‘Original’ pathantaram-s of kriti-s

Some thoughts 

One of the debated topics in Carnatic music is the deviation by musicians from the so-called ‘original’ pathantaram of kriti-s. This article is not an attempt to provide a conclusive answer to end the debate but a constructive provocation and an invitation for opening up the topic for a wider debate.

Though ‘pathantaram’ normally means the musical phrasing of a kriti, I use it here in a broader sense covering not only the musical phrasing but also the raga in which the kriti is sung, its arohanam-avarohanam and its parent melakarta. I am ignoring sahitya for the present though there could be serious deviations in it. For example, in Endaro mahanubhavulu, even senior musicians sing the second line as “chanduru varnuni” meaning one whose complexion is like that of the moon, i.e. fair. But this is contrary to the common belief that Rama’s complexion is dark blue like that of a cloud. In Muddu momu, the line ‘ghananibha dehuni janana swabhaavamao’ clearly brings this out. Obviously the word ‘vadanuni’ has got distorted into ‘varnuni’. In fact, in sahitya, a deviation may sometimes correct a mistake on the part of the composer. For example, in Saraguna palimpa, Poochi Iyengar, apparently with limited knowledge of Telugu, uses the word ‘gajarajudu’, a word which does not exist in Telugu and ought to be simply ‘gajaraju’ as in ‘khagaraju’ in Nagumomu. 

Sruti had suggested in one of its editorials that this topic be researched thoroughly and such kriti-s recorded according to their authentic pathantaram-s for posterity. Dr. R. Vedavalli is a strong proponent of the view that the original pathantaram-s of kriti-s as created by the great composers, especially the Trinity, should be strictly adhered to and that they should not be deviated from even if musicians or the audience consider alternative pathantaram-s to be more attractive or easier to sing. Some time ago, she gave a special lecdem on the above topic at the IIT Music Circle, Chennai. She also demonstrated singing Nagumomu in Abheri with suddha dhaivata (instead of chatusruti dhaivata as is commonly sung) and Gnanamosagarada in Shadvidhamargini (instead of Poorvikalyani as is usually sung) which, according to her, was how Tyagaraja had originally composed these kriti-s. 

When the original music of a com-poser is lost, not only is it permissible, but there is no choice for others except, to tune the kriti-s in raga-s of their choice. This has happened in the case of the compositions of Annamacharya, Jayadeva, Purandaradasa, Sadasiva Brahmendra, Arunagirinathar, Muthu Tandavar, Arunachala Kavi and others. Some re-tuners like Semmangudi, Govinda Rao, Nedunuri and Balamurali have done an outstanding job with some of these kriti-s. (Though, technically, Semmangudi is supposed to have merely systematised and polished kriti-s of Swati Tirunal, I have a strong suspicion that he must have done quite a bit of re-tuning as well!) Even here, there are some who feel that if the actual tune is lost, and if the composer had mentioned the name of the raga, the new tune should be in the same raga by way of at least partially honouring his original intentions (except, of course, in the case of raga-s whose identity is not known now as with some raga-s mentioned by Annamacharya). Some modern composers like Periasami Thooran and Ambujam Krishna have merely composed songs, leaving it to professional musicians to tune them. Let us take Nagumomu in Abheri as an example of issues that such a debate could throw up. The debated departure in this case is not from the original musical phrasing of the kriti but in respect of the mela—whether the raga is in Natabhairavi mela using suddha dhaivata or Kharaharapriya mela using the chatusruti dhaivata. According to most older music texts, the raga is said to belong to the Natabhairavi mela, Dikshitar’s Veenabheri being a prominent example, and, therefore, should use suddha dhaivata. The Experts Committee of the Music Academy, in its deliberations on raga lakshana-s, also concluded that it belongs to the 20th mela. Some also argue that the suddha dhaivata brings out the pathos in the kriti better than chatusruti dhaivata which sounds somewhat breezy and brisk. While this may be partly so, it also depends on one’s understanding of the ahitya and style of rendering. Balamurali’s rendering of chatusruti dhaivata-based Abheri, for example, does bring out the mood and sentiment of the kriti quite well whereas Musiri’s chatusruti dhaivatabased rendering, in spite of the natural wailing quality of his voice, does sound too vervy and breezy for the mood and content of the kriti. The change to chatusruti dhaivata, according to some, perhaps took place nearly a hundred years ago, in the very early nineties. Some recent texts put it under the Kharaharapriya mela and, therefore, chatusruti dhaivata comes into play. Some others suggest that, though the raga belongs to the Kharaharapriya mela, suddha dhaivata occurs as the anya swara in some phrases and, therefore, it is a bhashanga raga. (I am not aware whether anyone has suggested that chatusruti dhaivata occurs as the anya swara with suddha dhaivata as the basic swara, thus completing the cycle of confusion!). Some try to resolve the controversy by suggesting that the raga using suddha dhaivata should be called Abheri and the raga using chatusruti dhaivata could be called Karnataka Devagandhari or Bheemplas (something similar to the mix-up about Bhoopalam and Revagupti). Some speculate that liberty has been taken with the dhaivata because it is neither the vadi nor the nyasa swara of Abheri and no gross distortion or destruction of the rasanubhooti of the raga could, therefore, take place.

Some deviant versions 

Some other kriti-s in respect of which there are differences of opinion among the musical cognoscenti (the list being purely illustrative, not comprehensive) are:

  • Seetamma mayamma : This is commonly sung in Vasanta but the original raga is said to be Lalita. Except Mali, I have not heard anybody else render it in Lalita in recent times.
  • Maye tvam yahi : This is commonly sung in Sudhatarangini in the Harikambhoji mela but it is said to belong correctly to the Charukesi mela Tarangini being the name of this in the Dikshitar school. I have heard Prof. Sathyanarayana of Bangalore and V.V. Subramaniam render it on the veena and the violin respectively in the Charukesi mela but no one else, including Semmangudi, MS and the late Vasanthakokilam, all of whom used to sing it beautifully in the Harikambhoji mela.
  • Prananatha birana : This is said to have been composed in Soolini but actually sung in Sankarabharanam by everybody, including Mali who used to render it frequently.
  • Chetulara sringaramu : This is said to have been composed in Natabhairavi but often rendered in Bhairavi even in the Tiruvaiyaru Tyagaraja festivals and even by veterans.
  • Rangapura vihara and Kamalapta kula : The raga of these kriti-s is usually shown and announced as Brindavana Saranga but they are invariably rendered in Brindavani. I have heard only Balamuralikrishna render the latter kriti in Brindavana Saranga with the arohanam - avarohanam sa ga ri ma pa ni(2) sa - sa ni(1) pa ma ri ga sa.
  • Ne pogadakunte : This is sung in Varali by some musicians and in Subhapantuvarali by others.
  • Devi brova : The name of the raga is admitted by all to be Chintamani and most musicians sing it in the Shanmukhapriya mela, but the Parupalli school sings it in the Gamanasrama mela.
  • Sangeeta gnanamu : Though this is unanimously admitted to be in Dhanyasi of the eighth mela, the phrasing of the song differs. For example, in Balamurali’s version, the kriti starts with tara sthayi shadja whereas in the other version it starts with madhyama sthayi panchama. 
  • Motivation for research 
  • What could be the possible motivations for doing research on a topic like this?
  • Purely academic curiosity. (It is sometimes said that the main purpose of research is to produce more research!)
  • To ascertain and preserve what is our precious heritage in all its pristine purity.
  • To keep all the versions alive and present them to musicians and rasika-s and let demand and supply decide the outcome.
  • To define and keep alive the correct swaroopa of a raga in which there may not be any other kriti to guide us.
  • Out of a sentimental respect for the original intentions of great composers and as a matter of basic musical courtesy.
  • A hope that the original version, when identified, may turn out to be aesthetically more satisfying than the version in vogue and thus represent a significant aesthetic addition to our music.
  • To demonstrate one’s uniqueness, or at least scholarly credentials, as one of the few musicians who know and can sing kriti-s according to the so-called ‘original’ pathantaram (product differentiation, in marketing language!). 

What should be the stand in regard to such variations—should all of them be allowed to co-exist and the choice left to individual musicians and the responses of their audiences, or some effort made to ascertain the ‘true’ or ‘original’ versions of such kriti-s and musicians persuaded to stick to them? 

Points to ponder 

While in matters of art and aesthetics no rule can be imposed on either the artists or their audiences, some relevant considerations in the matter appear to be : Is there incontrovertible proof in all such cases that the ‘versions’—which includes the raga, its arohanaavarohana, mela and musical phrasing—touted as the original or authentic are really the versions composed by their authors? In the case of modern composers there may not be any problem because most of them write them down in notation which, in spite of the inherent limitations of any notation to capture all the nuances of Carnatic music, provides at least a defence against wholesale distortion. In the case of composers who lived during an earlier era of entirely oral transmission of music, there would be real difficulty in ascertaining the authenticity beyond doubt. 

Course of action 

When there is no compelling evidence of which version is the authentic one, there are two courses of action open: one, leave it to each musician to choose whichever version appeals to his sentiments and aesthetics, or two, for somebody like the Experts Committee of the Music Academy to deliberate on each kriti and make a recommendation (as they used to do in the case of raga lakshana-s in the past). In any case, ultimately, it is for each musician to decide whether to abide by such recommendation or not (unless the Academy decides to debar violators from its portals!). 

The relative popularity of a version would depend, in the case of most listeners except the few scholarly and sentimental, on whether it sounds more pleasing or brisk compared to other versions. We may not, therefore, be able to prevent the less attractive or less popular versions, even if they really are the true original versions, from eventually disappearing from the concert platform for want of patronage and becoming museum pieces existing only in lecdems or textbooks and articles. 

Defining authenticity 

Some questions which arise while trying to determine the authenticity of any version are :If a composer did not reduce his composition to written notation, to what extent can we be sure that his direct disciples got the version right, especially when, as we are often told, guru-s of the olden days were not expected or bound to take regular, systematic music tuition classes but sang whatever and whenever they felt like singing and it was for the disciples to stand behind doors and pick up whatever they could? 

If all the direct disciples of all the well-known schools of Tyagaraja’s disciples got it right from the master, and also taught their disciples the correct version, why should there be variations at all? Have they occurred only because the second and subsequent generations of disciples did not get the pathantaram-s right? Even then how come, instead of more than one variation prevailing in every case, in almost all cases only one deviant version has survived in the case of each kriti? To take one example, Abheri, Nagumomu is said to have been originally composed in Abheri with suddha dhaivata. Why is it that even a leading composer like Vasudevachar, not too far from the Tyagaraja parampara, never composed any kriti in Abheri with suddha dhaivata though, in addition to Nagumomu, he also had the precedent of Dikshitar’s Veenabheri with suddha dhaivata? (But then Dikshitar was following a different melakarta scheme even in respect of some other raga-s and his version of a raga need not necessarily have been followed by the other two of the Trinity). Did he have any precedent version with chatusruti dhaivata? Did any of the direct disciples of Tyagaraja compose in Abheri? It would be interesting to see which model they followed, and whether they all followed the same model.

Even if, for example, everyone agrees that Rama nee yeda is to be sung in Dileepakam, what if different musicians sing it with different arohana-avarohana? The late C.V. Narasimhan, a connoisseur of Carnatic music, once related this incident. Ariyakudi sang Rama nee yeda in Dileepakam and a listener told him, “It sounds virtually like Kharaharapriya”. Ariyakudi replied, “Adu appaditthaan irukkum” (which he alone could have got away with!). If there is no perceptible difference between the aesthetic identities of the original and the so-called deviant versions, is the basic purpose of restoring the original pathaantaram fully achieved? 

Wherever there is compelling proof of the authentic version, the majority view among musicologists and rasika-s seems to be that it is improper on the part of the musician to tamper with a composer’s known version even if the changes would make it aesthetically more pleasing, more attractive or easier to sing. Any wholesale departure from this convention purely in the interests of superficial novelty would lead to utter chaos and destabilise the structure of our entire musical heritage as well as practice, apart from being grossly unfair to composers and would amount to musical discourtesy if not sacrilege. Such urges, one is tempted to say, should find an outlet in new kriti-s if one is capable of composing. However, the moment one says this, a famous and familiar exception comes to mind: Bhavayami Raghuramam of Swati Tirunal, a single raga kriti in Saveri was converted, in the words of the late Dr. V. Raghavan, “into an extraordinarily beautiful ragamalika by the genius of Semmangudi”. Do any of us dare to criticise Semmangudi purely on principle for changing the original pathantaram? An exception of a more general type also comes to mind. T.M. Krishna once said that if one were to sing Todi strictly according to the description and definition given in the Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini, it would sound so odd and unmusical that no one would listen to it today! So, it would appear that musical cost-benefit does count in practice and cannot be wished away when we discuss the theoretical propriety or otherwise of deviations from traditional pathantaram. Ultimately, our concern seems to be mainly about preserving the musical purity of the kriti-s of the Trinity whom we regard as divinely inspired and the foundation-builders of Carnatic music and not so much about other lesser composers’ kriti-s. As a response to the editorial on the subject, some readers of Sruti had pointed out that it was only in Carnatic music that such liberties were taken and that in Western classical music such things would not be tolerated. In Western classical music, there is no scope for such deviation to occur because there is no tradition of oral transmission of such music. It is based on chords and simultaneous harmony and, therefore, necessitates a type of written notation which is more deterministic and gamakafree and therefore, less prone to misinterpretation than that of Carnatic music, and not based on raga-s which have a certain definition with reference to which we can discuss deviations. However, I am told by the cognoscenti of Western music that, even in performing Beethoven or Mozart, each great conductor does subtly re-interpret the music in his own way and differently (just as each Carnatic musician sings the same kriti in subtly different ways in her or his own style and bani). In monophonic non-classical Western music which is transmitted mainly orally, like folk songs, there might occur some local variations due to a natural ‘transmission loss’ and not by any conscious design. In religious music and chants, few changes occur because first, the music is incidental and there is no attempt at innovation, and secondly, great care is taken to preserve the original version by attributing to it some special religious significance.


Ultimately, except when the composer writes down his compositions in notation, in all other cases we have to stop at some degree of approximation about their authenticity. We can never get 100% proof that what Subbarama Dikshitar has written down is exactly how Muthuswami Dikshitar sang his kriti-s. However, authentic versions of kriti-s, whenever there is incontrovertible, or at least reasonably convincing, proof of their authenticity, should certainly be traced, preserved and recorded for posterity not only as a matter of musical etiquette or sentimental respect for the composer, but also because they do constitute a precious heritage, especially when the composers are of the eminence of the Trinity.

In Hindustani khayal music, compositions are almost an excuse for launching into raga exposition by way of niraval and alapana and do not have the kind of sophistication and structural beauty which Carnatic music compositions have. Carnatic music is predominantly kriti-based. The making of deliberate changes in the original versions of composers by musicians either because the changed versions are easier to sing or because they are more popular with their audiences would, in the view of most music-lovers, not only amount to a plagiaristic substitute for an inability to compose afresh, as well as a violation of musical etiquette, but also destabilise the entire basis of Carnatic music’s aesthetic identity. (I refer only to those variations occurring within the Carnatic fold and not those attempted by some film music directors and fusion and jazz groups which are more in the nature of free experimentation than finished products, as debated in the pages of Sruti some time ago. I am also reminded of the story of a parish priest who, in his anxiety to attract young people to church, played some religious songs set to jazz as interludes to his sermons. A parent who took his teenage son to church asked him on returning home, “Well, son, how did you like the church?” “The music was great, Dad,” replied the son, “but the commercials in between were boring!”).

Deviations are likely to occur only in kriti-s composed during the era of exclusively oral transmission of music from master to disciple and are more likely to have been cases of misperception or natural ‘transmission loss’ than deliberate. For example, we do not come across any cases of musicians tampering with the kriti-s of Mysore Vasudevachar or Papanasam Sivan. Prof. Sambamoorthy says in one of his books that there is a Law of Aesthetics: in theory what is useful alone will survive, and in practice what is beautiful alone will survive. (A wag adds: When you listen to some musicians, you feel that sometimes even what is ugly manages to survive!). So, while musicians may not systematically and deliberately engage in deviating from original versions, if any version already prevalent is perceived to be significantly more attractive aesthetically than the so-called original version, not all the experts committees in the world can force a musician to give up the former in favour of the latter. Ironically, Vasudevachar, who had the title ‘Sangeeta Sastra Ratna’ (a gem in musicology) himself seems to have ignored the recommendations of the Music Academy’s Experts Committee in respect of Abheri and composed his beautiful kriti Bhajare re manasa with chatusruti dhaivata. I doubt whether any incentive, however great, will make any musician sing Bhavayami Raghuramam in Saveri alone (if it was ever sung so at all!).

While no one should or can compel a performing musician to render the so-called authentic versions, it would be a good gesture, purely as contribution to the preservation of our musical heritage and education of the rasika-s about the existence of such versions, if senior musicians rendered one or two such kriti-s in their concerts instead of confining them to lecdems and textbooks.

Who knows, such versions may become popular in course of time through repeated listening and even replace the deviant versions current now!