UC Davis hosted a symposium on the celebrated Carnatic composer Muthuswami Dikshitar on April 7th 2018 which brought together academics, performers, and rasikas in one space to examine and celebrate his life and contribution.
Dr. Archana Venkatesan, Chair, Department of Religious Studies, UC Davis and Sikkil Gurucharan, established Carnatic vocalist were co-curators of the daylong conference. “Through the day, we organized lectures and short music performances to explore the many faceted contribution of Dikshitar to Carnatic music,” said Dr. Venkatesan when I spoke with her over the telephone.
In the morning, Dr. Davesh Soneji explored the social and cultural contexts in which Dikshitar lived and created music. Diskshitar lived in the late 1700s to the mid-1800s and created music at a time when secular and sacred music cultures overlapped and drew inspiration from each other.
After this lecture which presented a worldview of society at the time in which the composer lived, the first afternoon lecture by Dr. Indira Viswanathan Peterson, Mount Holyoke College, looked at his kritis composed on the deities at the temple towns of Tiruvarur and Thanjavur. Punctuating her lecture by singing short snippets of music from his many compositions to make her point, Dr. Peterson held the audience in rapt attention. She drew comparisons between the poetry written by the Nayanmars in thevarams with compositions b
y Dikshitar penned centuries later. This lecture served to remind the audience that literary works serve as departure points of inspiration for writers and composers who use thematic motifs in their own creations decades or sometimes centuries later. Also, she spoke about the intricate iconographic details present in Dikshitar compositions which served to place the composer and the song in the context of a particular temple and deity, thus helping the listener to also situate themselves within that particular context while listening to the song.
Dr. Anand Venkatkrishnan of Harvard University spoke about how Dikshitar created the image of the goddess in his compositions. He said, “the highly formalized structure of Srividya worshipwas transformed into musical practice by Dikshitar.” As an example of how the bindu is situated in the middle of the chakra, he used the way in which the phrase tyagarajayogavaibhvam had been used in a song.
The descending phrase is again expanded into the first long phrase thus providing a middle point where the bindu can be felt, he said.
Dr. Archana Venkatesan said, “The point of the symposium was to start with an expansive view and then drill down as the day went along to the minute aspects within his compositions so that audience members had a many-layered understanding of this famed composer.” Co-curator and musician Sikkil Gurucharan in a telephone interview said,”As a professional musician, there was so much I was able to learn from the academic papers that were presented at the conference. In the space of one concert, I usually present one or two songs of Dikshitar. When we learn his compositions, our teachers give us a bird’s eye view of the lyrical and melodic beauty embedded in each composition. But, it is up to us to research and learn more about the composition and composer too. This kind of research and understanding will help us stay true to the lyrics, without splitting words at the wrong juncture so as to preserve melodic beauty.”
Young upcoming musicians presented short concerts that showcased Dikshitar compositions. Geeta Shankar (veena) was accompanied by Ajay Gopi (mridangam). Manasa Suresh (vocal) was accompanied by Geeta Shankar (veena) and Akshay Prabhakaran (mridangam). Following these two concerts in the Carnatic genre, Radhika Bhalerao presented a Hindustani concert along with Vikas Yendluri on tabla. It was a novel experiment to hear Radhika sing two popular compositions -” Hiranmayeem Lakshmim” and “Akhilandeswari” in the Hindustani style. The young musician skillfully elaborated each phrase in the song to give the music a distinct Hindustani flavor.
The evening concert was presented by eminent Carnatic vocalist Dr. S. Sowmya who was accompanied by Ranjani Ramakrishnan on the violin and Bay area based mridangist Vignesh Venkataraman.
The daylong symposium accomplished in spades what it set out to do – each contributor – musician and academic alike helped unpeel layers to reveal various aspects of Dikshitar’s contribution to Carnatic music. Many a time, academics and professional artists have much to learn from each other, but the opportunities for cross-fertilization of thoughts so that each might enhance the work of the other are few and far between. This symposium succeeded in providing that platform for formal and informal interactions, helped audience members leave with a more refined understanding of Dikshitar which they will surely carry over to their next concert and left me humming the Hindustani version of Hiranmayeem as I drove back.
Kudos to Dr. Archana Venkatesan and Sikkil Gurucharan for bringing music and scholarship into one platform for a truly enriching experience.
Nirupama Vaidhyanathan is the Managing Editor of India Currents magazine, an ardent Carnatic music rasika and a professional Bharatanatyam dancer.