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Ragamalika Compositions in Carnatic Music - PART 1

Ragamalika, literally a garland of Ragas, is a very popular form of composition  in Carnatic music. These are delightful compositions, where the various segments are set to different Ragas, with a smooth and melodious flow of music during the  transition from one Raga to the next.  The choice of Ragas, as well as the order in which they appear in a Ragamalika, are based solely on aesthetic considerations. The main point is that a feeling of abruptness or a gap should be avoided when shifting between Ragas and the flow of music should be very smooth.  Also, closely allied Ragas do not generally appear  in the same composition. Ideally, consecutive Ragas should  possess distinct melodic character. 

In medieval period, this musical form was known as Raga Kadambakam, Kadamba being a garland of different flowers. Ragamalikas have been employed not only in strict kriti formats, but they also appear in  numerous other types of compositions, including Varnams, Swarajatis, Jatiswarams, Slokas, Viruttams, Tillanas and the concluding Mangalam pieces.

On the rhythmic side, a parallel form of composition is a Talamalika. Here, the various segments of the music are set to different Talas, but the entire piece may or may not be in a single Raga. These types of compositions usually find place in dance recitals. Yet another form, a happy blending of a Ragamalika and a Talamalika is known as a Ragatalamalika. Here each segment is set to a different Tala,  and rendered in a different Raga. It is customary to incorporate the name of the Raga, i.e., the Raga-mudra as well as the name of the Tala (Tala-mudra) in each segment of the composition through some ingenious devices  such as Slesham (double meaning). This is very helpful, and invariably all Ragamalikas feature some sort of Raga-mudras for each segment.

Since Carnatic music system is a treasure-house of thousands of Ragas and hundreds of Talas, many composers have exploited this feature and have literally flooded the field with numerous Ragamalika compositions. The number of Ragas employed in any single piece can vary anywhere from two to seventy two, and sometimes more,  the longest so far being 108!

In this article, we survey the contributions of various prolific composers to Ragamalika.

Ramaswami Dikshitar (1735 -1817) could aptly be called a Ragamalika Chakravarti (King of Ragamalika). He was also the inventor of the magnificent pentatonic Raga Hamsadhwani. Ramaswami Dikshitar composed many Tana Varnams and Pada Varnams and he will be remembered for the many lengthy Ragamalikas in which he was very  proficient as a composer. All his Ragamalikas were in Telugu language, and every one of them featured the Raga-mudra employed in each segment.  One of his Ragamalikas is 'Manasa Verutarula', set in  48 Ragas and in Adi Tala, on Lord Venkateswara. A second one, 'Sivamohanasakti nannu' on Goddess Meenakshi of Madurai is set in 44 Ragas in Roopaka Tala.  Yet another one, 'Samajagamana ninnu korinadira' is set in 20 Ragas, Adi Tala, and is dedicated to King Amarasimhan. 

The crown jewel of all his work is the longest composition in Carnatic music, nay, in all music,  the 'Ashtottara Shata Raga-Tala malika', commencing with the phrase 'Natakadi'. As the  name signifies, this magnum opus is a Ragatalamalika ostensibly containing 108 Ragas and set in 108 Talas, one for each line. However, the original text is unfortunately not available in complete form  and only 61 Ragas and 61 Talas have come down to us.  The text that is presently available can be found in Subbarama Dikshitar's encyclopedic treatise, Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini.

The text of this Ragatalamalika employs all the Ghana Ragas - Nata, Gowla, Varali, Sriragam and Arabhi. Also, all important Melakarta Ragas appear,  namely, Todi, Mayamalavagowla, Sankarabharanam, Kalyani, Pantuvarali and Gamakakritya. Many Upanga and Bhashanga Ragas have also been employed, e.g. Sama, Mohanam, Manirangu, Bilahari, Saveri, Punnagavarali, Kurinji, Surati, Begada, Devagandhari etc. The Pratimadhyama Ragas  used are Ramakriya, Kalyani, Saranga, Yamankalyani and Gamakakriya. While most of the Talas used are known and precisely defined  in musical literature, no clue is available for the anga-s of the Talas with the names Lali, Lakshana, Srimatkirti, Akshara and Kala, that appear in the text. Ramaswami Dikshitar composed this monumental work and a few other pieces in praise of his patron, Venkatakrishna Mudaliar of Manali. The vaggeyakara-mudra (signature of the composer) Venkatakrishna is used in all his work.

Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1834 AD), son of Ramaswami Dikshitar, is part of the Trinity of composers in Carnatic music. He was a composer par excellence, who chose to sing in praise of various deities in temples  that he visited during his extensive pilgrimages.  About 480 of his compositions are available in print. These gems furnish a complete musical pilgrimage of the various temples, not only from South India, but as far north as Badrinath, and Kathmandu in Nepal. Most of his compositions, particularly his Ragamalikas feature the Raga-mudra, as well as Guruguha, his own mudra or signature.

Only four Ragamalikas of Muthuswami Dikshitar are currently in vogue and are also available in print. They are: 

  1. SrI Viswanatham Bhajeham in fourteen Ragas, set to Adi Tala. The sequence of fourteen Ragas that appear in this Ragamalika are Sriragam, Arabhi, Gowri, Nata, Gowla, Mohanam, followed by viloma swaras (rendering of swaras in the reverse order of Ragas). The second half contains Sama, Lalita, Bhairavam, Saranga, Sankarabharanam, Kambhoji, Devakriya, Bhoopalam, followed again by viloma swaras, and finally ending in the commencing Raga, Sriragam. This composition is in praise of Lord Viswanatha, of the temple located in the village Kulikkarai, near Tiruvarur, Tamilnadu. (You can find the lyrics for this Ragamalika in the Ragamalika Bank)
  2. Madhavo mampatu in ten Ragas, set to Roopaka Tala. on the Dashavaratam or the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu.
  3. Simhasanasthite in four auspicious Ragas, namely Sowrashtra, Vasanta, Surati and Madhyamavati, set to Roopaka Tala in praise of Devi Parvati.
  4. Poornachandrabimba vadane in six Ragas - Poornachandrika, Narayani, Saraswatimanohari, Suddhavasantam, Hamsadhwani and Nagadhwani - also set in Roopaka Tala, on Goddess Kamalamba of the mammoth Tiruvarur temple. I have come across a recent book  (published in Srirangam), that gives two additional lines  of text, in Ragas Kedaram and Bilahari, rendering it an Ashta Ragamalika rather that a Shad Ragamalika.

Dr. P P Narayanaswami


To be continued


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