I performed at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai recently. The NCPA is a glorious institution that was founded in the late 60s by JRD Tata and Dr Jamshed Bhabha. It was one of a kind centre for the performing arts and continues to be so even today. It is located at the furthest tip of Bombay, Nariman Point – just where the land meets the sea.
This year, for my performance at the NCPA, I was asked to choose 2 composers from the Carnatic tradition and highlight their work. I chose – Muthuswami Dikshitar and Oothukkadu Venkata Subba Iyer.
Muthuswami Dikshitar is one of the Grand Trinity of Carnatic Music along with Thyagaraja and Shyama Sastri. These three maestros redefined Carnatic Music to what it is today.
Dikshitar was born in Tiruvarur. He followed Chidambaranatha Yogi, a sage and a realised soul, right up to Kashi on foot, travelling across the country! He lived in Kashi for a few years and learned about Hindustani Classical Music – presumably more of Dhrupad and less of Khayal, given the time when this took place. A few years later, Dikshitar returned to the South and began composing music with the impressions he had collected so far. He had already been trained in the Vedas, Upanishads and Sanskrit scriptures and now he brought in that knowledge into his compositions. The resulting works are multi-faceted.
You could call them Travelogues.
For every temple he visited, he composed a grand piece.
You could call them a Spiritual Lexicon.
His compositions talk about the Agama constructions, the secret connotations of the symbolism, the deity and the daily and seasonal rituals.
His musical style intertwined Carnatic ragas beautifully with his Hindustani influences. This brought in a completely new flavour into Carnatic Music.
If I were to compare him to the Western Trinity of Mozart, Bach, and Beethoven, I would compare him to Bach. Bach was also very spiritually inclined and composed in churches. His music has the grandeur which is also present in Muthuswami Dikshitar’s music – compositions that evoke the feeling of being engulfed by something larger than you.
The other composer I presented at the NCPA concert was Oothukkadu Venkata Subba Iyer. He precedes Dikshitar by almost a century. He came from a very small village called Oothukkadu near Kumbakonam. The temple of Oothukkadu has attained great renown because of this great composer. The panchaloka idol in the sanctum is of Kalinga Narthana Krishna.
Oothukkadu Venkata Subba Iyer became one with the image of Kalinga Nartana. Every night he would go to the temple and sing till the closing hour. When the temple closed, he would go to the Smashan Bhumi and sing there.
The legacy of work on Krishna he has left behind is incomparable in the Carnatic Tradition. For him, Krishna never grew up. His Krishna stopped growing at the age of 5 or 7. All his compositions cover only that stage of Krishna. It is almost unbelievable that such a large number of songs could be composed based on just that period. He talks about Krishna as a divine being but also as a normal child to the world. The playfulness and complexity of a growing child have been wonderfully captured through his compositions.
His famous composition, the Kalinga Narthana Thillana depicts the beautiful dance that is performed by Krishna when he was mere 5-year-old lad when he confronts the five-headed snake Kalinga and bids him to leave the waters of the Yamuna and leave the residents of Brindavan in peace.
While Dikshitar’s compositions are known for their grandeur, and Oothukkadu’s compositions are playfully joyous.
These are some of the concepts that I explored in the concert at NCPA.
Below is a video clip from the event: