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Those familiar with Indian classical music are aware of the raga-centered nature of the art.

Those with even a peripheral awareness of Karnatik music are bound to know that much of what is heard in a kutcheri or concert is centered around the raga-based kritis (compositions) written by a trio of composers Swami Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, popularly referred to as the trinity. Over 400 kritis are attributed to Dikshitar, over 700 to Tyagaraja and about a 100 to Syama Sastri.  While the latter two wrote largely in Telugu, the former wrote mostly in Sanskrit.

Would anyone believe it if they were told that one of the “trinity” created a large body of compositions based on western music? And that too, back in the early 1800s way before the advent of “fusion music?”

Yes, there is indeed a repertoire of “lesser-known” compositions based on western musical ideas attributed to the orthodox composer Dikshitar. A set of 39 compositions—all based on colonial tunes that came to India with the British East India Company written by Dikshitar.

These compositions known as nottusvara sahityas (lyrics) came into being when Dikshitar wrote Sanskrit lyrics to the western tunes that he heard during his family’s sojourn at Manali near modern day Chennai.

The beauty of these nottuswara sahityas lies in the fact that the introduction of Sanskrit lyrics into Western melodic themes has not resulted in something jarring or incongruous; on the other hand, these compositions are uniquely Indian, although devoid of the characteristic gamakas that decorate Indian melodic passages.

Who is Dikshitar? What is his contribution to music? Why is it relevant today?

Muthusvami Dikshitar (1775-1835) was born in Tiruvarur and a part of his early life was spent in Manali, near Chennai, where his family lived a musically immersed life under the patronage of Dubash Muthukrishna Mudaliyar. It was during this phase that Dikshitar came into contact with tunes played by British bands, during a political period marked by the rise of the East India Company in India.

Dikshitar traveled widely and is often referred to as the eternal pilgrim. His sojourns covered his birthplace Tiruvarur, Manali near Chennai,  Benares in North India, Kanchi, Thanjavur, Madurai and Ettaiyapuram in deep southern Tamil Nadu. He traveled and composed kritis in praise of several temples en-route, as he covered all of these places on foot and on bullock cart.

Dikshitar delivers the essence of hundreds of ragas through his weighty kritis. Several of his compositions bear elements of structural similarity with North Indian compositional form of dhrupad. Dikshitar was a luminary with a pan Indian expression that at once integrated several ideas and traditions together and wove a wholesome tapestry that was uniquely Indian.

Approximately every twelfth composition of Dikshitar is based on western tunes such as jigs reels from the Irish repertoire, country dances,  waltzes, marches and more.  All of these tunes are in major scale conforming largely to the scale of the raga sankarabharana.

Dikshitar’s genius can be observed from the fact that he integrated his lyrical context and his medium of expression with western tunes and created a new genre of Indo-colonial music that is neither completely Indian nor Western but both. The nottuswara sahityas are a microcosmic introduction to the world of Dikshitar.  His well known kritis (vatap ganapatim, kamalambambhajare, rangapura vihara, arunachala natham, surya murte, manasa guruguha) represent his pluralistic approach to religion and his grounding in non-dualistic monoism. The lyrical content seen in the nottusvara sahityas is nothing but a condensed presentation of the themes seen in some of his compositions in heavy duty ragas—while  the tunes are colonially influenced such as the “British National Anthem,” “Lord McDonald’s Reel,” the “Gallopede” and many more. The diversity in tunes that Dikshitar wrote lyrics to is staggering. The manner in which he integrated stotra lyrics with western tunes truly reflects his genius.

The nottusvaras do not find a logical space for performance in the kutcheri tradition. They however are not to be dismissed as flippant creations in the face of the other magnificent edifices created by Dikshitar in various ragas. On the contrary, they constitute a precious and largely unknown legacy left behind by the composer.

• They reveal a glimpse into the rich world of Dikshitar’s sahityas that are full of esoteric and aesthetic significance. Their text reflects the universalistic outlook of the composer, who was open to using alien melodies in his creative expression, in addition to the large body of highly sophisticated melodies of his own creation.

• The Indo-colonial music of Dikshitar reveals the pluralistic approach of Indian culture and the unique ability of India to be open to new ideas and to transform an alien concept into something that is uniquely Indian.

•  From a practical standpoint, the nottuswara sahityas constitute a series of exercises that introduce the beginner to the fascinating world of Dikshitar’s classical music.

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. With several path breaking works to his credit, Kanniks  is considered to be a pioneer of the Indian American choral movement. He has been teaching Indian classical music at the University of Cincinnati since 1994.