Saturday, April 10, 2010

Celebrating GNB: (1) Sri chakra raja in Shivashakthi

As many of you would know, this year is being celebrated world over as G.N.Balasubramanyam's birth centenary year (He was born on Jan 6 1910). As a contribution to the celebrations, I wanted to do my own small bit in dedicating this year to GNB. Towards this effort is a GNB series on my blog starting today. I intend to sing some of his famous compositions once every 2-3 weeks and upload here. And I want to thank here my guru Smt. Lakshmi Raghavan (who belongs to the GNB school and was a student of Charumathi Ramachandran) who taught me all these songs.

I'm collaborating in this effort with a long time friend, Lalitha Ram (Ramachandran Mahadevan), the author of a popular Tamil book on GNB "isaiulaga iLavarasar" and GNB scholar. Ram also contributed extensively with research inputs to the making of a documentary and co-edited a commemorative volume on GNB (which was also featured this year at the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana), both released for this centenary year.
In this series we plan to have a short write up by Ram about each song I present. Thanks to him, this series will also be parallely featured in the tamil e-zine, This being the very first in the series, Ram has for us a brief introduction to GNB's compositions, followed by the write up on the song.
I hope you enjoy the series and support our efforts till the end.
Ram writes...

First, I congratulate Sindhuja for coming up with this fitting tribute to GNB on his centenary year. I would also like to thank her for letting me be a part of it.

GNB's compositions - a brief introduction
GNB belongs to the elite list of top notch musicians who were composers too. Like GNB's concerts, his compositions too are amalgamations of intellect and aesthetics. Prof. Sambamurti writes, "His vast experience on the concert platform and his knowledge of the likes and dislikes of concert goers have provided a useful background for the shape of the compositions". It is usually thought that too much of an intellectual approach can kill the aesthetics. Highly technical attempts often sound contrived. GNB incorporated several technical aspects in his compositions like the swaraksharams, complex chittaswarams, unconventional eduppus, new musical scales etc. Yet, all his compositions sound pleasing and graceful.

To quote GNB, "Whenever I was in a contemplative mood, I used to get visions of musical forms. I desired to give them a permanent form by shaping them into kirtanas. But thereafter, I did not give them a second look. I left it to my disciples to make the best use of them." Although, GNB didn't give them a second look (S.Rajam termed GNB's decision to not sing his compositions as a great 'Sangita drOgam'), some of his compositions gained immense popularity even in his life time, thanks to his disciples TR Balasubramniyam and ML Vasanthakumari.

There are several references that mention that GNB composed more than 250 pieces. In a letter to 'Sudesa Mitran', written in 1948, GNB mentions that he composed more than 50 songs. MLV, in an interview, mentions that majority of his compositions were composed in the 1950s. In his foreword to Gana Baskara Manimalai (the first volume of GNB compositions), Mysore Vasudevacharya says, "GNB has composed hundreds of songs in praise of Rajarajeswari". The first volume, Gana Baskara Mani Malai, was published in 1956. Subsequently, two more volumes have been published in 1971 and 2005. In all, 7 varnams, 72 kritis and 1 thillana are available with complete notation. While we have lost more than 50% of his compositions, the available ones suffice to convey to us GNB's genius.

Many of GNB's compositions are in ragas that do not boast of a large number of kritis (for. example in Raga Kadanakuthuhalam, the only famous kriti is 'Raghuvamsa Sudha'. The structure of the Patnam Subramaniya Iyer composition is more suited for portraying an instrumentalist's virtuosity. On the other hand, GNB's two compositions in the raga (along with Muthiah Bagavathar's 'Giripriyam') bring out the melody in an aesthetic way. Malavi, Chenchu Kambodhi, Narayani, Veenadhari, Saranga Tarangini are other ragas that belong to this category.) The chittaswarams, especially in the rare ragas are of great use in understanding the essence of such ragams. Some of them have interesting swara patterns (for e.g. dAtu prayogam) and laya patterns (for. e.g. Gopucha Yati). Even his kritis in ragas that have a large number of composition (e.g. thodi) his usages are unique (e.g. G G RS eduppu in thodi for Mamakuleswaram or the eduppu at tAra shadjam for bahudari in the kriti 'unnadiyE').
GNB has composed in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. In an article, GNB writes, "Dikshitar's kritis are detached, impersonal descriptions and sthotras of the hindu pantheon while those of Tyagaraja are records of his personal and emotional experience of God". One finds both approaches in GNB's compositions - although one cannot be sure if the compositions written in 'first person' do actually reflect GNB's personal experience. More than the lyrical content, GNB's compositions are known for their musical beauty.

While majority of the kritis are set Adi or Rupaka tala, some kritis are set in talas like Misra Jampa and Kanda Triputa. Many of the compositions are simple in structure reflecting the composing style of Tyagaraja. Some compositions have madhyama kala sahithyam and inter-weaving of raga mudra like that of a Dikshitar composition. The other musician-composer who was of great inspiration to GNB was Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar. Muthiah Bhagavathar was one of the few composers to have come up with new ragas. GNB followed his foot steps in creating new ragas viz. Sivasakthi and Amruta Behag. Although many of his compositions reflect his singing style, it must be noted that his songs are sung widely by musicians belonging to other schools (e.g. OST, N.Ramani, Sowmya, TNS) too. It is said that GNB did not have any mudra in his compositions. (His family says 'vimarsana nanda' in the kriti 'Kamala CharanE' is said to be his 'Diksha Namam'). On a keener look, as beautifully pointed out in a seminar by musicologist SAK Durga, one will realise that the entire composition is his mudra. His compositions stand out unique and do not require a 'verbal mudra' for identification.

Srichakraraja nilaye

With the above general introduction to GNB's compositions, let us take a deeper look at the first composition featured in this series.
Sivasakthi, a GNB creation, is a janya raga of Karaharapriya. The scale is interesting as it is not traditional. Traditional ragas would compulsorily have at least five swaras in the arohanam and avarohanam. Siva Sakthi has just four swaras, 'Sa Ga Ma and Dha' in the arOhanam and has 'Ni' in addition to the aforementioned swarams. When Balamuralikrishna came up with ragas like Mahathi, there were several criticisms for not following the 'five swara' principle. It is interesting to note that GNB didn't face any such criticism. The reason is probably the way he dealt with the raga. Upon listening to the composition, it is difficult to associate the raga with an unconventional or non-traditional scale- the raga is easy on the ears and sounds perfectly "natural".
Veena Maestro S.Balachander once described the concept behind the scale: the 9 swaras (four in the arohanam and five the avarohanam) depict the nine faces of the 'Sri chakram' (widely used in Devi upasana). Of the nine faces, four represent Siva and five represent his female counterpart Shakthi. Appropriately the arOhanam has four swarams representing the faces of siva and the avarOhanam has five faces representing shakthi's five faces. The phrases, 'Sri chakra Raja nilayE' and 'Sivashakthi aikya rUpini' are consistent with the above described concept.

Although a madhyama kala composition, I've heard this song being sung as a filler between two heavy pieces. The composition, especially in the anupallavi has ample scope for duritha kala sangatis. I've also heard this composition rendered in a elaborate manner. The moving 'hindholam-ish' phrases in the pUrvagam and the more ebullient 'abhogi-ish' phrases on the utrAngam makes this raga (and varamu, a close cousin) a unique blend of swaras.

Another notable feature in this kriti is the 'dvitIyAkshara prAsam' , i.e. is the rhyming syllable on the second letter. (e.g. Ethavunara and Seetha gowri in Tyagaraja's kalyani kriti). Each of the lines in anu-pallavi and charanam are adorned with 'dvitIyAkshara prAsam'. According to Prof. TRS says, "It is uncommon to find a composer using 'dvitIyAkshara prAsam' on all lines of a compositions. In the case of GNB, it is a regular feature".

This song was a part of the popular gramaphone record of MLV, 'Guru Vandanam' , and is now regularly sung by Sudha Ragunathan. GNB has composed one more composition in this ragam, 'Vinuthapalini". Hopefully, in the coming years, this composition too will attain the popularity level of 'Sri Chakra Raja".

Lalitha Ram

Here's the song. Tried an aalapana, followed by the song and then some swaras. As always, feedback much appreciated!

Song: Sri chakra raja nilaye
Raga: Shivashakthi (S G2 M1 D2 S; S N2 D2 M1 G2 S)
Thalam: Adi
Composer: GNB

Profuse apologies for some mistakes in the lyrics. I will definitely be more careful in future. Below are the *correct* lyrics:

Pallavi: sri chakra raja nilaye shivashakthi aikya rUpiNi

Anupallavi: pAshAnkusha bANEkshudhaNda bEsakalAdhari pAhi pAhi

Charanam: asurakula nAshini sreesha kEshava sahajAmini
IshaguNa gAnathOshini kOshAnthara sthithapOshini