The True Voice of Raga

My father had by birth and background, a sense of sound and a sound of sense. He was far from being a musician, nevertheless his musically-sensitive ear was tuned on to the finer aspects and nuances of the Carnatic kind—however, among his all-time favourites were those rustic Dravidic rhythms of the drums and horns and cymbals– which could possibly sound like the crude cawings of the crows against a backdrop of the most elegant swansong to the purist ears of the classically trained! My father could easily be swayed by the rhymes and rhythms of what now goes under the name of folk and Dalit. I have seen him going into a sort of trance eyes tightly closed and hands beating away to the non-complicated talas of the folk rhymes. He always played the simple tunes of the people’s variety for us as children and egged us all thus toward evolving a sense of the secular and spiritual in terms of an eclectic aesthetic which he had gained. We grew up listening to the famed renderings of the Classical maestros alongside those of the desi kind. Among appa’s favourites were Dandapani Desikar’s cinematic rendering of Nandanar’s Ayye metha kadinam, the over-dramatic versions of Kelungal Tharappadum (the Tamil popular song built around the life of Christ, and the allah, allah, songs by Nagore E.M.Hanifa – all ever so popular in their own times. Even now when I listen to these my eyes overflow with the touch of powerful feelings. The point of it all on account of being that direct rendering of emotions. Let us not demean them as being overly dramatic and sentimental. The whole idea is to touch the heart—and touch they do.
Tales of the saint Nandanar, for instance, are popular in the Tamil country and yet so very few among us realize the subversive nature of the Tamil religio-mystic tradition—this could be seen in the internalizations of the Abrahamic religions in their own bhakti versions as well. Bhakti has so often been deemed to be mere submission for salvation. And that is how it has been projected in the popular minds. In our own times after the decay of the Dravidic movement (which opposed the entire idea of religion in any form as being mere opium of the masses, and which has now petered into mere party politicking stunt for certain power-hungry politicians for their own self-seeking gains) the idea of bhakti has only gained momentum in the minds of the common people as surrender to the idols and paying obeisance to the ceremonial splendors of a dominant deity. Somewhere along the way, the Tamils appear to have forfeited the direct living link with the subversive tradition of Bhakti which survived for the most through the marvelous renderings of innumerable musicians of equally endearing compositions of great saints. The saints – the Alwars and Nayanmars, like the Kannadiga Lingayats and their Telugu counterparts —were all great composers; they sang addressing their favourite deities as if directly confronting them in a language of everyday emotion and feeling. The wonder and uniqueness of these saintly compositions are in their ability to wheel freely in and out of joy and pain, laughter and tears, delight and sorrow. The lord that they address and most of the times even quarrel with and curse is someone who is more of a friend philosopher and guide than any all-powerful male potentate. In almost all their impassioned compositions they find solace and comfort in the arms of their beloved deities finally in peace and contentment. This final identity might be achieved after the great viraha or pain on account of separation or a sort of heightened existential dukkha but their compositions almost always lead the reader or listened through a variety of moods and feelings which are on their own powerful enough as religious experiences.
Nandanar, Pattanathu Pillayar, the major Saivite and Vaishnavaite saints may not all have been composers of songs or perhaps many of their compositions were not set to music. But then their vacanas, their statements, their lines have gone into the minds of generations. The simplicity of their style and the directness of their utterances certainly has something to do with this.
There is this popular tale of the 16th century Malayalam poet Poonthanam Namboothiri who composed Njanappana in simple Malayalam and submitted it to the well-known Sanskrit pundit and poet Melpathur Narayana Bhattathiri while he was at the renowned Guruvayur temple in Kerala, with a humble request that the greater poet might perhaps find time enough to glance through the verses. Bhattathiri in all the haughtiness of a scholar asked at once why the verses were not in Sanskrit, the accepted format for versification, and of course the language of the gods! Poonathanam replied that he was only at home in his own tongue, Malayalam. Bhattathiri at once dismissed the poor aspirant from his presence and the humble poet was a shattered man. He turned to his beloved Lord Krishna in complete surrender. It is said that a voice was heard from within the sreekovil (the sanctum sanctorum): “Poonthanam’s bhakthi is closer to my heart than Bhattathir’s vibhakthi (grammatical inflections!)” Krishna of course is famed for his love of the simple and the passionate: and see how he dismisses the pompous and grandeloquent. The tale of course continues with Melpathur falling sick and paralytic in one heap and later recovering after becoming a penitent and repenting his haughtiness toward the simple bhakti poet! The Lord of Guruvayur is certainly one for both the high-brow and the low-brow art forms! He is adept at appreciating the classical and the folk at one go! The language of the gods, Sanskrit and the people’s lingo Malayalam were both equally like honey to the lordly aesthete!

Telugu is a fabulously rich language—and the more rich on account of the innumerable kritis of Tyagabrahmom—the saint Tyagaraja. Of course there are innumerable compositions of Annamacharya and Bhadrachala Ramadas only to mention two other notable saint poets. But nevertheless Tyagaraja occupies a position of uniqueness in the rich tradition of Carnatic music. Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastri and Tyagaraja constitute the Classical Trio unparalleled in the history of music elsewhere. In the Carnatic tradition there is this unique blend of the high and low art—compositions in the language of the masses like Telugu, for instance, reach into the level of high classical art, especially at the hands of a virtuoso like Tyagaraja. Sanskrit no doubt is the language of the gods but when Tyagaraja writes yenataro mahanubhavalu anatari ki vandanamu—(many are the great ones to them all my salutations!) the art of music reaches the heights of oneness with the great art of poetry—sabdartha sahitau kavyam says Bhamaha, sabda sound, and artha meaning, become integrated into one, and kavya, poetry, is born! Music is the highest art, or in other words, all art aspires to the condition of music. Tyagaraja is the visionary poet with an eye for music, here raga and sabda merge into one oceanic being.
All this is possible when the poet is the visionary—able to see Rama in all and everything. There is this amazing composition that goes like this: moksamu galada bhuvilo jivan muktulu gaani vaaralaku… (is salvation attainable by anyone in this world, who has not realised the Self?)
Towards the end he says: vina vadana loludau shivamano vidha merugaru tyagaraja vinuta. Such is the force of pure poetry! Although Tyagaraja was a devout Rama bhakta he could poetically experience the divine presence of siva here in this ultimate poetic piece (To those who cannot intuitively perceive the mind of Shiva, who worships naada through the Veena, is salvation attainable?) Siva is the supreme musician, he plays the Veena and his musical notes are supposed to wring the living hearts out—we become his music: and this is the touch of nadabrahma,the alukika ananda or divine beatitude . [According to ‘Muktika Upanishad’, there are only two kinds of Mukti – ‘Jivan-mukti’ and Videha mukti’ or ‘Kaivalya’. The same Upanishad also mentions ‘sālōkya’, ‘sārūpya’, ‘sāmīpya’ ‘sāyujya’ to be four types of Mukti. (Muktika Upanishad) This is the experience of sangitamukti, perhaps.]
To listen to the rendering of this kriti with all one’s heart and head would be the ultimate mukti. One forgets the language of the sahitya– Telugu merges with the language of the gods very much like the Dravidic drums leading the soul into a crescendo of devout experience. There is the sublime in the humble, and the tiny in the true, the vast and the beautiful (satyam, sivam, sundaram).
How could one lay aside the heart while listening to the Carnatic maestro? One has to have the touch of profound feelings and emotions in order to reach the divine—the experience is one where the heart and the head become fused together and then they vanish leaving no trace. Even those who have not seen the face of Siva would be able to recognize the divine through this composition. This is the dance of Siva in the poyyatha ponnabalam(the golden temple of no untruth) that Nandanar speaks about in this line poyyatha ponnambala th ayya yirukkumitam! (the suggestion is of course, Chidambaram) There is nothing that differentiates the true aesthetic experience in the final analysis, because there is nothing that is untrue! Everything evolves in the dance of Siva and perishes in the touch of the divine. As I said earlier, the wonder and uniqueness of these saintly compositions lie in their ability to wheel freely in and out of joy and pain, laughter and tears, delight and sorrow. All emotions find their ultimate expression in the divine dance. As my father would have put it in his own characteristic fashion: ellam onnuthan (everything is one!)
But this is not something without any experiential grounding either. The aesthesis of the raga is heard in the ear of the ear—the srotasya srotam—felt along the veins, distanced and integrated at once in the brain, and relished in the hridaye guhayam (the secret cave of the heart)—what if the deity is referred to as Siva, Vishnu, Christ or ya Allah? True music is the touch of the divine. And the divine is everywhere: we need to hear it with our hearts and sense it with our minds. In the aesthetic of the divine there is no high or low art—because the vertical and the horizontal emerge in a multiverse and space-time. The true voice of raga.