A musical bridge across time

Posted on March 19, 2016


If Chitravina N Ravikiran has his way, couplets from the ‘Tirukkural’ may soon be part of the Carnatic repertoire.

Last December, while preparing for his session at The Hindu Lit for Life 2016, Gopalkrishna Gandhi selected 34 couplets from the Tirukkural and asked Chitravina N Ravikiran to set them to tune. Gandhi had just translated into English what he called “Tiruvalluvar’s undimming work,” written sometime between 2 BCE and 5 CE, and he felt a musical presentation would add sparkle to a discussion around one of the crown jewels of Tamil literature. Ravikiran did what was asked, but a few days later, he got thinking. Why stop with 34 couplets? Why not all 1330? After all, this wasn’t his first brush with Sangam-era literature. Over a decade ago, for a dance drama in San Francisco titled In the Long White Moonlight, he’d tuned verses from the Agananooru and Purananooru. “My idea was to see whether I could maintain the integrity of Tiruvalluvar’s lines and still set it to music in a manner that is concert-ready,” he said over Skype, from Minneapolis.

The issue, thus, wasn’t simply about turning something to be read into something to be sung, but composing formal pieces in the pallavianupallavicharanam format that can be performed on the Carnatic concert stage. Ravikiran felt that each group of ten couplets – an “Adhikaram” – could be treated like a varnam or a kriti, with ample scope for the improvisatory parts (niraval, kalapanaswaram). As an instance, he cited Adhikaram 65, (on Solvanmai, Power of Speech), which he tuned in Reetigowlai. Ravikiran did not elaborate, but take a look at the first couplet in this Adhikaram, which, in Gopalkrishna Gandhi’s translation, goes thus: Of gifts that gifted ministers have the gift of the gifted tongue / Stands first, for on that one gift great schemes are hung. Note how the loop-de-loop revisits of the “g” sound in the verse are reminiscent of the repetitions of ga in the ascending and descending scales of the raga.

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The Tirukkural is no stranger to the Carnatic cosmos. Composers like Mayuram Viswanatha Shastri and Ramani Baradwaj have tuned these couplets, and singers like Chidambaram CS Jayaraman and MM Dhandapani Desikar have performed full-fledged Tirukkural concerts. But the work existed in a distant orbit, rarely glimpsed. It was, in fact, at the cinema that many people heard the Tirukkural sung. K Balachander’s banner, Kavithalaya, opened its films with the first couplet in the background, and it wasn’t until Ravikiran stumbled into a recording by MM Dhandapani Desikar that he realised someone had set this ancient text to Carnatic music.

To this primarily sedate music, Ravikiran added a dash of the swashbuckling when he announced he was going to tune all 1330 couplets in under 50 hours. At first, this reminded people of his earlier feats of endurance – like the non-stop 24-hour concert in 1985, when he was 18. “But this is different,” he said. “This is not some Guinness stunt.” This was cold, scientific calculation, the equivalent of a stuntman knowing exactly when to swerve the car in a lane of oncoming traffic. “I have composed over 700 pieces of Carnatic music. When I am in an inspired zone, I end up composing 8-10 songs a day. So 50 hours was just a realistic estimate.” Then again, maybe not. He finished in 16 – which works out to about 83 couplets an hour, spread out over three days (January 12-14), at the International Institute for Tamil Studies in Taramani, Chennai. “I wanted a public place,” Ravikiran said, “so things would be transparent, and people could see for themselves how much time I took.” He isn’t just talking about those present at the venue. His students were giving live updates on Facebook, so the world could see the maestro perform without a safety net.

For like many English-medium-educated Tamilians, Ravikiran was not overly familiar with the Tirukkural. The time he opened the text at the event was pretty much the first start-to-end reading. He turned to a page. A raga flashed in his mind. He went about bending the raga to the rhythm and metre of the words, the words to the contours of the raga. Ravikiran said, unsurprisingly, that it was an unconscious process, though he deliberately used lighter ragas like Neelamani and Ahir Bhairav in the romantic portions. (The Tirukkural is divided into three chapters: Being Good, Being Politic, Being in Love.) The last Adhikaram, however, posed little problem. As is custom in Carnatic concerts, it is in the raga Shree.

Ravikiran has used Carnatic, Hindustani and folk scales. The final count of ragas, which his students kept, came to 169 – typically one raga per Adhikaram, unless it was a ragamalika, with segues into several ragas. Sometimes, several talas too. “Tala is key here,” Ravikiran said, “to maintain the integrity of Tiruvalluvar’s metre, where the second line of the couplet is shorter than the first. Otherwise it can sound very crowded in the first line and spaced out in the second.” Ravikiran has sent scratch recordings of these compositions to 75 artists, including Sudha Raghunathan, Neyveli Santhanagopalan, Aruna Sairam, Sowmya, Unnikrishnan and Nithyashree –their versions will eventually be loaded on YouTube, rubbing shoulders with their more traditional Carnatic offerings.

It will be interesting to see if performers take to the Tirukkural the way they have to, say, the Tiruppavai, the saint Andal’s verses in praise of Lord Vishnu, which were tuned definitively by Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Ravikiran said, “Carnatic music, by itself, never prescribes itself to be religious. It has been used as a medium for spreading religious and spiritual views, but [Subramanya] Bharathi’s songs are sung on stage too.” Case in point: Chinnachiru kiliye, in which the predominant emotion is love. “As an instrumentalist, I know that music is bigger than religion or language. Whenever I play pure Carnatic music, whether in Brazil or China or Japan, people appreciate it irrespective of any other consideration. My idea was to bring the Tirukkural to the mainstream concert platform. I wanted to show it could be done.”

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