Cleverness in Carnatic compositions

Sri Lakshmi Varaham, composed by Muthuswamy Dikshitar, sung by MS Subbulakshmi

The raga

This is a song in Abhogi — one of my favourite ragas. It is a pentatonic raga with the same five notes on the ascent and descent, like Mohanam, Hindolam, Hamsadhwani, Amritavarshini, Madhyamavati, Suddha Dhanyasi, Suddha Saveri and several others. Where it stands out for me is that it is hard to peg down into one emotional slot or the other, and is therefore quite the all weather all rounder.

Mohanam is unequivocally positive and calming. Hamsadhwani, positive and unabashedly happy. Hindolam is weighty and can pull you down with it if you are not ready to take charge of the tour de force. Amritavarshini can disorient and Suddha Dhanyasi can take you on a high, but a distinctly vulnerable high. Suddha Saveri is unfussily genial and empathetic. Madhyamavati is the closest to Abhogi in it’s unpeggability — it’s overall vector is down and it is full of momentum in a positive, settling way, like water finding it’s own level.

Abhogi a substantial raga, and one with real integrity. If Abhogi was an acquaintance, it’s the sort you’d trust within a few minutes and deem thoroughly reliable. There is something very considered about Abhogi, but not in any way restrained. This may have to do with its solid grounding in the first half of the octave — with sa, ri,ga and ma notes — before skipping the central pa note all together, straight to a forceful dha and then on to the upper sa. So while the single dha note in the second half of the octave is striking, it comes off a very substantial foundation. It is invariably energizing and positive but not in an ‘empty calorie’ kind of way — more a ragi mudde-hurali katina saaru (horse gram rasam) super food kind of way.

The composition

The primary genius in composing a Carnatic song is in being able to convincingly shepherd both the essence and fullness of a raga into a coherent song. This is more than less what determines the greatness of a composition — how well it serves as a vehicle for a raga. Beyond this, there are four other sorts of cleverness to do with composition, which are all to do with the lyrical — 1) the meaning of the words, 3)the poetry of their form, 3)the way in which lyrics interact with laya (rhythm) and 4) with raga. Each of these is a topic for many dissertations, but let me share a few thoughts on each, circling back to Sri Lakshmi Varaham at the end of the post.

Meaning of songs

There are those who know Sanskrit, Telugu, Tamil and Kannada and also Hindu philosophy and mythology well enough to fully appreciate the full import of Carnatic lyrics. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. I have been told that many songs are packed with the finer points of philosophy, morality and mythology.

While I catch snatches of the meaning, and have looked up the translations of certain songs, by and large, the gist suffices to appreciate the emotional tenor of song itself. And the gist generally is “God x / of various magnificent attributes /worshipped by y or z / save me, now is the time to save me, bless me or you are great and kind. The literal translations to English are sometimes frankly hyperbolic and take away from my appreciation of the song.

One minor aspect of Carnatic lyrics I am often struck by is the penchant for addressing deities in compound relation to others. The composer Thyagaraja is notorious in this respect. It’s playful and marvelous and makes me appreciate the compactness of Sanskrit / Sanskritic grammar. In one song he addresses Parvati as “Ramaapati sodari” — literally the sister of the husband of Ramaa (Sita). We have Vishnu addressed as “Vinatasuta vaahana” — the one who’s mount is the son of Vinata (Garuda’s mother). And Ganesha as Giri-raja suta tanaya — or the scion / heir / son (tanaya) of Parvati, who is the offspring (suta) of the lord of the Himalayas (Giri-raja). In short, Himavan’s grandson.


I mean poetry only in the limited sense of the beauty of the sounds of syllables as they occur together, separate from meaning. This sort of poetry in Carnatic music is of two main kinds — one is of similar beginnings or ending sounds of phrases, and the other is an alliterative repetition of the same sound multiple times at regular or quick succession. If we consider Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s works, there are examples of this, in literally every song of his.

the song “Vallabha Nayakasya” in Begada is replete with the possessive Sanskrit suffix “asya”, to be interpreted as “the one with” or “the one of”. In the anupallavi:

pallavapada mrdutarasya pAshAnukshAdhitarasya mallikA jAti campaka hArasya maNimlayasya
vallI vivAha kAraNasya guruguha pUjitasya kAlI kalA mAlini kamalAkSi sannutasya

And two examples of subtle and unobtrusive alliterative repetition of syllables that nonetheless add immensely to the beauty of a verse. I have deliberately chosen short “joint” sanskrit syllables to illustrate this. First, the “ri/ra” sound in the last part of “Arunachalanatham” in Saranga:

aprAkRta tEjOmaya liHNgam atyadbhuta kara dhRta sAraHNgam apramEyamaparNAbja bhRHNgam ArUThOttuHNga vRSaturaHNgam viprOttama vishESAntaraHNgam vIra guruguha tAra prasaHNgam svapradIpa mauLividhRtagaHNgam svaprakAsha jita sOmAgni pataHNgam

In this example of course it is not just the short r sound that contributes to the poetry, but it is undoubtedly deliberate.

And the “ksha” sound in “Akshaya linga vibho” in Shankarabharanam:

akSarasvarUpa amita pratApa
ArUDha vRSa vAha jagan mOha
dakSa shikSaNa dakSatara sura lakSaNa
vidhi vilakSaNa lakSya lakSaNa
bahu vicakSaNa shudha bhakSaNa
gurukaTAkSa vikSaNa

There is clearly a lot of thought and effort that has gone into enhancing the poetic beauty of the composition. These sounds add beauty through alliteration but also musically. Often, repeated or similar sounds will land on the same part of the rhythmic cycle, providing an subliminal life-giving pulse to proceedings. In the case of the verse above, TM Krishna has pointed out that each “ksha” sound is musically distinct, as if by design.

Lyrics and laya (rhythm)

I will leave you with just one example of this. There is a concept in Carnatic laya known as “yati”which is a pattern of syllables. For example the “gopuccha” (cow’s tail) yati starts broad and becomes narrow, something like this: ABCDE>ABCD>ABC>AB>A or ABCDEF>CDEF>EF. The converse to gopuccha is the “strotovaha” yati (estuary) going from narrow to broad: A>AB>ABC>ABCD. Combinations of the two give you the “mridanga” yati which like the mridangam starts narrow at the end, broadens to the middle (estuary) and then narrows back down to the other end (cow’s tail). Or the “damaru” yati which starts broad and narrows in the middle and then widens again.

In the famous “Thyagaraja Yoga Vaibhavam”, Muthuswamy Dikshitar utilises both the “gopuccha” (cow’s tail) and strotovaha (estuary) yatis:

In the pallavi:

tyAgarAja yOga vaibhavam
agarAja yOga vaibhavam
rAja yOga vaibhavam
yOga vaibhavam

And in the charanam:

swa prakAsham
swarUpa prakAsham
tatva swarUpa prakAsham
sakala tatva swarUpa prakAsham
shiva shaktyAdi sakala tatvA swarUpa prakAsham

Of course, anyone can put a bunch of syllables together in a pattern. But the trick is in making each line meaningful in itself and in the context of the song.

Lyrics and raga

This is where things get quite playful. You will find many instances of the musical movement of the piece corresponding with the geography of the lyrics. For instance, high notes or distinct upward movements when there is a reference to heaven and low notes or downward movements when referring to the earth. Or the use of expansive notes in describing the ocean or a majestic river. Similarly you will often find correspondence between melodic movements and concepts — up toward enlightenment, down toward baser instincts, and so on.

Now if you listen again to “Shri Lakshmi Varaaham” carefully you will notice that the reference to “Bhudevi” (earth),at about 3:25, is at about the highest notes in the song, which may seem to go against what I’ve just said, but if you listen again, you will see that the trajectory of “Bhudevi” is downward. My guess is that Dikshitar did a deliberate tight rope — Bhudevi at melodic high point, because Varaha avatara is after all best known for rescuing Bhudevi, (and that too by bringing her “up high” from the ocean depths), but sticking to “first principles” and having the trajectory of the word itself going down, earthward.

Another area of interaction between lyrics and raga are the Carnatic equivalent of punning, also known as “swara-aksharas”. This is when a syllable like sa is sung on the sa note, ma on the ma note and so on. Carnatic music has quite bit of this because syllables that correspond to notes such as sa, ri, ma, pa, dha, and ni are quite prevalent in Sanskrit and Telugu. As an example, the notes of the line “Pada sarojamula ne nammiti” have Pa, Dha and Sa as its first three notes (in the varnam Valachi Vacchi).

What I suspect, but can never know is that Muthuswami Dikshitar is teasing us with a sort of “reverse swara-akshara” in Sri Lakshmi Varaham. As noted earlier, the notes of Abhogi raga are Sa, Ri, Ga, Ma and Dha. The two notes that are not in Abhogi are Pa and Ni. And yet it is precisely these two syllables that you see consistently emphasized in Shri Lakshmi Varaham:

shree lakshmi varaaham bhajEham
shree lakshmi sahitham sruta jana subhapradam
neela mEgha jaya shyaamaLa gaatram
neela boodEvi stuti paartram
neelakanTa Siva guruguha mitram
nikhila bhakta jana bayaartri taatram
mangaLaalayaabohi nuta padam
punkava budha jana natam veda nutam
shankara priyakaram Kubhera pradhishtitham
canka cakra dharam kripa karam
pankajaasana pramukha sevitham
pankaja mukha bhaargavi bhaavitam
bhanka hara tamraparni dheerastam
shankaTa hara sadaanandha sahitam

If it was intentional, it is not only clever, but brilliantly cheeky. And that’s what’s lovely about Carnatic music — it can embrace cheeky cleverness without losing any of its grandeur. And like great literature, you can read into and take away what you will from it. You may not be right, but you are unlikely to be wrong either!