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The extent and quality of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi's scholarship and command over Sanskrit and Tamil have astounded several scholars. Tamil is the only language that does not share its root with Sanskrit and its grammar and approach is very different from the other Indian languages. Rest of the South Indian languages such as Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam share their roots with Sanskrit and it is quite common to find composers or poets who are skilled in Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam along with Sanskrit.
Venkata Kavi's expression blends power with elegance and his compositions possess that rare ablity to sound musical even without music. They convey a whole range of emotions, portray specific scenarios vividly and instantly touch one's soul - verily a product of innate genius and divine inspiration.
Among the trinity, only Shyama Shastri displayed his familiarity with Tamil and Sanskrit but mostly composed in Telugu. Diskhitar also used a sprinkling of Tamil in two Manipravala krtis while Tyagaraja opted for Telugu for the majority of his works even though nearly 50 of his available compositions in Sanskrit showcase his mastery over that language. Most latter day composers similarly specialised in one language or the other even though a sprinkling of krtis maybe seen in another languages.
Against this backdrop, the bi-lingual brilliance of Venkata Kavi is seen in hundreds of compositions. He also composed a handful of songs in Marathi, influenced by Maratha rule in Tanjore during those times.
Some hallmarks of Venkata Kavi's lyrical skills are listed below:
- Spontaneity: Venkata Kavi's lyrics have a flow that can only be a product of in-depth knowledge and mastery over numerous subjects. His erudition and profundity come through effortlessly in his works.
- Different styles and dialects: The composer followed the coperatic style and used the styles of language and expression that best project each character in a story. The simple conversational style of Tamil in his operatic pieces such as Alaipaayude and Taaye Yashode (with respect to the language spoken by the gopis) sharply contrast with the scholarly Tamil seen in his general compositions..
- Erudite Tamil: In sharp contrast to songs like Alaippaayude and Taaye yashode mentioned above, there are several songs in which the composer has used very scholarly language with stunning vocabulary.
- Chintittavar (Nattai) – final madhyamakalam
kaakshi enattahum aakshi manattoru saakshi phalittidalaakki tiribhuvanam
aakshi sheluttida ekaamra kaamaakshi kataakshittarula oru kanamum
- Darishanam tande arulinaan (Arabhi)
taame nikhilamena taamodiyapadi
taamona arulai daamodara hari
taamaarena varum naarada maamuni
taamuiyavenru taammeiyya ninru
- Conversational Sanskrit: Venkata Kavi's Sanskrit reflects his level of comfort with the language with an easy conversational flow that very few other Carnatic composers have exhibited. Typical Carnatic compositions in Sanskrit consist of descriptions or synonyms of God with an occasional verb thrown in as a grammatical requirement. While Venkata Kavi has also composed many pieces in the above style, a number of his pieces contain direct conversations with God with such free flowing vocabulary that give us an illusion that Sanskrit was his primary language.
- Details: Venkata Kavi had the gift of words to depict any God or scene with microscopic clarity. His vivid descriptions transport the reader to wherever he wants them to be with just the power of his lyrics even when not aided by music.
- Gajamukha anujam (Kedaram)
ksheeravarna bhasmaankita phaalam
madhyedyuti kunkuma dharam ati shobham
"(Lord Subramanya wears) milky white ash on his forehead with a glowing red vermilion in the centre."
- Ranganaatham anisham (Gambheeranattai)
mangalakara nishkalanka dakshina
mandaakini kaaveri madhyastam
"(Lord Ranganatha) resides between the rivers Dakshina Mandakini and Kaveri. Many other compositions mention that the Lord resides on the banks of Kaveri but seldom mention the other river that makes Shrirangam an island."
- Incredible variations: Even in shlokas (devotional verses), the composer comes up with several lyrical variations in the last line of each stanza, keeping the spirit constant. His penchant for variety adds sparkle to such verses.
aacharanam chara maanasa maanasa
aadishesha shayanam ayanam
aacharanam gama maanasa maanasa
aadishesha shayanam ayanam
naama sukham bhaja maanasa maanasa
naaga shesha shayanam ayanam
maadhava paadayugam bhaja maanasa
bhogiraaaja shayanam ayanam
maadhava paadayugam bhaja maanasa
naagaraaja shayanam ayanam
- Stunning vocabulary: Venkata Kavi's stunning vocabulary was his main strength. He was never short of appropriate words in any context and the number of rhyming and apt 2 syllable words that he could come up with are a pointer to his knowledge. Likewise, if there was a 4 syllable meter that he wanted in a particular order, he could create it effortlessly. A case in point is the madhyamakala in the anupallavi of Vallari samane (Malavi):
maadhava maadhura gaana su-dhaarasa bhaavita mohana lolana komala
Further, he could use rare words or their variants, coin innovative words, use different words for the same context or employ popular words in rare contexts.
Rare words: Here are some examples of rare words used by the composer that are not commonly found in Carnatic literature.
- Pulinda kanya (in senaapate namostute - gowla) – meaning hunter's daughter (valli)
- Rohisha jaa (in gajamukhaanujam - kedaram) – born to deer (Valli)
- Kukuranga (in raghukulottama – nagasvaravali) – evil deer (Mareecha)
- Aakalpa (in pranavaakaaram – arabhi) – clothes
- Word-play: Venkata Kavi had a penchant for word-play, which makes some of his passages very inspiring. A case in point is: Aganita mahimaadbhuta(Gowla):
kamalaa mukha kamala shilee mukha (bee of the lotus face of Lakshmi)
- Apparent repetitiveness: Venkata Kavi has used repetitive words in certain contexts. This apparent repetitiveness may appear like a mistake, but deeper analysis and open-minded study reveal the true intention of the composer.
aghora tatpurushaanana samvadana
The word vadana and aanana may apparently seem to mean the same – face. But, here the composer teases our brain a bit and a closer look will reveal that vadana in this context means speech and not face.
- Teasers: There are various occasions in which the composer has used familiar words in unfamiliar contexts. This often challenges the scholars and only when a deeper and analytical study is undertaken, the intention of the poet can be understood better. For instance, in the 3rd madhyamakala charana in Jataadhara shankara, (Todi Saptaratna) he says:
bhaasakara chandra panchamukha
The above may seem to incorrectly mean that Shiva has 5 moons. But here chandra means lovely and not the moon.
In Bhajasva shree tripura sundari (Nadanamakriya), the word bhaja may seem to mean 'pray' upon superficial study. But a clear analysis reveals that bhaja means 'accept me too'. It is interesting to note that bhaja is used in the same context in Shree suktam, which in turn reveals the composer's intimate knowledge of such works.