The Seven Sacred Swaras – A. Madhavan
This is a homage to the “Sapta Swaras” of the Octave, in memory of Sri Thyagaraja and his own homage to Karnatic music. In a beautiful kriti, “Nada tanumani Sam, Sankaram” he has sanctified the seven notes of the Octave, Sa ri ga ma pa dha ni, in a way that people who are unable to sing this composition, can still savour its
deeper meaning and retain it in memory as a lifelong talisman of a grace that passes understanding.
Perhaps my fondness for listening to classical Karnatic, Hindustani and European music, came from infancy and boyhood; from lullabies, nursery rhymes, ditties and even old Hindi film songs with an abiding melodic lilt, first heard on a hostel harmonica and later from loudspeakers airing the voice of Lata M. To my lasting regret, I could never sing the seven note octave without alarming nearby donkeys and dogs. But a school-mate, who belonged to a musical family, visited our home and offered to regale us with a song. He cleared his throat and tuned the srutibox to his pitch and tried out a few swara patterns from early lessons. Then he sang this Thyagaraja ‘kriti’ he had learnt off his mother. It captivated me utterly. I was middle-aged before I found a recording of this song by Vidwan Santhana Gopalan and followed the ‘sahitya’ or wording of it from a standard book.
Rasikas of our music intuitively realise that it springs from a divine source. In the kriti the composer alludes to the theological mythology. Even in the Pallavi he bows down to Sankara as the embodiment of ‘Nada’ (music). The essence of Sama Veda came from the five Faces of Siva, the Sacred Seven Swaras. Thyagaraja signs off as the pure-hearted devotee of the sacred Muse. For him, any sectarian division between cults and communities was taboo. He was immersed in Rama ‘bhakti’, but in his theology, Rama was the supreme ‘rasika’ of our music, immersed as it is in the essence or rasa of properly rendered ragas, mridanga tala and devotion to the Supreme.
This raga, Chitta-ranjani, has a feature that he employs in his hymn-like song to the Seven basic notes of the Octave. The ancients have chosen lovely names for the ragas. For me ‘Chitta-ranjani’ is “delighting the mind” or consciousness. It has the unique feature of being confined to just one octave. Savants have classified it
as a ‘janya’ or offspring of the 19th Mela or basic scale, but it is closer to the 22nd Mela, Kharaharapriya, which Thyagaraja immortalised in kritis like “Sakkani Raja Margamu” and “Pakkala Nilapadi”. It has a pleasing assonance of melody between the notes ri-ga and dha-ni.
The traditional form of a kriti has the second section, Anupallavi, ascending to the upper octave, and a third section, or Charanam, which is a kind of synthesis of the whole song, with variations; here the melody of the second part is recalled in different words from the Anupallavi, but in similar lilt. Thyagaraja had avoided touching
the upper octave. In his usual end-refrain to bring in his name, he has sung his name within the octave, as if
to avoid the sacrilege of giving it a vocally high pitch when the song is sung in public. I am grateful to a friend in Mysore who helped me by her own research work to understand the word, ‘vara’, as the adjective for ‘Sapta Swara’: It is also construed as ‘auspicious’, ‘all-encompassing’, ‘superb’, and ‘holy’. In a few songs, the composer has added ‘vara’ before his own name, and this is so right. I too bow to the “vara Sapta Swaras” of our musical heritage in grateful homage.
A version of this article was published in The New Indian Express 9 January, 2015 with the title, “I bow to the Seven Sacred Swaras’. The commemorative music festival of homage was held at Thiruvaiyaru, on the bank of the Kaveri river in south India.
Mr Madhavan is a retired Indian diplomat
who had worked in many countries
including London, Moscow, Tokyo and
Bonn as Commissioner
and Ambassador. His
interests include literature,
history, music, cultural
interchanges and speculative thought. He has also written poems in English.