We commonly refer to Karnatik Music as the prevalent Art Music form in the region south of Vijayanagar (Hampi). We refer to Art Music traditions in the rest of India as Hindustani music.
While both systems share the concept of the ragaand the tala, and both shine in the presentation of the myriad hues of a raga through extempore improvisation, the systems differ in one respect: in the importance given to “compositions” in a performance.
While Hindustani music presents short khyals with elaborate improvisation, a Karnatik music concert features kritis, which have a longer format. Thus although the music system of India, regardless of regional variations, is several centuries old, present day concerts feature much of the developments that have taken place over the last couple of centuries.
A kriti is the most commonly seen compositional form in Karnatik music. Typically a kriti is a three part structure with an opening pallavi, an anupallaviand a charanam. The bulk of the kritis heard in today’s concerts were written about 200 years ago by a trio of contemporary composers who are collectively referred to as the trinity. The three composers are Syama Sastri, Thyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775—1835).
These three composers would never have imagined their collective beatification as the trinity! Although the three composers lived within a few miles of each other during some parts of their lives only sparse anecdotal references to their meetings are available. The honorific “trinity” is purely a 20th century phenomenon.
Collectively, the trinity account for about 1200+ kritis.
Of the three, Thyagaraja was the most prolific composer. Such was the spontaneity of his compositions, in free flowing Telugu, that his disciples would struggle to keep pace, learning them and committing them to manuscripts. Thyagaraja’s compositions are mellifluous and adorned with “sangatis,” melodic variation of a given line of text which, repeated several times, add to the magic of the kritis. Sangatis are at the center of Thyagaraja’s compositions. Thyagaraja was a Rama bhakta (devotee) and his compositions reflect a personal relationship between him and Rama.
Syama Sastri was a Devi bhakta and his repertoire of about a 100 songs are rich in melody and rhythmic content. Again the compositions are in conversational Telugu and reflect the depth of Sastri’s bhakti towards Devi Kamakshi.
Dikshitar’s compositions stand out from those of the other two of his contemporaries.
• Dikshitar was committed to the musical grammar of his guru parampara (heritage)—that of Venkatamakhi—and his compositions feature several of the ragas outlined in earlier musicological works.
• Dikshitar exhibited a pan-Indian orientation. He had spent a portion of his life in Benaras and his compositions are almost entirely in Sanskrit in contrast to his contempories who composed in Telugu, the court language of Thanjavur.
• Dikshitar’s compositions feature a number of “desiya” or North Indian ragas and there are several similarities between the construction of his compositions and the ancient dhrupad compositional form of North India.
• Dikshitar’s compositions are pre-meditated and constructed with care and they do not reflect the spontaneity of Thyagaraja’s compositions. In fact there are groups of compositions on specific themes like the Guruguha Vibhaktikritis or the Navagraha kritis or Devi Navavarana.
• The compositions are rendered in a slow meditative tempo calling for a great degree of breath control.
• Dikshitar’s compositions are not dedicated to one single deity but to several. There are several kritis on Devi, Shiva, Ganesha, Skanda, Vishnu, Lakshmi, the Navagrahas and others.
It was in the late 1800s and the early 1900s that the migration of Karnatik music happened from the royal courts of Thanjavur and other places to the music halls and sabhas of Chennai. Central to this was the glorification of the trinity (in the post trinity period). And at the core of this was the music of Thyagaraja popularized by his disciples.
Dikshitar’s compositions and Syama Sastri’s compositions also found their way to the kutcheri but the central pride of place was with Thyagaraja.
In fact, the leading classical singer Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer is said to have remarked “Thyagaraja Kirtanam thaan kirtanam, mattadu ellam pokkirittanam” (Only the kirtanams (kritis) of Thyagaraja are kirtanams, everything else is only mischief.)
It was thanks to Dikshitar’s nephew Subbarama Dikshitar that a large set of his compositions got published in 1905 at Ettaiyapuram in the deep south. Several more compositions attributed to Dikshitar attained circulation in the 1950s and 60s due to the effort of T.L. Venkatarama Iyer who learned them from Ambi Dikshitar, son of Subbarama Dikshitar.
In today’s world, you can find the majority of the compositions of the trinity on the internet. You can hear them in the numerous kutcheris that ring through Chennai during the music season. And if you look out for differences in compositional styles between the trinity, you will definitely be able to discern them.
Kanniks Kannikeswaran is an internationally renowned musician, composer and music educator, whose award winning research on the Indo-colonial music of Dikshitar is beginning to influence Indian music pedagogy. Kanniks is considered to be a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement. He teaches Indian classical music at the University of Cincinnati.www.kanniks.com