In this blog entry, I write about something that is somewhat well known in carnatic music circles – although one would claim with various levels of knowledge and some confusion. It is about a raga called AbhEri (ābhēri), in particular with respect to the famous song nagumOmu ganalEni (nagumōmu ganalēni) by Thyagaraja.
Warning: This is long and technical, but I do try to spice it up with audio, and audio-visuals. At the least, you get to heard some wondeful music, and also a very rare recording.
Here is what you may get out of it:
- If you believed that AbhEri as you hear today is just like any other run of the mill raga, or that nagumOmu ganalEni as you hear today is a fantastic tune that pretty much is how tyAgarAja must have composed, then you would change your view after this.
- If you believed that AbhEri as you heard today is the “real” AbhEri, you would change your view.
- If you believe that the raga of vINAbhEri (vīṇābhēri) by Diksitar is the raga in which nagumOmu was originally composed in, well you may change your view on that as well.
- If you hear someone say “AbhEri with D1″ or “I love AbhEri, I mean the original one, the one with D1″ – then after reading this, you may ask “That is ambiguos. Which AbhEri do you exactly mean?”
Interested? Read on …
Today’s AbhEri – a corruption
AbhEri as we hear today is a fairly popular raga, with a instantly attractive melodic nature. In Tamil film songs, the old singAravElanE dEvA (konjum salangai) sung by S. Janaki and the more recent kaNNODu kANbadellAm (Jeans) sung by Nityashree are prime examples. In carnatic music circles, AbhEri for the large part is identified with the extremely popular composition nagumOmu galanEni by Thyagaraja.
Now the trouble is none of these are really in true, classical AbhEri i.e. the AbhEri as recorded in history, and as practiced as recently as the earlier part of the 20th century! Besides, this true, classical AbhEri actually is even in use today!
The AbhEri that most of the world identifies with is a corrupted/morphed form of an older AbhEri. The morph is on the dhaivatam swara. The dhaivatam (dha) of today’s popular AbhEri is D2 or catuSruti dhaivatam, i.e. the dha of Kharaharapriya, SankarabharaNam, kalyANi, and kharaharapriya melas. The earlier AbhEri as documented in just about every historical text employs the suddha-dhaivatam (D1) i.e. the dha of naTabhairavi, mAyAmALavagowLa. Now this dha, has a markedly more solemn/sombre touch to it which can permeate throughout the raga.
So an AbhEri which employs D1 will generally tend to be more solemn/somber than an AbhEri that employs D2. Let us use an example to illustrate the difference.
Here is the first line of the pallavi of the nagumOmu ganalEni sung by the illustrious musician Shri. Nedunuri Krishnamurthy, in the popular form of AbhEri (i.e. with D2, chatuSruthi dhaivatam)
Now, listen to the first line of the pallavi of nagumOmu n the original AbhEri (with D1, Suddha dhaivatam). This is sung by Smt R. Vedavalli, another illustrious musician who is also known for her adherence to tradition:
Can you get a feel for the difference in mood that the change in dha brings about? In the pallavi, dha mostly occurs in the second word ganalEni. Here is a audio-visual look at the very first iteration/sangathi of the above line:
Note: The swaras shown below may not reflect all the subtleties (called anuswaras – i.e. grace/hidden notes), and may also be approximations. Any mistakes are unintentional.
The first line of nagumOmu sung with D2, this time by Bombay Sisters:
Now here is the first line of nagumOmu sung with D1 sung by Smt. R. Vedavalli:
Now one may ask – Who cares? Isn’t this academic? Is this going to be some purist rant? The raga we recognize as AbhEri today is wonderful, charming. Ok it changed from before, but isn’t music dynamic, evolutionary? Haven’t the number of melas themselves changed from the early texts to later ones and ragas get moved around?
Objections to today’s AbhEri
The objection of this change in raga AbhEri, particularly in the context of nagumOmu ganalEni comes in a few flavors:
- There are songs today in AbhEri with D1. The two examples are vINAbhEri by muttuswAmi Dikshitar and kandA vandaruL by pApanAsam Sivan. Also, SyamA SAstry’s ninnuvinA marigalada is sung in D1 AbhEri by some musicians like Smt. Vedavalli (most people sing it in rItigowLa).
- People most definitely used to sing nagumOmu with D1 in the first half of 20th century. This was by prominent musicians and that too at prestigious and prominent venues like the Madras Music Academy. This is apparently well known and documented. Smt. Vedavalli in the lec-dem where she sang the D1 version of nagumOmu mentions that her guru (and others) have done so at the Academy. So it was not like the D1 version was obscure.
- Further it is argued that dIkshitar not only put the raga name (mudra) in the song (vINAbhEri), he also composed another krithi in “today’s AbhEri” called pancAshaTpITa rUpiNi and embedded the raga mudra “dEvagAndAra” in that krithi. This raga, which is pretty much identical to “today’s AbhEri” is nowadays called karnATaka dEvagAndAri. In other words, he was quite clear about differentiating the two ragas.
- The song nagumOmu‘s import (which is of pleading the Lord to not torment Thyagaraja and thus show compassion) is more in line with the sombre/solemn feel of D1 based AbhEri and musicians nowadays sing the D2 AbhEri as if it is a celebration.
Note: We will find below that even these arguments are not exactly without flaw.
How did it come to this?
So what gives? How come we have AbhEri‘s in D1, and also an AbhEri in D2, and we also have this other raga dEvagAndAram/karnATaka dEvagAndAri which tees up with the D2 AbhEri. What a mess! How did it start?
Well, apparently the mess started when some (in the early 20th century) decided to change the raga of nagumOmu by changing the dhaivatam. They probably liked the melodic appeal of the resulting raga and just “ran away with it”. This in spite of others who continued to sing it in the more somber dhaivatam. The resulting melody was also so flavorful, that it found wide acceptance. The acceptance was so much that from then on songs in ragas which should have been assigned to karnATaka dEvagAndAri were simply assigned to AbhEri.
Some claim – Abomination! Heresy! How dare we tamper with Shastras etc. etc.
Now I am sort on their side but there is also a lot of rhetoric. Music certainly has changed, ragas have changed. But still this one seems different – seems blatant, seems unwarranted. If the original AbhEri had been lost, and some tuned a song (whose original tune was lost but simply say marked as AbhEri in some manuscript) to this AbhEri, then it would have been more acceptable. But the same krithi was being sung prominently in the other AbhEri, and we had other krithis – so just “ignorance” doesn’t explain it. It does point at willful change. It does point at a lot of liberty taking.
Will the real AbhEri stand up?
Now some you may have heard all of this above. But what may surprise you is that even these counter arguments don’t necessarily use the correct facts in support of those arguments!
In general, the primary argument for “AbhEri should be sung in D1, and this D2 version is a bad mistake being prolonged. Dikshitar’s vINAbhEri is authentic proof of AbhEri with D1. End of story”.
Well – not quite so! It turns out that there are two D1 AbhEris, and both are legitimate, in terms of documentation in history as well as in practice via compositions. However, for some reason this is either overlooked or not highlighted enough.
Dikshitar’s AbhEri – not what you may think!
The AbhEri of dIkshitar is actually quite different from the AbhEri of the tyAgarAja(i.e. that of original nagumOmu, and the AbhEri of the Papanasam Sivan. There are actually two D1 based AbhEris.
Today’s AbhEri has this structure:
S G2 M1 P N2 S
S N2 D2 P M1 G2 R2 S
The AbhEri of original nagumOmu has the same structure except for different dha:
S G2 M1 P N2 S
S N2 D1 P M1 G2 R2 S
Now, Dikshitar‘s AbhEri, while it employs the same swaras, has a completely different structure, which can be stated as follows (slightly simplied from what is given in sangIta sampradAya pradarshini, the authoritative text on the dIkshitar system):
S M1 G2 M1 P S S N2 D1 P M1 G2 R2 S
As you can see, while the avarohana is the same as that of original nagumOmu AbhEri, the arohana is completely different. You have the vakra (twisted) S M G M in place of S G M. You also find P S instead P N S.
What does this mean? It means that in dIkshitar’s AbhEri
- S G M is disallowed
- Why? The S M G M in the arohana implies that one can ascend from ga, but only when ga itself is approached from above. So m g m is allowed, but s g m is not. This is how vakra (non-linear) arohana/avarohana generally work – although there are exceptions.
- P N S is disallowed as implied by P S in arohana and P N S in avarohana.
- However, N S seems allowed and in that regard the above structure doesnt tell all – perhaps a S M G M P S N S for arohana is better representative (?)
But how significant is this in practice? Actually very significant in my opinion since both S G M and P N S are widely used in the D2 AbhEri as well as the other D1 AbhEri. In fact, I consider them as very important reasons for the “instant attractiveness” that D2 AbhEri (and its close cousin Suddhadhanyasi). As implied above, both can occur (and do occur) in the original nagumOmu as well!. However, neither can occur in viNAbhEri. You will find p n p, p S n d p but will not find p n S. You will find s m g m p or p m g m p, but not s g m.
Now, take a listen to dIskhitar’s vINabhEri sung by Smt. M.S. Subbulakshmi:
Doesn’t this sound like an entirely different raga to the raga in the Shri. Nedunuri Krishnamurty as well as Smt. R. Vedavalli you heard above?
Let us take a closer look at the cittaswaras in that rendition.
As you can see, this follows the above indicated structure. When ascending from pa, we always have p S – never p n s. You also find s m g m p but not s g m or s g m p.
Take a listen to Dr. S. Ramanathan singing elaborate kalpanaswaras to vINAbhEri. He also sets a wonderful, meditative tempo. See how he sticks to dIkshitar‘s AbhEri structure faithfully and weaves patterns around this rare raga – what a master musician!
Again, we find pretty much no resemblance to today’s AbhEri or other D1 AbhEri. This is an entirely different raga.
Original nagumOmu and today’s nagumOmu – different, but also similar
Because many of the key building blocks like s g m, p n s etc. are shared by both the original nagumOmu AbhEri and today’s nagumOmu AbhEri, we find that in spite of the difference in dhaivatam, the original nagumOmu has a lot of similarities to today’s nagumOmu. But you will find no such similarities of either to vINAbhEri.
Hear the previously mentioned samples again, this time focusing on similarities:
First line of nagumOmu in today’s AbhEri by Shri. Nedunuri Krishnamurthy:
First line of nagumOumu in original AbhEri by Smt. R. Vedavalli:
Can you also see that in spite of the differences, the ragas sound close as-in like allied ragas?
Mood of nagumOmu
An argument made for D1 version of nagumOmu is that it sets a solemn mood more appropriate for the meaning of the song compared to the D2 version. I have heard people be downright dismissive of the D2 version because it is “too energetic”, “too celebratory”. I buy the argument – but not fully. I think in nagumOmu, the energy builds a lot in the sangatis of the anupallavi and of course later part of charanam which has the same tune as that of anupallavi.
However, I find that this part either does not use the dhaivatam, or uses it sparingly. In any case, I find this part to be quite similar in both original as well as today’s version of nagumOmu. Or in other words I do not find that the original is solemn/somber during this part.
Listen to the anupallavi of the D2 version nagumOmu sung by Smt. M. S. Subbulakshmi:
Now listen to the corresponding section in D1 version of nagumOmu sung by Smt. R. Vedavalli:
Note how late the D1 feel makes its appearance – around 50 second marker jEsE vAralu – atleast as far as I can tell this is when it shows its stamp. By this time the energy has built up (But the D1 does certainly “tone it down”.
So in my opinion, if we want to make an argument that tyAgarAja is pleading to Rama to not to play games with him in anguish, and thus this implies a somber/solemn mood for anguish, then these sangatis do not convey that in either version – atleast to me. If I may dare suggest, I actually do not think tyAgarAja meant the song to be in a somber/solemn. There are many tyAgarAja songs in wonderfully appealing tunes (e.g. I can think of a couple of rItigowLa songs) which have lyrics that convey the same sentiment.
Dikshitar’s dEvagAndharam and today’s AbhEri
Doesn’t this sound pretty much identical to the D2 version of AbhEri you heard above? Note that the raga mudra dEvagandhAra appears in the last part of the song (devagAndhAra rAga dOshiNi)
There is no doubt that nagumOmu ganalEni is sung differently than how it was composed. But we should don’t confuse the original raga of nagumOmu with dIkshitar’s AbhEri. There are two distinctly very different D1 AbhEris. The reference AbhEri (D1) is ambigious.
- The musicians of course – first and foremost. The recordings shown above were done with no intent of copyright violation.
- The rendition of original nagumOmu is extremely rare and Smt. Vedavalli sang it at a lec-dem at IIT a few years ago. Many thanks to her for enlightening the carnatic music world, and thanks to the kind soul who gave me the recording.
- guruguha.org for providing access to Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini, the authoritative source for Dikshitar school.
- The kind souls who have provided me music that were showcased above.
- Members and moderators of rasikas.org for enlightening discussions.