Sri Dikshitar and the Western Music
While the Dikshitar family lived in Manali, a Zamindari near Madras, the family enjoyed the patronage of the Zamindar Muddukrishna Mudaliyar and his son Venkatakrishna Mudaliar (sometimes referred to as Chinnaswami). The Zamindars were closely connected with the East India Company as its Dubash (interpreters); and in that capacity they often called on Fort St. George the seat of the Company in South India. Since the Zamindars were reputed art connoisseurs, they were regularly invited to Fort St. George to listen to the European Airs played by the Irish bands. The bands played simple Celtic marching tunes, lilting melodies, easy on the drums and bagpipes and flutes.
The zamindars would sometimes take along with them the Dikshitar brothers, who were in their teens, to listen to the “English” bands. That was how Muthuswami Dikshitar and his younger brother Baluswami came to gain familiarity with the Western music.
During this association, it is said, that at the suggestion of Col. Browne who was in the service of the East India Company, Muthuswami Dikshitar composed the text in Sanskrit and Telugu for well known Western tunes. He also composed other songs in Sanskrit and Telugu based on Western notes. The collection of these compositions numbering about forty later came to be known as “Nottuswara Sahithya“. Nottu is Telugu/Tamil transformation of the word Note. It is a unique genre of music.
The noted scholar musician Shri M.R.Shankara Murthy has , however, in his book , listed 30 nottu songs, in addition to eight other songs. Please also check
Of these about forty compositions of “Nottuswara sahithya“, the notation is available for only thirty-six compositions. The text or sahithya for these compositions are in Sanskrit and Telugu and they are in the form of verses or songs. They do not have segments of Pallavi, Anupallavai and Charanam, as one would find in the classic kriti format of Carnatic music. The compositions are not in Shankarabharanam per se ; but are based on simple melodies and devoid of the ornamentation (gamaka) that is characteristic of Carnatic music.
These songs or verses are in praise of the different Gods and Goddesses of different holy places, such as Srirangam, Tirupathi, Kanchi, Madurai, etc.
[The songs are praise of Ganesha (1),Saraswathi (2), Shiva (11), Vishnu/Krishna (5), Devi (10), Skanda (4), Anjaneya (1), Rama (6)]
Curiously, those songs composed during the end years of the 18th century bear the “Mudra” or the composer’s signature as “Guruguha”. That was several years before Dikshitar composed his first kriti, as Vak_geya Kara, (Srinathadi guruguho jayath...) on the hills of Tiruttani (around 1809). The “Nottuswara “songs were thus the forerunners of Dikshitar’s monumental classic compositions; and Dikshitar had decided upon his signature, Mudra, quite early in his life, even before he left for Varanasi.
Among these songs, about thirteen of them were replicas of well-known European songs/tunes of those days. Dikshitar set Sanskrit words to the music of those songs. These were the songs:
|Replica of the song or the tune|
|01||Shantatam_PahimamSangita Shyamale||British National Anthem “God save the King/queen “|
|02||Vande Meenakshi||Irish melody “Limerick”|
|03||Vara shivabalam||“Castilian Maid” by Thomas Moore|
|04||Peetavarnam Bhaje||Persian verse “taza ba-taza nau ba-nau” which B. H. Palmer and Gertrude Bell made into pleasant English jingle.|
|05||Jagadeesa guruguha||“Lord MacDonald’s Reel”|
|06||Subramanyam Surasevyam||the regimental march of the Grenadiere guards, the senior foot guards regiment of the British Army-“British Grenadiere”|
|07||Kancheesam Ekambaram||“country dance”|
|08||Ramachandram Rajeevaksham||English song “Let us lead a life of Pleasure”|
|09||Sakala suravinuha||tune of “Quick March”|
|10||SakthiSahitha Ganapathim||song “Voulez Vouz Dansers”|
|11||Sowri Vidhinute||English song “oh Whistle and I will come to you, my lad.”|
|12||Kamala Vandita||Playful tune of ‘Galopede’ folk dance where men and women in two lines dance briskly|
|13||Shyamale Meenakshi||Nursery rhyme ”Twinkle twinkle little star” based on French tune Ah! Vous dirai-je|
As regards the rest of the songs composed by Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar, they were all based on the Western scale of C Major, which corresponds to the scale of Shankarabharanam of Carnatic music and Bhilaval that of Hindustani music. [The songs were not, however, in Shankarabharanam or Bhilaval per se.] These were independent works based on western notes; and were not replicas of European tunes.
All the forty or more songs were set to Tisra Eka Tala (three units) or Chaturasra Eka Tala (four units) which corresponds to ¾ and 4/4 timings of the Western Music. The range – Shruthi – of these songs is generally in middle octave.
[ Please click here for the Notu-svarams along with Notations for thirty three songs composed by Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar
The songs were written in Telugu script. The preserved manuscripts of the songs were, years later (around 1832), presented by the well-known musicians of that period Kuppaiah and Seshaiah to Charles Philip Brown (an officer of the East India Company, who did remarkable work in classical Telugu literature) while he was at Madras. They were called a collection of “Jathi_swaramulu”. It appears those songs were, at the time, used as lessons for the beginners. One of them was the popular Sanskrit song “Vara Veena Mrudu Pani” in Raga Mohanam which was converted into a Gitam. The song is practiced as Gitam by all beginners, even today.
A manuscript preserved in the Government Oriental Manuscripts Library, Chennai, labelled as Manuscript no. D. 2536 contains twenty of such songs of Dikshitar, written in Telugu script. Of these, twelve are composed in Sanskrit language and the other eight are composed in Telugu language. The Sanskrit songs which were the replicas of the European Airs carry English captions and bear the mudra as “Guruguha”.
Smt. S A K Durga, Professor Emeritus at the University of Madras, writes in the Journal of the Indian Musicological Society (January 1, 2011):
A study of the melodic content of the European airs in those composition shows that a few melodies are reels and jigs from Irish folk tunes, since in the Western band at the Collector’s Office there were Irish musicians at that time… There are some changes from the original European melodies and the melodies of Nottuswara Sahithyam compositions in European airs, for example the one in Castilian mode, a folk tune that was transcribed by Benjamin Carr (1768-1831). In his book, the composition appears notated in 3/8 meter (Carr’s musical miscellany in occasional numbers, 1812). The song in Lord McDonald’s reel, Jagadeesa Guruguha, has two sections. The original A and B lines are switched with an additional word to pick up to the first beat of the song. One finds that these compositions are not a homogenous collection of British airs but there is diversity in their melodic content from the original tunes.
These earlier compositions of Muthuswami Dikshitar also throw light on his mastery in synthesizing two different music cultures. .. His compositional attitude in worshipping the different deities at different shrines is also revealed in his Nottuswara Sahithya-s. The choice of the Sanskrit language for these compositions reveals his spirit of national integration.
Although written by Muthuswami Dikshitar in the late 18th century when he was in his teens, before he started to compose kriti-s, a few of these songs were first published as Nottuswara Sahithya in Sri Manali A.M. Chinnaswami Mudaliar’s work “Oriental Music in Staff Notation” (1893), that is nearly sixty years after Dikshitar’s death (1836) . In their first appearence in print , the songs were published without any caption. The text was printed in English, Telugu and Tamil characters.
After this, Sri Subbarama Dikshitar, the grandson/ the adopted son of Baluswami Diksihtar, published these in his Prathamabhyasa Pusthakamu in 1905. (Later, there appeared a few more publications with notation.) The book contained both theoretical and practical aspects of elementary teaching methods; and is relevant to the music field even to this day.
In this book , Sri Subbarama Dikshitar included thirty-two compositions, under the title “Nottaswara sahithyamu” with Swara-notation, as technical compositions/lessons for beginners (Abhyasagana). He did not however mention the titles of the European Airs which served as the models for some of the songs. It is likely that these songs were practiced, not as songs adopted from the Western style , but as simple Karnatak melodies composed with the scale of Sankarabharanam, without any microtonal ornamentation . During the late 19th and early 20th century, these songs meant for the beginners were taught in place of Gitam, to fameliarize the young learners with melodic movements or phrases in the scale.
Subbarama Dikshitar’s monumental compendium Sangeeta Sampradaya Pradarshini, published in 1904, also contains references to the Nottuswara Sahithya.
Some scholarly articles have been published on the subject. For instance, Prof. P. Sambamoorthy has published an article in the Journal of the Music Academy, 1951, and Dr. V. Raghavan has contributed another article on “Nottuswara sahithyam” of Muthuswami Dikshitar in 1977 in the Journal of the Music Academy . I wish these were put on the net for the benifit of a larger number of music lovers and general readers .
Chitraveena N Ravikiran remarks that while referring to the influence of Western music many talk only of his “English note” compositions; but few realize that its influence is more pervasive and is subtle. One can notice it in the way the movements of the song proceed, he says.
Continued in Part Three
Sri Dikshitar and Hindustani music
All pictures are from internet