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Some Composers of Karnatak Music

By Dr. M.S. Nataraja


Daasa-saahithya is the collective name given to a variety of literary compositions in Kannada (one of the four major south Indian languages). The special characteristics of these compositions are that they can be set to rhythmic music and sung in delightful ways. These songs generally carry the message of Madhva philosophy, namely, Hari-sarvotthama-thathva (supremacy of the Lord). They also teach the common man a very simple path of devotion, which if followed with full faith, is expected to lead him toward salvation. Although a number of Haridaasas (servants of the Lord) have enriched the Kannada language over the past several centuries, it is the name of Sri Purandara Dasa that is considered the most important by the lovers of Karnatic music. It was he who formalized the teaching techniques for elementary Karnatic music using the simple Maayaa-Maalava-Gowla scale that is in common use today (as opposed to the more complex Khara-hara-priya scale that was in vogue at his time). It is said that Thyagaraja, the great composer of Karnatic music grew up listening to Purandara Dasa's divine songs, being rendered by his mother Seethamma. As a token of his gratitude for the early childhood impressions and impact, Sri Thyagaraja has paid tribute to Purandara Dasa in his musical opera - - Prahlada-Charithamu. Thus, Purandara Dasa is remembered today as "Karnataka-Sangeetha-Pithamaha" (the grandfather of Karnatic music!).

Purandara Dasa has composed Sarale (swaravali), Janti Varase, Alankara and Pillari-geethegalu as a set of repetitious practice exercises that help the beginners to gain voice and speed control and attain a grip over simple rhythmic patterns. In addition, he composed numerous Keerthana, Suladi and Ugabhoga under the signature "Purandara Vitala" (the deity nearest and dearest to his heart). It is believed that Purandara Dasa lived until the ripe age of eighty and, having fulfilled his objective of spreading devotion all through Karnataka, gave up his life by yogic powers, sitting in front of Lord Vijaya Vitala's idol in Hampi. No wonder, his Guru, Sri Vyasaraya said, "Daasarendare Purandara Daasarayya." (If there is one man that can be truly considered as the servant of the Lord, that is Purandara Dasa and Purandara Dasa alone!)

SRI THYAGARAJA (1767-1847)

Sri Thyagaraja is considered the most important composer in the history of Karnatic music. Thyagaraja was born in Thiruvarur located in Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu in the year 1767 and attained samadhi in 1847. He received his early training from his father Sri. Ramabrahmam and later, continued training from Sri. Ramkrishnananda. But human training alone could not have given him the magical power of music that enabled him to compose over 24,000 kruthis. (It is our misfortune that only about a thousand of these compositions are available today.) When Thyagaraja was eighteen years old, he was initiated by a Haridasa from Kanchipuram to chant Sri-rama-nama-tharaka-manthra 960 million times which he completed in 21 years by chanting more than a 125, 000 times a day! In addition, it is said that sage Narada himself came to his house in disguise and left a set of his writings (Nardiyam and Swararnava) which gave him continuous guidance throughout his life. While the power of the tharakamanthra made him close to Lord Rama, Narada's guidance gave Thyagaraja divine powers to make impromptu compositions. Four disciples at a time would listen to his singing of his impromptu compositions and write them down; the first would pay attention to the musical aspects of the pallavi while the second to the anupallavi; the third disciple concentrated on the charana and the fourth one (the one with keen sense of language and grammar) would focus on the lyrics. The four disciples would first individually practice and perfect their respective portions and then come together to put the entire composition in musical notations. It is Thyagaraja who perfected the structure of a kruthi using more than 200 raagas and formalized the sangathi approach (developing a line in progression of increasing beauty and subtlety).

Thyagaraja left behind a musical tradition through a lineage of unbroken chain of disciples. His music is filled with emotion and devotion and it enthralls both the panditha (learned) and the pamara (not-so-learned) equally because of the simplicity of the language and directness of its message.


The eldest among the trinity of Karnatic music, Sri. Shyama Shastry was also born in Thiruvarur to a family that was dedicated to the worship of Devi for centuries. No wonder, Shyama Shastry had such a great devotion to Goddess Kamakshi. His relationship with Goddess Kamakshi was akin to mother-child relationship. His father, Vishvanatha Iyer was a scholar in Telugu and Samskrit. His mother recognized her young prodigy's keen interest in music and encouraged him to learn music from her brother (Shyama Shastry's uncle). He also had the rare opportunity to learn from a great scholar of music and dance who was visiting Tanjavur from Varanasi. (This scholar was well known as Sangeeta Swamy because he had become a sanyasin.) After teaching advanced aspects of raagalapana and swraprasthara, Sangeeta Swamy introduced Shyama Shastry to the Asthana Vidwan at Tanjavur King TulajAji's court. This Guru. Pachchimiriyam Adi Appayya left a lasting impression on Shyama Shastry.

Although it is believed that Shyama Shastry composed over 300 kruthis, only 30-40 of them are available to us today. With one or two exceptions, most of his compositions are in Goddess Kamakshi's praise. He literally cajoles, pleads, begs and insists for Her grace using the most appealing and convincing lyrics. He had a special attachment to raagas that created a serious mood like, Ahiri, Dhanyasi, Lalitha, Bhyravi, Manji, and Saveri, and in other raagas which were apt for _expression of surrender, like Reethi Gowla, Begade, Sahana, etc. He had very definite and special fascination for Ananda Bhyravi. He also composed in rare raagas like Kalgada and Chinthamani. Shyama Shastry will also be remembered for enhancing the status of Swarajathi and for his most memorable swarajathi in Bhyravi, "Kamakshi Amba" with alternating swaras and sahithya ascending like its ArohaNa.


Youngest of the trinity of Karnatic music. Muththuswamy Deekshitar hails from the musical lineage of Venkatamukhi (the author of "Chaturdandi Prakashika, an authoritative text on Indian classical musicology). He belonged to a family of scholars. His father Ramaswamy Deekshitar gave him a very formal education in the Vedas, Kavya, Alankara, Nataka, VyakaraNa, Jyothishya, Vaidya and other important subjects and laid the foundation for a highly productive future for his son. Compared to the other two (Thyagaraja and Shyama Shastry), Deekshitar developed a distinctly unique style of musical composition in which the literary aspect and the structure of lyrics become primary and the emotions secondary in importance. Deekshitar was also the most traveled in the sense that he had visited almost all the well-known places of pilgrimage and was not confined to praising one deity. He also was exposed to the music and musicians of the north and even the western violin and violinists when he was young. He was quick to adopt his new and extensive knowledge into his musical compositions. To illustrate the influence of uththaradi music, one can think of his famous compositions, Rangapura Vihara in Brundavana Saranga, Sreesatyanarayanam in Shiva PanthuvaraLi (now known as Shubha PanthuvaraLi), jamboopathe Mampahi in Yamuna kalyaNi (Yaman), ParimaLa Ranganatham in Hamir KalyaNi, Akhilandeshvari in Dvijavanthi (Jai jaivanthi), Vasudevamupasmahe in Malava Panchama (Basanth) etc. His knowledge of the instrument veena also gave him an advantage.

The brilliant use of crisp Samskrit language filled with Alankaras is Deekshitar's specialty. He has created several special sets with some uniqueness associated with each set known as a Kruthi-guchcha (literally a bunch of compositions!). Some examples are: "thiruththaNi" or "Guruguha Kruthis" (using many rare raagas like Padi, Purvi, and Bhanumathi etc.); "Pancha-Lingasthala Kruthis" (representing the five elements and the five important Shivalingas at Kanchi, Thiruchi, Thiruvannamalai, Kalahasthi and Chidambaram); "Abhayamba" and "Kamalamba-NavavaraNa" (both are Vibhakthi Kruthis, i.e., use all cases or vibhakthis, start with Prathama, go to Sapthami, and then Sambodhana-Prathama and finally include all cases.)


The Maharaja of Thiruvamkur, Sri Padmanabhadasa Sri Ramavarma Swathi Thirunal Kula-Shekhara Perumal was born in 1813. His father who was, himself a scholar, arranged for his son's education under the guidance of Tanjavur Subba Rao. Swathi Thirunal learned Samskrit, English, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Marathi, Hindusthani and Persian languages and Music at a tender age of thirteen. Later when he became the king, he encouraged music, dance and other fine arts and supported many artists by appointing them as the scholars of the court. Swathi Thirunal took to musical composition and composed Varnas, Thillanas, Darus, Padas and other kruthis in Samskrit, Manipravala, Hindustani, Telugu and Marathi (majority of them in Samskrit, however). He dedicated his songs (more than 400) to his ishta-devatha, Lord Padmanabha of Thiruvanathapuram. Many of his padas are considered highly suitable for dance because of the romantic moods and the _expression of longing for the nayaka by his nayika (nayaki). Swathi Thirunal is probably one of the very few and perhaps the earliest Karnatic composer to compose music and lyrics in Hindusthani style. Some 37 such compositions (Dhrupad, Khyal, and Tappa) have been found to date.


Annamacharya was the most prominent among Sreevaishnava Telugu composers who developed Bhajana-padhdhathi (musical chanting of Lord's praise) Annamacharya, his son, Pedda Thirumalai Ayyangar and grandson, Chinna Thirumalai Ayyangar together are well known as the Thallapakam Vaggeyakaras (composers). Annamacharya was initiated into Sreevaishnava tradition at an early age in Thirupathi by Vishnuswamy, a well-known scholar. Later on, he received advanced training in Ramanuja's philosophy from Sri Shathagopa Yathindra of the Ahobila Mutt, thus became a highly recognized expert in the four-thousand Divya-Prabandhas. Annamacharya composed a large number of songs (it is said that he composed about 32,000 songs but some 12,000 have been found). Scholars classify Annamacharya's compositions under four headings: 1) Adhyathma Sankeerthana; 2) Sringara Sankeerthana; 3) Sringara Manjari; and 4) Venkatachala Mahathme.


Vasudevacharya was born and educated in Mysore where he learnt Samskrit at the Maharaja Samskritha Mahapathashala and music from Veena Padmanabhaih. Later on, with the help of the Maharaja (Chamaraja Wodeyar) of Mysore, he went to Thiruvaiyar to receive advanced training in Karnatic music from none other than the famous singer-composer Patnam Subramanya Iyer (who was a disciple of Thyagaraja's disciple, Venkatasubba Iyer). When he was a student, Vasudevacharya used to assist his Guru in composing the sahithya for his kruthis. Stalwarts like Veena Sheshanna, Subbanna, and Bidaram Krishnappa were contemporaries of Vasudevacharya and their company was very valuable to him. He was undoubtedly a very sophisticated poet with a gift for Telugu and Samskrit languages. He composed more than 300 kruthis mostly in Samskrit and Telugu, and just one composition in Kannada (his mother tongue) in the Raaga Saraswathi Manohari (Karunisou Thaye, Maye). He will be remembered for popularizing the Raaga Khamach as a Bhashanga raaga through his composition "Brochevarevarura."


Papanasam Sivan was born in 1890, in the village of Polagam in Thanjavur District, Tamilnadu. His rela name was Rama Sarman, and he was affectionately known as Ramiah. His initial training was in Sanskrit and later in Tamil. He was influenced by Bhajans and Bhajan groups and identified himself with Badrachala Ramdas which is evident from the mudra 'Ramadasa' used in his songs. Sivan practised the Bhajan paddhathi in the classical carnatic music mode with freuqent interspersion of grand kritis between simnple keertanas and namavalis. His nobility of tone as he sang before the deity (as at the Sivan Temple of Ganapathi Agraharam) earned for him the name Sivan - signifying his oneness in spirit with God. His some time residence at Papanasam made it a prefix.

Sivan composed 2,000 songs of various types including the film songs. His compositions covered varieties of rags, including 17 melakarta ragas, 60 janya ragas, and different talas. Sivan sang mainly in praise of God, interspersed with philosophical thoughts about the suffering of worldly life. Almost all of Sivan's songs are in Tamil except for about 50 Sanskrit compositions.