Read this excerpt on Composers of Carnatic Music – Part 4 from the Perfecting Carnatic Music Level 2 Book published by IFCM.
This chapter contains thumbnail sketches of eminent composers many of whose works have been included in this book and in level 1. Some of these personalities shaped the very history of Carnatic music. It is desirable for students to read more on these greats as well as learn about other composers from various sources. It must be noted that the time periods of some are approximate.
Annamacharya is probably the most prolific Carnatic composer with nearly 32,000 songs to his credit. Most of these were inscribed on copper plates and preserved in the precincts of the Venkateshvara temple in Tirupati, where he spent much of his life. His compositions are mainly in Telugu and Sanskrit. He is believed to have been the first to use the krti format, with the sections, pallavi, anupallavi and charanam. The original tunes for these songs are not available, and consequently, his compositions have been (and continue to be), re-tuned by present day musicians. He used the mudra (signature), Venkatagiri, with slight variations.
Purandara Dasa is revered as the father of Carnatic music. He was a moneylender. A lifetransofrming resulted in his becoming a philosopher, master musician and composer. His works are remarkable for their varied themes that included social critique, sublime devotion and lyrical excellence. He composed predominantly in Kannada and also in Sanskrit and signed his works as Purandara Vithala. He systematised the basics like sarali and jantai varishais and standardised the procedures for teaching music that are followed even today. Nearly a thousand of his compositions are available now but since most of the original tunes are lost, they have been re-tuned by latter day artistes.
Kshetragnya [17th century]:
Kshetragnya is respected as the foremost composer of the musical form, padam. His compositions are noteworthy for their multi-dimensional portrayal of romantic sentiments. A scholar-poet, he visited several shrines and composed on the presiding deities there.
One of the greatest composers in Indian music, Venkata Kavi spent much of his life in Oottukkadu, whose chief landmark is the temple of Krshna performing the Kalinga nartana dance (on a snake’s head). It is believed that the poet was gifted his knowledge directly by the Lord here. Venkata Kavi’s musicianship is a combination of devotion, emotion and intellect. His compositions reveal his colossal knowledge of and command over the intricacies of melody, rhythm and dance as well as mythological and cultural personalities and rare incidents in major epics. Endowed with great creativity, he composed in Sanskrit and Tamil (and occasionally in Marathi) and handled well-known and rare ragas and talas with equal élan.
Venkata Kavi employed musical forms like krti, tillana, Javali, Shloka and chindu (folk tunes) and often innovated spontaneously within their framework. He composed special sets of krtis like the saptaratnas and navavaranams and operas based on the lives of Krshna, Rama and Shiva. Most of his compositions contain reference to the Kalinga nartana of Krshna, but only four pieces have been found so far, with the specific signature, Venkata Kavi.
Pachimiriam Adiappaiyer [18th century]:
Adiappaiyer was among the earliest to employ the musical form, varnam. One of his few surviving pieces, the majestic varnam in Bhairavi, Viriboni, has enthralled and influenced musicians and composers for nearly 300 years. His students include Shyama Shastri, Ghanam Krishna Iyer and Pallavi Gopala Iyer.
Among the pre–Trinity composers in Carnatic music, Sadashiva Brahmendra occupies a special place. Only a handful of his compositions are in use today, and the ragas in which they were originally composed are not known. His songs usually contain a pallavi and several charanams and are signed as paramahamsa or hamsa.
Gurumoorti Shastri is said to have composed over a thousand geetams, including lakshana geetams (pieces that describe the technical details of the raga they are composed in). A few of his compositions have been published in Perfecting Carnatic Music – Level 1.
Shyama Shastri, one of the elite Carnatic Trinity (the other two being Tyagaraja and Muttusvami Dikshitar), was trained by an ascetic, Sangeeta Swami, in the minutiae of music. He is credited with about 300 compositions, of which only around 75 have been published with notations so far. But these sublime and exquisite works reveal his class in a telling manner. He handled several forms like geetam, svarajati, varnam and krti and was at home with Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil. Among the most outstanding of his creations are the three majestic svarajatis that are collectively known as ratna trayam. He employed rare ragas like Kalgada and Chintamani and displayed rhythmic skills in many subtle ways. Though the majority of his works are on Devi, he signed his compositions as Shyama Krshna.
Tyagaraja is easily the most influential composer in Carnatic music. His impact on it is as farreaching as it is deep. His influence on musicians and composers of several generations is extraordinary. His works range from the down-to-earth to the transcendental, from the evocative to the scholarly. His creations have instant appeal as well as enduring value. His works are a blend of emotion, devotion, intellect, knowledge, analytical capabilities and more than all, great expressive abilities. One of the most remarkable features about his works is that he could make simple scales appear like great ragas and immortalise them, and also make grand ragas appear deceptively simple.
Prolific and knowledgeable, he signed his works with his own name, Tyagaraja. He handled many rare ragas. He composed simple and sophisticated krtis. He also composed group krtis such as the pancharatna krtis, as also operas like Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauka Charitram. He trained several disciples.
Muttusvami Dikshitar is arguably the most complete composer that Carnatic music has produced, in the sense that he was also exposed to and influenced by Hindustani and Western systems. A devotee of Lord Kartikeya, he adopted the signature Guruguha and composed hundreds of compositions in scholarly Sanskrit and a handful in Manipravalam (a mix of Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit). Many of Dikshitar’s compositions are based on the various shrines he visited and often speak about the deity, local customs, mythological lore etc. His compositional style was highly intellectual and revealed masterful planning. The best examples of such planning are: navavarana krtis (where he used a different declension for each composition) and navagraha krtis (on the planets, where he used each one of the seven main talas for the first seven pieces). A musician needs to gain immense mastery over form and tempo to project the depth and detail in Dikshitar’s works.
One of the most illustrious of Tyagaraja’s disciples, Kuppaiyer spent many years with his guru, learning the art of music and composing. His proficiency with the veena gave him his title. He composed many krtis and varnams, but the latter are more popular and extensively used by all musicians. He composed in Telugu and used the signature Gopaladasa.
A very versatile royal composer, who was also a great patron of arts, Svati Tirunal has over 400 compositions including krtis, varnams and javalis to his credit in several languages like Sanskrit, Telugu and Hindi. He used Padmanabha, Jalajanabha, Sarojanabha, Pankajanabha, Sarasijanabha etc (all synonymous epithets of Vishnu) as his signature.
A direct disciple and relative of Tyagaraja, Venkatasubbaiyer was a scholar of Telugu and Sanskrit and also a competent violinist. A composer himself, he also trained prominent musician-composers like Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and Patnam Subramanya Iyer.
Singaracharyulu was a highly respected musician and composer. He is credited with having popularised the ragas in the treatise Sangraha Choodamani. He is also believed to have been the author of the first printed book featuring compositions with notations.
One of the most popular post-Trinity composers, Patnam Subramanya Iyer was the disciple of Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbaiyer. Most of his compositions are in Telugu. He is credited with about 100 compositions that include varnams, krtis, javalis and tillanas, some of which have become preferred choices of musicians and listeners. He used the signature, Venkatesha.
A magnificent composer of varnams, Tyagaiyer, son of Veenai Kuppaiyer, published the book Pallavi Svara Kalpavalli that contains select works of his father as well as his own. His compositions are usually signed as Venugopala or Tyagesha.
Hailing from Salem in Tamil Nadu, Narasaiya composed several varnams and krtis. A master of rhythm, he earned the prefix shatkala due to his considerable command over the six basic speeds in Carnatic music. He trained several disciples in Bangalore.
Contemporaries of the Trinity, the Quartet comprised 4 brothers Chinnaiya, Ponnaiya, Vadivelu and Sivanandam, who, besides being master musicians and composers, were equally accomplished in dance. In fact, Ponnaiya systematized the dance repertoire, and together they created an expansive store of pada varnams, jati svarams and tillanas that are used by numerous dancers till date. Vadivelu, who was one of the earliest to use the violin in Carnatic music, was appointed the court musician of Travancore by Maharaja Svati Tirunal. The brothers also later became disciples of Muttusvami Dikshitar and signed their compositions as Guruguha dasa.
The brothers of Karoor were famous as Pedda Devudu and Chinna Devudu. They belonged to the lineage of Tyagaraja’s disciples. Also expert violinists, they composed varnams and krtis, using the mudra ‘Garbhapuri’.
A prolific composer of the 20th century, Papanasam Sivan created hundreds of songs in Tamil, Sanskrit and Telugu, many of which find a place in concerts today. While most are devotional in nature, some of his songs dwell on social themes, while a few others are on great personalities. He also composed for and acted in theatrical productions and films. He used the signature Ramadasa in a few of his pieces.