NottuSwara – Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s European airs

Carnatic music is more Greek than Greek and Latin put together for some people, dense stuff so to say, but many a mathematician understood classical music better (and as you know in early days it was Brahmins in the South and who excelled in Math and Carnatic music). The trick to all this is listening a lot and deciphering the code to music and for that you have to learn to use what is known as the Melkartha table. Anyway I am not going to get into all that, but my own understanding is slowly getting better after about 6 months of weekly Carnatic lessons as a small time member of a fascinating group. More about all that another day after I am better initiated, but today I will write about the lighter side of Carnatic if I may term it that, and a very interesting side.

First listen to this composition (I am not the singer) loosely based around Sankarabharana, then read the rest of the article. And at the start a big thanks to Aparna for introducing us to this number and me to this genre.

Hopefully that felt good and easy on your ears and transported you to faraway Celtic lands

Now some of you must have heard that Baluswamy Diskshitar - Muthuswamy’s brother introduced the Violin to Carnatic music as I mentioned some months ago while writing about Ettayapuram in the article Cat (Kattabomman) Etappa and Dumby.

Well, the British rule in India has to be thanked again for without the violin, there is no way a Carnatic recital gets complete today. How Baluswamy learnt violin is also a matter of contention. Some opine that he learnt it in Manali thanks to the Mudaliar sponsorship; others say it was at the courts of Ettayapuram and a third faction states this happened at Tanjore with the help of Vadivelu.

Anyway it is difficult to figure out how that happened, but Baluswamy learnt Violin and bits of Celtic music. He practiced it at home in Manali and the master composer and elder brother Muthuswamy took note. Later Muthuswamy set Sanskrit shlokas to the tunes and we know it today as the Nottu Swara Sahitya. There are some 36-40 of these works set around the Raaga Sankarabharanam. The song you heard was one of Dikshitar’s compositions.

Why is it called Nottu swara? Well it stands for Notes Swara, i.e. ‘Western notes’ swara. They are also termed ‘European airs’ by the English who took note. But to really get to the bottom of all this, let us all go back in time to 1800, a bit North of Madras to Manali, where today we have all the refineries and all that, the very same place which was bombed by Emden.

Muthuswamy Dikshitar was born in 1775 (1775-1835) in Tiruvarur, near Trichy as a fruit of long prayers by his father Ramaswamy Dikshitar, a famous singer himself. Even before he was sixteen, he became proficient both in vocal music and in playing the veena. Tiruvavur incidentally was the very place which produced the rest of the Carnatic holy trinity namely Thyagaraja and Sama Sastry.

To get back to Nottuswara, let us first check out the popular version.

The British East India Company was slowly settling down in India. They had come to agreements with the Zamorin and Cochin king in Malabar and moved upwards to Madras which became the center of their operations in the South, a little before the transformation of Calcutta as the main base. Intellectuals were slowly finding their way from Victorian Britain to Madras, analyzing things like Hinduism, music, Dravidian languages, customs etc and writing book after book as well as collecting manuscripts for posterity and for their own private collections. The law and order was not as firm and formal and to the British liking and for that purpose came the troops to support, mainly from the Welsh regions, Scotland & Ireland. The army bands came to provide the troops direction, entertainment and accompaniment. As all of you know they practice seriously, with the captain showing great style and panache, throwing the baton and catching it as they marched along in glorious uniforms with color, pomp and splendor. Off working hours, they performed for state occasions at Fort St George.

Muddukrishna Mudaliyar a Zamindar in Manali and a Dubash (translator and interpreter) was well connected with the East India Company. He was also a patron of art and once happened to visit Tiruvavur. Here he listened to Ramaswamy Dikshitar singing and was so captivated that he invited him to Manali. Ramaswamy Dikshitar agreed and shifted to Manali with his family. He was succeeded by his son Venkatakrishna Mudaliar, who continued the patronage to the Dikshitar family. Venkatakrishna Mudaliar (also referred to as Chinnaswami) was also a Dubash of the East India Company and was invited often to Fort St George. Chinnaswami would often take Muthuswami and his brother to Fort St. George, to listen to what is known as ‘airs’- Western Music played by Irish men in the British band.

The bands played simple Celtic marching tunes, lilting melodies, easy on the drums and bagpipes and flutes. One the sidelines or in the audience, two young men watched and listened and took it all in. They were not yet bound by the strictures of temple music, and were for that period, affected by melody, rhythm of these alien sounds.

Since Muthuswamy had already taken to the Veena, it was decided that Baluswamy should learn playing on the violin. Chinnaswamy Mudaliar engaged a European tutor for this purpose. But listening to Baluswamy practice these basic tunes coupled with the band performances provided Muthuswamy the base to set his earliest compositions. Baluswamy’s experiments with the Violin on the other hand were even more pleasing and soon the violin became a permanent feature of Carnatic music concerts.

So as we saw, the Celtic tunes were to affect Dikshitar prodding him to create a new genre called Nottuswara – ‘Notes Swara’ (nottu being the Tamil slang for notes) based on these British tunes but set to Sanskrit devotional lyrics. You can call them Indi Celtic fusion in today’s terms. Many of these are based on the folk music tradition of the British Isles and are not from the Western classical music traditions. 39 or 40 of such compositions were considered to have been completed by Muthuswamy.

But as a popular version has it, CP Brown (termed as collector of Madras, which he was not) requested for these Kritis and Dikshitar created them on the request of Brown. But in my mind it just so happened and the musical sense of Dikshitar just penned the lyrics to those popular tunes of the time. Probably somebody asked him to do it, most probably not CP Brown considering Brown’s fondness for adding actual ‘Indian’ works to his collection.

In the second version Baluswamy first heard western music from the bands and wanted to learn the fiddle. Mudaliar then arranged a European tutor to train Baluswamy, who after mastering the playing of a fiddle moved to Tanjavur. The rajah of Ettayapuram was taken aback listening to young Baluswamy at the violin and invited him to his palace, as Asthana vidwan. Muthuswamy who was in Tanjavur at that time also came to Ettayapuram (this does not quite feel right though) and picked up the tunes from Balu at Ettayapuram.

In the 3rd version, the quartet of the vellala brothers was performing at Maharaj Serfoji’s court at Madurai. The youngest member Vadivelu was Muthuswamy’s disciple. Vadivelu had learnt the violin under Friedrich Schwartz and Vadivelu later taught the western tunes to Muthuswamy Dikshitar. But the quartet left Madurai after an argument with Serfoji and Vadivelu moved on to Swati Tirunal’s court in Trivandrum. So Muthuswamy picked up the tunes from Vadivelu and then penned the lyrics.

Finally another version alludes to Varaha payyar having learnt the violin and taught Vadivelu how to play it. It is also probable that a few Sanskrit and Tamil compositions had already been created using Western melodies which Muthuswamy listened to together with Vadivelu and Baluswamy, then tabulated them and compiled them for an Englishman who requested a compilation.

But how would one decide that they (the 39-40 we know today) are indeed works of Muthuswamy Dikshitar? According to stalwarts you have to identify the Mudra (I have no idea, I do not know how) can be identified as Dikshitar’s.These songs composed during the end years of the 18th century bear the "Mudra” or the composer’s signature "Guruguha”. Remember that these Nottu swaras were done several years before Dikshitar composed his first kriti, as Vak_geya Kara, (Srinathadi guruguho jayath...) on the hills of Tiruttani (around 1809). The “Nottuswara “songs were thus the forerunners of Dikshitar’s great classic compositions; and so Dikshitar had decided upon his signature, Mudra, quite early in his life, even before he left for Varanasi.

The tunes used were from the following original Western compositions such as Limmerick, Castilian Maid, Voulez Vouz Dansers, Lord Mc Donald’s reel & God Save the Queen. "Nottuswara sahithya" clearly brings out the structure of these compositions as the "English-Note" or "Nottuswara" tune with Sahitya or text. These are typically prescribed for beginners in place of Gitams.

Writers mention that three sources of documentation are available for the nottuswara sahityas. The first is supposedly a manuscript dating back to the year 1833, which records the writing of Sanskrit lyrics by Dikshitar for 12 of these melodies, in response to a request by CP Brown.

But is that right? Sambamurti states as follows in his book - "At the suggestion of an influential friend, Dikshitar composed Sanskrit sahityas to some of the western melodies. These were composed in 1832 and dedicated to Mr Brown, then the collector of Chittoor District. Mr. Brown is the renowned author of the first Telugu Dictionary." So it appears that in this version, these nottusvaras were composed only three years before Dikshitar passed away and not early in his life. The veracity of this version is not corroborated, however it is true that CP Brown was in Chittor in 1832-33 and famed as the acting ‘famine’ collector.

Others like Dr Durga state that a Telugu manuscript was presented to Charles Philip Brown in Madras in 1820 by Kuppayya and Seshayya under the caption "Jathiswaramulu". Though the primary source calls them as "Jathiswaramulu", the title "Nottuswara sahithya" is a more appropriate term for these compositions. A manuscript preserved in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Chennai, labeled as Manuscript no. D. 2536 contains twenty of such songs of Dikshitar, written in Telugu script. Of these, twelve are composed in Sanskrit language and the other eight are composed in Telugu language.

The second is a notated version of 33 of the nottusvaras without reference to the original tunes, in a supplement to the colossal work Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini authored by Subbarama Dikshitar in 1905 and the third is a work by Manali Chinnasami Mudaliar in 1893 that notates some of these svarasahityas.

Technically, the compositions are not in Shankarabharana proper, being based on simple melodies and devoid of the ornamentation (gamaka) that is characteristic of Carnatic music.The end result of all this however was a genre of music shunned by purists but noticed today for the reason that many of the young learners live in western countries. These numbers can be listened to in the Vismaya CD if you chance across it or order it. If not a simple search on Google or Youtube will fetch you many of these tunes

1. Those desirous of reading a bio on CP Brown may click the link at the end of the note. He was a great Telugu writer (somewhat like Gundert in Malayalam) and made the first dictionary and so on. His role in this is still not very clear to me and is probably just incidental, but is mentioned as a source.

2. The one person who talks about this topic regularly and presents it worldwide, also the person who helped launch these CD’s is Kanniks Kannikeswaraan from Cincinnati Ohio. He launched the musical production Colonial interlude that I will watch some day if it comes to town. Kanniks is a visionary musician, composer and music educator with several creations and recordings to his credit.

Theorizing the local: music, practice, and experience in South Asia and beyond - Richard K. Wolf
Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India - Amanda J. Weidman
Three part article by Vismaya
For those who want to check out a bit on the table and math in carnatic music, check out Harish’s blog
The Nottuswara CD’s
References to other Western Indian compositions
The Nottuswaras with notation
British band pic - Courtesy US DOD


P.N. Subramanian said...

It seems your initiative to learn Carnatic music has benefited many of us whi were ignorant of the fusion brought in through the Notes! Thanks.

Pradeep Nair said...


I am reactivating my blogger blog... And, I am coming to blogs too after a long time.

Hope you are doing fine..

Interesting to read about Muthswamy Dikshitar... and that tunes were from many Western compositions... Interesting.


Bhel Puri & Seekh Kabab said...


Fascinating post as usual.


Maddy said...

Thanks PNS
It was indeed new to me!!

Maddy said...

hi Pradeep - long time no hear.
hope all is well - yes, there are many such interesting tidbits!!

Maddy said...

hello and welcome back..
hope is all is well at home.

Anonymous said...

Nice post. I am not aware of any serious controversy on the authorship of these nottusvarams. On the "mudra" issue, though, the presence of "guruguha" does not make it conclusively Dikshitar's. In case you don't mind a digression on this point :

Many post-Dikshitar fellows are supposed to have wrote songs with a "guruguha" in it, in the hope that others would think of those as Dikshitar's. This seems to be in keeping with the strange Indian habit of trying to ensure that one's works survive even at the expense of one's name (possibly attributing yogasutras to the grammarian Patanjali, purANas to Vyasa etc.)

At any rate, I remember at least one song by Ponnayya Pillai (another member of that Thanjavoor quartet), namely "mAyAtIta-svarUpiNi" in mAyAmALavagauLa, which features the guruguha mudra.

Again, the very popular song "shrI-kRShNam bhaja" in tODi, dedicated to Guruvayur kRShNa, as it contains the words "gurupavanapurAdhIsham", is of controversial authorship in spite of a "guruguha". Apart from that most Dikshitar songs are on shrines he visited and that he probably did not visit Guruvayoor, another argument advanced for this is that the song does not feature the so called "dvitIya-prAsa" : the second syllable in the pallavi is "kR" and that in the anupallavi is "ka" (of pAka-shAsanAdi...)

Perhaps the most conclusive evidence for Dikshitar authorship of a song is the presence of the song in Subbarama Dikshitar's awesome Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini (SSP), which has the most authentic versions of his kRtis, but I don't think anyone believes SSP to be exhaustive.

Maddy said...

Thanks Kupamanduka..
That was very illuminating. I am but a beginner in this venture, but find it so interesting, from many view points, when i look at it not just from a musical point of view, like the insertion of the Mudra.

Oh Yes, the mudra was so important just like the painter did his bit in his work, some as a signature, some others by embedding objects or messages within it!!

TechScribe said...

Extremely interesting post. Great research.

Maddy said...

thanks Techscribe - keep visiting

Kamini said...

Very nice piece.
My music students all love the nottuswarams - they are easily the most popular beginner's items!
Thanks for giving me the link to this, I really enjoyed reading it.

Maddy said...

Thanks Kamini..

i listened to all of those nottuswaras, some are intriguing, some OK..shyamale meenakshi is another great piece.

madraskaari said...

O Whattay!!

Thanks for this -- Ioved the connection between Gallopede and Kamalasana...