Pushing Boundaries (Part 1)

[This is part 1 of a 2 part series. You can find part 2 here.]

When poetry and devotional verses are set to classical music their appeal reaches a wider audience. Depending on the nature of the lyrics it is often not difficult to set the verse to a particular melody. But it is not easy for the words to be sung to a particular rhythm or beat. Words may get truncated or sound awkward when they are fitted into a rhythmic pattern. Yet good musicians are able to creatively fit a verse to both the melody and beat without losing the original piece’s appeal.

R.K.Padmanabha’s recent release of a CD based on Adi Shankara’s verses is one instance of such a setting of verse to music. Whether they are the popular slokas “Nagendra Harayaa” or “Mudakarata Modakam”, the verses of Sankaracharya are pleasant to hear as songs instead of the usual chanting. Here is a snippet from his CD Shankara Naama where the musician sings a piece in raga Hindolam.

Poetry sung as classical composition is neither a novel concept nor confined to Sanskrit alone. Whether the Tiruppavai of Andal in Tamil, the Vachana Sahitya of Shaivite saints of Karnataka, Abhangs composed by Varkari saints in Marathi, vernacular poetry from the different states of the country are making an impact on the classical music stage.

Abhangs are devotional poems sung in praise of Lord Vithoba, the presiding deity in Pandaripur, Maharashtra. They were composed by saints such as Dyaneshwar, Eknath, Tukaram and Namdev who were part of the Bhakthi movement. Here is the legendary Kishori Amonkar singing Sant Tukaram’s abhang “Bolava Vittala” in her own style which is a personal favorite of mine.

Vachanas are octets of devotional verse composed by Shaivite saints of Karnataka such as Basavanna, Akka Mahadevi . Their simple lyrics appealed to the masses. Here is a vachana concert recording of Pandit Nagraj Havaldar that gives you an idea how the simplicity of these compositions tug at the heart strings.

Classical musicians need to think outside the box while performing and introduce audiences to musical compositions that have not been heard before.

[This is part 1 of a 2 part series. You can find part 2 here.]

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About Chitra Srikrishna 50 Articles
Chitra Srikrishna is a Carnatic vocalist and writer living in Bengaluru & Columbus. Chitra blogs for Sruti, runs the podcast Raga Ruminations and produces RaagTime, a radio show on Indian music. Her albums include devotional poetry of Tamil Alwars & Dasa kritis, & thematic compositions on Rama and Hanuman. She's the musical half of a multimedia performance duo HumRaag. Her program BHAKTHI explores the journey of the mystics of India. Her latest Antah Prerna -A Musical Telling of an Entrepreneur's Journey debuted at Bangalore International Centre in 2018.