Devotional Music




"The highest art is always the most religious and the greatest artiste is always a devout man…."

It is said that the soul of a nation is enshrined in its temple, literature and arts. All these are thus represented as having been born from God and are highly venerated in our land. Fine arts in India have always been looked upon as things divine and have all along been used as vehicles for spiritual pursuits.

It is, hence, observed that any form of classical art was a part and parcel of the religious and devotional prevalent in the past. The only system of music that was not connected much with religion and devotion was film music, which was, however, classical based. However, in the present day scenario, devotional music has assumed a new connotation and an individual status. Today, semi-classical / light music with religious themes and lyrics are referred to as Devotional music. One observed that the new ‘Devotional music’ is more mass-oriented, with very little classical base. This type of music is expected to kindle devotional fervour even in the common man and hence, has been classified based on different languages, as well.

It would be very interesting to trace the evolution of devotional music. This implies that one must take a peek into the past. Temples would be the most obvious choice as the starting point, since they have been the major promoting centres of music.

With the development of the Bhakti movement in the 7th and 8th centuries in South India, the great Chola Kings, who were devotees of Lord Siva, studded the land with temples and endowed them richly with land and wealth for the perpetual conduct of religious worship. The temple was not only a place of worship but also became a cultural centre patronising Oduvars, Araiyars, dancers, instrumentalists, musicians, sculptors and painters. The singing of Tevaram hymns, Tiruppallandu, Tiruvaymozhi, Divyaprabandham, performances of Kuravanji Natakam, musical plays and dance forms are integral part of the daily ritual (Nityotsava) at the temples.

The devotional musical forms such as Tevaram, Divyaprabandham, Lali, Unjal, Saranu, Heccharika, Mallari tunes, Rakti Melam, Kavattuvam and Sthala kritis / keertanas** constitute the live music of the temples and are still sung at specific hours of worship. Sacred dance items such as the Navasandhi and Panchamurti Kavuttuvam are performed during the Brahmotsavam. Mallari music is played on the Nagaswaram, at the beginning of the procession called "Purappadu". The music of Mallari, usually played in raga Nata, is said to indicate the commencement of the particular worship in a temple. It is also said that it was Ramaswami Dikshitar who sytematised the Mallari, which is still played at Tiruvarur. It is the Bari Nayanam (a type of Nagaswaram), the pride of Tiruvarur, that is played during these occasions. Other instruments that are associated with temples are the Panchamukha Vadyam and the Suddha maddalam (a type of percussion instrument). Besides, musical plays like dance dramas, Kuravanji Natakas and others are also enacted during temple festivals.

Before we close, let us take a quick glimpse of Tanjavur as an important cultural centre, dotted with temples everywhere. In fact, if one considers South India to be a huge temple, Tanjavur could be considered the sanctum sanctorum, radiating cultural and spiritual inspiration. The temple that arose as a symbolic representation of the religious faith and devotion of the people necessarily included music and dance. Fine arts found their highest form of expression in the temple and grew as handmaids to religion and religious worship. Tanjavur has produced many devotees, saint-composers, philosophers and scholars proficient in many branches of learning, besides Bhagavatas, musicians and dancers. Tanjavur also has been the stronghold of Hinduism, as the long line of pious and accomplished Chola rulers were noted for their liberal patronage.

** Sthala kritis / keertanas are musical compositions in praise of the presiding deities of various shrines composed by great composers. These can again be classified into two:

(a) Group kritis / keertanas: Usually a set of 5, 7, 9, 12 and 16 songs, in praise of a particular deity of a shrine. They represent a garland of songs in which each song forms a unit in the chain.

(b) Keertanas in praise of the presiding deities, Ishtadevatas (favorite deity), Gods and Goddesses.