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Operas in South Indian Classical Music

Sridevi Iyengar
I M- Music
College of Fine Arts
Mysore University
Opera , in general, is used with reference to Western Classical Music. It is an
extended dramatic composition with music as an essential and predominant
factor. However , there is a story that flows, from item to item. It has
recitatives, arias, choruses etc along with accompanying orchestral music ,
scenery, acting and sometimes even dancing.

While it might not be totally correct in using this term for the Musical plays
in Indian music, it is the nearest word in english. There are many musical
dramas available in the folklore and the provincial art forms such as
yakshagana in Karnataka , Andhra Pradesh & bhagavata Mela in
Tamilnadu. Rama nataka Kirtanas of Arunachala Kavi, Nandanar
charitram of Gopalakrishna Bharathi also has similar compositions with the
local flavor.

The forerunner in this genre of compositions are the Gita govinda of


Jayadeva , Krishna leela Tarangini of Narayana Theerthar both of which are
in the sanskrit language. There are other music composers like Siddhendra
Yogi of Andhra Pradesh, Shahaji maharajah of Thanjavur and Merattur
Venkatarama Shastri - all of them lived before the trinity era. Their
compositions are , the rewritings of Hindu Mythology adorned in music ,
basic idea is sharanagati - or complete surrender to the Supreme being for
'moksha' or Eternal bliss.

Thyagaraja, born in 1767 ,is one of the trinities of Carnatic Music, the other
two being Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar. Thyagaraja ,
however is the only trinity composer to have composed musical plays , also
known as dance dramas or operas. Thyagaraja composed three operas, Sita
Rama vijayam, ' Prahlada Bhakthi Vijayam ' and 'Nauka Charitram'. Of
these three , it is unfortunate that connoisseurs of music do not have a copy
of the first opera 'Sita Rama Vijayam' and we have only the other two.

These two extant operas are shining examples of music dramas in Carnatic
Music and are testament to Thyagaraja's phenomenal musical insight and
unbridled imagery. The charm of the poetry in these operas ( applies to gita
govinda and Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini) is that each song or krithi is
complete by itself and can be presented on it's own or together as the composer
probably intended to be.

The evolution of the Opera in South India can be traced from the
Uparaupakas. Music and dance predominate in these sanskrit forms and
paved the way for sangitaka and Kirtaniya Nataka which in turn give rise
to vernacular provincial theatre replete with music and dance. Carnatic
music is the genre of music used in these provincial theatric forms in South
India for both the Folk and religious based themes. The distinguishing
feature in the operas in South India is the absence of the Vidushaka or the
clown. A South Indian opera is not merely a drama set to music but also an
exquisite musical and literary form. Music plays a very vital role and acts
as a powerful medium to convey the emotive appeal of the play at all times.
The entire work is enacted with 'Abhinaya' or gestures and in general the
performers also sing the songs.

There is an interesting mythological episode that gives the origin of the


drama. Jambudvipa was occupied by all kinds of people like devas, yakshas,
danavas, gandharvas , nagas etc. At one point of time there was a lot of
chaos and confusion in the minds of these people and the Gods approached
Brahma and requested him to create something that can teach people of the
righteous path and that be something that people can listen to and see and
learn - an audio visual experience. It is then that Lord Brahma , upon
contemplation, tool the literary aspect from Rig Veda, Abhinaya from
yajurveda, Music from Sama veda and Rasa from Atharva veda - thus
creating Natya Veda - or dramatic art which had all the four constituents,
Patya , Abhinya, Geya and Rasa. This he was sure will yield in virtue,
wealth and fame and would be instructive and protective for the performer
and the listener. Brahma then asks Lord Inra to make the gods perform
natya veda but Indra opined that the sages were more capable of doing the
same. Sage Bharata was then asigned to perform the dramatic art. Bharata
thus learnt this art from Lord Brahma himself and then taught it to his
sons. On the day of the Dvaja festival, Bharata then did a 'samvakara' type
of play called AmruthaManthana.

Bharatha in his Natya shastra says that emphasised on the musical content
of such plays for songs are said the 'beds' of dramatic representation.

Post Bharata, the other significant contributor to the history of drama and
dance is Kohala .

Plays athat are dominated by music and dance are known as Geyarupakas,
Nrutyabhedas and Anyanirupakani.

Currently, we still have quite a few traditional theatres of South India .

Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini

Narayana Theertha (1675 - 1745) was an ascetic and scholar born in


Andhra desa. His name prior to sanyasam was Tallavajjhala Govinda
Sastry. Attaining mastery over all the six shastras, he went to Varanasi ,
the seat of sages and learned men. He returned back to South India and
settled on the banks of cauvery. He was an ardent devotee of lord Krishna
and his magnum opus garland of tarangas 'Sri Krishna Leela tarangini'
captures his spontaneous outpourings of devotion to the Lord in verses. These
tarangas have high emotive appeal and evoke the navarasas in the singer and
the rasika alike.

Legend has it that the inspiration to compose this piece occurred when
Narayan Theerthar was along the banks of River cauvery. He was suffering
from a serious stomach ailment and prayed that he should be given the
strength to go back to Tirupati, where it all started. A divine voice asked him
to follow a boar (varaha) to wherever it led him. The varaha led him to
Bhupatirajapuram, which came to be known as `Varahur' later. The people of
the village knew that a maha-purusha was coming. With their help, he raised
the temple for Sri Lakshmi Narayana and Lord Venkateswara and settled
down on the banks of river `Kudamurutty' the name by which the Cauvery
was known at this place.

Sri Krishna Leela Tarangini is an opera set in the yaksha gAna style. It
portrays incidents in the life of Krishna from his birth till his marriage to
his eight queens .There are 120 kirtanas. There are pAtra pravEsa darus,
gadyas (also known as cUrnikas) and shlOkas. Each of the individual
chapters is called a taranga though the term has now come to also mean the
songs themselves. This is a wrong practice and the manuscripts refer to the
songs as darus or kIrtanas only. Rather like Jayadeva’s aShTapadis, the
tarangiNi influenced other composers such as Upanishad Brahmam, a
contemporary of Tyagaraja. But the similarities end here for the structure of
the latter’s work is not the same.

The songs were originally composed in the dhruvapada/pada format- that is


they have a refrain (dhruvapada) to be sung after each pada (verse). These
were later changed to conform to the pallavi/anupallavi/caraNam format. It
is clear that Narayana Teertha was a vAggEyakAra for he says as much in
his song advayam akhaNDam. But no manuscript has his music. In the
Tanjavur belt, the songs were set to music for uncavrtti by Marudanallur
Sadguru Swamin (one of the bhajan trinity). In the Addanki area of
Andhra there were 60 families that claimed to have been taught the songs by
Narayana Teertha himself. Around 10 of these have retained the tradition.

The first tarangam begins with the sloka


Followed by

The Mangala Krithi is

Some traditionalists believe that Narayana Theerthar is indeed the


reincarnation of Jayadeva , the creator of the immortal 'Gita govinda '. There
are many similarities between the two musical plays including the fact that
both of them are divided into 12 parts and composed in chaste Sanskrit. The
Tarangams have been sung not only as bhajana sampradaya but also on the
concert platform , as individual pieces or select pieces as a part of a dance -
drama. In fact these tarangams are an integral part of the Kuchipudi dance
tradition.

Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam

Of the two operas composed by Saint Thyagaraja , this is the longer opera of
the two that we have access to. Thyagaraja's aaradhya daiva was 'Lord
Rama' and he has composed hundreds of kritis on Lord Rama to pay his
obeisance to the Lord. 'Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam' is dedicated, as the title
would hint, to another avatar of Vishnu 'Narasimha' , although ,
interestingly there is no mention of Narasimha in the entire opera. In fact,
the story of the unrelenting enmity that Hiranyakashipu has towards Hari
and his ultimate destruction by the Lord Narasimha does not feature at all
in the strings of kirtanas. What can be seen is the recurring theme of
complete sharanagathi, in this case by Prahlada towards Hari. Prahlada's
devotion is tested to the limits by Hari and is finally won over by this boy
devotee's complete faith and surrender to the Lord. The name suggests the
theme which is the Victory of Prahlada's devotion. Some believe that the
reason that Thyagaraja did not bring in the 'narasimha avatara' into this
opera is because Meruttur Venkaratrama shastri had already composed a
yaksha gana in telugu callled the Prahlada charitram and therefore
Thyagaraja decided to keep his focus on Bhakti through the eyes of Prahlada.
Thyagaraja .It is apparent, through many of his krithis, that he is aware that
Prahlada always takes precedence and occupies the prime slot when it comes
to undying devotion to the Lord even higher than Lord Narada. THyagaraja
pays his homage to the parama Bhaktha Prahlada not only in this opera but
also in krithis like ' Endaro Mahanubhavulu ' the famous Sri raga
pancharathna krithi, and the krithi ' Ne pogadakunte'. Therefore , it is no
surprise that this saint devotee, whose mission in life was to propagate
Bhakti, chose the ultimate bhakta as the protagonist in his musical play.

The full length drama is in five acts with 45 kritis , set in 28 ragas and 132
verses. The entire opera will take about 5 hrs to perform. The backdrop for the
story is very creatively introduced by a long verse which is a prelude to the
first act. THe play commences at the point when Prahlada is thrown into the
sea by his father's sevakas. Samudra Raja, himself a devotee of Sri hari,
saves the boy from drowning and takes him to his place amidst much
rejoicing. Samudra raja prays to lord Garuda to remove the serpents that
have shackled Prahlada. Freed from his shackles, Prahlada implores
Samudra Raja to help him have darshan of the Lord. The God of the sea then
answers Prahlada that one can have 'HIS' darshan only by intense prayer
and steadfast devotion.

In the second Act , we find Prahlada pouring out his anguish to LOrd Hari
through some of the finest emotive compositions ever composed by
Thyagaraja. Narada himself appears before him, verbally paints him a vivid
picture of Vaikuntha and then reassures Prahlada that Hari does intend to
appear before Prahlada.

The third act opens with Prahlada , singing in sheer ecstasy swoons and
faints only to open his eyes by the gentle touch of the LORD himself and he
feasts himself on the resplendent form of the supreme one.

The fourth Act involves a long and fairly intimate conversation between the
Lord Hari and Bhakta Prahlada. The Lord tests the extent of devotion
Prahlada has towards him by enticing him with boons which went as extreme
as the overlordship of the entire universe to which Prahlada, without
flinching, refuses. He reiterates and reaffirms to the Lord that unfliching
devotions itself is a means and an end in itself.

Final act, vishnu disappears from Prahlada which causes much misery to the
poor lad only to reappear with his consort, Lakshmi. Together they transport
an overwhelmed but joyous Prahlada to the divine abode witnessed by all the
Gods. Brahma Indra Narada Samudra raja , the sapta rishis and Surya
bhagavan come to witness this memorable scene.

The vivid imagery that Thyagaraja has captured in his lyrics, with tunes
that are exquisite uplifts the spirit and chastens the heart. To further the
appeal, the bard composer has adapted apt verses from the Valmiki
Ramayanam, the Bhagacatham and The Mukunda mala. The benedictory
verses of the operas strongly suggest that Thyagaraja intended these to be
read as scriptures and not viewed as mere kirtanas. The musical scores are
quite different from his other kirtanas in the sense that they employ
minimum number of sangathis, laying emphasis on the emotional content
than the musical embellishments. The songs are precise yet delicate, some
serene, some show despair, some others hope and yet together they ring the
same message - that of confidence in God and complete surrender to attain
eternal bliss. The opener 'Sri Ganapathini ' and the mangalam 'Ni Nama
rupamulaku' are both set in Sourashtra , to indicate a full circle. Rare ragas
are handled with dexterity and aplomb like the nagagandhari krithi and
Paraju krithi. The mangalam krithi is now the default mangala krithi sung
in almost all kacheris while other krithis like sri ganapathini, , is sung as
the ganapathi stuti to begin the concert. Krithis like Nannu vidachi in Riti
Goula , Varidhi Niku are sung as sub main or main pieces although many
may not be aware that these krithis are a part of this opera.

The operas of Jayadeva , Narayana Theerthar and Thyagaraja are precious


gifts to karnataka sangeetham. The ethical influences of these compositions,
the spiritual content , the emotive appeal , and the lilting music make them a
treasure for us to cherish. Musicians and dancers alike have poured in their
creative energies to do justice to these fine musical compositions and the
legacy continues emanating from a rich tradition