A few columns ago, I’d written about the vitality of debate that exists even today in Carnatic music, a sign that a classical art need not always lie inert and unchanging. Over the last year, a prime example has begun to impress itself afresh upon Carnatic blogs and online forums, and even rear its head during concerts. It isn’t new, by any means, but it is certainly newly resurgent, and for that, it is worth discussing.
The debate revolves, essentially, around one song—Nagumomu Ganaleni, written by Tyagaraja two centuries ago—and even more specifically around one particular note. Nagumomu is a lovely, plaintive composition that beseeches Tyagaraja’s lord of choice, Rama, to come to his aid. Tyagaraja set his song to the raga Abheri, and as it gained popularity, composition and raga became inextricably linked. Ask any Carnatic music enthusiast today to name a song in Abheri, and inevitably, it will be Nagumomu that comes to mind.
But the version of Nagumomu we know today is not the version that Tyagaraja originally wrote. At some point, it began to be sung in the raga Karnataka Devagandhari, very similar to Abheri in its scale but with a microtone of a difference: Abheri is sung with a lower “Da” note than Karnataka Devagandhari.
Catalyst: M. Subramania Iyer. Courtesy: Sruti
When this shift happened, nobody is clear. Some date it to a hugely popular 78rpm record by Musiri Subramania Iyer in the early 20th century; others say the change had occurred before that, and that Musiri’s record merely made de jure what was already de rigueur.
Over the years, the Abheri-Karnataka Devagandhari schism has formed and re-formed in curious ways, and it has created something of a three-way split in the world of music today. In the blue corner is the eminent Sanjay Subrahmanyan, who follows the Musiri tradition strictly. “The reason I choose to call it Abheri is that the most popular and well-known song, Nagumomu, sung in this exact same scale, is referred to only as Abheri,” he wrote recently on his blog. The custom of the last 80-odd years, he implies, has legitimized the practice. By extension, Subrahmanyan also sings other Abheri compositions, such as Bhajare, with the higher “Da”.
In the red corner is another vocalist, T. M. Krishna, who sings Nagumomu like Musiri but insists on calling it raga Karnataka Devagandhari. At multiple concerts last December, before singing Abheri, Krishna pointedly stated that this was the original Abheri, with the lower “Da”. In yet another corner of this triangular argument is the very senior, immensely respected vocalist R. Vedavalli, who sings even Nagumomu with the lower “Da”, as Tyagaraja intended it.
In no way am I qualified to determine who is correct; even a veteran violinist like R.K. Sriram Kumar, whom I consulted for this column, professes himself baffled. But as a question of aesthetics, this is a thrilling, piquant situation, and in my view, it is the best of all possible worlds. There is no requirement to pledge fealty to one system or another; instead, the artistes simply make music according to their inner dictates, according to what they think sounds best. And the only way for art to move forward is for its practitioners to do what they believe; that, really, is all that matters.
Write to Samanth Subramanian at firstname.lastname@example.org