Galaxy of Composers


  By Dr. P P Narayanaswami


Oothukkadu is a sleepy village on the northern bank of the river Vettar (a branch of the sacred Kaveri), located in the Papanasam Taluk of Tanjavur district, about 13 kilometres south of Kumbhakonam. This place is well-known for the legendary Bhagavata mela tradition of dance-drama. But more than that, it is famous for the svayambhu vigraham (self-manifested idol) of Kalinga-nartana, the child Krishna dancing on the fierce head of the gigantic black serpent, Kaliya. The temple's utsava moorti, a four-feet idol of Krishna in the Kalinga-nartana pose, holding the serpent's tail in his left hand, is a sculptural masterpiece. The left foot appears to rest on the hood of the serpent, but there is a slight gap between the two, and the entire weight of the idol is on the tail, casually held in a playful mood by Lord Krishna. It is to this dancing Krishna that the famous musician, composer and poet Venkatasubbayyar poured all his infinite devotion and dedication, through his great musical compositions, in simple Tamil, as well as in lofty Sanskrit. Who has not heard his famous dance piece Taye yasoda in Todi or his Alaippayude in Kanada!

Oothukkadu Venkatasubbayyar or Venkata Kavi as he is popularly known, is believed to have lived during the pre-Trinity days (some fifty years prior to Tyagaraja) in early 18th century. Some musicologists estimate his period to be between 1700 and 1765. He is said to have been born in the Tamil month of Avani (mid-August to mid-September) on the day of makha nakshatram (star), in the temple town of Mannargudi, a town famous for the temple of Rajagopala. Mannargudi was also an active centre for Vaishnava philosophy then. He was the second son of Ramachandra Vathoolar and Kamalanayani Ammal. After a brief stay in the nearby village of Needamangalam, he moved to his permanent location, Oothukkadu. 

Venkatasubbayyar seems to have chosen to remain in complete isolation (but always in the company of Lord Krishna), and therefore, accurate details relating his life are not available. However, legend has it that as a young boy, he craved for musical knowledge. He was not fortunate enough to find an proper guru to guide him though. After some basic training under Pooranoor Natesa Bhagavatar, and fascinated by the music of one Sri Krishna Yogi, he hoped to study under him. But the Yogi would not accept him as a disciple. His own elder brother, Kattu Krishna Iyer, who was a musician in the court of Tanjavur, was not willing to teach him. Disappointed, and at the advice of his mother, he started praying and singing in the presence of his chosen deity, Lord Krishna, accepting him as his manaseeka guru (guide and role model).

It is believed that a miracle happened one day. A child covered with dust appeared and sat on his lap, and would not leave. At the same time, divine music through a flute was heard, and Venkata Kavi became so absorbed in it that he fell unconscious. When he woke up, he saw Balakrishna (the child Krishna) standing in front of him and blessing him. He immediately disappeared. Venkata Kavi then felt an immediate transformation in himself and started composing. From this point onward, he sang only in the presence of this particular deity, and is believed to have experienced many such visual and aural manifestations of Lord Krishna. He gave expression to his intense devotion through a large number of songs. No wonder, his music and compositions are filled with saguna bhakti. His narration in a simple style, of the devotion underlying the love between Radha and Krishna reminds us of similar works by Jayadeva and Narayana Teertha. But unlike these composers, Venkata Kavi was not caught up in bridal mysticism. This is all the more remarkable since he remained a life-long celibate, and spent his entire life in pure devotion to God.

Most of his compositions are dance-oriented, and contain plenty of solkattu jati-s, and madhyamakala passages. He was a master of intricate rhythmic patterns. His usage of rhythmic syllables for the Kalinga-nartana dance is superb, and rivals the cosmic Ananda tandavam of Lord Siva himself! His compositions are well suited for concerts, bhajans and dance. The combination of swara, sahitya and jati he employed is most fascinating and many of his songs have intervening passages in double speed as embellishments.

Being reclusive by nature, he did not accept disciples nor did he sing in public. In fact, he went so far as to sing only at nights so as to not be heard by anybody, but the Lord. Thus, only a meagre amount of the vast number of his compositions have come down to us, and even many of those remain relatively unknown. Moreover, he never used any mudra to identify his compositions. Only one of his kritis, Sankari srirajarajeswari in Madhyamavati, the 8th Navavaranam, contains a reference to 'Venkata Kavi'. This shows that he was a man who didn't particularly care for name or fame. 

It is nevertheless heartening to note that even the little we have today still amount to a decent number, thanks to his contemporaries, who recorded them diligently. For instance, the popular kriti Taye yasoda was secretly written down by one Rudra Pasupati Pillai, a Nagaswara vidwan of Tanjavur, who was fascinated when he chanced to hear Venkata Kavi's music. Of the thousands of pieces he composed, perhaps around 300 are available today. This was primarily due to the efforts of his elder brother Kattu Krishna Iyer, and his sons, who wrote down his songs in palm-leaf manuscripts. These have been preserved by the successors in his family. The repertoire include kritis, tillanas, slokas, laalis, jatis and viruttams. In addition, he has to his credit a few books, Rudra Sabdam, Nandana Geetam, Kalinga-nartana Prabhavam, Rajagopala nirtyotsavam and Sri Krishna Ganam, the last one being a translation and commentary on the original Bhagavatam. A part of this work is in the kriti style, known as Rasapadam.

The very first song he composed was Idu oru in raga Begada. The songs Taye yasoda (Todi), Nandagopala (Abheri), Neerajasama neelakrishna (Jayantasri), Madhura madhura (Atana), Marakathamanimaya (Arabhi) etc are all favourite dance pieces, the especially finding favour with Kuchipudi dancers. Venkata Kavi has also composed seven ragamalikas (all in Tamil), and three tillanas (Surati, Sindhubhairavi, Pooranimai).

The Kamakshi Navavaranam-s:

Venkata Kavi is believed to have been the first ever to compose Navavarana kritis. The set of nine songs he dedicated to Goddess Kamakshi of Kanchipuram, called the Kamakshi Navavaranam, is definitely a masterpiece. Perhaps, Muttuswami Dikshitar was inspired by this, and composed his own Kamalamba Navavaranam on the presiding deity of his birthplace, Tiruvarur. While Dikshitar chose ghana ragas for his work, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi has chosen rakti ragas. Here one finds several unusual talas like Khanda Triputa, Khanda Dhruva and Khanda Matya. Each Avarana kriti also contains the name of the individual chakra (sacred geometrical shapes), the associated mudra (hand gestures), the yoginis and the presideing deities. It is interesting to note that the phrase 'guruguha' appears in three of  the Avarana-s, and one wonders whether Dikshitar chose this signature, inspired by the Oothukkadu Kavi. In the Mangala kriti line, HaladharAnujaM prAptuM vayam AgatAH, dEhi dEvi shrI akhilANDEshvari guruguha jananI, he expressly mentions that he stands in front of Goddess Akhilandeswari, to enhance his devotion towards Lord Krishna! It is believed that in Mannargudi, the deity, known as Srividya-Rajagopala, has been placed over the Srichakra. One finds the same reference echoed in the Dikshitar kriti, Srividya Rajagopalam (Jaganmohanam). The Navavarana kritis set comprises:

Kriti Raga Tala Chakra Remarks
Sriganeshwara Shanmukhapriya Adi


Invocatory piece on Lord Ganesha
Vanchasi yadi kusalam Kalyani Adi


Dhyana kriti
Santatam aham seve Desakshi Adi Trailokya mohana 1st Avarana
Bhajasva sritripurasundari Nadanamakriya Adi Sarvasha paripooraka 2nd Avarana
Sarvajeeva dayapari Suddhasaveri Misra Chapu Sarvasamkshobhana 3rd Avarana
Yogayogeswari Anandabhairavi Khanda Triputa Sarvasowbhagya dayaka 4th Avarana
Neelalohitaramani Balahamsa Khanda Dhruva Sarvartha sadhaka 5th Avarana
Sadanandamayi Hindolam Khanda Matya Sarvaraskhakara 6th Avarana
Sakalaloka nayike Arabhi Adi Sarva rogahara 7th Avarana
Sankari srirajarajeswari Madhyamavati Adi Sarvasiddhi pradayaka 8th Avarana
Natajana kalpavalli Punnagavarali Adi Sarvanandamaya 9th Avarana
Haladharanujam Manirangu Adi


Mangala kriti

Generally, Venkata Kavi seems to have preferred rakti ragas and simple ones derived from folk melodies. One also finds rare ragas like Malavi, Umabharanam, Deeparam and Pooranimai (a raga found in Tamil writings), used effortlessly and elegantly in his compositions. However, raga Madhyamavati seems to have been his favorite, with at least 11 compositions. He has 8 each in Neelambari, Todi, Surati and Arabhi, followed by 7 each is Khamas and Kalyani, and fewer in a wide range of ragas numbering as large as 80. 

Sentiments and emotions find a totally different expression at his hands and one sees imagination of the highest order. For example, in the Pallavi of the song, Pullaippiravi in raga Jhunjooti, he asks the Lord to first grant him birth as a blade of grass in Brindavanam so that he can eternally enjoy the presence of Krishna. In the Anupallavi of the same song, he however changes his mind and asks the Lord to grant him birth as a stone, as the life of the blade of grass is too short!

Needamangalam Krishnamurti Bhagavatar made significant efforts to popularise Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi's compositions. In the 1950s, he gave several lecture-demonstrations, to illustrate the beauty of these compositions, and published the book Sri Krishna Ganam in two volumes with about fifty songs. The Kamakshi Navavaranam, published by the family members of the late Needamangalam Krishnamurti Bhagavatar is also now available in book form. Thanks to such efforts, Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi's kritis are today becoming increasingly popular and have found place in concerts and dance performances. Several commercial recordings by artistes of repute are also available.

Here is a select list of Oothukkadu Venkatasubbayyar's compositions:

Title Raga Tala
Asaindadum Simhedramadhyamam Adi
Alaippayude Kanada Adi
Aparam na janami Kapi Khanda Chapu
Atinirupama Pantuvarali Adi, Tisra gati
Abalabala Kedaram Adi
Adadu asangadu Madhyamavati Adi
Adumvarai avar adattum Huseni Roopaka
Anandanartana ganapatim Nata Adi
Brindavana nilaye Reetigowla Adi
Balasarasa murali Keeravani Adi
Ennapunniyam Reetigowla Adi
Ennattai sonnalum Vachaspati Misra Chapu
Eppadittan en ullam Neelambari Adi
Gitarasike Kalyani Adi
Gopakumara Atana Adi
Kshanamevaganya Bhoopalam/Bowli Adi
Kannallavo Surati Adi
Kannan varuhinra neram (Kavadi Chindu) Folk tune Adi, Tisra gati
Kalyanarama Hamsanadam Adi
Kuzhaloodi Kambhoji Adi
Maninoopura Neelambari Adi
Madananga mohana Khamas Adi
Madhura madhura Atana Adi
Marakatha manimaya Arabhi Adi
Muddukrishna Jhunjooti Adi
Munseida tavappayan Revagupti Adi
Nadamuraligana Kalyani Adi
Nan ennatavam Khamas Adi
Needan mecchikolla vendum Sriranjani Adi
Neelamalar kola Vasanta Adi
Neelavanam Punnagavarali Adi
Neerajasama neelakrishna Jayantasri Adi, Tisra gati
Natavarataruni Kannadagowla Adi
Nandagopala Abheri Adi
Padmavati ramanam Poorvikalyani Misra Chapu
Palvadiyum mukham Natakurinji Adi
Parvai onre podume Surati Adi
Pranavakaram Arabhi Adi
Pullai piravi Jhunjooti Adi
Ranganathamanisam Gambheeranata Adi
Rasika mahottama Charukesi Misra Chapu
Senruva nee Ragamalika Adi
Sonnal ozhiyamanam Kannada Adi
Swagatam krishna Mohanam Adi, Tisra gati
Srivighnarajam bhaje Gambheeranata Khanda Chapu
Sweeyatara (Ranganatha panchakam) Ragamalika Khanda gati
Taye yasoda Todi Adi
Uyarndu uyarndu Devamanohari Adi
Vandenanda soonum Kannada Maruva Adi
Varamonru Shanmukhapriya Adi
Vasudevaya namonamaste Sahana Adi
Venuganaramana Todi Misra Chapu
Vandadum ponadum Bilahari Adi
Vandadu ketparillayo Ragamalika Adi
Vellinilavinile Atana Roopaka
Yarenna sonnalum Manirangu Adi
Yettanai kettalum Bhairavi Adi

Posted on 22nd October 2001 as part of the Navaratri 2001 Special

Related links: More about Oothukkadu Venkatasubbayyar
                     An article on Oothukkadu Venkatasubbayyar by Chitravina N Ravikiran
                     Navaratri 2001
                     Other composers