Kannada Poetry Discussed In Melody: An Interview With Carnatic Vocalist Krithika Sreenivasan

  • Classical Kannada poetry remains esoteric despite its magnitude and brilliance. Carnatic vocalist Krithika Sreenivasan thought that expressing the verses musically would be ideal to help laypersons connect with Kannada poetry.
  • Ranjani GovindSaturday, May 28, 2022 10:19 am IST
    Carnatic vocalist Krithika Sreenivasan
    Carnatic vocalist Krithika Sreenivasan

    When I last spoke with Carnatic vocalist Krithika Sreenivasan, to congratulate her on the successful run of the second part of her Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu series, she was elated to share the extraordinary response the feature was generating.

    This novel exercise, which musically presents and discusses classic Kannada works, is streamed on her YouTube channel.

    What a challenge to have classic poems explained, the structure discussed, and have them all presented in melody!

    “This is an oceanic project aimed to traverse the realm of Kannada literature. With my sister Deepikaa on the mridanga for my presentations, we are soon drawing the curtains on the second part of the series, and soon rolling out the third as promised,” says Krithika, a software engineer and Education Manager at the Indian Music Experience (IME) museum in Bengaluru, Karnataka.

    While Kannada works in literature are profound and mysterious, the sisters got a firm grounding when their grandfather, Dr C N Ramachandran, a professor and critic in Kannada, offered to choose the poetic content and explain the flow in all her videos.

    Krithika has since dealt with lyrics taken from the classical poetry of Kannada writers, starting from the works of Adikavi Pampa to modernist D V Gundappa and Pu Ti Narasimhachar.

    Nearly two dozen metrical forms have rolled out to take different identities since the tenth-century poetic gems of Kannada — Pampa, Ponna, and Ranna — gave us their works. “We bring in 10 minutes of each form in our programme every week, where Ramachandran explains the nuances of the lyrics and then we take over and demonstrate,” Krithika says.

    Each form has its own features in flow and metre, which distinguishes it from other forms. Vritta, vachana, kandapadya, ragale, shatpadi, ugabhoga, daasarapada, sulaadi, mundige, tripadi, saangatya, tatvapada, rangageethe, kagga, and bhavageethe are the forms handled by Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu.

    Krithika, a Bengaluru native, has a Bachelor’s degree in computer science and quit her MNC (multinational corporation) job to be associated with music. She spoke to Swarajya on the novelty of Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu, mirroring her multi-faceted persona.

    Edited extracts from the interview:

    Kannada poetry presented in song is not new, but your curation of the Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu series sheds light on literary works exhaustively for better appreciation of their form and structure. Why this passion for bringing out such a series?

    I come from a literary background. My grandfather, Dr C N Ramachandran (CNR), a Kendra Sahitya Akademi awardee, is a noted critic and writer in Kannada and English. My mother, Professor Geetha Sreenivasan, is an English professor and translator. So, my sister Deepikaa, a mridangist, and I yearn to delve into both literature and music.

    I have always tried novel experiments that give me scope to expand my creative horizon. One such initiative was the unexplored possibilities involved in Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu. It was conceptualised after CNR’s book on classical Kannada poetry was released. He came up with a tripartite project, categorised by different eras of Kannada poetry and its evolution.

    Initially, we were sceptical about the responses to classical poetry being presented in a manner different from the traditional form of gamaka vaachana. The tripartite project became a reality mostly due to the encouragement given by the acclaimed poet late Dr Nissar Ahmed, who urged me to take up select verses of halegannada kavya (classical Kannada poetry) in traditional Carnatic style.

    The first part of Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu had minimal orchestration in our renditions, like flute (Deepak Hebbar), mridanga, and konnakkol (Deepikaa) to support my vocals. We were overwhelmed with the wonderful response we got for the first series that highlighted 14 metrical forms (chando roopa), presented in a chronological manner from tenth-century Adikavi Pampa to twentieth-century Sri D V Gundappa.

    For the second part, which is going on now, we are funded by Aviratha Pratishthaana, a multi-faceted NGO (non-governmental organisation) working for societal development, literature, and the performing arts.

    Can you explain the rich collection of verses you are dealing with, writers from the eleventh to the twentieth century in Karnataka?

    The period from the tenth to the twentieth century gives a student of Kannada literature an opportunity to appreciate the profundity and literary depth of the epic works, as each poet explored the breadth and depth of Kannada poetry.

    The three distinct periods of Kannada poetry — classical, medieval, and modern — have diverse features of composition. Classical poetry is narrative, while medieval poetry is both narrative and descriptive. Modern poets are mostly descriptive of varied experiences.

    And, throughout this period, the change in the poet’s faith and beliefs has resulted in altered metrical forms. To give a broad idea, while Jaina poets wrote in Sanskrit metrical forms (vruttas), the Shaiva poets used free verse and ragale as their medium of expression. Vaishnava poets wrote extensively in the shatpadi form. And the Bhakti movement led to kirtanas meant to be sung. But every great body of poetry, whether classical, medieval, or modern, is both reformist and steeped in moral values.

    The striking point is that women from the twelfth century (for example, Akka Mahadevi) to the twentieth century (for example, Helavanakatte Giriyamma and Sanchi Honnamma) have written engaging Kannada poetry. And Kannada poetry has been handed over by people of various beliefs and religions: Jainas, Veerashaivas, Brahmins, and Muslims.

    Krithika Sreenivasan with her musical squad
    Krithika Sreenivasan with her musical squad

    How did the programme get conceived as a tripartite series, with demarcations for the first, second, and third series?

    As is common knowledge, poetry in any language has three dimensions: metrical forms, striking expression (alankaras), and a meaningful linguistic form. These three aspects characterise the three parts of the Kamanabillu project.

    While the first part, consisting of 14 units, explains (with illustrative poems) 14 metrical forms (vrutta, kanda, ragale, and shatpadi, among others), the second part describes in 10 units the 10 figures of speech (alliteration, assonance, simile, metaphor, and hyperbole).

    The third part in the series is envisioned to have each part explaining one major aspect of modern Kannada poetry (epic, simile, paradox, irony, semantic opposition, and the like).

    Normally, each episode is of 10 minutes duration and released on YouTube.

    This project will finally culminate with a full-length Carnatic music concert, which will include the forms presented in this series, not just as light compositions that are sung at the tail-end of a concert, but by placing these poetic forms at various strategic and critical points of a concert repertoire.

    And on the influence you derived from CNR?

    My ajja, as we fondly call Dr C N Ramachandran, has been a huge influence, as his love for language and music, discipline, and simplicity have had a deep impact on us. Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu in its entirety has been possible only because he instilled the love for music and poetry in us.

    CNR advises us on the padya to be chosen and the aspects highlighted. I take care of the musical composition of the padyas and my sister Deepikaa primarily takes care of the orchestration required for the compositions.

    All of us have our "roles defined” as we have our own strengths and work "in perfect sruti."

    Dr C N Ramachandran, a professor and critic in Kannada and Krithika's grandfather
    Dr C N Ramachandran, a professor and critic in Kannada and Krithika's grandfather

    The second part in the series has interesting facets for people to notice? How do you choose ragas; for example, why kalyani for Vadiraja?

    In the second part of Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu, we have focused on medieval poetry, focusing on alankaras or the 10 figures of speech used by poets. We chose pieces that suit musical presentation as well.

    We have also explored various musical formats like a padam (primarily used in dance and rendered in Carnatic music as well), a representation with slight elements of jazz using classical instruments, Western symphony using string quartet, consisting of violins, viola, cello, etc.

    We considered works of Raghavanka, Helavanakatte Giriyamma, Akka Mahadevi, and Haridasa as they are narrative and descriptive. We have just categorised them and placed them under different alankaras, but during their time, they might have hardly even worried about the grammar of poetry, as their thoughts flowed so poetically.

    Consider the first episode of the second series on anuprasa, or alliteration. The composition of Saint Vadiraja, Vaani Parama Kalyani, is exotic and has lent itself naturally to a ragamalika. Starting off with kalyani, and also going by the lyric "Vaani parama kalyani," just made sense, so that the phrase, if not the entire song, registers immediately in the listener’s mind.

    Even musically, we have tried to maintain prathama akshara prasa (alliteration: repetition of the first syllable) in the names of the ragas chosen, like kalyani, kalyanavasanta, and kathanakutoohala. In other words, while choosing a particular raga, I have concentrated on the emotion expressed by the poem as valour, pathos, happiness, or horror.

    Another instance is the poem of Ranna that we chose for the finale episode, which is a duel between Duryodhana and Bheema. Ranna describes the ferocity of Bheema in great detail. And to present it musically with orchestration was a bigger creative challenge.

    We had the option of using percussion to portray the anger and rage, but we decided to tread a different path. We collaborated with the creative genius Dr Jyothsna Srikanth and her team to incorporate a string quartet, which also in a way launched them as 'Bangalore String Quartet' through this project. Bheema’s rage has been brought out brilliantly using just string arrangements.

    Your work will actually be an encyclopedic reference material for Kannada literature seen through music!

    We all know how expansive Kannada literature is. But when we started working on this project, we understood the magnitude of kavya parampara. It yields itself to music so naturally that one has to get more creative to musically explore all the dimensions of poetry. The horizon of Kannada poetry is vast and so are its interpretations through different forms of expression.

    Can you briefly tell us about other thematic works you have earlier conceptualised?

    Earlier, my multilingual presentation, Ganga-Kaveri Gaana Sangama, for which I conceptualised and composed music included Sage Valmiki's shlokas and verses from Sri Adi Shankaracharya, Jagannathadasa, Vijayadaasa, and Saint Thyagaraja, and had Meera bhajan and some Kodawa compositions.

    Based on the book I co-authored with my mother, called Alpaayushi Mahaan Sadhakaru: Sangeetagararu (Great Musicians Who Died Young), we released a rare audiobook of the same in Kannada and English featuring 22 musicians who died young but rising to great heights in a short life span, such as Sharabha Shastry, Pallavi Doreswamy Iyer, Maharaja Swati Tirunal, flautist B N Suresh, and vocalist N C Vasantakokilam, among others.

    I have also brought out compositions in seven different languages of women composers and their role in Carnatic music. The Saptamatrika Vandana project had compositions on seven matrikas or the female goddesses such as Brahmi, Maheshwari, Kaumari, Vaishnodevi, Varahi, Indrani, and Chamundi.

    (Kannada Kavya Kamanabillu is a tripartite series streamed on this YouTube channel.)

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