Neraval is one of the most distinctive features of carnatic music. Neraval is an improvisation around a song segment, usually a line or two, from a composition set in a specific raga (melody) even while staying within the song’s tala (beat). A good neraval demonstrates a mastery of three elements of the music – raga, tala and sahitya (lyrics).
Imagine this scenario – you’re driving your car along some curvy roads. If you ignore the laws of road, you are likely to be in an accident or at the very least get a ticket. At the heart of a neraval performance, is the raga, rendered as a methodical development of the melody’s notes, bound by the rules of presentation.
Now imagine as you drive your car that you are now engaged in a conversation with another person. So even as you drive according to the rules of the road, in order to communicate you have to follow the rules of the language. So too in neraval, while bound by the melody, you have a second constraint, that of the tala (beat) .
If in your car, you were not merely having a conversation, but having a poetry face-off, then the lyrics or the actual words become critical. So too in neraval, the lyrics or sahitya become the third constraint – which ones you pick, how you separate or where you put the line breaks is just as important, as the melody and the beat.
In a neraval, the nuances of the raga have to be effectively brought out without distorting the lyrics and maintaining the tala consistently.
Thus a good neraval requires the musician to weave the three elements – raga, tala and sahitya – seamlessly – so rather than constrain, they elevate the rendering.
Let us take three examples of neraval beginning with maestro K.V.Narayanaswamy‘s rendition of Tyagaraja’s composition Intha Sowkya in raga Kapi. As the neraval unfolds, the listeners can feel the maestro savouring the lyrics while bringing out the essential features of the raga. The pace is unhurried. Even the minutest pause between the words draws the listener into a meditative ambience. KVN was often referred to as the ‘king of neraval’.
Madurai Mani Iyer‘s niraval for the Oothakadu Venkata Subbaiyyar‘s song Thaye Yashodha is like a caress. In the words of the neraval “kaalinil silambu kKonja”, the composer describes Lord Krishna as the latter comes out on the street wearing anklets on his feet, bangles on his hands, pearl necklaces around his neck. Then the Lord begins to dance.
Vijay Siva‘s rendition of neraval for the Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyyar‘s composition Kalyana Rama in raga Hamsanaadam is a dynamic presentation. The words of the neraval “mallikadhu sugandha maya navamaalika athishobhatha kalena” describes the groom Lord Rama wearing a garland of fresh and fragrant jasmine flowers around his well-adorned neck. The song vividly brings to life the wedding of Lord Rama and Sita.
There is no concept of a neraval in Hindustani music. Yet whenever I hear this Tulasidas bhajan Janakinaath Sahay Kare Jab by Pandit D.V.Paluskar it seems to have all the elements of a neraval at different points in the lyrics. In the first line of the bhajan, the composer insists that as long as ‘Janakinaath (Lord Rama) is our saviour, nobody can hurt us’ – the line is sung in so many ways to bring out this emotion. Often bhajan renditions reiterate the fact that neraval is a continuum of raga, sahitya and tala.