While comparing Carnatic music with Hindustani or Western Classical, I have always wondered about the importance attached to the lyrics by using specific compositions generally known to lovers of music. It seemed so much of a limiting factor, and sometimes even a distraction from enjoying the beauty of the raga being rendered. On the contrary, a Hindustani rendition seemed to have unlimited space available for the singer to scale up and down, in and through, exploring a raga completely,pushing to the fullest limits of the singer's creativity.
I realised the value of lyrics suddenly the other day when I heard Lalgudi jayaraman playing a famous song by Subramanya Bharathi - "Theerada Vilayaatu Pillai". The song is about the uncontrollable prankster ( theerada vilayattu pillai) Kannan ( another name for Lord Krishna) and goes on to talk about his naughty tricks on his playmates. Jayaraman's violin told the story with the frustration of a Gopi who was so fed up of the incessant tricks - it complained but not out of anger but with the indulgence of one who could not help loving the naughty rascal; it narrated the tales half smiling and half annoyed at the little one's audacity. And in the tale of Krishna bringing fruits to the gopi to eat and then snatching it away while she is settling down to enjoy it, one could actually hear the fruit being slapped out of the girl's hand - it was such magic. The experience was so total - a lovely story,a nice poem and music that brought it all to life. My knowledge of the song and the words created this special rapport between me and the music which would have been lost on someone who just related to the music and didnt know the words of the song.
Perhaps this is the reason why lyrics still have such importance in Carnatic music - to reach out to a larger audience, to create the mood and a rapport between the singer and the listener. And that also explains why so many South Indians can relate to carnatic music so easily.Otherwise it would have remained too elitist and exclusive.
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