Sur and Asur

Saint Sri Thyagaraja’s music is indeed sublime because it emerged from the privacy of his soul. It is one of the greatest aspects of Sri Thyagaraja that he made the infinite (Sri Rama) accessible to us through music. His numerous kritis include beautiful raagam, bhaavam and taaLam, with lovely lyrics, music, and devotion. 690 kritis in 160 raagams are available today.

Music is an inextricable part of Hinduism. The origin of musical notes is traced to the ancient Saama Veda which is one of the four Vedas. While some modern scholars may call this as ‘deceptively simplistic’, yet there are indications from the scriptures such as Bhagavad Gita and saints like Thyagaraja that music does have origin in Vedas. “Among all Vedas”, Bhagavan Sri Krishna says that he “is Saama Veda“.

The Saama Veda mantras are not merely recited, they are actually sung. The lines have specific metres and the singers of this Veda are called ‘Udgaatri priests’. Their singing is called ‘Udgita’. A poetic passage from the Chandogya Upanishad which is part of Saama Veda says:

” This Om , this imperishable Udgita must be worshipped. Of all the objects of creation, the Earth is the essence; of Earth, the essence is water; of Water, the essence is Herbs; Man is the essence of the Herbs; Poetry is the essence of (man’s) Speech; Music is the essence of Poetry; the Udgita of Saama Veda embodied by the Pranava is the essence of Music; thus, this Omkaara (Pranava Naada) is the utmost, the most valuable, the final essence of all essences. It must be worshipped.”

Sage Yagnyavalkya of the Upanishadic period has also clarified that one obtains the boon of moksha by the singing of the Samans to the accompaniment of the Vina, a popular string instrument invariably seen at the hands of Devi Saraswati. He says: ” He who knows the truth of Vina Music and who is an expert in Srutis (musical notes) and Taalas (beats) reaches the path of salvation effortlessly”.

Saint Thyagaraja, one of the greatest propitiator of Bhagavan Sri Ramachandra realised Him through his music. Thygaraja pays obeisance  to Narada as his Guru Raya for knowing the truth of Music originating from the Veda-born Vina. The importance of Saama Gaana is inferred from the tradition of Vina being played in major Vedic sacrifices such as Aswameda Yajna.

So, dear readers, if you need more info on how Thyagaraja sings the glory of seven swaras tracing their origin to Saama Veda, please read here.

In Sangit Mahabharati, an eminent music Institute in Juhu, Mumbai the walls are decorated with photos/paintings of top Hindustani musicians of India for past 2 centuries or so. Out of those one was that of Swami Vivekananda playing on pakhawaj,

In the modern form of Hindustani Classical music, Ramakrishnabua Vaze (1858-1943) was a great proponent of music teaching. He recollects in his book Sangeet Kala Prakash II that once on his return from Nepal, Vaze was the guest of Swami Vivekananda. Swamiji was at that time residing in an ashram at Bareilly. In the presence of a few local music votaries, Swamiji would tune his two tanpuras and to the delight of every one, would sing raaga ‘ahir bhairav’, undisputably a morning melody in the very small hours of the day, hearing which the residents of the ashrama would wake up!

Swamiji was not only an expert musician, but also a poet. He wrote a few inspiring poems in English. I was actually wondering whether these English songs have been ‘tuned-in’ and sung by any one. To my utter pleasure, I found 9 Vedanta songs based on Swamiji’s poems sung here.

It is well known now that many of Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore‘s songs like “Gaganer Thale” in Raga Jaijaiwanti, a night melody, were musically set to tune by Narendranath (earlier name of Swamiji), and his rendition of this composition made it sublime and heavenly. For Swami Vivekananda, music “is the highest form of art and those who understand it, is the highest form of worship.”

Many of our centres in India encourage the music rendition displayed during several programs. One of our Koklata branches, the Institute of Culture, organises a day-long music program extending into night of the 12th January which is Swamiji’s birthday. Here many talented internationally famous as well as local artistes participate in paying a musical homage to Swamiji. It is not uncommon that such cultural programs are looked upon as a means of fund raising too. When I joined Kanpur Ashrama in 1971, I heard from the seniors that the famous M S Subbalakshmi performed a concert to help build the Library Hall there.

Recently the Pietermaritzburg Sub-centre in South Africa arranged a fund raising program for the rebuilding of the upper hall. The music rendition was by Shanjeet Teeluck. The multicultural concert was truly brilliant. The concert began with Pranam Mantra to Holy Trio by Revathy Maharaj followed by a spectacular bharatanatyam dance by Aashmuki Teeluck.

Shanjeet Teeluck, together with his accompaning artistes rendered melodious bhajans, ghazals, Golden Oldies and instrumental music. A gathering of approx 600 people intently listened to the melodious devotional bhajans. I was taken to a higher dimension when Shanjeet began his rendition with my favourite song composed  by Sri Tulsidasji ‘Sri Raamachandra kripaalu bhajamana’. An air of spirituality radiated in Truro Hall on that Sunday afternoon. Besides vocal singing, he played deftly Harmonium and Sitar too which added to the sweetness of the cool evening. He was ably assisted by different accompanying artistes viz.,Vishen Kemraj on Tabla, Rajive Mohan on Keyboard, Umesh Inderparsad on Guitar, and the little Shruti, daughter of Shanjeet on Violin. Intermittently Dipika Ramadeen gave enchanting Kathak performances too. The stage was well managed by Ishara Anirudh.

Devotional concert by Shanjeet Teeluck and his accompanying artistes
Devotional concert by Shanjeet Teeluck and his accompanying artistes

Amidst the music outpourings, an invite to me by Barry Swaminathan, who was an MC, to deliver a benedictory address drew me down from the ethereal heights to earthly! Aware of my duty-bound limitation, I stepped onto the stage and tried to recollect how music has been a great source of subjugating the vagaries of mind. I narrated how the raaga anandabhairavi as researched by violin maestro Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan in classical Karnatik music is efficient in bringing down the blood pressure.

Swami Vimokshananda addressing the audience

Though in English grammar classes we are taught that the term ‘composition’ means writing of essays, the very word signify ‘calming of the mind’ as ‘sur‘ implies. Calmness – a state of being composed – comes due to the discipline of mind. That’s why, I added that one who is  indisciplined is called ‘a-sur’. The mythological asuras are none but a bunch of indisciplined lot! Then I went on to appeal to all the connoisseurs to train their children in any form of fine arts.

And the next Sunday evening once again took me delightfully to Kendra Hall in Durban where I was absorbed in a bhajan sandhya program of Pandit Ravindra Joshi accompanied by his wife Bhavna Joshi. The duo sang some wonderful bhajans. The instrumental background was indeed impressive.

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