Some Unusual Compositions in Carnatic Music

                                                Ashok Madhav (

Over the generations, many creative personalities have enriched our lives by contributing to literary works and fine arts. In this article, an attempt is made to document the efforts of some imaginative composers in music. In Carnatic music several types of compositions –like varnam, kriti, javali, padam and tillana are known. Most of the compositions have a certain standard format. A few composers have been innovative and adventurous and their compositions do not fall into the above standard pattern.

A few representative examples are given here.The article is by no means exhaustive. A varnamsariganidani” in Todi by Muthuswami Dikshitar is unusual in the sense, no lyrics are used in it. It is called swarasthana varnam. We are all familiar with Navaraga malika varnam containing 9 ragams composed by Patnam Subramania Iyer. Prof. Sambhamurthy has created a varnam called “Dina-ragamalika” containing 8 ragams. To pose a challenge in singing a varnam, NC.Parthasarathy’s  Nakshatra malika varnam containing 27 ragams, in which each avarthanam has two  ragams. There are a few varnams composed in Marathi also. One such Marathi varnam is “Deva deva ghara ala” in Mohanam. Predictably several Marathi varnams were composed during the glory days of Serfoji Maharaja, ruler of Tanjavur. Recently, Nallan Chakravarthy Murthy has composed varnams in all 72 mela ragams.

Generally compositions are set in only one language. Dikshitar has used 3 different languages like Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil in a single composition, which is called manipravala kriti. Other composers like Prof.Sambhamurthy, Bangalore Mukund have attempted similar compositions.

The Dikshitar family is noted for bringing out compositions containing several ragams, which are called ragamalikas.  Ramaswamy Dikshitar (father of Muthuswami Dikshitar) has been credited to have composed several ragamalikas. Muthuswami Dikshitar’s chatur-dasha ragamalike with 14 ragams is well known. In this class of ragamalika compositions, mention should be made of Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer’s 72 melakarta kriti featuring all the 72 mela ragams. This is in praise of Lord Pranathartihara, the presiding deity at Tiruvaiyaru Temple. Historically the first person to compose a 72 melakartha ragamalika was one Lavani Venkata Rao. This was composed as a eulogy for the then Maharaja of Tanjavur.   

A few vaggeyakaras have attempted composing raga-tala-malika, in which ragam and talam vary for each avarthanam.  Subbarama Dikshitar, in his raga-tala-malika has used all the suladi sapta talams. Pratap Simha Maharaja of Tanjvur has composed a raga-tala-malika in Marathi with intricate swara patterns.

Tyagaraja’s pancharatna kritis in Nata, Goula, Arabhi,Varali and Sri with alternate swaras and sahityas are unique contributions. These kritis have pallavi, anupallavi and several madhyamakala charanams.
Uthukadu Venkatasubbaiyer’s sapta ratnas have musical structure with nicely built in rhythm. His mastery over rhythm is evident in most of his compositions.  Shyama Sastri’s swarajathis in Todi, Bhairavi and Yadukulakamboji form a different set of compositions which have beautiful flow of music and rhythm.

Dikshitar has composed kritis with only pallavi and short charanam with no anupallavi.These are called kritis with samasti charanam. Another type of composition called ‘garbha kriti’ uses more than one talam for the same kriti. N.Ch.Krishnamacharyulu was a pioneer in developing this kind of compositions.

Prof.Sambhamurthy’s creativity has brought out two unusual compositions- an example is that the two sootra geeta-s illustrating the graha  bhedas (modal shift). They are Shankara todi kal hari nata in the ragam,Shankarabharanam and the second one is Mohana madhya hindola suddhodaya ravi chandrika in the ragam, Mohanam. The lyrics enable a student to remember the ragams that arise when graha  bheda is performed in each swaram of the scale. Another example is that he has composed a moorchanakara mela ragamalika, which gives the scales that arise out of each mela raga by modal shift of tone and the swarams that come out of these scales.

Composer, D.Pattammal has made compositions in ragams containing all swarams except panchama but with both shudda and prati madhyama swarams. These are called panchama varja dwi-madhyma Mela kritis. Tanjavur S.Kalyanaraman did demonstrate the utility of these kinds of ragams in his compositions too. BalaMurali Krishna has composed a few unusual kritis containing only 3 or 4 swarams.

Muthiah Bhagavatar introduced an unusual ragam called “Niroshta” with no M and P in its swarams. He composed a kriti “Raja raja rajitha” and when the ragam is rendered, lips do not touch each other. It is interesting that Karur Shivaramaiah has composed a javali in English and Telugu in Kharaharapriya. The beginning line starts as follows. “O my lovely Lalana-elane bommanti

Usually tillana is rendered almost at the end of a concert. Muthiah Bhagavatar has composed uncommon tillana which features only swarams with no lyrics. This is called a ‘note’ and is set in Shakarabharanam, which was popularized Madurai Mani Iyer.

Tillanas in general are set in common talams like Adi, Mishra chapu and rupakam.  Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar has composed two tillanas in uncommon talams. The first tillana is set with 108 akshara talam called ‘Lakshmisham’ and the second tillana with 72 akshara talam called Ragavardhani’ .  Maha Vaidhyanatha Iyer’s tillana is set in Simhanandana talam with 128 beats.  A newer addition to the uncommon tillana is one with 35 akshara talam, created by Chengalput Ranganathan.

The last piece in any concert is mangalam, which is usually simple in structure set in one ragam. The uncommon mangalam by Krishnaswamy Iya contains 11 ragams!