Looking for specific intent in Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Shri raga compositions

A. Background note on the two schools of raga categorization (feel free to skip)

Melakartha system

Carnatic music has developed ways of categorizing ragas according to the notes which comprise them. One such system is known as ‘Melakartha’. The late 17th century-early 18th century musicologist Govindacharya standardized this system. Without getting into too much detail, his was essentially a permutation-combination exercise, resulting in 72 melakartha ragas, each with seven notes on the ascent (aarohana) and descent (avarohana). All other ragas, are derivatives (‘janya’ or born from)of one of these 72 ragas, through the selection and combination of notes within a particular melakartha raga’s seven-note super-set.

This system, while dominant, and followed by the composer Thyagaraja among others, has its detractors. The gist of the criticism is two-fold. The first is that ragas did not develop as a pedantic exercise of permutation and combination. Calling a centuries-old raga like Ananda Bhairavi (which has folk antecedents) a ‘janya’ of the Natabhairavi melakartha raga makes little sense, and sells Ananda Bhairavi short. The second, related criticism is that the melakartha system alters the idea of a raga entirely, encouraging us to view them as nothing more than a scale / combination of notes, rather than an abstract form organically developed. For more on this, do read the section “a scale does not a raga make” in one of my previous posts . This view is well articulated, among others, by TM Krishna.

Raganga sytem

The alternative to the melakartha system is known as the ‘raganga’ system. It too consists of 72 ragas, each of which has all seven notes, from which all other ragas can be considered derived or ‘janya’ in some superficial sense. Unlike in the melakartha system however, in the raganga system, it is not necessary for both the ascent and descent of the raga to have all seven notes. It suffices for all seven notes to be represented when the ascent and descent are taken together. Also, the use of ‘crooked’ or vakra paths in ascent or descent are allowed, unlike in the melakartha system. Take for example, Reetigowla,one of the 72 ‘mother’ ragas in the raganga system. It has the same seven notes as Natabhairavi, but not all of them are in the ascent. It is also a vakra raga (so crooked in fact, that many argue that this raga should not even be thought of in terms of the aarohana-avarohana scale; rather what defines the raga are itscharacteristic phrases or prayogas):

Aarohana: SGRG-MNDM-NNS Avarohana: SNDM-GMPM-GRS

Note that Pa is only in the descent.

This raganga system predates Govindacharya’s, and was developed by Venkatamakhi, a 17th century musicologist. The Muthuswami Dikshitar school of music follows this system. While the criticism that the melakartha system encourage the idea of ragas as mere scales still applies to the raganga system, it redeems itself by at least seeming to place a little more emphasis on the organic roots and aesthetics of a raga, going beyond a mere seven-note “up-and-down” scale.

[Note: The previous version of this post referred to the the two systems of raga classification as ‘Sampurna Melakartha’ (for Melakartha) and ‘Asampurna Melakartha’ (for Raganga). While this nomenclature is still in use, it is not technically correct as the all the ‘main’ ragas in the Raganga system still have all seven notes (and are therefore also complete, or sampurna), just not in both ascent and descent. Thanks to TMK for pointing this out to me.]

B. Shri raga in the Dikshitar school/ Raganga system

There are two versions of Shri raga. The difference between the two is in the descent. Both versions have the following five-note ascent:

Aarohana: SRMPNS

If following the melakartha system, Shri is considered a janya raga of Kharaharapriya and has the following descent. In this version there is no dhaivata (dha) note.

Avarohana 1: SNPM-RGRS

The famous composition by Thyagaraja, Endaro Mahanubhavulu, for example, follows this raga outline.

In the raganga system however, Shri raga is considered one of the 72 ‘major/mother’ raga . By definition therefore, it has to have all seven notes, and so it does. The missing dha note is incorporated in the descent, through the PDNPM phrase.

Avarohana 2: SN-PDNPM-RGRS

C. Hypothesis

This whole exercise started with a statement of fact, followed by a somewhat whimsical observation and finally a hypothesis.

Fact: In all of Muthuswami Dikshitar’s Shri raga compositions, he has incorporated the PDNPM (or at least PDN) phrase exactly once. (Thanks to my music teacher Prasanth Pai for teaching me this).

It is almost as though he uses it for the sake of completeness, and to stay true to his / Venkatamakhi’s version of Shri raga.

Observation: In his composition ‘Shri Varalakshmi Namasthubhyam’ Dikshitar uses this phrase in the line ‘Keshava hrid-khelinyai’ (describing Lakshmi as the one who plays or sports in Keshava’s heart). Do listen for it:

Ashwath Narayanan’s rendition of Dikshitar’s Shri Varalakshmi Namasthubhyam

Hypothesis: Shri raga has a very robust feel about it. Yet the PDNPM phrase (at about 2:14) used for “Keshava hrid-khelinyai”, has a delicate, tender effect, especially as it comes at the end of a relatively fast passage of composition (beginning at 1:54 with “Sevaka jana paalinyai; these fast passages are called ‘madhyama kala sahitya’).

My hypothesis is that the coincidence of this delicate and evocative once-in-a-song musical phrase (PDNPM), with lyrics that evoke a certain tenderness among two celestials (Lakshmi residing and playing in Keshava’s heart) is not coincidental at all. Dikshitar planned the use of the phrase to the T.

Unlike Thyagaraja, Syama Shastri and a host of other composers, Muthuswami Dikshitar’s music is devoid of much personal emotion. There are rarely pleas to the deity to come and save him right now, or to his mind to stop wandering, or lamenting at one’s fate at being unjustly ignored by god despite fervent devotion or other such drama. At the most there is a restrained plea for protection, almost in a “please look out for me” kind of way. Rather, his lyrics are more descriptive of the deity with reference to mythology, ritual, and inter-divinity relations. Take for instance the translation of Shri Varalakshmi Namasthubhyam (T.K Govinda Rao’s translation, sourced from here. :

Salutations to Varalakshmi! Who bestows fortunes, whose feet are like a lotus, graceful at every step, please protect me.

Who is the beloved of the father of Bhaavaja (i.e. the beloved of Vishnu — Bhavaja is another name of Kamadeva), who shines like molten gold. Whose effulgence is equal to that of a crore of suns. She is easily accessible to devotees. Who protects those who are devoted to her. She is adorned with a garland of lotus .She is paragon of virtues , and sports in the heart of Keshava.

On the Friday prior to the full moon day of the month of Shravana, she is worshipped by Suvasinis. She wears a garland of gems offered by Guruguha (Karthikeya, also the signature phrase of Dikshitar) and other celestials . She is expert in protecting the afflicted , and resembles a shower (“dhaare”) of gold. She is expert differentiating emotions, is worshipped by Saraswati. She gives liberation-Moksha and bestows desired boons.

Like I said, descriptive! Even to the extent of specifying the day and month on which she is to be worshiped through the Varalakshmi Pooja (for which this song was composed). Keshava-hrid khelinyai is the only phrase approaching human-like emotion or tenderness. The only other lyrics that could possibly qualify for the PDNPM phrase (if he was going for a matching of tenderness in music and lyrics) is ‘Dinajana Samrakshananipuna’ (expert in protecting the weak / deprived/ afflicted). ‘Bhaavaja janaka praana’ (the one held dear by Vishnu) may have qualified, but the compound-nature of the phrase, with Vishnu being described as the father of someone, deprives it of any real feeling.

So lyrics and the music are perfectly matched at Keshava-hrid khelinyai. The hypothesis is that this was done deliberately by Dikshitar.

All hypotheses must be tested.

D. Testing the hypothesis

To test the hypothesis, we have to look for evidence in other compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar in Shri raga. In each, what are the lyrics that match the single-use musical phrase PDNPM? Can a case be made that the lyrics are particularly suited to the phrase? Let’s see. There are six known compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar in Shri raga.

  1. kAmEshvarENa samrakSitOhaM — shrI/Adi
  2. tyAgarAja mahadhvajArOha — shrI/Adi
  3. shrI abhayAmbA ninnu cintiHncinavAriki — shrI/Adi
  4. shrI kamalAmbikE shivE pAhimAM lalitE — shrI/khaNDa EkaM (2 kaLai)
  5. shrI mUlAdhAra cakravinAyaka — shrI/Adi
  6. shrI varalakSmI namastubhyam vasupradE — shrI/rUpakaM

We’ve already looked at the last one. I have not been able to locate a clear recording of ‘Kameshvarena samrakshitoham’, so that’s out of consideration. Four remain:

Thyagaraja mahadhvajaroha

Thyagaraja Mahadhwajaroha, sung by Amirtha Murali

This song was composed on the Thyagaraja (Shiva)temple deity in Tiruvarur. Specifically, it was composed to describe the majesty of the deity during the annual chariot festival. Here is the English translation (from T.K. Govinda Rao): [For the Sanskrit lyrics transliterated to English script, click here].

What is striking about these lyrics is that despite it being about a chariot festival — the essence of which is bustle, pomp and the opportunity for mortals to interact with the deity on their own turf — the lyrics are characteristically restrained, descriptive of the characteristics of Shiva and full of references to philosophy and mythology.

The ONLY reference in the whole description to any sort of interaction with his devotees is the last line in the translation: “He reveals His feet full of grace during the festivals”. This is a rather literal translation of the line “anugrahaatmaka paada darshanam”. Paada darshanam (sighting the Lord’s feet) typically signifies the one tangible road to salvation / nirvana for the devotee, through worship.

It is this precise line, to do with devotees accessing the Lord, that has got the PDN treatment (at about 8:23 in the recording).

Shri Abhayamba Ninnu Chinthinavaariki

This song is special, because it is one of Dikshitar’s rare compositions in ‘maniparavalam’, a mixed-language which uses Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. Listen to Balamuralikrishna’s rendition:

Here is the English translation (from P.R. Ramachander, and modified by me): [For the lyrics transliterated to English script and more on the composition, click here]

Pallavi: Oh Abhayamba, those who meditate upon you are able to get over their troubles

Anupallavi: Oh Goddess with protecting hands who gives boons,
This is the right time to be compassionate and protect me

Charanam: After hearing of your wonderful qualities,
Believing you are my only hope,
Oh Goddess with fish like eyes,
Oh Goddess who is the witness of the true self,
Oh Goddess who with joy looks at Guru Guha,
Please look at me, please protect me.

I was shocked by this song — it is a total departure for Dikshitar, and the lyrics, in their plainly personal and emotional tenor sound much more like something from Thyagaraja or Shyama Shastri. I wonder if it is because we was making a personal plea that he chose manipravalam as the medium (with its colloqiual Tamil and Telugu usage) or if it was the other way around, with the choice of language leading to an uncharacteristically personal composition.

In this very personal composition, the PDNPM phrase is used in the most urgent, directly pleading phrase, in the Anupallavi— “ idu nalla samayamammA” — ‘this is the right time’ [to protect me]. In this rendition, the line begins at about 1:50. Could Dikshitar have used the phrase in any other part of the song with the same effect? Maybe, but both the Pallavi and Charanam are still mostly descriptive (vs. personal), barring the last line of the Charanam — the single word “rakshi” (protect me). The anupallavi is where he makes his direct plea, with urgency. The helpless, submissive, urgent nature of the plea, implying “I’m in your hands, if you are going to protect me, come now”, is beautifully brought out by the use of gliding PDNPM phrase.

Shri Kamalambike Shive Pahimam Lalite

Listen to D.K. Jayaraman and his disciples:

Shri Kamalambike Shive, sung by D.K. Jayaraman and disciples

This is one of Dikshitar’s Kamalamba Navavarna kritis. Shri is considered an auspicious raga, and so this particular song was composed as a ‘Mangala kriti’, or a song to give thanks and round things out on an auspicious note. [Shri Abhayamba Ninnu is similarly considered the ‘mangala kriti’ for another set of compositions known as the Abhayambha Vibhakti kritis in praise of the deity Abhayamba at Tirumayiladuturai].

The translation (T.K. Govinda Rao’s) is below. For transliteration, see here.

Shri Kamalambika, the spouse of Shiva, oh Lalita, please protect me. You are worshiped by Vishnu and You are always with Shiva.

Your face is like the full moon, You who protected Kolamukhi-Varahi. You are the companion of Lakshmi and Sarasvati. You enjoy the Rajayoga, oh Shakambari, the mother of nature, of slender waist, oh wearer of the crescent moon. Oh benevolent one, You are fascinated by the devotees of Shiva and Guruguha. You are the single syllable Om, oh empress of the world, one who enchants Lord Shiva. You are the the bestower of prosperity and happiness. You are Shri Maha Tripurasundari.

This too is a very typically descriptive composition, with little truly emotive lyrical content. The usage of the PDN phrase in this song comes at the end, at ‘Shri-kari’ (the cause or giver of auspiciousness / prosperity). In the recording above, it is at about 1:42. Now, this may seem to go dead against our hypothesis. “Shri-kari” is a descriptive phrase with no particular emotive content. But there are not that many other alternatives to fit the “emotive quotient” bill. Perhaps the word ‘pahimam’ (protect / take care of me) in the first line of the song is the only real phrase fitting in with our hypothesis.

The interesting thing though is that “shri-kari” apart from meaning the cause of prosperity, could also a pun on the name of the raga itself. And at this point Dikshitar has introduced the PDN musical phrase that is the signature of his / Venkatamakhi’s school of Shri raga! Could this have been a deliberately cheeky allusion? It would seem that he is saying “this is what makes it Shri ”, ‘this’ being the musical phrase, and Shri being the raga. This could be a deliberate pairing of music and lyric after all.

Shri Mooladhara Chakravinayaka

Listen to Balamuralikrishna once more [click the menu graphic on ‘Mooladhara Chakra, to navigate to the song, or if using the scroll bar, then to about 59:00]:

Balamuralikrishna’s rendition of Mooladhara Chakra Vinayaka (starting 59:00)

The translation and transliteration(original source unknown):

pallavi
SrI mUla-AdhAra cakra vinAyaka –O Vinayaka dwelling in the Muladhara Chakra,
amUlya vara pradAyaka — O giver of priceless boons,

anupallavi
mUla-ajnAna SOka vinASaka — O destroyer of the agony caused by primary ignorance,
mUla kanda — O root cause (of creation etc.),
mukti pradAyaka — O giver of salvation,

caraNam
sakaLI kRta dEva-Adi dEva — O primordial god to all gods,
SabaLI kRta sarvajna svabhAva –O one whose omniscience is variegated or scattered (among the created beings),
prakaTI kRta vaikharI svabhAva –O personification of the broadcast (uttered) word!
para-abhava prasiddha — O renowned one having none greater!
gaja grIva — O elephant-necked one ( one who is an elephant, neck upwards)!
vikaTa — O terrible one!
shaT-Sata SvAsa-adhikAra — O lord of the six hundred breaths!
vicitra-AkAra — O one of marvelous or manifold forms!
bhakta-upakAra — O helper of devotees!
akaLanka vibhAsvara — O one of immaculate brilliance!
vighna-ISvara — O lord of obstacles!
hara guru guha sOdara — O brother of Guruguha!
lamba-udara — O one with an extended belly!

Again, not much of a personal or emotive element to the lyrics. The PDNPM phrase is incorporated at ‘guruguha sodhara’ (brother of Karthikeya / Guha). This is the only reference to to any sort of relationship in the song. “Brother of Guruguha”, while plainly descriptive, is the closest we get in this song to anything approaching human sentiment. Guruguha is also the ‘mudra’ or signature phrase of the composer Muthuswami Dikshitar. The other possible phrase to have incorporated PDNPM for a delicate / tender touch may have been “bhaktopakara”.

E. Conclusion

So, where have we landed? I’d say that the use of PDN / PDNPM in three of the five songs provide strong backing for the hypothesis:

  1. Shri Varalakshmi Namastubhyam — used at the reference to Lakshmi sporting / playing in Keshava’s heart.
  2. Thyagaraja Mahadhwajaroha — used at the only reference to human interaction with the deity
  3. Shri Abhayamba Ninnu — used at the highpoint of a helpless and urgent personal plea

A fourth song (Shri Kamalambike) provides very strong backing, if you are willing to think out of the box and assume that Dikshitar was making a musical pun on the word “Shri”.

The fifth (Mooladhara) is inconclusive or even weak in its support.

Of course coincidence still does not mean causation in any way. And we will never know what Dikshitar was thinking. Even their seems to be a correlation between a very special musical phrase and the lyrical context of its use, it may have been subconsciously done — with a distinct musical counterpoint instinctively being used at the “business end” of the song, where the raison d’etre is at the fore. In the case of Thyagaraja Mahadhwajaroha for example, the point of the song is the chariot festival, where devotees have access to the deity. In Shri Abhayamba, the point of the song is for the deity to come right now and protect Dikshitar.

My reading, though, is that whether conscious or not, the pattern reflects Dikshitar’s seemingly effortless genius.

F. Post-Script

When looking for renditions of these songs, to share with you, I was very surprised to find that there were many renditions of these songs that elided the use of the dhaivata note / PDN phrase altogether. These included renditions by highly accomplished and respected artists. It indicates a standardization of the conception of Sri raga into the Thyagaraja / Govindacharchya mould. So even though it is very clear that Dikshitar, belonging to the raganga tradition, would have always incorporated this musical phrase into his Sri raga compositions, his conception of the raga has been ignored in the cause of ensuring there is only one Sri raga. This is another unfortunate example of vandalism that deprives the Carnatic tradition of variance and richness.

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Vishnu Vasudev

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