Ask my lord to come, lotus-eyed lass
"Pa da pa ma ga ri - ga ma pa ma ga ma - ga ri ga ri sa-a-a," I sang in an undertone, looking at the notation as my fingers plucked the notes tentatively. It sounded good. Interesting. I like this, I decided. I played it again, keeping time this time.
"Ni sa ga ri - sa ri sa ni - nee-e-e," I played. I waited out the cycle of rhythm, tapping my nails on the wood of the veena marking time and repeated the phrases.
"Sa ga-a ri ga ma ma ga - ma da pa - ma pa ma ga ga ma-a-a-a" I added, sight-reading as I played. Yes, this is good, I thought and laughed at myself. Of course it is good, it is a composition of Syama Sastry, after all.
There is something magical about reading notation and playing it on the veena. The notes take on life and become music. It is one thing to learn from teachers, repeating what is played and writing down the notation later, but it is another to read the notation and try and turn it into music.
After I lost my teacher to relocation and more, I tried to learn new compositions from books. Though Carnatic music is kritically oriented, I revelled in learning jatisvaras, svarajatis and varnams.
I'd taught myself a few obscure compositions, mostly varnams and svarajatis, with an occasional kriti. When it came to kritis I always chose a piece I had both vocal and instrumental versions of, to guide me. But for varnams and svarajatis, I had plenty of books and plenty of compositions to choose from. I learnt more varnams than are usually taught to music students, and many jatisvaras, which are good practice for fast-paced playing.
When you learn a piece that you haven't heard before, teaching yourself from a book, it's different than learning from a teacher. You have to learn the notes, the phrases and the pauses. While phrase groups are indicated in most books, the gamakas are not, unless it is Subbarama Dikshitulu's Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarsini, so you have to figure out which embellishments to use and which notes to combine in a single stroke. If it is a raga you are not familiar with, it gets that much harder to bring it to life and showcase its entity.
When learning from a teacher, you learn a snatch, a cycle of talam at a time, the notes and execution all together. But when you are teaching yourself, you have to learn the notes, memorise them and then learn to play the lyric instead of the notes, playing three or four notes with a single stroke to sound the words. It is a painful and slow process, but you'd have learnt another composition at the end of it, there is that satisfaction.
After a dozen or so compositions learnt from books, I grew bolder and tackled the great trio of svarajatis by Syama Sastry, in Todi, Bhairavi and Yadukula Kambhoji. Of these, my personal favourite is the last, a beautiful piece that is haunting, full of captivating phrases and brilliant scholarship.
I like Syama Sastry's compositions. They are hard to master. The beauty of the phrases and permutations is subtle. Composed a couple of centuries ago and still sounding miraculously fresh, Syama Sastry's oeuvre is a grand mixture of erudition, brilliance and heart-breaking eloquence. The tunes linger, and keep echoing in the head long after the song comes to an end.
Syama Sastry's compositions are wonderful in their rhythmic innovation. His favourite talam seems to have been misra chapu, seven beats with a three/four divide, though he did compose in rupakam and adi too. He composed a few songs in viloma chapu, seven beats with a four/three divide, which is a rare meter. His Sankari Samkuru in Saveri can be rendered in either rupakam or tisra adi, which is rather a difficult composing feat to manage.
After the svarajatis, I tackled the Ananda Bhairavi varnam, in the more demanding beat of ata talam.
Syama Sastry composed two varnams, one in adi talam, in Begada, a complicated raga that I had no hope of mastering untaught, and one in Ananda Bhairavi, a raga I am familiar with, though I wasn't ever taught it by either of my teachers, other than the baby song geetam, that is.
Every student of Carnatic music learns the Ananda Bhairavi geetam 'Kamala Sulochana' and some might learn the svarajati 'Raaveme Maguvaa', but there aren't any varnams in the raga other than this, as far as I know. There are kritis by all major composers in this raga; Syama Sastry's own 'O Jagadamba' and 'Mari Vere Gati Evaramma' being my personal favourites, along with Rama Dasu's 'Paluke Bangaaramaayenaa'.
The phrases I'd played so far formed the first line of the pallavi and the lyric is simple: 'Saamini rammanave' - ask my lord to come. In varnams the libretto is sparse, and a student learns to play libretto clearer than in a geetam or a svarajati.
The identity of the raga is established in the opening phrases, and the composition proceeds serenely. I especially love the muktaayi svara. There are some gems of phrases, startling combinations and beguiling rhythmic intricacies. Throughout the composition, the spirit of Ananda Bhairavi shines through. Like 'Viriboni' in Bhairavi, this varnam is a reference work and a lesson in how to develop the raga.
'Saamini' has an anubandham, which is sung after the charanam and the ettugada svaras. When a varnam has an anubandham, returning to the charanam after executing the anubandham concludes the rendition. But in 'Saamini', the anubandham is followed by a repetition of the muktaayi svara and the piece is concluded by returning to the pallavi. My books inform me that this is a rare thing.
There's a reason why I am going on about this, though. I'd goofed up a few posts ago. I'd loftily stated that Syama Sastry composed only in praise of Kamakshi. Well, the varnam is proof that I was wrong and I am mortified that I forgot a piece I sweated to learn and gloried in learning. 'Saamini' is in praise of Kanchipuram's Varadaraja Swami, you see?
Oh, and the libretto of muktaayi svara and the other ettugada svaras is racy, and states that the lord is great in bed.