Lip sync

By Venkateswaran Ganesan

Long, long ago, very long ago, Harikesannalur Muthiah Bhagawathar apparently suffered an ulcer in his lips, making it even difficult to talk, leave alone compose and sing. What happened next will blow your mind… Thus starts this particular legend. To cut a long story short, he still wrote, composed and sang a kriti that goes Rajaraja Radhithe.

The charm of this composition that the sahityam (lyrics) in addition to the sangeetam (music) ensures the lips don’t come together. Giving the song a listen, one realizes, every word in the lyric is one which does not need the lips to join. And thus says the legend, that Muthiah Bhagawathar got over the ulcer in his lips and also composed, wrote and sang the song. Whether the legend is true or not, and why let facts come in the way of a good story, the genius of Muthiah Bhagawathar is there, unfettered, for all to see (and hear) in this song.

Listen to it here.

Not just that, he also created a new scale of raga, called Niroshta. The raga is a derivative (janyam) of Shankarabharanam. It is an audava raga, meaning it comprises of 5 notes. The notes in this raga are Sa Ri2 Ga3 Dha2 Ni3 Sa in the aarohanam (ascent) and Sa Ni3 Dha2 Ga3 Ri2 Sa in the avarohanam (descent). One is specific about the type of vikriti swara because this raga falls under a special type of class. The class of ragas are also called Niroshta. Niroshta literally means separated lips, i.e. ‘when the lips are not joined’. The swaras Ma and Pa when sung ensure the lips come together to sing them. Sa Ri Ga Dha Ni Sa are swaras which do not require them to come together. Sa and Pa are prakriti swaras (ones that are unchanged). Ri Ga Ma Dha Ni are vikriti swaras (ones that change). There 3 types of Ri, 3 types of Ga, 2 types of Ma, 3 types of Dha and 3 types of Ni. To keep things simple, the notes in the raga Niroshta are Sa Ri2 Ga3 Dha2 Ni3 Sa, swaras which do not require the lips to join. Now one can bring in the other types of Ri, Ga, Dha and Ni and the combinations and permutations in aarohanam and avarohanam it yields a pretty decent harvest of such Niroshta ragas. There are 36 in all till date.

This merits a digression; but not quite. I came across this Youtube video a few years back where Binny Krishnakumar, in a Malayalam reality singing contest, speaks about a background music passage from the Malayalam film, Ente Suryaputhrikki. The music is by Ilaiyaraaja. Listen here

To cut a long story short, a particular passage from the film had a situation which warranted a score. The score is set to the scales of the raga Mayavinodini, which incidentally, is the name of the film’s heroine! And Mayavinodini is a Niroshta raga. Binny waxes eloquent about this musical detail, as any music fan is wont to, but stops with describing the music. As a film buff, one does have the urge to check the movie out. So one did. The film has a classical singer who has a love child and gives her daughter away in adoption and the daughter, now a young woman, gets to know of the story of her birth and catches her mother in a concert and seeks an appointment and meets her. The passage of music plays then. A mother and her daughter, a relation usually as tightly knit as the proverbial bond between two lips, is asunder here. But the bond cannot be wished away, try as one might. Now, isn’t the situation itself a metaphorical Niroshta? That the heroine’s name chosen is a Niroshta raga is providential serendipity. But it takes the genius of the composer to bring it all alive with such stunning depth in an art form as abstract as music.

The music appears for all but 12 seconds. Watch it here.

Muthiah Bhagawathar’s genius was self-serving and liberated, traversing glorious new territory in Niroshta, in the process charting new terrain in sahityam. Ilaiyaraaja’s genius, bound and aided by the limitations and excellence in a script, finds something of extraordinary depth in Niroshta to more than do justice to the situation and elevate it several notches.