Galaxy of Composers



Navaratri 2001 features the Navavaranams of Oothukkadu Venkatasubbayyar or Venkata Kavi as he is popularly known. Chitravina N Ravikiran presents a passionate article, giving us a glimpse of the different facets of the composer and his works.
In the galaxy of all-time great vaggeyakaras of Carnatic music, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi will always find a place as a shining star.  He is said to have lived between the period of Purandaradasa-Annamacharya and the Trinity, and his date is placed roughly  between 1700-1765. (There are a few who are trying to verify this further at this point in time, but until definite proof is established,  we can take this date as the conventional one). Venkata Kavi was a great personality, an innovator who contributed a lot to  Carnatic music.   

He was a complete master of music in all senses of the term, having total command over melody, rhythm and lyrics besides being fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil. He was proficient in a variety of musical forms such as kriti, javali, tillana and kavadi chindu. He also composed several types of kritis apart from the usual style of pallavi, anupallavi and charanam with the tune of the last few lines coinciding with that of the anupallavi. In Venkata Kavi's compositions, we find several songs with madhyama kala passages, some  with more than one charana but with the same tune, others with multiple charanas in different tunes, some with just a samashti charana, some with gati bhedam and so on. He used talas and themes that few other Carnatic composers have used before or since.

It is hardly surprising that Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi, also referred to as Oothukkadu Venkatasubbayyar accomplished so much. Legend has it that he had his musical insights from Lord Krishna himself, in the Kalinga Nartana temple in Oothukkadu, which was then known as Dhenusvasapuram.

Early years:   

Venkata Kavi was born to Ramachandran and Kamalanarayani and was very interested in music and culture from a very early age. His brother Krishna Iyer had already established himself as a wonderful singer and won rewards from the King of Tanjavur. Legend has it that Venkata Kavi was very keen on learning music formally and approached Krishna yogi, a great artiste of his times. But when Krishna yogi declined to teach him for reasons best known to himself, a disappointed Venkata Kavi went back home, where he was advised to seek the grace of the Lord Himself. The intensity of his prayers were answered by the Lord. Venkata Kavi’s own words lend credence to this fact in his Sriranjani piece, ‘Guru padaravinda komalam ennul kondapode kolahalam’. In the anupallavi, he declares:

Paramayogayagam vedam padittilen
Padittadu pol nadittilen
Parvai onrile vilainda bhagyamidu
Yarkkumidu aridanadu parimala sad (guru padaravinda komalam)

Meaning: "I have never studied the scriptures or yoga nor pretended to have done so. I received my whole fortune in the benevolent  glance of my guru."

Venkata Kavi composed at least 14 songs only on the greatness of Guru. A few of them seem to suggest that he may also have had another human guru. However, external information on this aspect is not readily available at this point in time.


The greatest evidence of his musical pedigree is his compositions. His works reveal his high quality musicianship. There are several references to good musical approach, practices and even technical terms of ornamentation like aahatam and pratyaagatam. Venkata Kavi believed that music had to be blended with bhakti in order to shine. His theme ‘Bhakti yoga sangeeta margame paramapavanamahume’ is exactly seen in the work of another great composer, Tyagaraja in his ‘Sangeeta gnanamu bhakti vina  sanmargamu galade’. Need more be said of great minds thinking alike? Venkata Kavi’s works reflect his philosophy; they are an  ideal combination of music, devotion, intellect and a soul that was in a state of spiritual bliss.

It will be best to study every facet of his musicianship separately - melody, rhythm, lyrics, themes etc, but then, volumes can be written about each one of them. Let me attempt to give a glimpse…


Venkata Kavi had a vast knowledge of music and musical nuances. He used a wide variety of ragas ranging from the well known ones such as Todi, Kalyani, Kharaharapriya, Sahana; minor ones like Kannadagowla, Jayantasri, Malavi, Umabharanam, and also a few that are seldom used today, like Balahamsa and Rasamanjari. In some instances, his works are the first or only ones to be available in a given raga. Examples: Sri Shivanayike in Lalitagandharvam and Padasevanam in Deeparam.   

His vision of the individual raga and melody as a whole is considerable and can be seen in the number of different styles in which he  composed various kritis in the same raga. For instance, his kritis in Madhyamavati - Sankari, Sundara nandakumara, Aadadu asangadu vaa Kanna - bring out different facets of this beautiful raga. He also employed attractive swarakshara-s, a technique where the lyrics match the solfa notes of the tune.


Venkata Kavi’s command over rhythm has been without precedent and has not yet been surpassed. He made complex eduppu-s (starting or landing points of various sections of a composition) seem like child’s play and used them naturally, without ever affecting the flow of the music or the lyrics. His handling of talas like Khanda Dhruva, Sankeerna Matya and Khanda Triputa would leave even seasoned musicians and scholars awe-struck. Again, he has made the talas look as simple as say, Adi or Roopaka, which only a genius of the highest order can do.

Lyrical felicity: 

Venkata Kavi’s class in Sanskrit or Tamil is in a league of its own. His remarkable Niagara-like flow and choice of words that are music to the ears even when rendered without melody, often conceals his deep scholarship. Only when one attempts to study them a little closely can one even begin to grasp his greatness in this area. His vocabulary obviously was stupendous as can been seen from the words and phrases he has used but are hardly otherwise found in Carnatic literature. Sanskrit scholars have been left scampering for the best dictionaries and thesauruses. They have found uncommon words and even common ones like ‘bhaja’ used in several novel contexts.

Venkata Kavi was a man with a penchant for details. His expression was so facile that every song came alive with whatever theme  he touched. His works transport us to wherever he wants us to be, not merely because of a colourful imagination, but also because  of his ability to describe even minor details. For instance, in his kriti ‘Ranganatham anisam’ in Gambheeranata, he talks of the Lord  of Srirangam being situated between two rivers while most other compositions only mention the banks of Kaveri. In another kriti,  ‘Gajamukhanujam’, he talks of the kunkuma (vermillon mark) in the centre of Lord Subramanya’s ash-lined forehead.

Taking another popular example, we can visualise the scene vividly in his Taye yasoda (Todi), where the Gopis are complaining to  Yasoda about her son Lord Krishna. This song actually has 8 charanams and each one abounds in description of the humourous pranks that make us smile at Krishna. Incredibly, there is a superb reply by the Lord to every one of these charges in another piece  by Venkata Kavi in Mohanam, ‘Illai illai’. This song also has 8 charanams.


Venkata Kavi has composed on a wide range of themes. Most people are familiar with some of his works on Lord Krishna  but he has composed with equal felicity on other deities as well, such as Vinayaka, Tyagaraja (of Tiruvarur), Kamakshi, Rama, Kartikeya, Narasimha, Anjaneya, Ranganatha, and also on Soorya, Radha and other such important mythological characters. He  has composed on great people such as Suka Brahma rishi, Jayadeva and Valmiki. Besides, he has composed several songs on the greatness of Guru, and general philosophy and approach to God. His works contain references to Azhwars, Nayanmars, Ramanuja, Tulasidasa and many other greats, which reveal not merely his knowledge of their works and contributions but also his high reverence towards them.


Venkata Kavi seems to have composed an entire opera narrating Krishna’s birth and childhood, beginning from Devaki-Vasudeva’s  wedding and Kamsa’s curse. I have not been able to ascertain if these stories go on further after Krishna’s childhood. But there  are separate group songs describing Krishna’s wedding with Rukmini and another group covering his marriage with Radha.

There is a set of songs narrating the story on Lord Rama’s childhood starting from Dasharatha’s Putrakameshti yagna to Rama’s  trip with Vishwamitra. Each song is so vivid and the description of the demoness Tataka alone is worth the whole read!! There is  also another lovely ragamalika piece ‘Sri Rama jayame jayam’ which covers the whole Ramayana.

There is no doubt that Venkata Kavi was well versed in Bhagavatam, Ramayanam and several other minor stories, and his deep knowledge comes to the fore in many kritis as he covers a great many episodes, many of them hardly referred to by other composers, with effortless ease and natural felicity.

Group compositions: 

Venkata Kavi has also composed several group kritis like Saptaratnas, Kamakshi Navavaranam, and Anjaneya Pancharatnas. Besides, he has composed several slokas like Madhava panchakam, Nrsimha panchakam, Ranganatha Panchakam and so on.

His Saptaratnas are similar to Tyagaraja’s Pancharatnas in musical structure. They have pallavi, anupallavi and a set of madhyamakala charanas which can be rendered as swaras and lyrics. The 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th songs have an anchor charanam like Samayaniki in Sadhinchane. Sometimes, it is not the first line of the charanam but the 3rd line that is the anchor and Venkata Kavi has set the landing points in several complex ways, which again offer proof of his rhythmic skills. The Saptaratnas are:

  • Bhajanamrta (Nata): This is in a superb theme exactly like Tyagaraja’s Endaro Mahanubhavulu. The Kavi mentions several great people like Anjaneya, Prahlada, Azhwars, Nayanmars and so on. Interestingly, Purandaradasa and Tulasidasa are also mentioned. The references to Tulasidasa is of special significance in several ways as it shows that his fame transcended regional borders even then. It also reflects Venkata Kavi's awareness and regard for scholars of other regions. (He has composed whole songs on Valmiki and Jayadeva). This piece is proof of the fact that Venkata Kavi lived after Tulasidasa.

  • Aganitamahima (Gowla): A beautiful piece on Lord Vishnu. This composition has 8 charanams in all, including an anchor charanam beginning with the words ‘Namo namaste’ with small variations in not only melody but also lyrics in each of its sangatis. The final madhyamakala charanam has 6 cycles. It brings to fore Venkata Kavi’s deep knowledge of epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata through his mention of comparatively rare personalities such as Nahusha, Bhoorishena, Pippilada, Rantideva etc.

  • Madhava hrdi khelini (Kalyani): Venkata Kavi was probably the only Carnatic composer to compose on Radha (like Tyagaraja on Sita). He has composed several pieces on Radha including a group of songs describing Radha’s wedding with Krishna. In this piece, he uses a lovely expression sarasa rasa rasane’. The piece is scholarly yet charming.

  • Balasarasa murali (Keeravani): A lovely work about Krishna's music. Venkata Kavi exclaims, "Balasarasa murali sudharasa bhava madhura lahari vihara" (Oh, one who resides in the lovely waves of ambrosia that the music from the flute is!), and here he has mentioned about gamakas like Aahatam and Pratyaagatam.

  • Jatadhara (Todi): This piece is on Lord Siva and has 7 charanams including an anchor charanam. (Most publications by Needamangalam Krishnamurti Bhagavatar's family only have the anchor plus 4 charanams but I recently found 2 more in the notations in the Bhagavatar’s handwritten notebook). Venkata Kavi reveals his mastery over epics and mentions Shiva’s casual play with Arjuna when he appeared as a hunter before bestowing him the Pashupatastra.

  • Alavadennalo (Paras): This is a remarkable piece for many reasons. It is again on Siva but composed in lovely Tamil, making it the only Tamil song in the Saptaratna set. It mentions all of 63 Nayanmars in the madhyamakala charanams! These are set around the main charanam line, "Innavaril oruvaraippole". The theme is, "Let me be free of births but IF I am born, may it be like one of these 63." The pallavi is another illustration of his humility where he wonders when he can be at least Siva’s slaves’ slaves’ slave (adiyarukku-adiyarukku-adiyanai)!

  • Sundara Nandakumara (Madhyamavati): A superb theme where each charana offers the 8 main pooja things like Arghyam, Deepam, Tamboolam etc. It is quite possible that this kriti was part of his daily worship.

Navavaranam-s: Venkata Kavi’s Navavaranams abound in Srividya Upasana aspects and show his scholarship in no small measure. Apart from the main 9 songs for the nine nights, he has composed a Vinayaka stuti, Dhyana stuti and a Phala stuti too. There are several similarities (and differences) between his Navavaranam-s and that of Dikshitar but both reveal the composers’ scholarship in the mantric and tantric aspects of Devi worship. The Navavaranam-s are: 

Title Raga Tala Remarks
Sri Ganeshwara Shanmukhapriya Adi Vinayaka stuti
Vachasi yadi kusalam Kalyani Adi Dhyana stuti
Santatam aham Desakshi Adi 1st Avarana
Bhajasva sritripurasundari Nadanamakriya Adi 2nd Avarana
Sarvajeeva dayapari Suddhasaveri Misra Chapu 3rd Avarana
Yogayogeswari Anandabhairavi Khanda Triputa (2-kalai) 4th Avarana
Neelalohita ramani Balahamsa Khanda Dhurva (2-kalai) 5th Avarana
Sadanandamayi Hindolam Sankeerna Matya 6th Avarana
Sakalaloka nayike Arabhi Adi 7th Avarana
Sankari srirajarajeswari Madhyamavati Adi 8th Avarana
Natajana kalpavalli Punnagavarali Adi 9th Avarana

There is also another song in Surati, Srichakra matangi, which some people feel is the 9th avarana, but I think that the Punnagavarali is much more probable between the two and that the Surati was probably a mangala kriti. They have also listed another  kriti Haladharanujam (Manirangu, Adi) as the mangala kriti.   

As seen from above, Venkata Kavi has revealed more proof of his vidwat in talas like Khanda Dhruva, Sankeerna Matya and Khanda Triputa. The 4th avarana in Anandabhairavi has a madhyamakala passage, where he has evenly split the 9-beat tala into 4 equal  parts of 2 1/4th units each. The 5th avarana in Balahamsa is, in my opinion, the weightiest piece of this group, set in a majestic  gait in the 17- akshara tala, and has 2 superb madhyamakala passages. The 8th avarana in Madhyamavati has been set in 2 gatis – Chaturasra and Tisra. 


Probably even more amazing than all of the above is Venkata Kavi’s mental state. His works reveal his almost consistent  high state of bliss, which no ordinary person can easily achieve. His works scarcely contain any autobiographical sob stories and show  that he had reached tremendous spiritual and philosophical heights. His works also reveal the proximity he felt towards God and  show his deep bhakti (a blend of devotion and love). All in all, Venkata Kavi was a great man who stands immortal through his genius. 


Posted on 18th October 2001


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