Everyone familiar with Carnatic music knows the raga Mayamalavagaula for obvious reasons like the Sarali Varisai (beginners’ lessons being first taught in this raga) and several tremendously popular kritis and varnams. This raga is also popular in Hindustani music as Raag Bhairav. But the raga that features just one place before Mayamalavagaula in the 72 melakarta raga system isn’t quite so well known as its successor.
Vakulabharanam suffers from a fate similar to melakarta ragas like Harikambhoji, Gamanasrama and Natabhairavi. These three ragas were once eclipsed by their infinitely more popular ‘janya ragas.’ The famous janyas of Harikambhoji are many as most of us know – Kambhoji, Kedaragaula, Sahana, Natakurinji and Suruti being a few of them. (However, it could be argued that Harikambhoji was always in vogue, despite the presence of its formidable ‘janya ragas’.) In case of Natabhairavi, a Bhairavi and an Anandabhairavi are perhaps enough to edge out all other ragas including the parent! Poorvikalyani definitely towers way above Gamanasrama and so does Hamsanandi – albeit to a lesser extent when compared to the regal Poorvikalyani.
Vakulabharanam similarly has been eclipsed by the definitely more popular Vasantabhairavi, and by the sheer rakti of Ahiri. Even ragas that have shot to popularity in the last four decades or so like Revati have succeeded in enjoying better status than the parent raga!
Considering Harikambhoji, it’s obvious that Tyagaraja was quick to discern its potential and consequently created several gems in this raga. This ensured Harikambhoji attaining an undisputed and highly respected niche in the firmament of ragas of Carnatic music. To a lesser extent he has given Poorvikalyani also a ‘reasonable’ status by composing two kritis, although we all know that when it comes to handling Poorvikalyani, Muthuswami Dikshitar is the undisputed winner!
It is this author’s surmise that Tyagaraja similarly realized the potential of Vakulabharanam as well. His solitary creation is E rAmuni nammitinO set to misra chapu tala. However, before we get into the discussion of the kriti, it is pertinent to understand the swaroopa (i.e. the structure) of Vakulabharanam.
Vakulabharanam consists of notes similar to Mayamalavagaula except the nishadam. While Mayamalavagaula has the kaakali nishadam (i.e. N3 or shuddh Nishaad in Hindustani music), Vakulabharanam takes the kaisiki nishaada (i.e. N2 or the komal Nishaad in Hindustani music).
This difference of the one note of the nishaada alters the swaroopa of Vakulabharanam drastically when compared to Mayamalavagaula and it is this that gives the raga its distinct colour, flavor and identity. Mayamalavagaula affords scope for fairly elaborate alapanas (Nedunuri Krishna Murthy’s elaboration as the main item for his Krishna Gana Sabha concert in the 1985 Gokulashtami Festival is indelibly etched in memory). Despite not being well established, Vakulabharanam also affords a similar scope for raga alapana elaboration. The foremost reason for this is the fact that there is an intrinsic deep pathos in Vakulabharanam – and one main contributor to this is the commanding presence of the kaisiki nishada swara. When this swara blends with the other “Mayamalavagaula swaras”, the output is truly beautiful combined with a touch of melancholy and quite different from the popular ‘saralivarisai raga’!
When one examines Tyagaraja’s kriti, this can be immediately perceived. This kriti’s mood seems to be that of doubt, angst and ultimately it conveys strong emotions like anguish and sorrow. The kriti begins slowly on the mandhara shadja and the pallavi is fairly simple without many sangatis and stays within the first half of the middle octave.
In the anupallavi, Tyagaraja explores the raga in full details and paints a wonderful picture, especially when he asks himself “Sri Ramudu Gaado?” before coming back to the sedate pallavi. The anupallavi is truly a highlight of this kriti.
In the first charanam, he declares that it was after all, Sita who patiently endured the injury caused by Kaakasura, just so that she could, without being interrupted, lull Rama to sleep on her lap with a song. Upon realizing what had happened to Sita because of Kakasura, Rama discharges the brahmastra at Kakasura. The moot point of this episode is that was Rama justified in discharging the brahmastra when he could have taken care of Kakasura by some other relatively simpler means? This whole episode is beautifully expressed in this charanam and Tyagaraja leaves it to the listener to decide by clearly portraying his doubt and anxiety.
In the third charanam, the bard states, wasn’t it Rama who dried up the arrogance of sinful rAvaNa who threw out his brother vibhIshaNa? vibhIshaNa, for his part who always stood for being right, was ultimately unable to bear the abusive and absolutely unfair words spoken by his brother and ultimately sought refuge in Rama. Interestingly, Tyagaraja ends the charanam and the kriti with an epithet for himself. He says “nirdosha tyagaraja” – which probably implies that there could have occurred an episode where he was unjustly treated that eventually could have triggered the composing of this kriti.
E rAmuni nammitinO
nEnE pUla pUja jEsitinO
vAramu nija dAsa varulaku ripulaina
vAri madamaNacE SrI rAmuDu kAdO (E rAmuni)
EkAntamuna sIta sOkOrci jO-goTTa
kAkAsuruDu cEyu cIkAku sairincu-
kOkamadini daya lEka bANamu vEsi
EkAkshuni jEsina sAkEta pati kAdO (E rAmuni)
rOshamunADu dur-bhAshalanu vini vi-
bhIshaNuDA vELa ghOshinci SaraNana
dOsha rAvaNu mada SOshakuDaina nir-
dOsha tyAgarAja pOshakuDu kAdO (E rAmuni)
There are two other very noteworthy compositions in Vakulabharanam that deserve mention. One is Raamam Namaami Satatam in Rupaka tala by the genius composer Mysore Vasudevacharya. This kriti does make an appearance every now and then in concerts and this author recalls a national program of music telecast by Doordarshan in the late 1980s. With Doordarshan having the monopoly on television, a thirty-minute national program was a matter of great prestige for any artist then.
In this particular program, the vocalist was Mysore Nagamani Srinath and after beginning her recital with a brisk Marugelara (Jayanthasri, Adi, Tyagaraja), much to this author’s enormous surprise, she proceeded to expand Vakulabharanam and sang Raamam Namaami Satatam. It was amply clear that the enormous potential of the raga had been explored and Nagamani Srinath was able to give a succinct account of the raga in the short time available. The raga expansion and the overall recital made such an impact that the author is able to recall this even now. A very charming composition, Raamam Namaami Satatam has a madhyama kala passage in the charanam as well.
rAmam namAmi satatam bhUmi sutA samEtam
kAmAri sammuditam shyAmala tanaumaga rahitam
vAsavAdi sampUjita bhAsamAna vara caraNam
bhUsurArti bhaya haraNam shrta bhakta bhava taraNam
vAsudEamakhila janOpAsita nibha caraNam
sAsitEndra tanubhavam nata sa madana tOSaNam
The other composition is Kotiswara Iyer’s Nambinen Aiyya set to Adi tala. It is this author’s conjecture that Kotiswara Iyer would have been inspired by Tyagaraja’s E rAmuni and hence themed his Nambinen Ayya on almost similar lines. Starting in the mandhara sthaayi nishaadam, the archetypal composer ensures that the lower octave is explored fully before introducing the listener to the middle octave in the second half of the pallavi line. Kotiswara Iyer was in one sense constrained by having to incorporate the name of the raga in his 72-melakarta raga compositions. The fallout of this was that Nambinen Ayya’s charanam is completely in Sanskrit.
However this does not detract from the charm of the thoughtfully composed kriti and quite a few artists have rendered this kriti in their concerts.
nambinEn ayyA nAthA nin pAdam
tunba vElai tIrndu inba vElai Arndu
nin pon vElai Orndu anbanEn aruL shArnduyya
durita tApa haraNa suravinuta caraNa
varada mA vitaraNa vara vakuLAbharana-
parita sIta kiraNa parishuddhAnta karaNa
sarasa kavi kunjaradAsa bharaNa
There are a couple of other compositions that have been sung in concerts; one is ‘Koniyadina’ by Karur Dakshinamurthi Sastri. This is a composition that maestro Nedunuri Krishna Murthy used to render fairly often. The other is ‘Jaalam Seivadeno’ by M.M.Dandapani Desigar, which unfortunately, this author hasn’t been able to hear yet in a concert.
Adventurous master musicians like U.Srinivas and Chitravina N. Ravikiran have rendered Vakulabharanam often in their concerts. The author recalls a succinct Ragam, Tanam and Pallavi by the former as well.
In the film world, maestro Ilayaraja has used Vakulabharanam with ‘O Oru Tendral Puyalaagi Varuthe’ from Puthumai Penn; the title song of the runaway Kamal Hassan hit Michael Madana Kama Rajan ‘Kathai Kathai Kelu’ is attributed to Vakulabharanam. However, a personal all-time favourite is ‘Aaru Athu Aazham Illa’ from the film Muthal Vasantham sung by the Isai Gnaani himself.
Listening to a meditative and intense rendition of Vakulabharanam is sure to move and melt anyone. The effect is similar to when we hear a moving alapana of Shubhapantuvarali, a raga well known for its pathos. The impact of Vakulabharanam is perhaps even greater, almost akin to having a cathartic effect upon the listener. For this one reason alone, Vakulabharanam fully deserves a special place; a wonderful raga that Carnatic music can be truly proud of.
Here’s a link to an alapana of Vakulabharanam followed by Kotiswara Iyer’s Nambinen Ayya, in Adi tala. The accompanists are B. Ananthakrishnan on the violin and Erode Nagaraj on the mridangam.