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Venkata Kavi classified as a 'uttama vaggeyakara' (even by the super-high yardsticks outlined by Sarangadeva in Sangita Ratnakara) and was a musical visionary with consummate command over melody, rhythm, raga visio. He was an innovator of new melodic forms and structures with several features like the swaraksharas, raga-mudras, madhyamakalas, gati bhedams, jatis and several other aspects.
Venkata Kavi's contributions in the area of melody is prolific in quantity, brilliant in quality and are enriching and elevating experiences for any student, musician or scholar. The grand, original and colourful manner in which even highly populated ragas like Shankarabharanam, Bhairavi, Kharaharapriya, Kambhodhi, Todi, Kalyani, Shahana, Dhanyashi and many others have been explored in his compositions place him in a league of his own. Further, when numerous other factors like his treatment of the krti form in Saptaratna and Navavarana krtis, handling of ragas like Nagasvaravali, Hindolam, Malavi, Umabharanam, Balahamsa, Dvijayavanti, Manji or talas like Khanda Dhruvam, Sankeerna Mathyam, Mishra Atam are considered, no one can dispute that his monumental creations are superstructures of divinely inspired genius, anchored by scholarship of gigantic proportions.
Assessing original music
In the case of most Indian classical composers including the Trinity, it is challenging to assess the form of compositions or ragas as envisioned by them. This is due to several factors including non-availability of even basic notations (leave alone Western classical style notations with dynamics, articulation, expressions and other features), multitude of versions among their lineage of disciples (pathantarams) and hundreds of well known or little known alterations effected upon them by subsequent musicians over centuries. (The exception to this are the genre of varnams whose structures do not allow for wholesome changes to be imposed upon it.) Almost paradoxically, the more popular a Carnatic composer is, the less likely his music is likely to have survived in its original form.
In this scenario, any speculation on the 'correct' structure of the raga from theory books is just theory while reality is quite different.
- Many ragas have been envisioned in diverse ways even at the same time (Ex: Anandabhairavi or Poornachandrika of Tyagaraja and Dikshitar).
- Sometimes, varying interpretations of the same raga are seen in songs of the same composer Ex: Parulanu vedanu and Dandamu pettenura in Balahamsa, Inta sowkhyamani and Anyaayamu seyakura in Kapi of Tyagaraja
- Even raga names or melas have variants among schools - Ex: Gnyanamosaga raada (Poorvikalyani/Shadvidhamargini), Ne morabettite (Todi/Roopavati) and Naadatanumanisham - Chittaranjani (Janya of Jhankaradhwani or Kharaharapriya).
- Many ragas have also evolved over time, usually dragging the fate of the compositions with them.
Venkata Kavi's musical communication
Keeping in mind the above points, it is easier to assess Venkata Kavi's musicianship mainly due to two reasons.
a. His compositions were retained by a niche set of disciples who were the descendants of his brother's family.
b. The compositional structure in 75-80% of his works reveal his intent and class beyond dispute. Apart from being interspersed with lyric-packed madhyamakalams, his handling of meter, partitioning within sections, jatis, tala-form-melody-lyric correlation in at least a few lines in talas like Khanda Dhruvam, Sankeerna Mathyam etc clearly reveal that only an outstanding vaggeyakara could have composed them and it is almost impossible for someone else to tune them.
- Does this mean that his compositions are completely unaltered? No. Just that they may be less altered than compositions handled by a larger number of musicians over centuries.
- Do we have original manuscripts in Venkata Kavi's own hands? No more than we have of other composers of the same era. Most are what we have from various disciples or descendants.
- How have his works been preserved? Mainly by his brother's descendants and disciples. Several of them were noted musicians in royal courts like Tanjore or even Baroda, as per family records. Other musicians such as Paruttiyur Krishna Shastri (1815-1910) were said to have been experts in Venkata Kavi's works. The most prominent in recent times was of course the leading harikatha exponent, Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar.
- Can we trust the aural tradition of his sishya parampara? We have to, as much as we have trusted any other sishya parampara.
- Are there doubts regarding some of his works or ragas? Yes, just as there are about a few Tyagaraja or Dikshitar pieces. Studies are on to check missing or doubtful information.
One has to note that in the case of any composer, some lineages of disciples may be stronger in devotional or emotive aspects and others may have placed more stress on grammatical essentials of the raga. In either case, a good musician will refine the music and polish it diligently before performing it or teaching it to students. This is quite distinct from setting music to pieces or wholly altering them.
Classification of compositional styles – Five major styles
It is now evident that Venkata Kavi's melodic output is distinctive enough to stand out as a major compositional style in its own right. Scholars of Trinity drew comparisons to their styles as:
- Tyagaraja – Draaksha paakam (his style is akin to popping grapes into the mouth as one can effortlessly taste their deliciousness).
- Muttusvamy Dikshitar – Naarikela paakam (akin to a coconut, which offers innumerable challenges before its fruit can be relished).
- Shyama Shastri – Kadali paakam (like banana, they have a relatively smaller challenge of just peeling one layer of skin to access the banana).
When we analyse more deeply we can clearly establish two more styles that justify their inclusion to the above list.
- Kshetragna padams (especially as rendered by Veena Dhanammal/T Brinda school) – Panasa paakam (Like the jackfruit, which is exquisite though challenging to access).
- Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi – Aamra paaakam (Like the mango that is equally delicious with or without the skin, Venkata Kavi's works are as instantly appealing even at first glance as they are fulfilling after deep analysis).
Almost every other composer's styles will fall within one of these five.
- Ragas employed: He has composed in over a 100 ragas including major ragas like Todi, Shankarabharanam, Kalyani, Kambhodhi, Bhairavi and rakti ragas like Shahana, Anandabhairavi, Surati, Devagandhari, Madhyamavati, Arabhi, Athana and so on. Some of the other ragas he has used include Umabharanam, Hamsanadam, Malavi, Jayantashree, Kannadagowla.
Some ragas that might not have been employed (going by the list of songs studied till date) by him, are Varali, Janaranjani and some melakartas. However, he has mentioned many of their names in one song as part of the theme of the composition.
The melodic variety seen in ragas in which he has composed more than one krti like Todi, Kalyani, Madhymavati, Athana, Bhairavi, Kambhodhi, Anandabhairavi, Jhunjhooti, Reetigowla, Surati vouch for his deep understanding of the raga and his fertile imagination. Ragas like Deshakshi, Balahamsa and Navarasakannada reveal his scholarship.
72 melakartas: Venkata Kavi has not composed in each of the 72 melakartas but he has used ragas like Chakravakam, Gowrimanohari, Sarasangi, Simhendramadhyamam. He has even mentioned the name Simhendramadhyamam as a raga mudra in his composition, Mandaakini karai.
Rare ragas: He has also composed in rare ragas such as Kannadamaruvam, Hamsageervani, Lalitagandharvam and Deeparam, which do not seem to have been handled by another major composer. However, the origin of such ragas and the time period needs to be established.
Hindustani ragas: Venkata Kavi's compositions in ragas like Dvijayavanti (the correct spelling used in his school, considering that it is referred as Jayajayavanti in Hindustani) and Sindhubhairavi show that these North Indian ragas were prevelant in the Tanjore region much earlier than originally thought to have been, thanks to Maratha rulers who encouraged diverse cultures.
- Musical Forms: Venkata Kavi's stamp can be seen in many compositional forms such as krti, tillana, folk form chindu, shlokas (devotional hymns), poems that followed conventional meters and free-form verses. His krtis include many masterpieces like Prema svaroopa (Anandabhairavi), Sundara natarajam (Kharaharapriya), Neela lohita (Balahamsa), Padmini vallabha (Dhanyashi), Mundi varum (Bhairavi) and many others.
As Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar says in his book 'History of South Indian Music', 'the tillana attained aesthetic heights in Venkata Kavi's hands.' Even the available four to five tillanas in ragas like Sindhubhairavi and Surati will prove his mettle in rhythm and melody.
- Structure: Venkata Kavi has used the following structures in his composition and also used many innovations in structure as given below
- Conventional structure with pallavi in the proportion of 2:2:4. Examples: Vallari samaane (Malavi), Paarvai onre podume (Surati) and Udaja gopa sundara (Umabharanam).
- Krtis with samashti charanam – like Tyaagaraja paramesha (Chakravakam), Vande vaalmiki kokilam (Athana).
- Krtis with multiple stanzas in identical tunes – Vishamakkaara kannan (Chenchurutti).
- Krtis with pallavi, anupallavi and multiple charanams in different tunes – Kshanameva (Bhoopalam) and Mahaashaya (Abhogi).
- Ragamalika compositions – Ippadiyum or pillai, Shree raama jayame.
- Songs starting at 1.5 eduppu – Senaapate Namostute (Gowla).
- Krtis with a structure of geometic progression – Shree ganeshvara (Shanmukhapriya) has a proportion of 3:6:12.
- Krtis with gati change – Mahaashaya (Abhogi) has 5 cycles in pallavi and 3 in the madhyamakalam, 6 in anupallavi and has 2 charanams of 2 cycles each, where one is in chaturashra gati and the other in khanda gati. Shankari (Madhyamavati) has a pallavi that starts with 1.5 cycles of chaturashram, switches to tishram for 1.5 cycles and then returns to chaturashram. The anupallavi is in tishram slow speed for 4 cycles and 4 more in tishram medium speed and charanam is in chaturashram for 12 cycles.
- Variations in anchor line – In Koti janmaani (Reetigowla) and Haladharaanujam (Manirangu), the second and third sections lead to the 2nd line of the pallavi as against the conventional first line.
- Jatis and lyrics are interspersely used in tillanas as against the current style of one following the other.
4. Higher speed passages: Venkata Kavi was one of the very few composers to use medium-paced or faster passages. The faster sections are a benchmark of his torrential imagination and his scholarship. He has employed the madhyamakalam in at least 9 different ways. It is surely one of his greatest melodic contributions. From the perpective of madhyamakalam usage, his compositions can be classified as below:
- Compositions which are wholly in madhyamakalam. Eg: Pranavaakaaram (Arabhi) and Aananda nartana ganapatim (Nattai).
- Pieces mostly in madhyamakalm but have normal speed sections more for contrast. Eg: Shree Vighnaraajam bhaje (Gambheeranattai) and Chintittavar (Nattai). These are brilliant examples which inverse conventional concept of compositions where madhyamakalams are used in small doses more as contrast.
- Conventional pieces with a sprinkling of madhyamakalam: Hundreds of examples can be cited like Geeta rasike (Kalyani), Brindaavana nilaye (Reetigowla), Aadinaan (Shama).
- Pieces with several charanams in madhyamakalam: Saptaratna krtis, Ranganaatham anisham (Gambheeranattai) and Kshanameva ganya (Bhoopalam).
- Pieces where madhyamakalam is used within a section, in between 2 lines in normal speeds: Aganita mahima (Gowla), Vancchasi yadi kushalam (Kalyani). Here the first lines are in normal speed, there will be a line in madhyamakalam and then the music moves back to normal speed.
- Pieces where madhyamakalam fits into pre-composed jati patterns: Marakata manimaya (Arabhi), Nalladalla enru sholladi (Shankarabharanam), Bhuvanamoha sundara (Dhanyasi).
- Pieces where madhyamakalam is used with the same melody but lyrical variations - sahitya sangatis: Mahaashaya hrdaya (Abhogi).
- Pieces in madhyamakalam in two gatis: Uma maheshwaraatmajam (Umabharanam), Mummada vezha muhattu vinaayakan (Nattai).
- Pieces which use madhyamakalam in 2 degrees of speeds (double and quadriple): Oyyaaramaaha (Saranga), Vita samavara (Vasanta).
5. Chittaisvaras: Venkata Kavi's pieces sometimes include svaras and lyrics interwoven into the song. In the first charanam of Kshanameva ganya (Bhoopalam), he has used ri ga pa ga ri sa da as part of the lyrics which refers to Krshna's musical flute. Similarly he has also used chittaisvarams in the middle of a section or beginning of a section such as in Raasa keli (Kharaharapriya) and Prema svaroopa (Anandabhairavi) respectively.
6. Anchor charanas: An anchor charanam may be understood as 'a line from the charanam, which becomes a temporary second-refrain of the song, as opposed to the opening line of the pallavi'. Five of Venkata Kavi's Saptaratnas and a few other krtis have such anchor charanams.
7. Sahitya sangatis (lyric-based variations): Sangatis are variations which are melodic in nature where the lyrics remain constant. However, Venkata Kavi has used the concept of lyrical variations in krtis like Mahaashaya (Abhogi), Aganita mahimaadbhuta (Gowla saptaratna), Gopakumaara (Athana) and so on. In mahaashaya, he has employed the following variations:
- madhukara champaka vana vihaara mana-
mohana madhusoodana navabhooshana
- madhukara champaka vana vihaara nava
pallava padakara madana gambheera
- madhukara champaka vana vihaara go-
vardhana dhara bhujaga nartana charana
- Exciting build-ups and emphatic finales: Venkata Kavi was a master in building melo-rhythmic climaxes and finishes as seen in Kuzhaloodi manamellam (Kambhodhi), Ashaindaadum (Simhendramadhyamam) and Paal vadiyum mukham (Nattaikkuranji). In the last section of Marakata manimaya chela (Arabhi), he even uses mathematical reductions (known as koraippu-s) which are usually used in improvisations like kalpana svaras.
There are also many songs in which he has given stunning mathematical finishes like Bhuvanamoha sundara (Dhanyasi). This song starts after 2 units from the starting point. In this song, Venkata Kavi has used an unprecedented finish where the final fast passage has a pattern of six repeated 11 times that lands at 2 units from starting point.
atinootana kusumaakara vrajamohana saraseeruha
dalalochana mamamaanasa patuchora su- svarageeta
su-muraleedhara suramodita bhavamochana
The fifth charanam in the Saptaratna krti (Aalavadennaalo) in Paras features a very inspiring finish where the composer has magically strung the names of 6 of the 63 nayanmars where this phrase starts in the last beat of the Adi tala and lands at half of the first beat.
shirappuliyar sheruttunaiyar puhazhttunaiyar
kulachchiraiyar kazhattrarivar iyarppahayarenum
- One-kalai masterpieces: There is a common misconception that only 2 kalai pieces can be considered weighty. However, many of Venkata Kavi's compostions are a marked exception to this such as Vasudevaaya namo namaste (Shahana), Bhuvana moha (Dhanyasi), Aadinaan vilaiyaadinaan (Sama), Sundara nataraajam (Kharaharapriya).
10. Svarakshara: These have been very intellectually employed in a few krtis
- Sarasija bhava jaaye (Kalyani) – sarvadaa sadaa padaaravindam bhajaamyaham.
Here he uses sa, da and pa for the words sadaa and padaa
- Gajamukha anujam (Kedaram) – A unique example where the word samaagama is used in 2 sangatis with the svaras P S , N S and S M , G M. While the latter is an obvious svarakshara, the former is also S M, G M transposed from P.
- Raga mudra: Venkata Kavi's incorporation of name of raga is more sporadic and generally stated in a very obvious manner, but stated in innovative scenarios and contexts.
In chaamaropachaaram (Shuddhasaveri), he mentions
kaashaambu vannane un leelaiyinai shuddhasaveri
tannile ishaittu gandharuvar inaipaada…
There are several other instances in which he has used the raga mudra. In others, he also mentions the names of scores of other ragas such as Kalyani, Yamunakalyani, Saranga, Brndavanasaranga, Malavi, Kambhodhi and Yadukulakambhodhi.
- References to musical terms: Venkata Kavi's musicianship is also proved in the number of references he has made to music in his works and how he has effortlessly interwoven it into the lyrics of the song.
- Ekadanta vinaayakam (Nattai): mentions about musical grammar, melody and rhythm.
- Baalasarasamurali (Keeravani): mentions gamakas (graces, ornamentation) like aahatam and pratyaahatam.
- Kaalinga Nartana Prabhaavam (Shloka): In the 7th and penultimate stanza, he mentions more names of gamakas like sphurita, daalu, kampita, aandola and jaaru.