Note: Readers who are not familiar with carnatic music – please excuse me while I indulge in one of my passions yet again. I invite you however to see if you can expand your musical horizons by at least listening to the audio samples. The ones that are marked “kalpanaswaras” may be easy to get into from a pure aural experience – others are admittedly more serious carnatic stuff. Also for non-tamil readers “kuLirchi” in the title is a tamil word which means thrill in this context – as in “what a thrill” (this raga gives me).

On to another one of my favorite ragas – nATakurinji (Sanskrit: नाटकुरिञ्जि) or nATTaikkuRinji (நாட்டைக்குறிஞ்சி) in Tamil.

When I decided to post on this raga, I was wondering if I really should do so given that there are excellent articles already available on the web here (www.sawf.org) and here (www.carnatica.net). So I was thinking What are you, just a rasika, going to say anything that would be worth anything? But, this is my blog, my space, and I have decided to blog on my favorite ragas. And this is one raga that I adore! So I am going to blabber on it – end of discussion. Carnatic aficionados – please accept my apologies in advance for mistakes and misrepresentations. Please let me know of any and I will make the necessary corrections.

Before, I begin the verbal diarrhea, let us just jump ahead an listen to some nATakurinji. Here is an excerpt from an alapana by the late K.V. Narayanaswamy:

(Download by clicking here)

Now, a kalpanaswara excerpt by the late M.D. Ramanathan, one of my very very favorite musicians . In this sample, he is using the word budham (the planet Mercury), which is the very first word of the opening line of the composition (of which this is a small excerpt of) as the refrain. I find his usage of that here to be quite playful, and is a big reason why I love this particular rendition.

(Download by clicking here)

By the way, did you hear the birds in the background? This is from a private, chamber concert – in Chennai probably, I imagine in a house with big trees, birds chirping and cawing – Ah! Takes me to India instantly!

nATakurinji in the Tamil Film Word
nATAkurinji raga is also like kAnaDa in the sense that its basic melodic structure has a lot of innate beauty that makes very attractive to most listeners. However, unlike kAnaDa, it unfortunately does not figure as often outside the Carnatic world – at least in Tamil Nadu. In the Tamil film world, I can think of two examples:

  • The song kavalaiyai tIrppadu nATTiyakkalaiyE from the very old movie Sivakavi. This is a very classical representation of raga as you would find in a carnatic composition. In fact, the composer (and I would wager the tune smith too) is Papanasam Sivan, a prominent 20th century Carnatic composer. So even though this figures in a movie, it is pretty much a regular carnatic song.
  • The other is the song kaNNAmUcci EnaDA from the movie kaNDukoNDEn kaNDUkoNDEn with A.R. Rahman as the music director. This one is on the other end – a way too diluted, watered down version of the raga. It is still very attractive, and the song was a big hit. However, I sort of cringe to call this nATakurinji. The raga nATakurinji‘s melodic flavor is very highly dependent of specific phrases, and specific gamakas and slides (more on this below) – most of them seem absent or at least not very apparent here.
    • In the movie, after the song, an inebriated Mammooty, whom the heroine Aishwarya Rai does not think highly off to begin with, makes a dialog that the song was beautiful, especially how it changed ragas from nATakurinji to sahAna (another exquisite Carnatic raga). The import of course is that he knows more than what his uncouth behavior and rough exterior shows. The dialog is quite effective for the scene and story, but given that specific dialog, in my opinion, ARR could have made a more honest attempt at two very classical ragas! And believe me that the song would still have turned out to be beautiful as those two ragas are true gems in carnatic music which have instant appeal. So I am disappointed that ARR did not take more advantage of the ragas here. There was lot of potential but he chose a different path. Of course, he still succeeded as the song was a huge hit.

I do not know if other South Indian language films employ nATakurinji more (please let me know!), but at least in Tamil Nadu, this gem remains pretty much inside the Carnatic world. Not that it is somehow confining as it shines quite brightly within that world. It is widely recognized as a rakthi raga and thus with high emotive appeal. The term rakthi raga is sort of an enigma with different interpretations. I take it to mean a raga whose melodic character is more established by specific special phrases in which some swaras take different gamakas in different contexts. In any case, rakthi ragas are of high stature in the carnatic music arena.

Compositions/Renditions of nATakurinji I love
You know the best part of having to write and express my love for nATakurinji? That I got to listen to a lot of it! So much so that I was drawn into listening to it more and more instead of coming up with what to write! I listened to many compositions, and I find that I really like all of them. It is hard to pick some diamonds from a bag when each one strikes to you as brilliant. So this list is going to be long:

chalamEla: This is a varnam in the raga, as in the “text book” song, and it is a very popular varnam, which I believe is largely due to the melodic beauty of the raga. I love this varnam and hope to learn it soon!

ekkAlattilum nAn maravEnE: This is a fantastic composition by Ramaswamy Sivan and I like the D.K. Pattammal (DKP) / D.K. Jayaraman (DKJ) version with beautiful, elaborate sangatis (variations) particularly in the pallavi (opening section) itself. I like their version so much so that I am trying to learn it just by listening to it. I think it is a tall order for my level of carnatic training – but it is way too inviting! Here is a short excerpt showing the beautiful sangatis in the pallavi part, and also the anupallavi part.

(Download by clicking here)

The lyrics of the composition are also very beautiful with lot of rhyme built into it. For example: Isanai prakAsanai guhadAsanai kAkkum nEsanai nal pUsanai seiviSvAsanai tillai vAsanai naDarAsanai (ekkAlattilum). As you can see the same/similar suffix is used as rhyme throughout the metre (naDarAsa is colloquial tamil for naTarAja – i.e Shiva). Similar concept is seen in other paras too. Very poetic, very beautiful.

mAyamma nannu brOva: A brilliant, and masterful composition by Syama Sastry. Among all the compositions in nATakurinji that I have heard, this one has the most elaborate, exquisite sangatis. It is indeed a majestic composition. Gayatri Venkatraghavan has sung it in a commercial CD janani released by Charsur, and her rendition is simply beautiful! Would love to learn this composition someday – but that day is probably very far away!

budham ASrayAmi: This is a composition of muttusvAmi dIkshitar, and is perhaps the one you are most likely to run into in a carnatic music concert. It is set to a leisurely pace typical of dIkshitar’s compositions. I love this composition, have listened to renditions by many artists, and I especially love M.D. Ramanathan‘s (MDR) rendition.

jagadISa sadA: This is a popular composition by Swati Thirunal, the king of Travencore. I have renditions by MDR and Sanjay Subrahmanyan. I always loved the MDR one (he is one of my favorites), but I have now fallen in love with Sanjay’s rendition too. He has handled the raga brilliantly embellishing it with caresses at the right spots.

pAhi janani santatam: This is another composition by Swati Thirunal. I had never heard this composition until very recently, when I came across a rendition by KVN, and I absolutely love it! It is somewhat unique in the sense that among all compositions mentioned here, this is the only that starts in the upper octave and that too on the rishabam, which although not unimportant, but not the most prominent swara in the raga. It provides a unique look at the raga.

swAmi nAn undan aDimai: This is a beautiful composition by Papanasam Sivan for dance (as a pada varnam). There is a version on musicindiaonline.com but it is too fast. I have listened to it set in slower speed as a main item in dance, and it is truly magnificent.

manasu vishaya: This is one of Thyagaraja‘s composition – short but very sweet. Perhaps surprisingly, Thyagaraja has not composed what you may call “big” compositions in nATakurinji.

Under the hood
Now on to a “under the hood” look at the technicalities of the raga. I will try to avoid a dry presentation of the technical details and instead mix it with some context and audio samples.


What does it mean for a song to be in nATakurinji?
Here I will try to show (via audio samples) some core prayogas and swara combinations that are integral to the melodic identity of nATakurinji. Even if you cannot intimately relate to the hard technicals, I hope you can still discern the melodic similarities of the occurrences in these different songs. Note however that nATakurinji offers wide scope for elaboration (and thus is frequently taken for the ragam tanam pallavi), and I think that is why there are so many variations of the key prayogas. I am presenting just a handful of those that I know, and were present in the renditions in a way that I found easy to be used in demo. Besides, I am not an expert and certainly do not know everything about naTakurinji (and I am not being humble here – just being honest).

The grand entrance – ma ga sa
This phase ma ga sa, is how the varnam chalamEla starts. I don’t know if it “set a trend” or established such a firm stamp, but many songs of nAtakurinji start with this phrase! If a performer started an alapana of nATakurinji with just these 3 swaras – most carnatic rasikas would immediately guess it is nATakurinji. It is that much associated with the raga. In fact, the alapana and the kalpanaswara example above start with this phrase 🙂 ! Need I emphasize the value of this phrase to nATakurinji more?

Here is a sample, that shows three compositions jagaDisa (sung by Sanjay Subrahmanyan), sivakAmi patim (sung by D.K. Pattammal) and calamEla varnam (sung by T.M. Krishna) start with this. The swaras are from the jagadISa rendition and sung by Sanjay.

(Download by clicking here)

Note that the pitches are slightly adjusted to make them closer to each other, which should allow you to see the similarities easier.

The sa in this phrase can be sung flat as in the above sample but it is also not uncommon for it to be sung as a slide down from ga.

ma-ni-da, and slide from ma to ni
While ma da combination is allowed, the combination ma ni da is a lot more common. You can see this in the MDR kalpanaswara sample above. The ni after ma comes in different flavors, and one such flavor involves a deep slide from ma all the way to ni. Here is a sample that shows it in two compositions: manasu vishaya (sung by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer – SSI) and budham AshrayAmi (sung by MDR). The swaras are taken from a different rendition and are sung by Sanjay Subrahmanyan.

(Download by clicking here)

(Note that the pitches are slightly adjusted to make them the same, which should allow you to see the similarities easier.)

da-ma: slide down from da to ma
While descending from da to ma, it is not uncommon the ma to be done as a caressing slide down from da. This is another characteristic stamp of the melodic flavor nATakurinji. Here is a sample that shows it in kalpanaswaras (T.M. Krishna), in manasu vishaya (SSI), and JagadISa (MDR).

(Download by clicking here)

I wonder if the melodic nature of ni da ma sort of works in tandem with the above mentioned ma ga sa. If you look at them closer, they are symmetrical in terms of basic pitch spacing. You have the flat ni da ma and flat ma ga sa, and you have the ni da ma with slide down from da to ma, and you have ma ga sa with slide down from ga to sa.

sa ri ga ma~
This is a common way to ascend from sa to arrive at ma, with an oscillation. Here is a sample that shows it in kalpanaswaras (KVN), jagaDiSa (Sanjay), sivakAmi patim (DKP), ekkAlattilum (DKJ). Note however that the version in the kalpanaswara part is of a different flavor, and the occurrences in the songs include extra flourishes:

(Download by clicking here)

pa ga ri sa
The above representation is a simplied one as each swara has built-in pitch movement. This seems like a prayoga which instantly gives me the naTakurinji feel. Also, it is common for this to be part of ga ma pa ga ri sa.

(Download by clicking here)

Constituent Swaras and their importance
sa, ga, ma, da, and ni: It seems to be that almost all swaras play important roles in nAtakurinji, although sa itself and ma seem to be the life blood swaras. It is said that da is very important in the higher part of octave, but I find ni to be equally important. The ga also can be emphasized.

ri: The ri supposedly cannot be used as a jIva swara (e.g. hovered on long, used as an anchor). However, I think it is not a rare (alpa) swara, and in many contexts it is lengthened (dhIrga) and thus emphasized. So it does have an important role. As I mentioned earlier, the composition pAhi janani satatam, I think begins with ri (upper octave) as shown in this sample (sung by KVN):

(Download by clicking here)

This composition demonstrates nATakurinji in the upper octave quite effectively as most of the song revolves there. I found it to be very unique that way (besides the start with ri, which I think is quite unusual?). What a composition!

pa: The role of pa is subdued compared to the swaras, but it certainly is indispensable. Its usage is also quite unique. Basically the rule seems to be that you cannot go from ma to da with pa in-between, and vice versa. So ma-pa-da and da-pa-ma are disallowed. So you have pa-ga-ri-sa, pa-ma-ga-sa, ni-pa-da-ni-sa, da-pa-da-ni-sa etc. Now try representing that in standard arohana/avarohana structure!

Here is a kalpanaswara sample, where MDR has used emphasizes sa, ri, ga, ma, da and ni at various points.
(Download by clicking here)

Note that he not only uses ma ni da but also ma da. He also uses the slide down from da to ma we discussed above in ni da ma. Also, note the sparing use of pa, and it occurs here as the ga ma pa ga ri sa mentioned above.

The structure
nATakurinji is another one of those ragas for whom assigning a structure is sort of pointless as it always ends up giving an incomplete and misleading picture. It is indeed a phrase oriented rakthi raga, and those kind are always like this. Some of the idiosyncrasies in the structure that prevents a straightforward representation are:

  • While ma da is indeed employed, ma ni da probably figures more often – way more often.
  • We saw above how the usage of pa is such that including pa in a arohana/avarohana of nATakurinji is tricky – perhaps even impossible.
  • ma ga ri sa is technically allowed, but it is very rare and avoidable according to some. The descent from ma to sa is almost always as ma ga sa. However, ma ga ri is allowed (e.g. ma ga ri ga sa), as well as ga ri sa (as in pa ga ri sa).

Similarity to ravichandrika
The one raga that is melodically close to nATakurinji is ravichandrika. The main differences are:

  • no pa in ravichandrika
  • To go from da to sa, it is da sa in ravichandrika vs. da ni sa in nATakurinji
  • ma ga ri sa is quite common in ravichandrika while it is very rare in nATakurinji as we saw above. I am not sure if ma ga sa is used in ravichandrika (although it seems to be allowed by the structure?).

Perhaps, this points to the importance of pa in nATakurinji, and why it is indispensable as without it, it may be quite close to ravichandrika. There are some interesting points made regarding these two ragas in the discussion thread associated with the sawf.org article on nATakurinji (click on the View and post comments on this article link at the bottom of the page).

Here is a kalpanaswara sample of ravichandrika by the late Tanjore S. Kalyanaraman for the Thyagaraja composition niravati sukhada. Can you spot similarities and differences to naTakurinji?
(Download by clicking here)

In conclusion
Hopefully, from the above you can see that nATakurinji‘s melodic contours are largely determined by specific swara combinations and phrases, which also carry specific gamakas. This makes it a very emotive raga. This makes it a rakthi raga – a evolved, sophisticated melodic concept. Treating it like standard “scalar structure” (I know, wrong term) would result in something that sounds different with some vague and fleeting resemblance to nATakurinji.

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