Narayanaswamy

Listen to Kshirasagara Shayana (Telugu); composed by Thyagaraja, played on the violin by M.S. Gopalakrishnan.

Stanza 5: “Ennurile senju mudicha”: I’ll be honest — it took me a while to identify this raga as Salaga Bhairavi, and I am not 100% sure. This is the stanza in which things are coming to a head and things get real for the listener — “if they can do this in my town, they can do this in yours as well”. There is a foreboding, frustration, helplessness. Salaga Bhairavi is not the most widely sung / played raga, and not the most intuitive choice. I personally would have gone to one of the “Big 6” major ragas like Bhairavi, Kalyani or Kharaharapriya for this stanza to drive through to the finale, but Salaga Bhairavi does impart a great sense of urgency.

Listen to Padavi ni sadbhakti (Telugu); composed by Thyagaraja, sung by M.L. Vasanthakumari and played by Doraiswamy Iyengar on the veena.

Stanza 6: “Valarchi velai…”: This is the final denouement. There is an overwhelming sadness, at the loss of poromboke lands and perhaps a degrading of citizenship as well. Sadness and feelongs of abandonment, of this being a lost cause, of fumbling impotence. [This is brilliant from another perspective…soon after we are directed to a link to the petition — the chance at immediate redemption]. Sindhubhairavi (Bhairavi in Hindustani music) can evoke this sadness like no other raga. It can also, when used at the right tempo, rally the troops like no other. It is already very familiar to a wide audience — there are numerous thumris, ghazals and film songs in this raga including the immortal “ka karun sajani aaye na balam” (sadness) and the DD anthem “mile sur mera tumhara”(rally the troops). There is a tradition in Hindustani music to end concerts with this raga (since it is considered a pre-dawn raga and in those days concerts went well into the night) and in Carnatic music as well, it is often sung toward the end of a concert, and is often used in ragamalikas.

Listen to Venkatachala Nilayam (Kannada), composed by Purandaradasa, played by Sheik Chinna Moulana on the nadaswaram.

Listen to Hare Venkatashaila Vallabha (Kannada); composed by Sripadaraja, sung by R.K. Srikantan

Thanks for listening!



Vishnu Vasudev

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