The healing raga’s lesson for us

It is cherished as a favourite of Lord Shiva who is the Vaidishwar or god of doctors, and is said to produce a feeling of empowerment and well-being in listeners.
The healing raga’s lesson for us

The national anthem of India Jana Gana Mana composed by Rabindranath Tagore is based on the hoary Carnatic raga called Shankarabharanam, which corresponds to Raag Bilawal in Hindustani music. Here is a curious fact—the national anthem of Pakistan is in Raag Bilawal. So India shares a poet with the national anthem of Bangladesh and may be said to share a raga with that of Pakistan.

Shankarabharanam means ‘the ornament of Shiva’ and is considered a healing raga in music therapy. It is cherished as a favourite of Lord Shiva who is the Vaidishwar or god of doctors, and is said to produce a feeling of empowerment and well-being in listeners.

A tale goes that in the 1820s, Shankarabharanam produced such ecstasy at the royal court of Thanjavur that the king, Raja Sarfoji, declared that the singer, Narasaiyer, would be called ‘Shankarabharanam Narasaiyer’ from that day. So everyone took to calling him that, to his great gratification.

Once, when Narasaiyer badly needed a loan, he went to Rambhadra Moopanar, the zamindar of a place called Kapisthalam in the Kaveri Delta. Moopanar was a big-hearted and hospitable host to many musicians. But, puffed up with pride, Narasaiyer spoke pompously to him. For a loan of eighty gold guineas, he grandly offered Raga Shankarabharanam as collateral with a promissory note not to sing it until he had redeemed his debt. Hurt by Narasaiyer’s attitude, the zamindar was equally businesslike and accepted his promissory note.

Soon after this unholy bargain, a powerful employee of the East India Company called ‘Wallis’ Appuraya after his English boss, invited Narasaiyer to perform at his home in the neighbouring town of Kumbakonam.

The singer arrived at Appuraya’s house where he was very well accommodated. His host discussed the concert with him and requested that he sing Raga Shankarabharanam.

“But I can’t,” said the singer, greatly embarrassed. “I’ve pledged not to sing it until I redeem my debt to the landlord of Kapisthalam.”

“Bah, is that all?” said Appuraya and sent eighty gold guineas by a swift rider to Kapisthalam.

The messenger returned with Moopanar hot on his heels. Moopanar not only returned the money to Appuraya but chided Narasaiyer for not demanding the money as a cultural right in the first place.

These generous and diplomatic gestures by the two big men saved face all around and brought home to Narasaiyer how very silly and vain he had been to think that he owned the great raga. It was merely his good luck that he had presented it creditably and the king had bestowed the title on him. A charming royal whim, no more, but Narasaiyer had gone and fallen for his own publicity.

He realised that the raga was an intangible spiritual and aesthetic being. It belonged only to itself and to the people at large. To try and ‘own’ it was uncultured and impertinent. He could only hope to explore the music as well as his imagination and skill let him.

Deciding to deal with his chagrin and shame after his professional demands were met, Narasaiyer sang his heart out at the concert. Applauded wildly and presented with bags of gold and jewelled bracelets, he responded with modesty and composure while his heart smote him that he had demeaned himself and betrayed his music. He left quietly the next morning and made his way to the temple town of Kivalur.

An incredible story had rocked South India about Kivalur. The tale went that the saint-composer Muthuswamy Dikshitar had gone to the Kivalur Shiva temple with a song in his head. He asked the priest to let him present it to Lord Shiva but the priest was about to shut the temple for the afternoon and went away saying curtly, “You can wait until we reopen, the deity isn’t going anywhere.”

So Dikshitar sat down calmly facing the enormous carved wooden doors and began to sing his new composition Akshaya linga vibho in Shankarabharanam. Passers-by were drawn at once to the music and sat down to listen as if under a spell. Dikshitar sang unhurriedly, each variation adding another rich layer to the song.

Gods, angels, soldiers, singers and dancers seemed to form a glorious company in the song and every flowering plant seemed to bloom and soft breezes to blow. The magical soundscape drew everyone into itself and the people felt their sorrows fading. They began to feel healed and whole, and empowered and happy in that sanctuary of sound.

There was deep silence when the song ended but before the people came out of their enchantment, the locked temple doors crashed open and swung heavily on their medieval hinges.

A collective gasp went up and the priest, who had hung back to see what was going on, rushed forward in tears. He fell at Dikshitar’s feet and said how sorry he was. The story had spread from coast to coast and Narasaiyer thought Kivalur would be the right place in which to make his apologies to Shankarabharanam.

Arriving at the Kivalur temple, Narasaiyer prayed to Lord Shiva and the spirit of Shankarabharanam to forgive him for his vanity and presumption. He found himself a quiet corner of the temple courtyard and meditated on God and on the raga. He recalled that an old text called the Brahmanda Purana told a story about the raga. Narada, the wandering sage, had once stopped at a place called Bhadragiri (Hosur) and worshipped Shiva there by playing Shankarabharanam on his divine veena. Shiva was greatly pleased and had rewarded Narada with a glimpse of one of his lilas or sacred games.

Thinking over the legends that vivified the land and the close, powerful ties that its people had with their music, Narasaiyer began to feel healed. The world was the most enormous stage on which everybody had their turn and went away, whereas the music stayed on forever. Freed of anxiety by this perspective, he went home. He quietly renounced the title of ‘Shankarabharanam Narasaiyer’ and became an even better singer for it.

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