Dr TS Satyavathi, a Sanskrit scholar and renowned Carnatic musician, is currently directing an ambitious – and popular – AIR programme which sets selected Sanskrit poetry to music. She talks to Venetia Ansell about the programme, illustrating each point with snatches of beautifully lilting Sanskrit verse in a voice which fully justifies the cabinet behind her that bulges with awards and trophies.
12th May 2009
Mahalakshmi Layout, Bangalore
What was the impetus behind this programme?
Sampath Kumaran [who runs the Sri Tirunarayana Trust which is sponsoring the programme] was very keen to showcase Sanskrit literature and we decided that the best way to do this would be to present it through music as an audio experience. A visual presentation might have proved a distraction to the actual kavya (poetry). Music relates itself very quickly to people and there is no language, caste or any other type of barrier. It heightens our ability to appreciate such poetry. But we must be careful not to get so carried away by the music that we don’t listen to the actual kavya, just as we shouldn’t focus exclusively on the words alone.
How do you set the poetry to music?
I use a mixture of styles. I set some of the shlokas with tala (the structured and repetitive musical units which are shown in notation) and for other parts I use improvisation, what you call gamakam (variations in a note’s pitch) or kavya-vacana (poetry recitation) style, which has no tala.
All Sanskrit verse has a particular chandas, a metre, so it lends itself easily to music patterns. You can set the same metre to different talas but you must do so without distorting the meaning or breaking words. I have to match the melody to the rasa, the mood or emotion; I have to make the meaning felt through the rasa. The tempo must also match the rasa – for the karuna (pitiful) rasa we need a slow tempo, a faster one for the vira (heroic) rasa and so on.
I also select a raga for each section and this too must fit with the meaning of the kavya and its rasa. Sometimes a kavi (poet) will tell us which raga should be used, such as Jayadeva does for his Gita Govinda, but even where this is the case we only have a name – there is no way of knowing what the vasanta (spring) raga for instance actually sounded like.
I direct a group of young musicians who sing the kavyas – both men and women who sing at times in a group, at times in pairs or solo. I teach them the meaning of each and every word because they cannot sing the poem until they understand it, but there are still the occasional problems with pronounciation, for example the wrong stress on the word ‘nupura’ (anklet) can make it sound as if the second two syllables are actually a separate word – ‘pura’ (town). The meaning must not get lost in the melody.
Is this how these poems would originally have been performed?
Kavyas were not designed to be set to music but they were certainly never just read – they were always recited. Recitation itself involves music and has an inherent rhythm. In an oral tradition, recitation is an aide to memory – we can remember long texts because of the rhythm, the laya which is something different to the tala. The laya is the natural rhythm of a text, you can’t show or denote it but only feel it – it runs between the tala.
What kind of a response have you had to the programme? Does it matter that most people are unable to understand high flown classical Sanskrit?
Indians have a great affinity and respect for Sanskrit – the language has endeared itself to them over so many thousands of years. They may not understand every word but they can get a feel for the poetry.
The Ramayana certainly and to a lesser extent Kalidasa’s works are so familiar that people have no real trouble understanding them, but people are much less familiar with the other poets whose work we are presenting.
We have got fantastic feedback so far. People eagerly await the next show. AIR (All India Radio which is broadcasting the programme) tells us that they have had a very good response from both scholars and lay people.
How can kavya be made relevant to today’s MTV generation in India?
I think that people should at least be aware of their roots and then decide what path they want to follow. We also have a responsibility to preserve these great traditions of ours. They say that one birth isn’t enough to fully understand the great wealth of Sanskrit knowledge and literature. Sanskrit is an amara-vani, an immortal language. It is no longer a mass language of communication – replaced by regional languages all of which owe their strength to Sanskrit – but it will not die out.
Samskrita Kavya Sangita presents poetry from Valmiki, Kalidasa, Bhasa, Bhana, Bhartrhari, Jayadeva, Adi Shankarcharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya. The 13th episode will be broadcast tomorrow (14th May) at 7:30am on FM 1001.1, the Amrithavarshini Classical Music Channel, AIR (All India Radio). There will then be a hiatus for a couple of months before the remaining 13 episodes are broadcast. In the meantime, the 13 broadcast episodes will be repeated. The Sri Tirunarayana Trust is hoping to bring out CDs of the programme, particularly the Ramayana ones.
For more information on the Sri Tirunarayana Trust, please click here for their website.