Monthly Archives: February 2016

Thevarams – Music of the Bhakthi Saints

As naalayira divya prabandhams are regarded as the devotional hymns for Vaishnavism, the thevarams are considered the devotional hymns for Shaivism. There are seven volumes of poetry in the thevarams which are part of a larger literary work called the thirumurai. The thevarams showcase the work of three Nayanar saints of the 7th century – Sambandhar, Appar and Sundarar. The hymns are sung as a daily ritual in many Shaivite temples of Tamil Nadu.

Appar went through several tribulations during his life as his devotion to Lord Shiva was constantly tested. The ruling Pallava king Mahendravarma I was a follower of Jainism in his early years. In an attempt to punish saints such as Appar for their affiliation towards Shaivism the king persecuted them with acts of cruelty. In one such instance, Appar was thrown into a lime kiln for many days. When he came out of the lime kiln unscathed the saint sang the thevaram Massil Veenaiyum in the glory of Lord Shiva. In the song he likens his harsh environment to the sweet melody of the veena, the luminescence of the moon, the gentle breeze blowing and the sound of bees buzzing in a pond.

Here are danseuse Padma Subramaniam and Shyamala Balakrishnan singing this thevaram in the raga Mayamalavagowla.

Sundarar is best known for the thevaram Pitha Piraisoodi. There is an interesting story behind this thevaram. At Sundarar’s wedding, an old man appeared claiming that Sundarar was his slave. Sundarar protested and called the old man mad (pitha). The matter was brought to court, which ruled in favor of the old man. Sundarar was forced to follow him as his attendant. On reaching the temple at Tiruvennainallur the old man disappeared into the sanctom santorum, not to be seen again. That was when Sundarar realized that the old man was none other than Lord Shiva himself. Whereupon the Lord appeared in front of him and asked Sundarar to sing in his praise. Sundarar protested saying he didn’t even know how to start.  Then the Lord asked him to begin singing with the first word he’d uttered upon seeing him – pitha.

Here is the stalwart M.S.Subbalakshmi singing this thevaram Pitha Piraisoodi in the raga Nadanamakriya.

These two thevarams hopefully give you, dear reader a sense of the poetry and devotion packed in the thevarams. Om Namah Sivaya!



The magic of Venice

A realist, in Venice, would become a romantic by mere faithfulness to what he saw before him. Arthur Symons

When he breaks into an aria, we roll our eyes in embarrassment. The gondolier passes us with a flourish on the canal. The hint of drama evokes a smile in the elderly couple across from us. This is Venice, where the very air breathes with romance and magic. Every alley and piazza hides a multitude of secrets. The city is a labyrinth of criss-crossing canals and pretty stone bridges. I can’t decide if it is prettier on foot or from the water.

Our vaporetti (water-bus) glides almost silently past gothic-style buildings that line both sides of the canal. The reflection of the Santa Maria della Salute draws a collective gasp from our boat. The marble facade is like pearl drops shimmering luminescently in the water. The church with its magnificent dome and impressive exterior, a Venetian landmark, is beautiful to behold.

Just when I wonder if its early season for tourists, I hear the murmur of crowds. Our vaporetti is approaching the Piazza san Marco (St Mark’s Square). Here is the pulse of the city, where the action lies, and what Napoleon once described as one of the “finest drawing rooms of Europe”.

Read the rest of the article here.

This travel piece was published in a few years back.

Kulashekhara Alwar’s Perumal Tirumozhi – Music of the Bhakthi Saints

The ninth of the twelve alwars, Kulasekhara Alwar, was a king of the Chera dynasty. Known as a philosopher king, he showed great interest in spirituality whilst still engaged in matters of state. His devotion took the form of poetry of which the Mukunda Mala in Sanskrit is the most famous work.

Several tales, possibly apocryphal, talk of his intense love for his Lord Ranganatha. Once when listening to a narration of the epic Ramayana at court, the king was so caught up with the story that in an emotional outburst, ordered his troops to prepare for the battle against Ravana! Only when the narrator brought the story to an end with Rama’s victory did the king heave a sigh of relief.

An earlier piece in the Deccan Herald, tells the tale of Kulashekhar Alwar and can be read here.

My first encounter with the work of Kulashekhar Alwar’s work was when I was working on a project on Saranagathi (or surrender). Kulashekhara Alwar composed the Perumal Tirumozhi – 105 verses or paasurams of exquisite devotional poetry, praising the deity at Vitthivakodu in Kerala. The CD that resulted from my project, featured 30 verses of the Perumal Tirumozhi. Here are four verses presented in the form of a ragamalika, from the CD Saranagathi.



Andal’s Tiruppavai – Music of the Bhakthi Saints


Krishna the cowherd in watercolour- I painted this years back

Gopala Gopala Gopi Vallabha Gopala
Govinda Govinda Rasa Leela Govinda

The Bhakthi movement refers to the spiritual movement initiated by the Shaivite and Vaishnavite saints of India in the seventh century. From espousing the dualism of Dvaita Vedanta to the monoism of Advaita Vedanta, the Bhakthi saints brought a transformation in the spiritual growth of the country. Many of them spread their message through the form of devotional hymns – bhajans, abhangs, vachanas, dohas which the common man could easily relate to. I will be writing a series of posts tracing the path of Bhakhi saints across India and their musical contributions.

We begin with Andal, the female Alwar saint and her work – the Tiruppavai also referred to as paasurams. The twelve Alwars who were believed to have lived from 5th to 10th century CE were part of the Srivaishnava tradition of Tamil Nadu in southern India. They devoted their lives to the worship of the Hindu God Vishnu and his 8th avatar (incarnation) Krishna.  The 4000 hymns composed by these saints are referred to as the Naalayiram Divya Prabandhams.

Andal was the only female among the Alwar saints. Her hymns known as Tiruppavai are in the form of  octets and specially sung by devotees in the month of Margazhi (mid-December to mid-January in the English calendar). Andal was adopted by the Alwar saint Periyalvar as a baby when he discovered her lying under the Tulasi plant in a garden at Srivilliputhur. She is also referred to as Godhai and Nachiyar. Apart from the Tiruppavai,, Andal also composed the Nachiyar Tirumozhi, a set of 143 verses praising Lord Krishna.

The Tiruppavai is distinct for the intense piety and simplicity of thought reflected in the lyrics. It is often believed to be the essence of the Vedas. In the Tiruppavai, Andal speaks of how total surrender of oneself and continuous service at the Lord’s feet would lead to  moksha (liberation from cycle of rebirth).

Here is a rendition of the ninth Tiruppavai in raga Hamir Kalyani by the maestro Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar.

The last Tiruppavai lists the advantages accrued by devotees who sing all the thirty paasurams with piety in the month of margazhi. Here is a rendition of the tiruppavai sung by M.L.Vasanthakumari in raga Surutti.


RaagTime Episode 11 – Love Songs

Who is the most romantic of us all? Three men along with their wives are sitting in a circle and mulling over this question. One man blurts out that he has forgotten about today being Valentine’s Day.The second one asserts that V-Day is nothing but a commercial trap. The third smugly points to the bouquet of flowers on the table. Before the other two men congratulate him, his wife is quick to remind him that she had goaded him that morning into buying the bouquet for her as a gesture!

Love is in the air and Valentine’s Day has come to stay, whether people like it or not. Some express their love through gifts, some with words yet music continues to be one of the easiest forms of expression when it comes to all matters of the heart.

If music be the food for love, then play on. The bard of Avon believed that the two had a strong connection. He also had me thinking how love was expressed in different Indian languages. One of the top hits last year for Indian music on YouTube was a breezy romantic song that featured Bollywood hunk Hrithik Roshan and Sonam Kapoor. The entire song Dheere Dheere Se by Yo Yo Honey Singh seemed like a Mills and Boon story played musically on the screen.

Love is a popular theme in Indian movies and there are innumerable songs that reflect the different facets of the emotion. The song Hum Tere Bin Abh Raha Nahi Sakte by Arijit Singh from the movie Aashique 2 never fails to bring tears to the eyes. It has a certain pathos to it and makes one yearn for the unattainable. While Hum Tere Bin is relatively a new song, Tujhe Dekha To Yeh Jana Sanam sung by Kumar Sanu and Lata Mangeshkar from the blockbuster 1995 Hindi movie Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge continues to be the eternal favourite love song for several generations.

Premayil Naanum is a rollback to the golden melodies of old Tamil movie songs. It was a love song sung by two legendary Carnatic musicians MS Subbalakshmi and GN Balasubramaniam onscreen who played the lead roles in the movie Shakuntalai.

The immortal love between Radha and Krishna is highlighted in the magnum opus of Jayadev – Geet Govind. One of the songs from this lyrical work Priye Charusheele is sung by Ghantashala in this episode.

When one falls in love in a moment, how is the sentiment expressed in Kannada? M.D.Pallavi captures this moment in her song Onde Baari Nanna Nodi.

So sit back and enjoy listening to love songs in different languages. It’s time to smell the roses!

Click here for RaagTime Episode 11 – Love Songs

RaagTime Episode 5 – Instruments of India (Part 2)

The veena is one of the oldest musical instruments of India. It is a plucked stringed instrument. There are several types of veena – Saraswathi veena (heard in Carnatic music)Rudra veena (heard in Hindustani music) both of which are fretted instruments and the Chitravina (Carnatic music) sometimes referred to as gottuvadyam and Vichitravina (Hindustani music) which are fretless. The sound of the veena is one of the sweetest melodies of music. The instrument is also adaptable when playing other genres of music other than Indian classical music. Dr. Chittibabu, the well known exponent of the veena highlighted this point when he remarked, “Veena is as old as the Vedas and yet as modern as tomorrow”. Episode 5 begins with a rendition of Marivere Gathi, a composition of Shyama Shastri in raga Anandabhairavi by one of the best vainikas (veena player) of the instrument Jayanthi Kumaresh.

The santoor is another plucked stringed instrument heard in Hindustani music. Native to Jammu and Kashmir it is in the shape of a trapezoid and a type of dulcimer. It is played by striking the strings using spoon shaped hammers. Pandit Shivkumar Sharma from Jammu was the first Indian musician to play this instrument and in this episode he plays raag Ahir Bhairav.

When you walk into any south Indian wedding the sound of the nadhaswaram can be heard in the background. It is considered an auspicious instrument and played at all important events in south India. The nadhaswaram is a double reed wind instrument and in this episode Sheikh Chinna Moulana plays the delightful Tyagaraja kriti Nagumomu Ganaleni in raga Abheri.

The last two tracks feature two percussion instruments – one that is unusual and the other that is heard in all Hindustani concerts. The jaltarang consists of a set of ceramic or metal bowls tuned with water. The bowls are played by striking the edge with beaters, one in each hand. Milind Tulankar shows how the jaltarang is played in the Hindustani style.

The episode concludes with a mesmerizing performance by Ustad Zakir Hussain playing the tabla. The tabla is a pair of hand drums that comes in different sizes and is similar to the bongos.

Click here to listen to Episode 5 RaagTime – Instruments of India(Part 2)



The Sound of Silence

The things we think about, brood on, dwell on, and exult over influence our life in a thousand ways. When we can actually choose the direction of our thoughts instead of just letting them run along the grooves of conditioned thinking, we become the masters of our own lives. Eknath Easwaran

In the still of the night the beast comes alive. It persists, annoys and tears my insides till it wakes me up from my deep slumber. Then the battle between woman and beast begins with the latter winning each time. The hacking sounds that follow has my husband turning towards me in consternation. There’s a pained look on his face as he watches me cough incessantly. The mug of warm water and lozenges lying on the bedside table near me are also a mute witness to my suffering. I look around the dark room and hear the faint whispers of the night. The momentary silence between the coughing bouts are comforting.

For more than a week now I’d been laid up with a viral infection. Sore throat, fever, cold and cough appeared in rapid succession like unwelcome guests at a party. The good news was that the first three moved onto fresher pastures before the first course of the dinner was over. The bad news was that the last one continued to linger even after the desert.

“Rest your vocal chords!” The doctor’s advice kept ringing in my ears. Easier said than done. Even if I did want to talk, I simply couldn’t. That’s when I began to appreciate the sounds around me.The pigeons cooing in my balcony while leaving their mark on the floor as they flew away. The shrieks of my neighbor’s little Jedis playing with their toy light sabers outside my apartment door in the common area. The guffaws of old men from the laughter club waking up the entire building at the crack of dawn as they huddled on the lawns outside. I also began to savor the quiet that appeared at odd intervals. Silence. Silence was an old friend of mine.

I grew up in a home which was mostly quiet. My father was a taciturn man while my mother was a busy housewife who didn’t have the time to chat. I was happy to be left alone in my world of books and music. Years later when I got married into a large family, I was surrounded by women who had a compulsive need to talk and an equally perverse desire to make me listen to them. I had an irrational desire to speak my mind at times but often the words were stuck in my throat. Silence. Now the same friend became a pesky thing that I wanted to shove out the door.

“You’ve started speaking a lot more!” My aged uncle remarked when he met me after twenty years. I was pondering aloud on the happy partnership between silence and meditation to him when he made the observation. Was I more talkative than before? I wondered. Yet my daughters refrained from answering that question when I asked them. Their feeble answer was a tad regretful. “We can never shout out Earth-calling-mom!” 

It needed a temporary illness to make me recall my old friend. Silence. A friend that I had somehow forgotten along the way.