Cleveland, Tyagaraja and Govinda

It had been a while since our last travel and so when an opportunity came to do something a little different, we thought it a good idea. This time it was to attend the Tyagaraja festival at Cleveland Ohio where our niece was going to perform in one of the Carnatic music competitions and partake in some other sectionms of the festival. Pt Ravi Shankar was to perform and get felicitated on one of the evenings and Dr Balamurali Krishna was to perform, but before we set out, we learnt that Ravi Shankar had taken ill and been advised not to travel. Not that it was going to dampen our spirits, for getting together with our cousins and their families were more the core theme of the visit and in any case there were other things to do…

And thus, soon enough, we were in the place popular for Carnatic music in US, Cleveland. Soon we got to know about the stalwarts behind the well conducted annual festival, people like Cleveland Sundaram who founded the event. Sundaramama is a dynamic guy, no doubt about that and he owns the stage at Cleveland, handling the performing children, their mothers and the egoistic senior performing artistes from India with equal aplomb. Carnatic music had as you can see moved a long way from where it was popularized, in Tiruvarur – Tamil Nadu, brought along to American shores by these travelling migrants, the engineers, doctors and what not…and now it was the turn of their offspring to carry on the legacy and exhibit their performances and skills…

As we were slowly merging into the mass of incessantly chattering and immaculately attired, wide eyed, traditional Kancheepuram sari clad Mami’s and their hyper active children with their pronounced American accents, my mind went back to the days of the Maratha kings at Tanjore, and I thought of the three people who shaped quite a bit of what we know as Carnatic music today - Thyagarajayya, Shyama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar. One had ancestral origins in Maharashtra, the other in Andhra and the third a local lad …..All now centered at Thiruvarur, composing and conducting, cataloging and discovering a genre of music, that we call Carnatic music these days. Tyagaraja is well known, so also Dikshitar, there was Syama Shastri, who came up with somewhat complicated works during the period. Together the threesome formed the trinity of Carnatic music between 1760 -1850 during the period Maratha rulers Venkoji, Shaji and Serfoji ruling at Tanjore. Thaygaraja as is well known, refused the kings patronage, but flourished during his benevolent rule.

I have been trying to get to the history of this genre for some time now, but it is not my intention to bore you with that line, though I do intend to cover some interesting parts related to the formalization of the theory behind the music. And in the process introduce two or three personalities I was studying in connection with Thagarjayya. For most of us, Caranatic music in its formal sense started with Purandara das, then it was Venkatamakhin’s task of tabulating it according the Melkarta system and well, then the stalwarts, or the triumvirate of Thiagaraja, Dikshitar and Shama Sastri took over. During that period, the kingdoms of Vijayanagar, Tanjore, Travancore & Ettayapuram supported and patronized this form of music and many a wise man was soon lost in the Taala, Swara, Raaga and Sruti intricacies, and meandered through its alleys, sometimes through musical performances or its connection with dance forms or natya shastras. I for one had little or no knowledge of these things till I ventured into a group of music enthusiasts here in Cary some two years ago.

We learnt geethas and krithis of many sorts, learnt about the composers, some of the ragas and soon I could understand a smattering of usages like shruti, alaapanam, arohanam, avarohanam….I was a student once again with a bunch of like minded people and led by our knowledgeable teacher Sunitha who took us through the hoops and loops and a bit of the theory…and getting us (some of us akin to mules or horses being dragged into water) to perform now and then. How I enjoy those two hours during Sundays, but then, that was how I got directed into these matters, balancing it with a number of other activities and studies.

I wrote about Dikshitar some time back in connection with his western notations or Nottuswara and was hoping that Kannik would be at Cleveland, but he was nowhere to be seen. Nevertheless, the organizers introduced yet another CD collection of Dikshitar’s Nottuswara, done by another Nottuswara enthusiast.

The CSU grounds are full of South Indians moving towards the auditoriums and conference halls. The participants are dressed in traditional attire, smaller girls in their long skirts and blouses of Kancheepuram silk, the boys (not many) in kurtas and churidars. Binders and Ipads with musical notations and lyrics were being referred to with eagerness more appropriate with their classrooms and some were terribly apprehensive of their first occasion on stage – the arangetam. Mothers were on their toes and herding the children around and what was evident was the steel thermos with each of them. The thermos was appropriately filled with warm water meant to be had when the throat got a bit rough. You see, as the mama puts it, ever-silver or stainless steel is pure and appropriate for classical occasions, not plastic or used bottles. Children and their parents were eagerly scanning the programmers for their competition slots and humming the swara or alapana sections as they walked while knowledgeable mamas remarked how great their offspring were going to be, perhaps even sitting on the podiums at the Madras music academy. Sundaramama was everywhere, the colonel in command.

Getting back to the origins of carnatic music, we know that some kind of temple music system existed for a very long time in conceivable history. I would suppose that specific families would provide a form of sopana (at the temple steps) music in addition to extempore versions of folk music. Till of course somebody formalized the theory of such music as temples multiplied after the temple and empire building activity got into full swing in South India during the medieval times.

V Sriram in his book Carnatic Summer explains - Carnatic music had by the 17th Century shifted further south to Tanjore, where under the benign rule of the Nayaks and later the Maratha kings, it flourished as a major art form. Many of the kings were themselves greatly respected musicologists and composers. Attracted by employment opportunity and the stability, several Brahmins from the Andhra region moved to Tanjore and its environs. This sect of Mulakanadu Smartha Brahmins was to play a major role in the development of Carnatic music. Several composers lived in Tanjore and the language of composing was invariably Telugu as that was the language of the court. The Maratha influence brought about the development of the Harikatha or the tradition of discourses on the greatness of God in the form of stories, accompanied by music. This greatly added to Carnatic repertoire with bhajans, folk songs and several operas entering the mainstream. The art of percussion too acquired great refinement as a result of these Harikathas.

And so, as the Wiki entry puts it, around 1650 AD, Raghunatha Nayaka wrote “Sangeeta Sudha”, where he has quoted a lot about “Sangeeta Saara” by Maadhava - VidhyaraNya. Govinda Deekshit, who was a minister in the court of King Achyuta Nayaka of Tanjavore, is believed to have written an introduction to "Sangeeta Sudha". Govinda Dikshita's son was the renowned Venkatamakhin, who is credited with the classification of ragas in the Melakarta System, and he wrote his most important work; Chaturdandi Prakasika (c.1635 CE) in Sanskrit.

With that part now explained briefly, let us now assume for a moment that formal theory & structure started with Venkatamaghin. But is that quite right? Perhaps not, he was actually not the person behind the codification or ragas, or what we know as the workable Melakarta scheme of today. In this scheme we have 72 parent raagas and a number of janya ragas or daughter ragas. A raga contains all seven swaras Sa, ri, ga, ma, pa, dha and ni in both the ascending scheme (arohana) and descending scheme (avarohana). Now the problem with Venkitamaghins code, without getting into too many details was that he had somewhat arbitrarily defined 6 swaras from the known 12 semitones, at that time, to arrive at 72 melakarta ragas. I checked around a little bit and read that it was set around the time of Raghunatha nayaka of Tanjaore and that it was his guru Tanappa who was behind the codification. Now was Tanappa Govinda Dikshitar? Perhaps not, Pt Srinivasa Iyengar states emphatically – The opinion held in some quarters, that this Tanappa is no other than Govinda-dlkshita, the father of Venkatamakhin, is based on a mere surmise of a fervid brain, for the simple reason that Venkatamakhin himself, in a Gita extolling his Guru, Tanappa, merely says that he was the son of one Honappa, without introducing him as his own father, which he would surely have done, should his father have ever been known under the alias of Tanappa.

Anyway many other refinements took place and many more works detailing the basic systems and theory appeared as time went by. Finally it appears that a book by name Sanagraha Chudamani established the formal system we know and use today. Here, the 72 melakarta ragas use a standardized pattern, unlike Venkatamakhin's pattern, and have gained significant following. One Govindhacharya is credited with standardization of rules and giving a different name for such standard ragas, which have different structure but same swaras as that proposed by Venkatamakhin. But it was not very easy when it came to acceptance for even at the time of the trinity, Tyagaraja and Syama Sastry used the Govinda scheme, whereas Dikshitar used the Venkatamakhin scheme which had been known around 1660 or thereabouts. But one thing is clear, the Govinda scheme came after Venkatamakhin.

Who is this Govinda or Govindacharya or Govindayya? It has been a mystery that has never been solved. One may wonder the reasons why it is so, for it must have been very apparent for great people like Tyagaraja supposedly following Govinda traditions. He would have talked about and followed the Chudamani. Why then did Govinda never come to the limelight whereas even today Venkatamakhi gets credit for something he acquired either from his father or his teacher Tanappa? Unfortunately the music world has a lot of politics, a number of people with king sized egos and the great musicians had a following that adored them to no end resulting in legends and stories that have been popularized over time with little basis, while real facts remained under cover. So as the story went Govindayyas book was mentioned rarely, whereas new raagas were supposedly invented by the greats. Anyway let us take a look.

Tygaraja – Kakarla Tyagabrahmam made some 700 compositions in some 28 raagas after refusing to work in the king’s court. It appears that the proposal to sing for the king came about after Sri Sonthi Ramanayya invited Tyagaraja to perform at his house in Thanjavur. On that occasion, Tyagaraja sang Endaro Mahaanubhavulu, the fifth of the Pancharatna Krithis. As I read that, it perked up a forgotten memory in my grey cell array, more so as Entharo mahanu bhavulu has always been a favorite of mine, a kriti that we are learning in detail these days, lovingly taught by Sunita. You see, that contradicted another story that is prevalent in Kerala. As you know Tyagaraja was invited by Swati Tirunal and Tygayya politely refused to come. But then Tyagaraja had an interesting and ardent fan in front of him at that time, one who had an unparalleled gift, a person who could sing in the 6th kala (in our practice sessions we stick to the second mostly…). But before we get to that story, let us see what the eminent music personalities at Cleveland have to offer…

We are in the CSU Waetgen auditorium …Pt Ravi Shankar who was to come and stage the previous concert, supposedly his last one, aged 92, was taken ill and did not come. Sundaramama was expressing his apologies at the podium and announcing the next singer, the great Dr M Balamurali Krishna who seemed to have some problems with the dust & pollen of USA and was undergoing an irritating coughing fit. His assistant was frequently offering sips of hot water from the flask..…But MBMK settled down, though peppering his performances with an occasional cough or grunt.

For the next hour Dr MBMK held us spellbound with his repertoire and range, with his classic heavy voice filling the splendid auditorium, though the light cough troubled him. In between he joked a little stating that he was not just a singer but also an actor, a script writer, a music director and so on…But he did not sing his signature Entharo mahanubhavulu, and did samaja vara gamana instead…

And that was how I researched Shadkala Govinda Marar and his connection with the very same Entharo mahanubhavulu. But before that let me give a small introduction to the song for some who may want to know. It is one of Tyagarajas pancharatna kirthis set in the Sree raga. Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu is believed to be one of his early compositions. The song is written as a dedication to all the great maestros and performers (at a young age??). Tyagaraja enumerates clearly who he deems as 'Mahanubhavalu' in the kriti itself which list includes saints such as Narada, Saunaka, among others. In this poem, Tyagaraja describes the greatness of devotees through the ages.

But then in Kerala it is not exactly believed so, for Tyagaraja and his disciples sang this during another occasion, a very interesting occasion at that. That is where Govinda Marar (1797-1843) comes in. A simple pious man, he worked at the Narasimha temple at Ramamangalam near Cochin, a sleepy village on the idyllic banks of the Moovattupuzha River, close to the Tripunithura Palace at Cochin. The Marar who was initially under the patronage of the Cochin royal family, was considered an eccentric, but a competent singer.

He was terribly arthritic from an early age and took refuge in music for solace, singing astapadis and anything else that came by, at the temple. Soon he was singing for Swati Tirunal at his court. It appears that his spellbinding rendition of the Puraneer raga earned him a Digvijaya flag from the pleased king. As legend goes, Govinda marar used a very special tamburu with seven strings and after this award, this flag was always tied to the top of the tamburu. Govindamarar in the meantime got friendly with all the palace musicians and heard about the great Tyagaraja and his compositions and soon became an ardent follower of Tyagaraja, learning all the available krithis of the great composer and the art of putting sangathis to them. Marar who was by then considered a brilliant singer soon found himself accompanying Vadivelu and Nallathampy mudaliar who were deputed by Swati Tirunal to invite Tyagaraja to Swati tirunal’s court. It was perhaps in 1838, an ekadasi day.

As PT Narendra Menon puts it - Soon he was all agog to have a darshan of the saint at Tiruvayyaru, and in 1838 he set forth on foot, and reached the house of Tyagaraja on an ekadeshi day. The daily bhajan session led by Tyagaraja himself was on when the weary wayfarer reached the place. When the first half of the bhajan session was over, the guest was invited to sing as was the custom. Marar had already been noticed by those assembled due to his glowingly ascetic appearance, and his unusual tambura, with the flag.

Another legend (Melur Damodaran’s book on Tyagaraja) puts it that Govinda marar requested Tyagaraja, then 79 years old to sing. Tyagaraja was a little miffed and asked Vadivelu who this scrawny man was (A look at marar and the ganjira in his hand irritated tyagaraja even more). He asked if this invalid with the peculiar tamburu could even sing. Vadivelu replied with a smile – ‘yes, he can manage’. Marar sang a raga malika, starting with Thodi, then Saveri and Keeravani…finally panthu varaali, singing chandana charchita, all with a good measure of sangathis that had been popularised by Tyagaraja himself…Now back to Menon’s words…

Being ekadeshi, it was a day dear to Hari, and he chose his favorite Jayadeva Geet Govind song, 'Chandana charchitha neela kalebara', in Pantuvarali raga. Prof.Sambamoorthy reconstructs the memorable scene from information gathered from the palm-leaf biography of the saint written by his direct disciples, Walajapet Venkitramana Bhagavathar and Tanjore Rama Rao, and from the notebook of another direct disciple, Krishnaswami Bhagavathar, thus: "He (Marar) started singing in the ati ati vilambita kala (first degree of speed). People were wondering why he started at such a dead slow tempo, but they were struck by the precision in duration between count and count. Then he sang the chosen theme in ati vilambita kala (second degree) Vilambita (third degree), Madhyama kala (fourth degree), druta kala (fifth degree) and ati druta kala (sixth degree). As he approached the fifth degree of speed, the entire audience was spellbound, and when he sang in the sixth degree of speed, Tyagaraja himself was taken aback by his laya sampat. During the performance he was strumming the tambura with his right hand, and playing the ganjira with his left hand, holding the latter instrument in position between the toes of his right leg. Tyagaraja immediately perceived in Marar a brilliant musician of rare genius. His spiritually evolved soul also recognized him as a mahanubhava (great soul), who like himself was seeking satchidananda, through Sangeetha. To pay tribute to the visitor, Tyagaraja asked his disciples to sing his scintillating Pancharatna kriti 'Entharo mahanubhavulu' .

Another story (Arthur Popley - Music of India) - A number of musicians including himself were seated with the master when a paUavi (chorus) in the raga pantiivarali was sung round by all. Govinda, using his own peculiar tambur which had seven strings, sang it in shatkala (sextuple) accelerated time. Tyagaraja was so astonished that he gave him the name of Govindacwami and composed a song in his honor which began, ' There are many great men in the world and I respect them all.'

The belief in Kerala is that Tyagaraja composed the kriti - Entharo mahanubhavulu extempore in his spontaneous joy on hearing the spiritual and musically fantastic singing of Marar. This was promptly rubbished by Tyagraja’s Walajapet following with the logic that the kriti was already composed, and the disciples had learnt it before the arrival of Marar. Any to clarify, the kriti 'Endharo mahanubhavalu' is said to have been composed by Tyagaraja at a young age, it is possible that after hearing Marar sing and in appreciation of the greatness of Marar, Tyagaraja could have asked his disciples to sing the kriti, written by him earlier. So much for the event itself…

As the Shatkala Samity website explains - From the south, Govinda Marar proceeded to the north. To him, music was worship. Wherever he went, the magic of his melody drew large crowds. He had already renounced the pleasure of the world, and found fulfillment in his art and the worship of his deity. He visited Benares and offered worship at the Viswanatha temple. On his way back from this holy city, he reached Pandaripuram near Pune in Maharashtra. At the renowned and ancient temple there, he set in prayerful meditation and attained Samadhi in 1843 at the rather young age of forty five.

So that was Shadkala Govinda Marar and his connection to the Entharo mahanu bhavulu and Tyagaraja. But why did I bring him into this flow of text? Well for that we get to the treatise Sanagraha Chudamani attributed to Govinda. Interestingly we do not have any information about this author or the source of this treatise. In fact this treatise never refers to older works and seems totally devoid of historical references even though the author mentions all the older ragas that have a history. It is somewhat arrogant in its handling of the theory compared to the works of that time written to sing praise for the patrons at the outset. Who could it be? Some say it was written in the late 17th or early 18th century and that it was used by the stalwarts Tyagaraja and Syama Sastry. yagaraja was an innovator who created ragas and broke away from older ragas. Also Thyagaraja never named the ragas for his compositions, whereas Sanagraha had named all of them and so Tygaraja could have easily explained the raga names with his compositions. So could it be that Sanagraha was written after Tyagaraja? One of the reasons the treatise Sangraha Choodamani has validity is because of the compositions of Tyagaraja are in some of the rare ragas mentioned in the treatise which were not used or recorded earlier by other composers. Perhaps this indicates that the Sangraha was written after Tyagaraja’s times or during his later years. Either Tyagaraja composed in the rare ragas detailed in the Sanagraha Chudamani (this would be case if the book was written before his time - if that were so, Tygaraja did not come up with the ragas himself as is believed by most people) or that Tyagaraja created compositions in the ragas which were later listed by Govinda. Records continue to state both sides which is not really possible, one that Tyagaraja discovered these ragas and two that he followed the Govinda School.

The evidence of Tyuagaraja’s enthusiasm for new ragas as stated by experts, can be seen from the fact that, among the last few krithis he composed before his death, three are in new ragas (Paramathmudu in Vagadeeswari, Daya juchutakidi velara in Ganavaridhi and Paritapamu ganiyadina in Manohari). So who could this Govinda have been, the one who tabulated all this?

There was one person of renown who fits into the mould, provided he hung around Thiruvavur during that period. It could very well have been Govinda Marar, the person who set out in his desire to meet Tyagaraja and never turned back to his home in Kerala ever since.

Was Sanagraha Chudamani written (the book was written in Sanskrit – not Telugu) by Govinda Marar as he continued his trek to Banares and while he was back in the North West, in the Konkans or the Karwar area? He would definitely have known Sanskrit and written in Sanskrit as it was language of the learned in Kerala. Knowing his eccentricity he would have treated music as absolute without crediting anything to humans as patrons (that is how the book is). I do not know and I am no expert, not even a good amateur at Carnatic music to venture deeper into those areas. I will leave it for some great soul to find the final answer.

As life turns out usually for many a person, Govinda never found acclaim for his work though even it is Govinda’s Melakarta scheme and not Venkatamakhin’s scheme that Carnatic students uses today. Such is the irony of life….

Now to Cleveland… The next day – my niece Ahi Ajayan had completed her competition and was waiting for the results, and was performing again. We watched and listened to the ‘Sustaining Sampradaya’ sessions where some good and upcoming singers including Ahi sang an ensemble of kritis. They did it beautifully and I could envision Ahi blossoming out into a good singer on her own, some day….Ahi of course fittingly got the first place in her age group, singing Syama Sastry's Kamakshi amba….in Varali raga for the competition…soon the happy family get together was over and we all took our flights back to various locations…

We are back in Raleigh, it is a season for music and many more events, concerts and perfomances are in progress…


Sanagraha Chudamani – S Subramanya Sastri
History of Medieval Kerala – VKR Menon
Shatkala Samithy website and many articles listed there