Carnatic keys

In these turbulent times, we must learn the value of arts from an 18th century Tamil musical legend

Muthuswami Dikshitar created crossover music, before the term was coined.

This is the age of contradictions. On one hand, we celebrate cultural crossovers, new art and music, and multinational collaborations, and on the other, we mutedly live through Brexit and hate crimes such as the killing of Srinivas Kuchibhotla in Kansas last week. It is at times like these that art should be more relevant than ever – to allow for freedom of creative expression and to give a voice to people and their frustrations. Alas, it is also the time when funding to the arts has been slashed to all-time lows.

But let’s remember that the greatest artistic creations mankind has seen were during similar periods in history. But for the Napoleonic siege of Europe, we would not have had Beethoven’s passionate symphonies. The Russian occupation of Poland fuelled Chopin to take the piano to heights that have still not been scaled. Visual and literary arts too have countless such examples.

Hope is always around – one only needs to turn to the past to feel inspired. In these times, I turn to Muthuswami Dikshitar, a great composer and polymath who contributed to India’s supremely endowed artistic heritage. Considered one of the trinity of legendary composers in Carnatic music, along with Tyagaraja and Shyama Sastri, Dikshitar’s life provides rich examples of crossovers and eclecticism.

Born in 1775 in what is now Tamil Nadu, Dikshitar surrendered to music and creativity, in an age of flux, when the occupiers had begun turning particularly oppressive. Not just him, the other two great composers in the trinity also lived during these times, creating the foundations on which Carnatic music thrives till today. This March 24 will mark Dikshitar’s 242nd birth anniversary.

Dikshitar was a natural innovator. His forays into crossover music – indeed, that is what they would have been called had music writers existed then – brought North Indian influences into the Carnatic classical sound, and the violin into the Indian classical stable. Most interestingly, they led to a set of compositions known as the Nottuswara, which borrow from Scottish, Irish and Celtic music.

Nottuswara is a set of 39 songs that is simple in construction but profound for what it represented. Dikshitar composed the songs with his younger brother, Baluswami, after taking the initiative to learn the violin from Western fiddlers and adapting it to South Indian classical music. How this was received in the late 18th century is left to conjecture – but it’s safe to say, it couldn’t have been easy.

The musical basis for the Nottuswaras is jigs and “airs” that were typical to public house fiddlers – ideas such as the Sailor’s Hornpipe or even God Save the King (Queen). In one beautiful instance, Mozart’s Ah-Vous! Dirai-Je, Maman (Twinkle, twinkle, little star) was adapted by Dikshitar into the famous Shyamale Meenakshi. Lyrics and a South Indian form were part of Dikshitar’s successful adaptation, even if his compositions are not performed with traditional inflection and flavour.

The process of learning a new instrument, adapting it (including the manner in which it is played) and composing simple songs are important milestones in Indian cultural history. The achievements reiterate that creativity is pervasive, especially in challenging times.

Here are three examples of the Nottuswaras. Kamalasana is loosely based on tunes such as the Yarmouth Reel, and Santatam Pahimam on the British national anthem. The third is a sample from an album of Nottuswaras by vocalist TM Krishna accompanied by children.


Performers: Anil Srinivasan, Sikkil Gurucharan, Thomas Marlin

Santatam Pahimam

Performer: Kanniks Kannikeshwaran

The Nottuswara Sahityas of Muthuswami Dikshitar

Performers: Led by TM Krishna

Anil Srinivasan is a pianist and educator based in Chennai. His music education outreach now embraces the lives of nearly 100,000 children in South India.

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