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Saturday, December 7, 2013

An ocean in a tea spoon

Anyone that has any familiarity with Carnatic classical music of India would know about Saint Tygaraja's work. He is said to have written 24,000 songs, one for every one of Sage Valmiki's 24,000 original slokas (couplets) in the epic Ramayana. Plus some more.

Numbers are unimportant. What is important for me is that every Tyagaraja krithi that I know of is packed with layers of beautiful, deep meaning in simple, day-to-day words that also rhyme and chime beautifully.

Tyagaraja's krithis are typically short - just a few short lines of simple Telugu words. (There are some long and complex songs, like the Pancharatna Keertanas. Majority of songs however are simple and short.) Tyagaraja is a master at fitting an ocean of meaning into a spoonful of words. The meaning of many of his krithis has deep relevance to both the mundane and spiritual worlds. I have often felt that many musicians, even very accomplished ones, Telugu-speaking or otherwise, do not explore enough, do not derive or distribute enough joy from this dimension of Tyagaraja's music.

Recently I came across a rendering of the Tyagaraja kriti "Pakkala Nilabadi" by Sweta Mohan, a film singer.

In technical prowess, Sweta is nowhere near many other stalwarts. Her exploration of this song, technically, is shallow (as compared to, say, the MS Subbalakshmi version).

Nevertheless, I liked Sweta's rendering not only because it was refreshing Fusion but also because she seems to take the diction and meaning seriously. I felt that her involvement in the song came not just from the tune or music, but also from enjoying the words. I have no basis or proof for this feeling, and may be totally off here! But then, since when did feelings need a basis? :-)

Listening to Swetha prompted me to attempt to write down the meaning of this great song, as I understand it. I looked up available meanings on the web (e.g., here and here) but got thoroughly disappointed.  I had to write down my own understanding and interpretation, in brief, whether it is scholastically accurate or not.

Pakkala Nilabadi 

This song is said to have been written by Tyagaraja on a specific occasion. He was travelling between two villages in a closed cart.

The route was a deserted one, notorious for bandit attacks along the way. Tyagaraja was worried. He prayed to Lord Rama before starting the journey to protect them. Then, as he sat in the cart, he lost himself in the harmonic movement. By the time he got up and looked out, they had passed the notorious stretch. Happy that there were no untoward incidents, Tyagaraja asked the cart man how they managed the safe passage. That man, innocent and rustic, said with surprise, "Why sir? two handsome young men, one dark-skinned and one fair, walked on either side of the cart for the whole dangerous stretch, protecting us with their bows and arrows. We were saved by these young men, who called themselves your servants."

Tyagaraja was lost in ecstacy upon hearing this, realizing that the young men were none other than Lord Rama and his borther Lakshmana. In Their limitless love and grace, they took the trouble of protecting Tyagaraja, standing on both his sides of the cart as his servants. At this time, this beautiful song is said to have escaped his lips.

pakkala nilabadi koliche muchchata baaga thelpaga raada

Let me know in detail the admirable occasion when they stood on both sides and served...

chukkalaraayani keru momu gala
sudati seethamma soumitri sreeramunikiru -pakkala-

Like how the beautiful, moon-faced mother Sita and Lakshmana stood on both sides of Sree Rama...
[Sudati is a woman with beautiful teeth. Sita's teeth were like sparkling stars, the  king of which is the moon. The beauty of Sita's smiling face challenges the moon himself. Sita is not just a beauty queen however - she is the Mother. Sita and Lakshmana accompanied Rama throughout his travails, voluntarily, wholeheartedly, lovingly. This is how serving should be. It is also the case that when you serve the Lord like this, he does anything to save you. As we know, a good part of Ramayana deals with Rama serving Sita's cause, not the other way.]
thanuvuche vandana monarinchu chunnaaraa
chanavuna naama keerthana cheyuchunnaara
manasuna thalachi maimarachi yunnaaraa

With body, I am bowing down and saluting
With word, I am lovingly singing the Lord's names
In mind, recollecting about the Lord, I am lost in ecstasy
[While in the cart, I was occupied in body, word and mind in Rama. Hence I missed seeing the divine young men who came to protect us.] 
[This is the way to serve the Lord - being completely occupied in mind, word and body and being oblivious to anything else. This is in fact the way to involve with anything worthwhile - tri-karana-shuddhi. This is the correct way to use the body, word and the mind. These are the paths of hata yoga, bhajan and meditation.]
nenarunchi tyaagaraajunitho hari hari meeriru - pakkala-

Kindly, to Tyagaraja, You on both [sides]
["hari hari" is a well-known Telugu expression for being apologetic. Tyagaraja is apologetically asking his Lords (Rama and Lakshmana) here to kindly relate to him the admirable /cute occasion (muchchata) when They both stood on his two sides and served.]
It is possible to dig more and get much more "juice" out of this song (or any other song of Sri Tyagaraja).

And then there is the lovely nector of the Khara-Hara-priya raga that this song is composed in (by Tyagaraja himself?). The raaga is named to be the favorite (priya) of Rama, the slayer (hara) of the demon Khara.

Overall, this song, like many songs of Tyagaraja, can transport & transform us. Tyagaraja's songs are indeed mantras- the more we dwell on the words, meanings and tune, the more they will enlighten and transform us.
[Mananat-trayate iti Mantrah. Sanskrit definition of the word Mantra That, through the repetition of which, you get protected (from bondage/ ignorance/ troubles) is called a Mantra.]


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  3. This is a nice interpretation! I felt it brings out the sense of Gratitude the Saint had, every moment of his life. Saint Tyagaraja was ever thirsty to learn ways to serve Lord Rama. And it is amazing how he was able to see instances of such wonderful service, always, around him. Shri T.K.Govind Rao's interpretation suggests that the Saint was requesting Sita and Lakshmana to share with him the way they served the Lord, having as they did, the great fortune to be ('standing') right next to him all the time!
    For me, this krithi is the epitome of the Saint's desire for total Surrender! That he could be in ecstasy when another has received the Grace of Lord Rama, whether the cart driver who actually witnesses the Grace or Rama's companions who are ever with him, is truly a life of Amrit Dhara! No wonder his songs elicit transformation in all who sing and/or listen,