Swara Raga Sudharasa The essentials of music
There are a number of kriti-s in which Tyagaraja directly or indirectly explains many facets of music. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer once described Tyagaraja’s Sankarabharanam raga kriti, Swara raga sudharasa, as a super-potent multivitamin capsule for musicians. From this kriti we can learn what is good music and bad, what are the secrets of great music, how mishandling can spoil or even destroy good music, the innate beauty of music, how to fuse rhythm, sahitya and raga and so on. The more we learn from this kriti, the more seems to remain to be learnt.
The song runs as follows.
Swara raaga sudhaarasayuta bhakti swargaapavargamuraa,
Paramaanandamane kamalamupai bakabhekamu
chelagiyemi? O manasaa!
Moolaadhaaraja naadamerugute mudamagu mokshamuraa,
Kolaaahala saptaswara grihamula gurutey mokshamuraa,
Bahujanmamulaku paini gnaaniyai baraguta mokshamuraa,
Sahaja bhaktito raagagnaana sahitudu muktuduraa,
Maddala taala gatulu teliyakaney marddinchuta sukhamaa?
Suddha manasu leka pooja jeyuta sookara vrittira!
Rajata gireesudu Nagajaku delpu Swaraarnava marmamulu
Vijayamugala Tyaagaraajuderugey Viswasinchi delusuko!
The pallavi explains how we can produce ‘sudha rasa’ and how that leads to God experience. The anupallavi explains how bad music can destroy good and great music. The first charanam stipulates what we should learn about the music originating from the mooladhara. In the latter half of this charanam Tyagaraja says that music should be vibrant and make the singer and the listener joyous.
In the second charanam, the saint composer explains how a person may attain liberation when he becomes a ‘gnani’ after many births. With natural devotion, he who acquires or is blessed with ‘raga gnana’ becomes then and there a ‘mukta’ or a liberated soul. Music is the easiest and fastest way to liberation.
The third charanam deplores the deleterious effects of a bad percussionist ignorant of the basic essentials of rhythm. Again, he says, that if we pretend to sing the praises of God, without purity in mind, it amounts to what the pigs do.
The fourth and final charanam reveals that what are stated above are the ‘marmamulu’ (secrets) that Eswara taught his consort Parvati, and are contained in Swararnava, the book Narada gave to Tyagaraja. These we can learn if we have the sincere desire to do so.
Now for a more detailed study of the kriti.
‘Swara raga sudha rasa’—Swara means a note which by itself makes the singer and the listener happy. This swara is not just one of the sruti-s. A sruti is what is heard, and the musician produces a swara from the sruti with the help of gamaka-s, etc. The swara is a living being while the sruti is not. The swara is something like the alphabet we learn first. Then we graduate to the raga, which again is not just a grouping of swara-s. The raga is a living, organically integrated structure by itself. Matanga in his Brihaddesi has made one point clear: the raga came first and its grammar later. Tyagaraja says, “When a pleasing raga is well and properly sung, it incarnates itself into an enchanting (feminine) form, and with the ankle bells ringing melodiously, dances before our eyes” (Sreepa priya in Athana). Just as we graduate from the swara to the raga, we have to graduate from the sahitya to its bhava,and from tala to laya. When these are properly mixed and sung, the music produced is ‘sudha rasa’ (nectar). When this nectar is mixed with or becomes the carrier of devotion to the Lord (‘sudha rasa yuta bhakti’—devotion mixed with sudha rasa), it gives us God consciousness, ‘swarga’ and ‘apavarga’ (liberation or completion of one’s task).
How this sudha rasa is prepared is akin to preparing ‘payasam’ (paayasam). The ingredients—raga, bhava and laya should be of proper quality, they should be in the right proportion, and should be mixed at proper stages to produce the nectar. Tyagaraja in all humility says that only Eswara knows how to do that. To the sudha rasa, Eswara adds the khandasari sugar of ‘Rama nama’, and constantly keeps this nectar on his tongue. (Swara raaga laya sudhaarasamandu vara Raama naamamane kanda chakkera misramujesi bhujinche Sankaruniki delusunu—in Inta saukhyamani ne jeppa jaala, in Kapi).
Purandaradasa, in his keertana Rama nama payasakke, asks people to mix the sakkare (sugar) of ‘Krishna nama’ and the thuppa (ghee) of ‘Vitthala nama’ in the payasam and constantly keep it on one’s tongue. Tyagaraja forgot to mention ghee!
The anupallavi is an example of the composer’s peerless humour. We are familiar with the croaking of the frog, but few have heard the crane (‘kokku’ in Tamil, ‘kokkare’ in Kannada and ‘konga’ in Telugu) making a strange noise akin to grunting. The frog and the crane climbing on to the stage to give a concert is a frightening prospect.
‘Paramaanandamu ane kamalamu’—The Brahmanandam (God consciousness) that sudha rasa gives is like a delicate lotus flower. Instead of someone producing ‘sudha rasa’ music, imagine a frog (bhekam) and a crane (bakam: ‘kokkare’ in Kannada also means despicable or revolting) climbing on to the lotus with their cacophonous outpourings! The lotus which cannot survive such an onslaught, will break and wither away. A translation of the anupallavi would run like this: The Paramanandam that is produced by sudha rasa is like a delicate lotus. Be careful, do not allow the frog and the crane to climb the lotus to give a concert. Such music instead of giving paramanandam, destroys even ordinary music.
‘Moolaadhaaraja naadamu erugute—(‘erugute’ means knowing)—gaining knowledge of the nature of the ‘naadam’ coming out of the mooladhara (the point below the stomach) gives one ‘mudamagu’ (joyous) ‘mokshamu’ (liberation). For that one has to know the correct places or locations or houses (grihamulu) of the kolahala sapta swara-s that lead to moksha (‘Kolahala sapta swara grihamula gurutey mokshamura, O manasa’). Tyagaraja uses the adjective ‘kolahala’ for the swara-s—to emphasise that the sapta swara-s always are joyous. ‘Kolahala’ means dynamic or vibrant and also joyous because one is vibrant or dynamic when one is joyous. Music is not for wailing or weeping; it has to be joyous and vibrant. (A knowledge of the nada coming out of the mooladhara leads to moksha. This is possible only if one has knowedge of the locations of the joyous sapta swara-s.) This is the first charanam.
Ancient texts say that nada is a combination of ‘na’ (prana) and ‘da’ (fire). Prana is oxygen in the air, and when inhaled, reacts with the fire in the stomach and in turn this hits the pranava at the mooladhara (the lowest point in the stomach). This nada then, aided by vayu (air) rises slowly and passes through the stomach (navel), the heart, the throat, the head (murdha) and the mouth. The nada travels along invisible yogic lines and becomes the seven swara-s which then are vocalised. The stomach is supposed to produce the swara-s of the anumandra sthayi (octave), the heart the mandra, the throat the madhya, the mouth the tara and the head the atitara sthayi-s. The anumandra and atitara sthayi-s are not useful because they cannot be heard by the human ear nor can a man sing in those octaves. Most ancient writers say that all the swara-s are produced in each of the places mentioned—the stomach, the heart, and so on.
Can we hear the ‘pranava nada’? We can. Close both the ears with your hands. You start hearing a hissing noise. That is pranava nada. It sounds like noise because we are not accustomed to it. If you hear this nada daily for a few minutes, in a few weeks perhaps you find it becomes a beautiful sound.
The Telugu poet Pothana describes how Kamsa reacted to this pranava. A demoralised Kamsa was anxiously waiting for news of the birth of Devaki’s eighth child which was supposed to kill him. Any sound, like the wind blowing, made him fear that Krishna had been born. Finally, in desperation, he closed his ears and heard the pranava. He was then convinced that Krishna was in his (Kamsa’s) stomach and that his end was near.
Knowledge of the locations (‘grihamula gurutey’—identification of the residences or locations) of the swara-s is also essential. Tyagaraja refers in Nada tanumanisam (Chittaranjani) to the birth of the sapta swara-s from the five heads of Lord Eswara and says that each of the heads represented the sthayi-s (octaves) from the anumandra, and each head produced the seven swara-s. This is also what, more or less, is stated by Sarangadeva in his Ratnakara.
Matanga, in his Brihaddesi, however says that the sa is produced by the throat, ri by the head, ga by the nose, ma by the heart, pa by the heart, head and the throat, dha by ‘taaluvu’ (the smaller tongue just above the throat) and ni by all these places. Tyagaraja refers to this problem in his Sobhillu sapta swara. A simple and straightforward sentence of his reads: In the nabhi (navel), hrit (heart), kantha (throat), rasana (tongue) and nasa (nose) are the sapta swara-s effulgent (sobhillu). It may not be wrong to assume that these places respectively are the locations of ri, ga, ma, dha and ni. The shadja is the pranava nada and the panchama can be sung with ma or dha.
‘Bahu janmamulaku paini gnaaniyai baraguta mokshamura’—A man can perhaps become a ‘gnani’ after repeated births. He may then acquire knowledge that can lead him to moksha. But a man who is by nature devoted to God (sahaja bhakti) and also has knowledge of raga (raga gnana sahitudu) is already a liberated soul (muktudu). In other words, seeking moksha through mere gnana necessitates that a man should undergo repeated births and deaths before he can attain his goal, but a devotee with knowledge of the intricacies of music, is already liberated. Music is the fastest way to liberation (Sahaja bhaktito raaga gnaana sahitudu muktuduraa, O manasaa!) How knowledge of music can bring about liberation is not a great mystery. The divine pranava nada is already there in the body. When a man learns and sings proper music and also concentrates mentally on the Divine, in other words, when the vibrations of his music become harmonious with the vibrations of the pranava nada, he attains unity with the Divinity which is moksha (liberation from samsara). Every musician, be he a beginner or a mature singer, has a fleeting experience of this at some stage in his singing, but since he is not properly educated in this he is unable to recognise the experience. Some senior musicians in the past have also talked about the swara and raga devata-s giving a helping hand when the singer faltered or hesitated to go ahead.
The third charanam is another example of the composer’s humour. It deals with ‘laya’ which also means unity or merger. When the singer graduates from tala to laya, his body becomes one with the music and responds to the rhythm automatically. The passage can be translated as: How can there be joy (sukham) when a percussionist is belabouring (marddinchuta) his maddala or mridanga, because he does not know the ‘tala gatulu’—the tala and its gati-s (maddala taala gatulu teliyakaney marddinchuta sukhamaa?). To sing the glory of God without a pure mind is like what the pigs do—sookara vritti. (Suddha manasu leka pooja cheyuta sookara vrittira). An incompetent percussionist can spoil the whole atmosphere. The musician is so disturbed that he cannot sing with a ‘suddha manasu’.
‘Swaraarnava marmamulu’—These are the secrets mentioned in the Swararnava treatise which Eswara
(‘Rajata gireesudu’: the Lord of the silver mountains) makes known to Parvati (Nagaja: daughter of the mountains, the Himalayas). These points which the ever victorious (vijayamugala) Eswara knows, O Mind! Learn the secrets with sincerity and eagerness (visvasinchi telusuko). Swararnava is the book that Narada is said to have given to Tyagaraja. However, the name Tyagaraja in this charanam refers to Eswara and not to the saint composer.
There are many points to be noted by a singer about this kriti, like the structure of the raga, the proper tempo and so on. One point sadly missing nowadays is the appreciation of the teermanam-s. It is a fashion to end an avartanam with a teermanam of some odd number of swara-s like five or seven akshara-s. In the kriti Swara raga sudharasa, Tyagaraja invariably concludes the pallavi or anupallavi or charanam with 3 x 4 akshara-s in slow tempo or 3 x 8 akshara-s in fast tempo. These are in such lilting structure as to have a soothing effect on the singer and the listener.