The Mystic Bard of Oothukkadu
by Dr. Sulochana Rajendran
The dance of ecstasy is in progress. Behind it, however, is a story of 'awe' that unfolds itself with great impact in the Bhagavthars interpretation. With their hearts in their mouths, the audience watch in Needamangalam Krishnamoorthy Bhagavathars Upanyasa, Ganesha gynating in frenzy, to the horror of the celestial assemblage, struggling to free himsel
f of the serpant that had taken refuge in his trunk while he himself was lost in the excitement over, the dance contest of Shiva Parvati. The inimitable Bhagavathar, incidentally, brings to note that this dance of Ganesha paved the way for the Naga natyam, more precisely the Kalinga Narthanam in the Krishnavatar. The same when visualised in dance brings forth its Abhinaya import and Nritta potential.
Whatever the interpretation or story line, the song structure speaks for its validity. Composed in the Samashti Charana format the song lifts in lyrical excellence and Solkattu stances, Weaving through, in past, Madhyama Kala Sahitya and thereby proves its history, its period in the evolution of music.
But the composer, Oothukkadu Venkata Subbiar has not been given his due in the lineage of the "Historical Greats."
History abounds in mystery especially in the areas of literature and fine arts. Where there had been an oral tradition prevailing down the centuries, quite a number of creative geniuses had left behind them no recorded evidences regarding their creations. However their works/compositions, are the only "living" evidences of their genius. Venkata Kavi was very much one among them. He was by far the most prolific composer in terms of variety and range of compositions, in the pre-Trinity era which was by no means a period of inactivity. His creations cover a variety of compositions such as Varnam, Kriti, Saptaratna, Navavarna, Ragamalika, Padam, Javali, Tillana, Periapurana Keerthanas, Ashtakam, Sloka, Virutham etc.
While the music world has been hesitating to accept the Kavi in the same vein as they do the Trinity and other composers prior to and after their advent, the contents of the Kavis songs, their structure, their musical finesse reveal more than what records formally convey.
It may be pointed out that the course of centuries between Purandara Dasa and the Music Trinity saw many composers enriching carnatic music both on the Bhagavata tradition and the art front. At the time of the advent of the Trinity the environment was surcharged with music of immense varieties and high quality performers. In fact, the musical atmosphere was rich with Bhakti, Bhava, Raga, Tala and poetic excellence.
The keertans of the bards right from the time of Jayadeva were a source of inspiration. Purandara Dasas Devarnamas, Arunagirinadars Tiruppugazh, Narayana Teerthas Tarangas, Bhadrachala Ramadas keerthanas, Kshetragnas Padams provided a rich repertoire to draw inspiration from. In addition, the hymns of Maharashtra saints, Tulsidas "Ramcharitmanas, etc had been popularised in the South by keertanakaras who had migrated along with the Maratha rulers to Tanjavur.
If such was the emotional bhakti surge on the popular musical level, the quality of art music on the classical level reached a new high with veterans like Merattur Veerabhadrayya rendering outstanding service by formulation conventions and standards for it systematic presentation. His Swara jathis and padas were exquisite model of art music. Composers like Kasinathayya Govindasamayya, Ghanam Sinayya, Margadarsi Sesha Iyengar, Sarangapani and others had all contributed to the enhancement of Manodharma Sangeetha and systematic rendition of compositions. Pachimiriam (Adiyappaiah of "Viriboni, Bhairavi Ata Tala Varnam, fame), popularised the style of Alaparia. Madyamakala rendition and Pallavi singing. Purandara Dasas musical Supladis had their own impact. To boot, the Maratha Kings compositions and opera, "Pallaki Seva Prabandham added to the varieties.
Besides, Venkatamakhis systematisation of ragas - the 72 - Melakarta scheme the subsequent Janaka - Janya ragas with the already prevailing familiar and rare ragas opened the floodgates of melody to fertile the musical soil through various raga channels.
No doubt, Oothukkadu Kavi who was born during this period, would have availed of all these in his musical outpourings, blending bhakti with articulate aesthetics of art. And the Trinity who followed could have shaped them with finesse in their gems of creations, heralding the Golden Era of carntaic music.
Venkata Kavis birth date is clouded in controversy. Some say it is 17th Century and some say it is 18th Century (1700-1785). It is recorded that when he died Syama Sastri, the eldest of the Trinity was just three years old. His own song dates him after Tulsidas, who belonged to 16th Century! In one of his Saptaratnas, Bhajanamrita", he pays his obessance to the saint-poets, before his time, and the stance
"...Vishnujitta Parakala Purandara Tulasidasa Sharanaravinda
Dooli Hari Shiva Guha" ("Bhajamrita").
A Naishtika Brahmachari, he was a recluse, a bhakta who poured his devotion in songs of ecstasy and agony. He learnt from none (save in the initial stage) nor taught. He was an Ekalavya. He sang in solitude and composed. A Nagaswara Vidwan, Rudra Pasupati, learned them on the sly and brought them to light. We also learn that his elder brother, Kattu Krishnaiar, noted down some of them and passed on to his scions. Through his daughter (?) the eminent musicologist, R. Rangaramanuja Ayyangar records that the Kavis songs were all preserved in palm-leaf bundles kept in earthern pots and passed on through seven generations. And it was given to Needamangalam Krishnamoorthy Bhagavathar (of 6th generation) and the popular Oothukkadu Brothers - Muthukrishnan and Rajagopalan (of 7th generation to propagate the bards compositions in their full-fledged glory.
If Oothukadu is one of the bountiful gifts of Nature, being a jungle of fountains, the fertile soil has also been flourished with fountain of strains emanating from the Kavi. Though his lshta Devata was Krishna, he had composed on all deities, Muruga claiming greater importance. As for the style of the kavi and his Kavithvam, one may quote "Garland" Rajagopalan who writes :
"Surely the Bard was a Gopi at heart and a dancer - himself as revealed by the inexhaustible reservoir of emotions and bhavas elegantly sculpted and imponded in his lucid, aromatic songs rich in lyrics and easy - paced in tempo. His songs enjoy the majestic flow of raga in harmony with the Sahitya. Ayyar as blest with the charming skill of a Nattuvanar, the poetic vision of a virgin lover, refinement and expertise of advancing marvel and clarity of imagination of a poet of infinite grace. He navigates his actors through a sea of fertile emotions in a measure that is quite amazing to flow from an austere recluse". ("Yet Another Garland.")
Venkata Kavi was sure a trail-blazer bringing into vogue many a form of composition with refined aesthetics in Sanskrit and Tamil. He could be a precursor to the Trinity in more ways than one. It is unlikely by that they were not influenced, by his sublime creations. Many firsts could be attributed to him..
(i) His Kritis abound in musical embellishments or technical beauties" as they are called, such as Sangathis, Swarakshara, Madhyama Kala Sahitya, Solkattu Swaras, Yathi, alliterations, Samashti Charana, etc.
(ii) The Kavis Saptaratnas could well be a prototype of Tyagarajas Pancharatnas. Though Tyagaraja is said to have compoed his Pancharatnas at the behest of his sishyas in the Tana Varna pattern and that he composed them at different times and not himself grouped them into Pancharatnas, the structural similarity between the Natai Ratnas "Jagatanandakaraka" and "Bhajanamrita Paramananda" could not be ignored. A connoisseur has found similiarity in content between Nata Saptaratna and Sri Raga Panchartna. Could Thyagaraja have included the Kavi in his "Endaro Mahanubhavalu Andari ki Vandanmu"?. But one difference could be perceived that while Thyagaraja composed in traditional Ghana Ragas Venkata Kavi used both Ghana and Rakti Ragas - like Arabhi, Abhogi, Keeravani, Madhyamavathi etc., His "Marakatha Manimaya Chela (Arabhi) is popular in Kuchipudi dance while "Mahasayahrudaya" (Abhogi), "Balasarasa Murali" (Keervani), besides the Natai Ratna figure in music performances.
Venkata Kavis Navavarna kritis have preceded Muthuswamy Dikshitars Kritis of the same genre. Here too the kavi had used bhakti Ragas, like Hindolam, Nadanamakuiya, Bilahari, Arabhi, and Ahiri while Dikshitar composed in Todi, Kalyani, Kambhoji, Sankarabharanam, Bhairavi etc., Both had great vision and followed the worship of the Divine Mother through the Avaranas. Kavi composed on Kamakshi and Dikshitar on Kamlamba.
The group in Kavis creations also have a Dhyana Kriti and Mangala Kriti making them eleven in all. But the Tala the kavi need makes him a rare Vaggeyakara. "Sadanandamayi" (Hindolam), for instance is composed in Sankeerna Matya Tala.
It was the bard of Oothukkadu who composed a lilting "Rasakeeli Vilasa Prakasa in Kharaharapriya even before Thyagaraja took to popularising it. The other two of Trinity do not seen to have composed in this Raga.
Needamangalam Krishnamoorthy Bhagavather in one of his Pravachana observed that it was the Senchuruti Kriti "Muthu Krishan memudam", a Samashti Charanam which paved way for Madhyamakala Sahitya. There are a number of kritis in these genre among his compositions more popular among them being - "Brindavana Nilaye"(Reetigowla), "Aparamnajnamire" (Kapi).
Besides Solkattu Swaras which exude Sahitya perception he was an ace spinner of Gati Bheda sequences. "Vitasamavara Jata" (Vasantha), Nada Murali Gana Vilona" (Hameer Kalyani) the Abhogi Saptaratna are some examples. It is learnt that the kriti in Vasanta which courses through the lilting Tisra Khanda, Chatusra Gatis, is sung at the commencement of Gokulashtami festival at the Nartana Krishna Temple in Oothukkadu.
That the bard was equally an adept in Nayaka-Nayika Bhava padam composition is proved by "Endavidamagilum Nandamukundanai Nee Inda Vazhi Varum Vagai Paradi !! in Kambhoji and
Avaraga Varuvaro Varamattar Idil !
Adisayamennadi Anname - Kannan II in Saraswathi.
One finds in the recently published "Sri Krishna Ganam" -Part II a "Kalinga Nartanam - Natangam
which appears a combination of Tillana and Daru Varnam.
More light needs to be thrown on this form of composition.
The Kavis Tillanas have names from Ancient Tamil Ragas. More popular ones are in Senchuruti. A variety of Ragamalikas he has compoed besides a Denuswasapuram Ashtakam which is sung as Mangalam. (Dhenu swasapuram is another name of Oothukkadu).
Last but not the least Venkata Kavis sublimity and unparalleled creativity finds an abode (Padaiveedu_ in his heart for Lord Muruga-
"Or Ezhu Padai Veedu Kondai - Un
Aru Padai Veedum En Ullamum Serndaga"
"Ninringum Arul Kattum Sol Onru Sonnalum !
he sings in "Nenjam Kuzhaindidude - Muruga" (Bilahari)
That he was a recluse and sought anonymity is proved by his using his Mudra "Verikata Kavi" only in a couple of Kritis, the Ghanta Navavarna, and Ramayana Ragamalika. It is mostly "Kalinga Nartana", that figures as a signature. However the structure, the substance and the architectoric lucidity and lilt mark his compositions as a class in themselves.
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