After the division of Indian classical music in the early 14th century, the northern and the southern systems of music followed two different paths and it was Vidyaranya Swami (1321-1380 A.D.), the then head of Shringeri Shankara Peetham in Karnataka who composed the first treatise titled Sangita Sara for the south Indian music. Since the southern system took its birth in Karnataka it came to be known as karnatak music later on.
He brought about some changes in the nomenclature of swaras (notes). He gave 16 names to 12 swara sthanas (note positions) and all later grammarians of the south followed him in many respects. Ramamatya, the author of Swaramela Kalanidhi, Somanatha of Raga Vibodha, Govinda Dikshita of Sangita Sudha, and Venkatamakhi of Chaturdandi Prakasika were a few of them. However, karnatak music really owes its glory to a large extent to the great vaggeyakaras like Annamacharya, Purandara Dasa, Kshetrayya, Narayana Theertha, Siddhendra Yogi, Bhadrachala Ramadasu, Thyagaraja, Shyama Shastri, Mudduswami Dikshitulu and also to the kings of Nayaka dynasty and Maratha kings who were not only great patrons but also great composers. Their contribution to the growth of karnatak music was immense and inestimable.
Tallapaka Annamacharya (1408-1502 A.D.) composed 32,000 sankirtanas in Telugu and Sanskrit but only about 15,000 are now available on copper plates. They had no swara notations. Only raga and tala names were mentioned. For that reason we have no idea about the real nature of Annamacharya’s music. However, several great musicians and composers of our times set tunes to many songs of Annamayya and their recordings are now available. Annamayya was hailed as Padakavita Pitamaha (grand sire of lyrical composition) because he was the first known vaggeyakara of Andhra desa (region). About 65 years ago, in 1949, two huge stone slabs with more than twenty Sanskrit lyrical compositions in Telugu script with swara notations inscribed on them were retrieved from the precincts of Sri Venkateswara temple on the Tirumala hill of Andhra Pradesh. The compositions were incomplete and fragmented. These slabs were estimated to be 500 years old and were lying there unidentified all along. A team of experts comprising epigraphists, linguists, musicologists and Sanskrit pandits, after thoroughly examining the compositions announced that they were the works of Annamacharya. They were also believed to be the oldest compositions with swara notations ever found in the Indian subcontinent. Among the compositions inscribed on the slabs, eight songs were from a group of ten songs belonging to Dasavatara Suladi. The other two missing songs were believed to be on matsya and kurma, the first two avatars of lord Vishnu. The Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams held a seminar on this subject in 1998 and published a voluminous book titled The Tirumala Music Inscription. Commissioned by TTD, a great Sanskrit scholar and a very senior musicologist composed two songs to substitute the missing two songs of the Dasavatara Suladi. Fifteen years after the publication of the book, Nanduri Records and Prabhakara Memorial Trust jointly produced an audio CD titled Song on Stone (Tirumala Silaageetam in Telugu) with a vocal rendition of the ten songs by a talented young musician. This is the only recording with the original and authentic music of Annamacharya available today. This is also Andhra’s oldest musical contribution to the world at large.
Karnataka Sangeeta Pitamaha Purandara Dasa was said to have composed 4,75,000 songs in Kannada but only about 1,000 are now available without swara notations. Only a few abhyasa geetas (preliminary lessons) intended for beginners are now available with original swaras. They are very much in use even today throughout southern India. He was a junior contemporary and an admirer of Annamayya and was greatly influenced by his compositions. Purandara Dasa was born in Purandaragadh in Pune district of Maharastra in 1480 but migrated to Vijayanagar later in his life.
Kshetrayya (1600-1680 A.D), or Kshetragna as he was also known, was a native of Movva village near Kuchipudi in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh. He was an ardent devotee of Muvva Gopala, the principal deity of his village. He was blessed with gopala mula mantra by a yogi very early in his life. He was a sahajakavi, gayaka and a master of dance. He left his village when he was still very young, never to come back. From then on, he was a wanderer all his life. Although his real name was Varadayya, he came to be known later in his life as Kshetragna since he was always on the move from one Kshetra (pilgrim center) to the other composing padams on deities visited by him but always with the muvva gopala mudra. Kshetrayya composed 4500 padams of erotic nature with Muvva Gopala as the hero. Padam a new genre altogether, was a three-in-one medium for poetry, music and dance. It was Kshetrayya’s original contribution to the world of art. It was a most ideal vehicle for dance, always performed in slow tempo. However, since his padams were highly erotic, some even bordering on obscenity, they were performed only in the privacy of royal courts by devadasis. Even though the poetry and music of his padams were of high order, very few of these were worthy of performing in public. Kshetrayya, always a hot favorite of kings, was greatly honored by Vijayaraghava Nayaka of Thanjavur, Tirumala Nayaka of Madura, Venkata Krishnappa of Gingee, and Abdullah Qutubshah of Golconda. About 350 of his padams without swara notations are now available in print but only about 30 or even less are available on electronic recordings. All later composers of padams followed Kshetrayya’s lyrical style but their works were not as profane.
Sivanarayana Theertha, the author of Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini, was a native of Kaja village of Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh. He was born into a family of Tallavajhala brahmins in 1675. He took sanyasa deeksha and migrated to Tamila desa where he spent the rest of his life at Varahur village. His original name, before he took to ascetic life, was Govinda Shastri. Narayana Theertha conceived Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini as a Maha Yakshagana (grand opera) with a narration of Krishna’s life from his birth to his marriage to Rukmini. Theertha modeled his work along the lines of Jayadeva’s Gitagovindam with 12 tarangams (cantos). Each tarangam has many slokas, choornikas, dwipadas, daruvus, keertans, all in Sanskrit. The keertans could be sung independently on concert platforms towards the close of the program. The songs are also popular in bhajan programs in villages. The complete version of Tarangini is being performed as a Maha Yakshagana every year on the occasion of his death anniversary near his Samadhi at Varahur.
Kuchipudi is a small village in Krishna district just 2 kilometers away from Movva, the birth place of Kshetrayya. Not many people are aware of its existence as a place of interest but Kuchipudi is known all over the world as a classical dance form. Today, Kuchipudi the village and Kuchipudi the dance form have become one and the same. Since perhaps more than 700 years, dance has been the way of life to the simple rustic brahmins of Kuchipudi who used to go places to show off their art as mendicants. It was Sidhendra Yogi who perfected their art and gave it respectability. Many historians believed that he lived between 1600 and 1700 A.D. but some of the villagers claim that he was born in 1302 A.D. Sidhendra trained the boys of the village according to the tenets of Natya Shastra. He ordained that only male members should take part in the dance dramas, also perform the female roles, and that every male member should perform a female role at least once in his lifetime. Women of brahmin families were barred from appearing on the stage. Sidhendra composed Bhama Kalapam as a perfect icon of Kuchipudi style of dance and music. He chiseled to perfection, the character of Satyabhama, who became the most adored heroine of the Andhras ever since. It has always been a dream of every dancer to perform the role of Bhama as portrayed by Sidhendra. The Kuchipudi repertory also includes Narayana Theertha’s tarangams, Kshetrayya’s padams, Jayadeva’s ashtapadis and many yakshaganas of other composers. Kuchipudi is the only one of its kind in the world in the sense that there never was a village dedicated to dance with as long a history.
The songs of Bhadrachala Ramadasu (1620-1680 A.D.) are perfect models of bhajankeertans. The lyrics are in lucid Telugu and the tunes, though set in classical ragas, are very simple and could be sung even by common people. Some songs are as simple as nursery rhymes. Ramadasu was a devotee of Rama and all his songs were addressed to Rama. About a 100 of them are now available in print. His real name was Kancharla Gopanna but since he was an ardent devotee of Rama he came to be known as Ramadasu later in his life. He was a native of Nelakondapalli near Bhadhachalam of Andhra Pradesh. Abdullah Qutubshah, the Nawab of Golconda appointed Goppana as Tahsildar of Bhadrachalam Taluk on the recommendation of Akkanna and Madanna who were in the service of the Nawab as ministers. They were the maternal uncles of Gopanna. Even though an upright person of high esteem, under some extraordinary circumstances, Gopanna took an oath to build a temple to Rama at Bhadrachalam and started using the funds collected from people as taxes. He thought he could collect donations later from the devotees and remit the amounts to the Nawab. However, some people out of jealousy, reported to the Nawab against Gopanna and the Nawab promptly imprisoned him on the charges of embezzlement of funds. Gopanna was in jail for 12 years from 1665 to 1677. Meanwhile, Abdullah Qutubshah died and Abul Hassan Tanashah came to power. After nearly five years, he reopened the case against Gopanna and ordered his release. Thereafter, Tanashah himself became a devotee of Rama.
Shyama Shastri (1760-1827), Thyagaraja (1767-1847), and Mudduswami Dikshitulu (1776-1835) were called the trinity of karnatak music and their period was hailed as the golden age of karnatak music. All three were born in the same village, Thiruvarur of Tamil Nadu. Their ancestors migrated from Andhra desa to Tamil Nadu when it was under the rule of Hindu Nayaka kings. While Shyama Shastri’s family was originally from Khambham of Prakasam district, Thyagaraja’s family had its roots in Kakarla village of Kurnool district. Shyama Shastri composed about 300 krithis, tana varnas and swarajatis. A majority of them were in Telugu, some were in Sanskrit, while very few were in Tamil. They are all now available with swara notations. Thyagaraja was the most prolific of all composers of karnatak music but only about 700 of his compositions with swara notations are now available. They include krithis, divyanama keertanas and utsava sampradaya keertans besides the ghanaraga pancharatna krithis. He also composed two yakshaganas – nauka charitram and prahalada bhaktivijayam. He used 205 ragas in his works and of them, a little more than a 100 were his own creations but he never claimed their authorship. When he was still a boy of 15 years, his family moved to Thiruvaiyyaru, a small village near Thanjavur and he lived the rest of his life there. He never accepted any royal gifts and led a saintly life till the end. Rama was his idol, ishtadaiva, whom he addressed all his krithis. He used to go round the village every morning receiving alms from common people to feed all his disciples living with him. He never stored anything for tomorrow. He had a great sense of humor. We find traits of humor, satire and sarcasam in some of his krithis. Thyagaraja worshiped nada in the form of Rama.
Mudduswami Dikshitulu composed all of his krithis in Sanskrit but on the request of one devadasi he composed two padavarnams in Telugu. About 400 of his krithis with swara notations are now available and about 80 are popular on the concert stage. Mudduswami spent most of his life in Thiruvarur but later in life he moved to Thanjavur on the request of his disciples Ponnaiah, Chinnaiah, Vadivelu, and Sivanandam who were well known as the Thanjavur quartet. His father Ramaswami Dikshitulu, grandfather Venkateswara Dikshitulu and his adopted son Subbarama Dikshitulu were all great vidwans.
After the great trinity, the age of composers of karnatak music almost came to an end and the age of music performers, concerts, and gramophone records dawned on the music scene.
(previously published in Times of India, Vijayawada Edition, Inaugural Issue on May 4, 2015)