My friend Shri DSampath posted a delightful blog weaving the Ramayana tale with colourful strands of lines of great charm set in catchy tunes, chosen from popular Hindi movie songs. It was enterprising and highly entertaining too. Naturally, the blog was well received and was hugely popular. I enjoyed the sparkle of wit and wisdom.
That set me to think about Ramayana and music.
After the Music of Sama comes the singing of Akhyana or ballads, narrating a story in musical forms. Of all the Akhyana-s, the Ramayana of the Adi Kavi Valmiki is the most celebrated one. It is a divine ballad (Akhyanam Divyam) narrating history of ancient times (Itihasam puratanam).
It is believed; the Ramayana had its origins in folk lore; and was preserved and spread as an oral epic (Akhyana), for a very long-time. It is suggested that poet Valmiki rendered the folk lore into a very beautiful, sensitive and lyrical epic poem by about 7th century BCE. Thereafter, in age after age, the Suthas narrated and sang the glory of Rama and Sita, in divine fervour; and spread the epic to all corners of the land and beyond. Even to this day , the tradition of devote groups of listeners gathering around a Sutha to listen to the ancient story of chaste love between Rama and his beloved, and their unwavering adherence to Dharma amidst their trials and tribulations; is still very alive. What characterize the Dharma in Ramayana are its innocence, purity and nobility. The Indian people prefer listening with joy, the rendering of Ramayana as musical discourse, to reading the epic themselves.
Ramayana of Valmiki is a renowned Kavya, an Epic poem in classic style. It is also the Adi-Kavya, the premier Kavya; the most excellent among the Kavyas (Kavyanam uttamam); and, the best in all the three worlds (Adikavyam triloke).
The Epic of Valmiki is at the very core of Indian consciousness; and is lovingly addressed variously as: Sitayasya-charitam-mahat; Rama-charitam; Raghuvira-charitam; Rama-vrttam; Rama-katha; and Raghu-vamsa-charitam.
The Great scholar-philosopher Abhinavgupta (Ca.11th century) hailed Valmiki as Rasa Rishi one who created an almost perfect epic poem adorned with the poetic virtues of Rasa, Soundarya (beauty of poetic imagery) and Vishadya (lucid expression and comfortable communication with the reader) ; all charged and brought to life by Prathibha , the ever fresh intuition.
Ramayana is more closely associated with music than other epics. That might be because Ramayana is rendered in verse; and, its poetry of abiding beauty melts into music like molten gold, with grace and felicity. Further, the epic has a certain lyrical lustre to it. The epic itself mentions that the Rama tale was rendered in song by two minstrels Kusi and Lava to the accompaniment of Veena, Tantri- laya-samanvitam (I.20.10), during the Asvamedha.
There are innumerable references to Music in Ramayana. Music was played for entertainment and in celebration at the weddings and other auspicious occasions; (II.7.416-36; 48.41.69; III.3, 17; 6.8; IV 38.13; V.53.17; VI.11.9; 24.3; 75.21 etc.) . Music was also played in palaces and liquor parlours (IV 33.21; V.6.12; X.32; 37.11.4; Vi.10.4). Soulful songs were sung to the accompaniment of instruments, at religious services and in dramas. Music was played in the festivities; to welcome and see off the guests. The warriors fighting on the battlefield were lustily cheered and enthused by stout drum beats; and piercing blow of conches, horns and trumpets. There is also mention of those who took to music as a profession. Besides, there were court (state) sponsored musicians. Music was thus a part of social fabric of the society as described in Ramayana.
There are numerous events narrated in Ramayana where Music was sung or played. The word Samgita in Ramayana is a composite term covering Gana (vocal), Vadya (instrumental) and Nritya (dance). Samgita or Music was referred to as Gandharva-vidya. There is also a mention of Karna sung to the accompaniment of Veena (R. VII. 71.5). Samgita was also Kausika (kaisika) the art of singing and dancing (gana-nrtya-vidya), the art of singing and dancing in groups (kausika-charya) to the accompaniment of instruments.
:- The Apsaras danced to the songs of Gandharvas, such as Narada the king of Gandharvas (Gandharva-rajanah), Tumbura, Gopa, Gargya, Sudhama, Parvata, and Suryamandala (R.VI .92.10). Tumbura sang in divine Taana (divya-taaneshu).
: – And, in the hermitage of Rishyasrnga the girls sent by King Lomapada sang and danced (R.I .9.6).
: – Sri Rama himself is said to have been proficient in Music (Gandharve Ca bhuvi Sresthah).
: – As Lakshmana enters the inner court of the Vanara King Sugriva, he hears singing and ravishing strains of the music of the Veena and other string instruments.
: – As Hanuman flew over the sea towards Lanka he heard a group of musicians singing sons (kausika-charya).
:-Hanuman while wandering at night through the inner courts of Lanka heard songs adorned with Tristhana and Svara; and, the songs had regular Taala (sama-taala) and aksara (words) – (R.V.2.6). Hanuman sees there various musical instruments – Mridanga, Pataha, Venu, and Vipanchi and so on. He also sees a lady of the court , tired and asleep, clutching to her Veena like a cluster of lotuses entwining a boat moored on the banks of a stream.
: – Sundara Kanda mentions that Ravana was a reputed Saman singer; and music was played in his palace. He, in fact, suggests to Sita, she could relax a bit listening to music in his palace, instead sitting tensely under the tree.
:- It is said Ravana was a well known player of Veena called Ravana-hastaka (an instrument played with a bow).He compared the battlefield to a music stage; bow (weapon for firing arrows) to his Veena; arrow to his musical bow; and the tumultuous noise of the battle to music ( R. VI: 24:43-44).
Ramayana is not a thesis on music; it is an epic poem rendering the story of chaste love between a husband and his wife. The music or whatever elements mentioned therein is incidental to the narration of the story. And, yet, Valmiki accorded importance to music and elements of music in his work. He crafted situations where music could be introduced naturally. More importantly, his verses have a very high lyrical quality; and, can be rendered into music quite easily. All these speak of Valmiki’s love for music and his aesthetic refinement.
Many Music-terms are mentioned in Ramayana, indicating the state of Music obtaining during the time of its composition – (not necessarily during the event-period).
:- Valmiki mentions that Kusi–Lava sang in Marga style – Marga-vidhana-sampada – (R. I.4.35); in seven melodic modes called Jatis (jatibhih saptabhir) that were pure (shuddha) – (R. I.4.8 ).
:- Valmiki endorsed use of sweet sounding words, with simple and light syllables; and advises against harsh words loaded with heavy syllables (R. IV.33.21).
: – The music of Kusi-Lava was Baddha, structured into stanzas – with apt rhythm (laya), tempo (sthana) and words (Pada)- (R.I.4.8).
:- Valmiki mentions, Kusi-Lava were familiar with Murchana and Tri- Sthana; as also with the rhythmic patterns – Laya, Yati – in three-speeds. Tri-Sthana might either refer to three voice registers (Mandra, Madhyama and Tara) or three tempos (Vilamba, Madhyama and Druta).
: – Lava and Kusi were said not to fall away from Raga. Here, the term Raga is said to mean sweetness of voice (kanta-madhurya).
Here are some terms that might need short explanation:
: – Marga or Gandharva is regarded the music fit for gods. It is said to have been derived from Sama Veda; and constituted of Pada (the text), Svara (notes) and Taala (rhythm).Marga was rather sombre and not quite flexible too. Marga or Gandharva in the later centuries gave place to free flowing Desi the Music derived from the folk and the regions.
:- Baddha is a song format that is well structured into stanzas – with apt rhythm (laya), tempo (sthana) and words (Pada). It contrasts with Anibaddha unstructured Music without restrictions of Taala. It is analogous to the present-day Aalap, and rendering of Ragamalika, Slokas etc. The Baddha – Anibaddha distinction is observed even today, just as in Valmiki’s time.
: – Grama (group) was the basic gamut of notes employed in the early music-tradition. The ancient tradition is said to have employed three Grama-s , beginning from Shadja, Madhyama, or Gandhara note. Later, the third Grama, based on Gandhara reportedly went out of vogue as it required moving in a usually high range of notes.
: – Jati refers to the classification of musical compositions as per the tones. Svaras and Jatis were seven primary notes such as Shadja, Rshabha etc of the octaves – patya-jati. Ana is said to be a drag note generally called ekasruti.
It means Kusi Lava rendered the verses in several melodies. However, since the raga concept was, then, yet to be evolved, there might not have been much depth and variation in their rendering.
:- Murchhana was the ancient mode of extending available tonal frameworks by commencing ascents and descents, ranging over (purna) seven notes, every time from a new note. This mode gave place to the Mela system around the 15th -16th century.
Valmiki’s Ramayana mentions varieties of musical instruments. The term Atodhya denoted instrumental music. The musical instruments, of the time, were categorized, broadly, as those played by hand (hastha-vadya); and as those played by mouth (mukha- vadya) (R. II.65.2). The string and percussion instruments came under the former category; while the wind instruments were among the latter category. Instrumental Music was primarily individualistic; not orchestrated. It appears instruments were used mainly as accompaniments (not solo) and depended on vocal music. Group music- vocal with instruments –appeared to be popular.
Among the string instruments, Ramayana mentions two kinds of Veena: Vipanchi (fingerboard plucked ones with nine strings like the Veena as we know) ;Vana or Vallaki (a multi stringed harp); and, Kanda-Veena (made by joining reeds). In fact, till about 19th century, string instruments of all kinds were called Veena: harps like the Chitra; fingerboard plucked ones like the Vipanchi, Rudra Veena, the Saraswati Veena and the Kacchapi Veena; bowed ones such as the Ravana hastaveena and the Pinaki Veena.
As regards the percussion instruments, the Epic refers to quite a large number of them: Mrudanga; Panava (a kind of Mridanga which had a hole in the middle with strings were laid from one side to another); Aataha; Madduka ( a big drum of two faces having twelve and thirteen angula- finger lengths ); Dundubhi (Nagaara); Dindima (resembling Damaru but smaller in size); Muraja (a a bifacial drum, the left one of eight fingers and right one of seven fingers); Adambara ( a sort of kettle drum made of Udambara wood); Bheri (two faced metal drum in a conical shape , the leather kept taut by strings; the right face was struck by a kona and the left one by hand, striking terror in the heart of the enemy ); Pataha (resembling Dholak); and Dundubhi (drums made of hollow wood covered with hide) played during wedding ceremonies as also for welcoming the winning-warriors . Gargara was another drum used during the wars. All these were leather or leather bound instruments. They were played with metal or wooden drum-sticks with their ends wrapped in leather.
There is also a mention of Bhumi –Dundubhi where the lower part of a huge drum is buried in a pit while the exposed upper part covered with animal hide is beaten with big sized metal or wooden drum-sticks to produce loud booming sounds. It was played during battles to arouse the warriors; to celebrate victory; or in dire emergency. Bhumi –Dundubhi was also played at the time of final offering (Purna-Ahuthi) at the conclusion of a Yajna.
The other instruments to keep rhythm (Taala) were: Ghatam and cymbals. Aghathi was a sort of cymbal used while dancing.
The instruments played by mouth (mukha- vadya) , that is the wind instruments, mentioned in Ramayayana include : Venu or Vamsa (flute) , Shankha ( conch) blown on auspicious occasions and at the time of wars ; Tundava ( wind instrument made of wood); Singa ( a small blower made of deer horns to produce sharp and loud sounds); and, kahale or Rana-bheri (long curved war- trumpet). The flute was also used for maintaining Aadhara- Sruthi (fundamental note). [Tambura or Tanpura did not come into use till about 15th-16th century.]
State of Music
It is evident that during the period in which Ramayana was composed (say 7th century BC) , the Music was fairly well developed ; and the basic concepts were, in place. However, a full-fledged musicology and elaborate theories on music were yet to develop. Marga system was prevalent; and, Desi with its Ragas was yet centuries away.
Singing well known texts of poetry, in public, appeared to be the standard practice. Instruments were used for accompaniment and not for solo performances. Group singing with instrumental support appeared to be popular. Music was very much a part of the social and personal life.
Ramayanadalli Sangita (Kannada) by Dr. R Satyanarayana
Telling a Ramayana
Music of India
Glossary of music terms
The Music and Musical Instruments of North Eastern India by Dilip Ranjan Barthakur
Painting by Shri S Rajam