Narayanagaula– A hoary raga from a distant past

Introduction:

Very few ragas in our system have remained unchanged in terms of their melodic structure, since their time of conception/birth. Narayanagaula is one of them. Today it is a peripheral raga with a couple of varnams and a handful of kritis having yielded ground to its melodic siblings such as Kedaragaula and Surati, despite the fact that it can have an independent melodic existence.

This blog post is all about this beauty of a raga. There are two sterling compositions in this raga, one being ‘maguvA ninnE’,the ata tala tana varnam composed by Veenai Kuppayyar and the other being ‘Sri Ramam ravikulabdhi somam’ by Muthusvami Dikshitar. And equally there are two gold standard renditions of each of these compositions of the highest aesthetic order, which are classics for the sheer virtuosity with which they have been rendered. An in depth assimilation of these two compositions and the renderings can enable one to digest the entire form of the raga.

THE HISTORY OF THE RAGA:

Narayanagaula has been dealt with in almost all Southern musical texts. Govinda Dikshitar, Venkatamakhin, Sahaji, Tulaja and the rest have provided the lakshana of the raga as it existed during their times. It has always been bunched under the Kambhoji/Kedaragaula mela with Nishada as a graha svara. As a raga it has been part of two nominal groupings in musical literature:

  1. In the company of Ritigaula, Malavagaula, Kedaragaula, Gaula, Kannadagaula, Chayagaula and Purvagaula, it has been grouped as a ‘Gaula’nta raga. See footnote 2.
  2. It has been made part of a second set /dviteeya Ghana raga panchakam. The first set consist of universally agreed ragas namely Natta,Gaula, Arabhi, Varali and Sri. According to one school, the second set consists of Narayanagaula, Reetigaula, Bouli, Saranganata and Kedaram. Contrastingly in the Pallavi svarakalpavalli of Tiruvottiyur Tyagayyar in his gitam listing he makes the dviteeya pancakam as Ritigaula, Bhauli, Saranganata, Malavasri and Narayanagaula

In the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini Subbarama Dikshitar presents the following shloka of Muddu venkatamakhin as the authoritative and unambiguous definition of the raga.

syAn nArAyanagaulastU sampurnO nighrahAnvitah |

arohE gadhA varjasca vinyAsAt vidyatE kvacit ||

He illustrates the ragas lakshana with a set of exemplar compositions:

  1. The Dhruva tala gitam of Muddu Venkatamakhin
  2. The matya tala kaivara prabandha of Venkatamakhin himself composed on Lord Sarangapani at Kumbakonam with its alapa khanda section being oddly notated completely with gamaka signs
  3. ‘Sri Ramam ravikulabdhi somam’ of Muthusvami Dikshitar in adi tala
  4. His own sancari in matya tala

In his commentary he concisely provides the arohana/avarohana murccana as RMPNDNS/ NDPMGRGRS It’s important and worth observing that he begins the murcchanas on Ri and Ni, indicating pointedly that they are the jiva and nyasa svaras. He highlights three important melodic phrases which must be emphasized:

-          MGRGRS

-          MP\DMPMGR and

-          PNS

The definition having not stated expressly that dhaivatha is vakra in the arohana gives room for interpreting that PNS is the default prayoga and PNDNS is an ancillary prayoga. Nevertheless Subbarama Dikshitar clarifies that the converse is true for the raga’s lakshana. As one can see later, while the exemplar compositions have both PNS and PNDNS, modern day performers sing only PNDNS almost as a rule completely eschewing PNS or PNNS.

Also one can notice that again though the prescribed avarohana krama is MGRS and MGRGRS, we also see MG\S with a glide from gandhara to sadja being used in the raga. Both the exemplar compositions sport this motif.

THE RAGA’s LAKSHANA IN A NUTSHELL:

It is best left to the learned Prof S R Janakiraman to provide us an expert commentary on the raga based on the available corpus of compositions. Here is the summary of his take on this raga:

  1. It is a ubhaya vakra shadava sampurna raga devoid of gandhara in the ascent under the 28th begins in mela
  2. The notes ri, ma and ni are unique dheerga svaras which function as graha svara as well. Thus Tyagaraja’s ‘Kadalevadu’ and Dikshitar’s ‘Sri Ramam’ begin on Rishaba while the ata tala tana varna begins on Ma. And most importantly the carana refrain of the varna begins on Ni. Additionally Dikshitar gives both Ga and Dha a unique placement and treatment in his composition.
  3. All these three exemplar compositions sport MPDM in the Madhya sthAyi and SNNDDP in the mandara sthAyi copiously.
  4. Apart from the above referred murcchanas, M.GRGRGS, R.MPN.DD, MGRGRSR, M.M.MNDNS, NSNGRGSR are seen as characteristic sancaras. ( svara followed by a dot indicates it is prolonged/dhIrgha)
  5. The sancara NSNgrS is especially likely to sport a lowered gandhara especially in the tAra sthAyI.
  6. NSRMGRPMG.. is a beautiful and distinct prayoga for this raga.

Further according to Prof S R Janakiraman, this raga’s lakshana has remained more or less the same as it was during Govinda Dikshitar’s times. The discography section below, has the video wherein the Professor dissects the raga with the exemplar composition.

COMPOSITIONS IN THE RAGA

VARNAS:

Musicologists have always reiterated that a raga is best understood very clearly from varnams as they encompass the complete melodic canvas of the raga. Common & jIva prayogas, arsha prayogas or murcchanas/svara combinations which are rarely rendered or gone out of vogue, beginning & ending svaras, weak and strong notes (graha, amsa, nyasa) indicating which are to be dwelt upon or elided/passed over, nature of the sancaras in tristhAyi, Ghana or rakti nature of the raga etc can all be inferred from a varnam of an expert composer.  A musical personage of such an illustrious pedigree is Veenai Kuppier, a disciple of Tyagaraja who has bequeathed us a number of varnas which are literally the encyclopedia for those respective ragas. His Adi tala varnas in Surati, Bilahari, Begada and Sankarabharanam and the Ata tala tAna varnas in Anandabhairavi, rItigaula & Narayanagaula are exemplars for the ragas in question, capturing for us the pen picture as it existed at that point in time.

In the case of Narayanagaula, Kuppayyar’s ata tala tana varnam which has ‘maguvA ninnE’ as its Pallavi is the very aigrette of this raga, much like how ‘Vanajakshi’ is for Kalyani and ‘Viribhoni’ for Bhairavi. See foot note 1. Furthermore, historical records have it that Kuppayyar excelled in rendering this raga as a performer. Prof. Sambamoorthi in his essay, ‘Madras a Seat of Musical Learning’ makes a telling statement that he was called ‘Narayanagaula’ Kuppayyar for the mastery he had over the raga and his ‘maguva nine’ is the best exemplar/lakshya for this raga. Prof S R Janakiraman in his commentary on Tulaja’s Saramruta, echoes Prof Sambamoorthy by saying that the tana varna is the lakshya prabandha for the raga.

Apart from Kuppayyar’s tour-de-force, in the varna category we have two more. One is the adi tala tana varnam ‘ calamEla jEsEvurA’ of Muthiah Bhagavathar. Another is the varna by Kalahasti Venkatasvami Raja who has composed a Nava raga Ghana ragamalika in adi tala, in which Narayangaula figures in one of the sections. This composition which is seen notated by Prof Sambamoorthi in his works has two odd features:

  1. Sahitya is seen for all the svara sections including the anupallavi muktayi svaras and the four carana ettugada svaras.
  2. While the prathama Ghana raga set as universally agreed is adopted in this varna, the composer Venkatasvami Raja in this case has made only 4 ragas as the dviteeya Ghana raga set, eliminating Bhauli and Saranganata and bringing Nattakurinji instead.

The varna is structured with its pallavi in Natta, anupallavi in Gaula and the anupallavi muktayi  svaras in Arabhi and Varali. The carana sahitya next is in Sri followed by four ettugada svara sections each in Narayanagaula, Reetigaula, Nattakurinji and Kedaram. Again this composition is rarely encountered in the concert platform.

KRITIS:

Tyagaraja to his credit has a number of compositions, the prominent ones being “kadalE vAdu”, ‘darshanamu sEya” and “Innalu”. In fact there is a version of ‘darshanamu seya’ in Kedaragaula the melodic sibling of Narayanagaula, raising the doubt as to the actual raga of the composition.

We do have compositions of Muthiah Bhagavathar & other modern composers as well. We do not have any kriti of Syama Sastri or his descendants in this raga. Apart from his ata tala varna mentioned above, Veena Kuppayyar has also composed a kriti in this raga, ‘nannu brocEvA’, which has been never at all heard of, let alone being heard! It’s indeed curious that we notice no compositions in this raga in the case of Svati Tirunal, despite the hand that both Gayakashikamani Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar and Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer had, both in terms of resurrection and re-tuning of the melodies.

As an exemplar for the kriti format, we would be seeing the Muthusvami Dikshitar kriti notated in the SSP, “Sri Ramam ravikulabdhi somam” in the discography section in detail. We have one more kriti attributed to Dikshitar which is found in the collection published by Ananthakrishna Iyer much later. It is the Nilotpalamba Vibakti kriti ‘’nIlotpalAmbA jAyatI” in misra capu tala. Suffice to say that the melodic and lyrical value of ‘Sri Ramam’ is of the highest order and is a worthy exemplar for enhancing our understanding of this raga.

OTHER COMPOSITIONAL TYPES

Narayanagaula has also been utilized in Ragamalikas. Ramasvami Dikshitar for example has made use of the raga in his mammoth 108 raga tala malika. We do notice that this raga has been incorporated in a couple of other anonymous Ragamalikas found documented in the ‘Sangeeta Sarvartha sara Sangrahamu’ of Veena Ramanujayya. Another notable composition is a gitam in Narayanagaula published in the Pallavi Svara Kalpavalli of Thiruvottiyur Tyagayyar which concisely provides the raga’s lakshana. Needless to add, it reiterates the form of the raga as found in the Kuppayyar varna and the compositions of Dikshitar and Tyagaraja.

We do not have other compositional types in this raga ( padam, javali, tillana etc). Curiously enough if one can experience the raga in-depth and then ruminate it can be intuitively discovered in hindsight that:

  1. From a compositional form perspective, It is perhaps suitable only for Varna and kriti templates
  2. From a performance music perspective it is amenable to alapana and neraval but is best suited for tanam and svarakalpana.

Again from the discography one can infer that while the raga is ideal for madhyamakala/tAna exposition as exemplified by the ata tala varna and the kritis of Tyagaraja, the sedate pace of Sri Ramam of Dikshitar brings out another face of raga.

DISCOGRAPHY:

Addressed first in this section is the ata tala tana varna of Kuppayyar. Many renderings of this varna are available in the public domain. Among contemporary Vidvans, Sangita Kalanidhi T N Krishnan has rendered it time and again as a concert opener. His version is perhaps attributtable to Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer from whom quite a few seem to have learnt. Tiger Varadachariar and the Kalakshetra school seem to have been another great repository of this varnam. Vidvan M D Ramanathan (MDR) from this school has soulfully presented this and many other varnams in his own inimitable style. It takes a while to absorb his sonorous style of presentation, but once we come to grips his presentation gets addictive.

Here is his rendering in the company of Sri T N Krishnan and Sri Umayalpuram Sivaraman which is a gold-standard for this composition if one may say so.

A number of features call for attention:

  1. Sri MDR’s version tracks to the notation given in the anubandha of the SSP, almost to a T.
  2. The raga sports both PNDNS as well as PNNS as per definition. Sri MDR demonstrates easily that the intonation of the PNS or PNNS in Narayanagaula is so distinct and no way can one confuse this with Surati. The intonation is all that matters as well as the fluid ease with which you move to the next note. There are very many modern day musicians who have changed the PNNS to PNDNS as if to normalize the Narayanagaula to have only PNDNS. So much so, in some days to come PNS will be an arsha prayoga for sure in this raga. Subbarama Dikshitar almost as a cautionary note says that PNS is also part of the raga DNA.
  3. The Pallavi begins with Ma, the anupallavi with Sadja & the anupallavi muktayi svara with Ma. The carana begins with a lilting Nishada janta prayoga ,all jiva svaras for the raga.
  4. The fourth ettugada svara section rendered by Sri MDR, beginning with M1 is unique in its structuring. This svara section is not found in any published versions of this varna. Neither is it found in any other renderings. Be that as it may, the ettugada svara section (as given below) and rendered by Sri MDR is so nuanced and delicate right from the way he intones the madhyama note. Contrast this with the madhyama note he invokes at the takeoff of the first ettugada svara line. Here is the svara notation for the fourth ettugada svara section which is not found in the SSP notation of the ata tala varna:

m,gr                    snsr                     m,pd                    pmgr                   m,pn                     |
nddp                   m,pS                    ndpd                   m,pd                    m,gr                      |
m,gr                    snsr          |           m,pm                   pmgr                                               ||
m,gr                    srmp                    Chi…                    iiii                         na,,,                    |

And as if for our benefit when he renders it the second time he shifts the focus and intones the madhyama alone leaving out the other notes with pauses. The result is electric as one can see for its produces a different aural effect. See foot note 3.

  1. True to harmonic positioning and the gap between svarasthanas nishadha and the G3 gandhara, the gandhara value is lowered to sadharana levels almost in some phrases for example nG2RS.
  2. The way Sri MDR renders it brings to our mind the mellismatic way a raga can be expounded. Fluidity marks the flow of the raga. There are no well-marked svarastanas, no sharp tones or abrupt jumps/turns/twists. The flow is liquid melody driven by janta notes and brisk progression in terms of pace. Is this what was referred to by the ancients as ‘ghana’ marga or the attributes of a ‘ghana’ raga? Sri MDR’s voice seem to have been tailor made for this way of rendering the raga and this varna is a telling example of exposition of a Ghana raga. Words – sahitya or the svara intonation seem a mere auxiliary/appendage to the entire musical rendering. The concept of ghana in our music and its link to scalar and mellismatic ragas in contradistinction is a topic worthy of a separate in depth blog post.
  3. Attention is invited to the usage of the nishada svara especially in the janta form. The janta usage takes the form – PNNS and N.NDDPP the first N being extremely dheergha. The phrases PNDP or PNNDP takes the raga closer to Surati, which can and should be avoided. The said phrases can be replaced instead by PN.NDDP or PNDNPDMP giving unambiguously the unique flavour of Narayanagaula. Similar is his treatment of the madhyama note, as in M.MGRGRS.

Presented next is the version of Prof SR Janakiraman which can be tracked back to his days he spent in the Carnatic Music College @ Madras where he underwent tutelage under the legendary masters of those times. Worth its weight in gold, his telling illustration of the raga, its features and how it is distinguishable from Kedaragaula and Surati is presented in the following video in his very inimitable style, taking Kuppayyar’s magnum opus as exemplar.

Prof SRJ – Illustration

We move on next to the rendering of Muthusvami Dikshitar’s ‘Sri Ramam ravikulabdhi somam’. Again this composition has been rendered by many contemporaneous vidvans and vidusis. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer used to soulfully render this in the past quite frequently and he is supposed to have learnt this from Tiruvisainallur Pallavi Narayanasvami Iyer, a giant from another era. See foot note 4.

Before his presentation however, we have to hear out the gold standard rendering of this composition which can only be that on the Veena by Sangita Kalanidhi Mysore Doresvami Iyengar in true Mysore style. See footnote 5.

Accompanied by his son D Balakrishna, here is the maestro rendering the composition.

The version is sought to be presented in this section as a primus inter pares from amongst the rendering of giants, for a number of reasons detailed below.

  1. With a short sketch of the raga to begin with, the veteran embarks immediately on the tAnam of the raga, showing how madhyama kala pradhana the raga is. The mellismatic nature of the raga is brought to the fore by the vidvan coaxing those notes with his longer meetus from the strings on this hoary instrument of the South.
  2. Following the tAnam, he presents a very stylized interpretation of the composition. Students of music should listen to this with the SSP notation in hand to understand how remarkably the titan follows the notation given by Subbarama Dikshitar, with great fidelity. For instance one sees no trace of sadharana gandharam in his rendering of “nAradAdi sannuta”
  3. There no unnecessary sangatis, kaarvais and other embellishments, for the maestro in true Mysore style keeps gamakas to the minimum.
  4. And as the final icing on the cake he plays a concise set of kalpana svaras, with nobility of imagination, in the first/mudhal kAlam adding a meditative touch to his rendering. And at the same time as if on cue from Subbarama Dikshitar, he repeats again and again by embedding the raga’s leitmotif ‘MPMG RGRS’ in his loop back to the pallavi line. In his svara essay he plays both PNNS and PNDNS equally, without deprecating the former prayoga. After first playing the svara kalpana in the first kAlam he then moves to the second kAlam giving the right contrast in terms of pace of delivery in true vaineeka style.

The Vidvans of the Kancipuram school of Naina Pillai have reveled in singing the raga. We have recordings of both the Tyagaraja and Dikshitar compositions by the vidvans of this school (Vidvans Chitoor Subramanya Pillai, Madurai Somasundaram & others) complete with alapana and svarakalpana Dr. S Ramanathan too used to render the Tyagaraja composition ‘kadalevAdu’ very frequently which is in the public domain. We have renderings of the Dikshitar composition by contemporaneous vidvans including Sangita Kalanidhi Sanjay Subramanian, Vidvan T M Krishna and Neyveli Santhanagopalan.

We next move on to an exemplar rendering of the raga as a part of a ragamalika. Sangita Kala Acharya Dr R S Jayalakshmi presents that portion of Ramasvami Dikshitar ‘s 108 raga tala malika, “Natakadi Vidyala”, set in Narayanagaula excerpted from a 2015 Nada Inbam Lecture Demonstration.

 

We move on to the manodharma section encompassing neraval and svarakalpana renderings in the raga. See foot note 6. Presented first is the svara kalpana rendering for the Kuppayyar Ata tala varnam on the carana line ‘cinna nATAdigA nItO’, by Vidvan Neyveli Santhanagopalan. In this AIR Sangeeth Sammelan Concert concert excerpt, we pick up action as the vidvan starts the final ettugada svara section and seamlessly moves on to the kalpanasvaras.

 

With Sri S Varadarajan on the violin and Umayalpuram Mali on the mrudangam providing competent support , the vidvan takes in the same melodic foot tapping tempo in singing svara kalpana, rolling out janta svaras dwelling on the jIva svaras as the eduppu svara for his sequences. The Vidvan again tellingly uses the leitmotif GRGRMP as his concluding svara refrain/makuta svara as he loops back to the carana line.

We should be eternally grateful to Sangita Kalanidhi Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer for consistently keeping ‘Sri Ramam’ alive on the concert platform through his renderings right through the latter half of the last century. His renderings include the one in his “Kalki Gardens Ramanavami Concert 1967” in the company of Sangita Kalandhi Smt M S Subbulakshmi, which had once been recorded but shared and heard innumerable number of times by die-hard rasikas of his brand of music.

We bring this blog post to a close with his rendering of the song together with svara kalpana for the pallavi line of ‘Sri Ramam”, as a musical homage to that titan, from a concert recording of his.

 

And again like Sri Doresvami Iyengar, Srinivasa Iyer repeats MGRGRS in his svarakalpana, which the great Subbarama Dikshitar calls as the core building block of this raga of great antiquity.

REFERENCES:

  1. Subbarama Dikshitar(1904) -Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini with its Tamil translation published by the Madras Music Academy
  2. Prof. P. Sambamoorthy (1970) – A Practical Course in Karnatic Music ( Tamil)- Book III published by The Indian Music Publishing House
  3. T K Govinda Rao (2006) – Varnasagaram – Ganamandir Publications
  4. Prof. P. Sambamoorthy ( 1939)- The Madras Tercentenary Commemoration Volume- Republished by Asian Educational Services
  5. Prof. S R Janakiraman(1996) – Raga Lakshanangal(Tamil)- Second Part
  6. Prof. S R Janakiraman (1993)- Ragas of Saramrutha – Published by the Madras Music Academy

FOOTNOTES:

  1. It’s indeed unfortunate that in older as well as modern publications ‘maguva ninne’ is attributed mistakenly to Tiruvottiyur Tyagayyar. This includes the Anubandha to the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini as well. Since we have a reliable authority, that of Thiruvottiyur Tyagayyar himself in his publication “Pallavi Svarakalpavalli” stating that the aforesaid varna is one of his father, namely Veena Kuppayyar, we need to infer/reconcile that it was perhaps a case of misconception / mis-attribution /printing issue on the part of the older publishers rather than simply carrying forward the error and perpetuate the same on unsubstantiated authority.
  2. Shahaji, the Maharatta King of Tanjore has composed a ‘Saptasagara suladi prabandha lila daru” utilizing the 7 gaulanta rAgas( excluding Gaula itself) and the 7 talas on Lord Tyagaraja of Tiruvarur. The svara Ni is supposed to be one of the jiva svaras for all the gaulanta ragas. The sections in that composition are: Narayanagaula ( Dhruva), Kannadagaula(matya), Malavagaula(rupaka), Ritigaula (Jhampa), Purvagaula(Triputa), Chayagaula ( Ata) and Kedaragaula ( Eka) . We do have a set of compositions grouped as Vibhakti kritis on Goddess Neelotpalamba at Tiruvarur, attributed to Muthusvami Dikshitar. Apart from the Neelotpalamba Vibhakti set, we have from the SSP, compositions by Muthusvami Dikshitar individually in every one of these gaulanta ragas except Kannadagaula & Purvagaula.
    1. ‘Sri Ramam’ – Narayanagaula
    2. ‘Sri Nathadi’ – Malavagaula
    3. ‘Sri Nilotpala nayike’ – Ritigaula
    4. ‘Sarasvatya’ – Chayagaula
    5. ‘Nilakantham’- Kedaragaula
  3. Unique as it may be, one has to wonder whose handiwork it was, for it is such a brilliant first rate piece of svara setting. Was it Sri MDR’s personal creation or a Kalakshetra/Tiger Varadachariar’ imaginative contribution to this varna? The Kalakshetra as an institution is famous for its imaginative melodic extensions to famous compositions. For example the Bhairavi magnum opus “Viribhoni” has a sahitya composed for all its ettugada svaras, which seamlessly segues with the svara setting and also the ata tala rhythmic setting. Whoever was the composer must be a genius to have retrofitted meaningful telugu words to a complex melodic and rhythmic setting and segueing seamlessly with the lyrical content of the pre-existing sahitya. Similar is the case of the Todi cauka varna ‘rUpamU jUcI’ as well, were sahitya has been incorporated for the ettugada svaras. All these have been more or less anonymous till date.
  4. Newly anointed Sangita Kalanidhi Sanjay Subramanyam has acknowledged having learnt the Dikshitar Narayanagaula masterpiece from Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. According to him his guru Calcutta K S Krishnamurthi used to go into raptures recalling a brilliant rendering of that piece by the Carnatic veteran in a Bangalore Concert.
  5. Equally so in his erstwhile Sangeetham.com musical musings Sri.Sanjay Subramanian wrote once about the Narayanagaula tanam and the rendering of “Sri Ramam” by Sangita Kalanidhi Doresvami Iyengar in a concert sometime circa 1980 at the Sastri Hall, Mylapore.
  6. Another point to ponder is can the exposition of the raga be done through a viruttam. It’s not known for sure if there are any recordings of Ragam, tanam & Pallavi done exclusively in Narayanagaula, in the public domain. Performances have been made in the past such as the one by Vidvan T M Krishna in the 2009 Chennai Music Season at the Indian Fine Arts where he rendered 2 RTP’s back to back, the first one in Narayanagaula and the second in Rishabapriya. One other exhaustive rendering (40 mins+) of Dikshitar’s Sri Ramam is available in the public domain, probably a bootlegged recording of a Music Academy Concert from the year 2011 with alapana, neraval and svarakalpana.