Carnatic Music, Coffee and Theater Delving deeper into the connection with Ragas

Anish Fathima Gulamkadar · Aug 14, 2023 · 7 mins read

We have all had the experience of sinking a little deeper into our seats in the movie theater, and taken a deep breath while our hands paused midway and onto the arm-rest while reaching for popcorn, when the opening notes of a heavy, gripping and intense number wafted through the air and slithered into our ears. We instantly knew what to expect next. We also knew to ease ourselves a little bit, sit upright and grace our next-seat stranger with a flickering smile of familiarity when the feel-good thrum of notes hit us at that three-quarter break-point where the movie officially gave us the “all is well” signal.

Bhavana Venkatasubramanian September 9, 2020

Well, what defines “intense”? What makes a song “feel-good”? What blazed through the genius mind and senses of the music director when he was explained the scene? What is it that opens up the freeway for us to subconsciously appreciate and adore and fear and tear so intensely while still feeling so blissful about it?

Carnatic Music, Coffee and Theater Delving deeper into the connection with Ragas-img

Let me elucidate using a composition by The Musical Maestro Ilayaraaja Sir from the movie, “Kaadhal Oviyam” ( Painting of Love ), an intense love story from the 1980’s era that attempts to bring to life, the vow, “Till death do us part”. Picture a blind and orphaned protagonist who also can’t afford a roof over his head, and hence resorts to seeking refuge at a temple and finding purpose by rendering musical hymns in gratitude of the local deity. He is star-crossed in love with a maiden who frequents the temple as a devotee, who ends up being forced secretly into marrying a rich and influential groom. Meanwhile, our protagonist miraculously gets his vision restored and grows to become a popular musician. He unwittingly performs before his lost love at a ceremony headed by none other than her spouse. And then, pans out this song (“Sangeeta Jaadhi Mullai”), portraying the complex train of emotions upon the protagonist being hit by the truth -from recognition to angst, to agony and then, mortal surrender -when he ultimately succumbs at her feet. Such profound poignancy is brought to life by The Maestro, by his clever use of the Raga or musical framework, “Revati”. What is so unique about Revati in this context, one may wonder, and what on earth is a musical framework, one may also wonder.

The notes of the Raga Revati are aptly spaced out to make room for dramatic glides that lend a sense of “profoundness” to it. To elaborate, Revati is a pentatonic or “Audava-Audava” Raga, which simply means that any composition following its rules is allowed to harness at most, five out of the seven fundamental notes or “Swaras” in both, ascent and descent. In addition, The “Swara Sthaanas” or “note positions” of these defining notes in the standard band of frequencies also plays a role in deciding the mood or flavor of the Raga and ultimately the composition.

Let us imagine coffee- we have the regular Cappuccino. Substitute some coffee with some milk, we get the Latte. Do the opposite, we get the Espresso. Dilute the Espresso, we get the Americano. Once our basic beverage is ready, we could add a touch of layering with some milk to get a Macchiato, or we could create a sugar-rush with cream and caramel sauce, whipping up a Frappuccino. The possibilities are endless. This is exactly how the Raga system works. The basic ingredients-milk, cream, sugar and coffee- are the fundamental notes or “Swaras”. They can have a limited set of variants like low-fat, soy-based, palm-sourced, cane-sourced, and so on, ranging on a scale of, say, skinny to rich, akin to “Swara Sthaanas”. The basic beverage based out of the ingredients and their relative influence on the flavor of the beverage is the framework or “Raga”. The “Ragas” are standard templates that are picked up by baristas that get creative and come up with the Vanilla Bean Frappuccino, the Caramel Apple Spice Latte, the Skinny Mocha and what not.

As one would expect, the Raga Revati has its “Swaras” handpicked from the lower and middle ranges of the frequency spectrum, thus paving way for the pathos, stillness and devotion to be conveyed by compositions improvising this framework. It is of no wonder, now, to note that the Raga Revati has been commonly used in the composition of religious hymns or prayers, the most well-known being “Bho Shambho” of Swami Dayananda Saraswati, popularized by renditions of artistes, both, legendary and rising, such as MS Viswanathan and Vijay Prakash, to name a few.

A contrasting Raga would be Amrita Varshini, known for compositions such as “Thoongaadha Vizhigal Rendu” from “Agni Nakshatram”, rendered by KJ Yesudas, that portrays the heights of blissful anticipation between lovers. The Raga is aptly named as “the one who showers ‘Amrita’, the elixir of immortality”. This Raga, unlike Revati, has all of its “Swaras” or notes perched up the frequency palette, lending it an exuberant and optimistic mood. But then, it also has wide gaps between the frequencies of the “Swaras” on its scale, thus making it dramatic, just like Revati.

Another interesting quirk about Amrita Varshini is its association with rain and the monsoon. The energy of this Raga is said to be so brilliant that legend claims it to bring down torrential showers. It is said that while visiting Ettayapuram, a small village in Tamil Nadu, the great composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar was anguished to see the drought-hit arid land and parched people. Moved by their plight, Dikshitar looked up to the sky and burst forth in praise of the goddess (Devi) in this Raga. He called out to the Devi to bring rain and alleviate the plight of the drought-hit people. He addressed the Devi as ‘Anandamritakarshini, Amritavarshini’. When he sang ‘Salilam Varshaya Varshaya’, meaning ‘let the rain pour’, it is said that the sky opened up. There was such an outrageous shower that the place got flooded. He then had to plead ‘Sthambhaya Sthambhaya‘, meaning ‘stop, stop’. This bizarre belief still holds good in the modern times, as proven by late Carnatic violinist Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan in 1982, when he played Raga Amrita Varshini in a public gathering to bring down rains in Madras (Chennai) at the behest of MG Ramachandran, the Chief Minister of the State at the time, and, miraculously, succeeded in his goal. Several monsoon-flavoured compositions in the Raga and its counterparts in the Hindustani ( North Indian ) system of music such as the classic “Bole Re Papeehara” from “Guddi” in 1971, and parts of the evergreen “Ghanan Ghanan” from “Lagaan” in 2001 also stand testimony to this belief.

Another differently flavored Raga is “Ananda Bhairavi”. It is a breezy raga as opposed to the aforementioned dramatic ones. The name “Ananda Bhairavi” roughly translates to “Goddess who bestows happiness”, and the Raga itself has been proven to reduce high blood-pressure levels, promote mental stability and even cure depression. Popular numbers based on this Raga include a range of compositions of The Musical Prodigy, AR Rahman, such as the divinely peaceful “Anbendra Mazhayiley” from “Minsaara Kanavu” in 1997 and the gently flowing “Nadhiye Nadhiye” from “Rhythm” in 2000. Another notable hit is the soothingly romantic “Paartha Mudhal Naaley” by Harris Jayaraj from “Vettaiyaadu Vilayaadu” in 2006. The soothing nature of this Raga is attributed to the closely spaced “Swaras” that majorly fall in the mid-range of the frequency palette.

Similarly, if we add different “Swaras” and portray them with different oscillations, we get a new emotion or “Raga” to tell our story with. Simple, isn’t it? Of course, but yes, it gets a lot more challenging and interesting with the sheer variety and as we delve deeper to produce more complex and specific emotions. Add to that the possibility of bending rules and blending musical genres, and the world of music is nothing but a Kaleidoscope!

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