Sopana Sangeetam: Varied Facets of Kerala’s ethnic music

Is Sopana Sangeetam a genre in itself? What are some points that can possibly define this music form of Kerala? A panoramic view:

By Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

 njeralathu ramapothuval

Let’s start with that good old story. An episode that is very much part of Indian classical music. Down south, in the plains of downstream Cauvery, we had one of the most vital composers whose name is today associated almost synonymously with the Carnatic system. Saint Thyagaraja. The influential vocalist, who lived in the 18th and 19th centuries in peninsular India, has composed several kritis—most or all of it in his mother-tongue Telugu. One of them, starting with the line Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu, is something that went on to gain special popularity across the Deccan. In fact, that composition in ragam Sri has its share of appeal up north of India as well, going by the warm reception it gets at a kacheri in, say, Ahmedabad, Delhi or Kolkata. (It’s another matter that ‘Shri’ in the Hindustani stream is a completely unrelated scale.)



Now, this keertana ‘Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu’ was a spontaneous overflow in a moment of impulse—something that was musically typical of Tyagaraja. Some 190 years or so old, this composition kind of happened after an unexpected encounter Tyagaraja had with a musician from the other side of the Western Ghats. The guest at his house in Tiruvayyaru near Tanjavur was Govinda Marar. Like Tyagaraja, Marar was from a village that stood by a river—in south-central Kerala. Ramamangalam is on the banks of the Moovattupuzha, though Marar, at that point in time, had paid his Tamil Nadu visit from Thiruvananthapuram, where he was a court musician of the Maharaja of Travancore. Tyagaraja had already heard about the eminence of Marar as a musician, but the man from Kerala stunned him further by singing a composition in six degrees of geometric speeds.

Shadkala Govnda Marar

Now, ‘shad’ is the word for six in Sanskrit and kaalam means speed. His felicity in singing in six speeds had earned Govinda Marar a prefix to his name: Shadkaala. Legend has it that Tyagaraja soon composed the Sriragam piece Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu in praise of many illustrious people round the world—one of them being Shadkaala Govinda Marar. Today, the song figures as the pinnacle in one of the most famous of Tyagaraja’s five-set pancharatna kritis sung often at concerts and invariably at aradanai chorus music invoking him.

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If Marar’s music was the trigger for a great composition that continues to fascinate people in the 21st century, Shadkaala is not that celebrated a figure in the world of music. Still less recognised is what had been the music form of his family over generations: Sopaanasangeetam. It is not particularly relevant if it was a Sopanam song that Govinda Marar sang before Tyagaraja. For, even otherwise, two things can be definitely surmised from that momentous meet: (a) that Marar’s song would have had influences of the ethnic music he and his forefathers should have been well versed for centuries and (b) that singing a piece in different speeds is something that was and is typical of Kerala music as well. I used the word “as well” considering that change of speed if one feature that the two prominent Indian classical music forms share, too. A varnam, for instance, is sung in changing speeds; a Dhrupad composition in Hindustani also employs similar techniques.

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All these analogies have been kind of purposely strung here to remind us that Sopanasangeetam cannot be seen as a music system in isolation. The above narrative has been hyper-linked, also keeping in mind that this form of Kerala music has apparent relations with the Carnatic and Hindustani forms in more ways than one.

A system in itself?

So what explains Sopanasangeetam? There are quite a few characters this form has to credit to enable it stand out as a genre in itself. The prime among them is the distinctness in the voice modulation — that is the application of the gamakam. In its pristine best, it follows what is called the Antolika gamakam. In that kind of a rendition, notes progress rather step-like like climbing a staircase — and avoiding oscillations that are typical of, say, music forms like Carnatic and Hindustani. This type of a rendition that is consistently punctuated by applying force in the throat muscles is a striking feature of Sopanasangeetam. That is why certain passages of Carnatic music that have it might appeal like a streak of Sopanasangeetam for the Malayali inititated to the Kerala music. For instance, the famed Sarasuda varnam.

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This piece by Kottavasal Venkatarama Iyer in raga Saveri has its opening phrases, more so the anupallavi, move with a regular swerve of the notes that has an amusing resemblance with the robustly wavering Sopanam style of rendition. I’ll try to clarify this point by humming the initial bits of the piece set to Aadi talam of eight beats:

Pallavi:          Sarasudaa Ninne Kori Chaalaa Marulu Konnadira

Anupallavi:   Girini Velayu Sree Venkateshaa Karunincha Ide Samayamu

 Now, this would again possibly hint at some of the meeting points of two music systems down south of our country.

 In more orthodox ways of singing Sopanasangeetam, they call the technique anthamkutthi paadal. Roughly translated, this hints at open-throat rendition with high volume even as the pace of the music is often very slow by general standards of our times.

Three More Points

Along with this point, three more which suggest Sopana Sangeetam’s identity:

One, it has certain ragas that don’t exist in other forms of music. This brings us now to a set of tunes that are kind of unique to Sopanasangeetam: Desakshi, Srikanti, Nalattha, Samantamalahari and Andhali are some of them when it comes to rendition in temples. Crucially, let us be clear that Sopanasangeetam is sung when just inside shrines when the doors of the sanctorum are closed for routine or special pujas.

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Outside shrines, when Sopanasangeetam finds expression in performing arts, one also gets to hear ragas like Paadi, Puraneera, Indalam, Kaanakkurinji, Ghataram, Maaradhanashi and Indisha. The form also accommodates popular ragas like Sankarabharanam, Pantuvarali, Kamboji, Saveri, Ahari, Bouli, Sahana, Madhyamavati and Dwinjavanti — often with shades unfamiliar to Carnatic. That is possibly one reason why Yadukula Kamboji is known as Erikkila Kamodari in Sopanasangeetam. This kind of different flair is also characteristic of Sopanasangeetam when it deals with South Indian classical ragas such as Todi and Punnaga Varali, where near-absence of the Carnatic-style gamakam would often main them sound like Sindhu Bhairvi—whose Hindustani classical equivalent Bhairavi is anyway the counterpart of the Todi down-country.

For instance, a Kathakali song like ‘Karunavaridhe Krishna’ (from Santanagopalam story-play) has passages, if sung without oscillations, which might sound less like close to Sindhu Bhairavi.

Plus there are items like Dandakam in Kathakali music which is a subtle and somewhat camouflaged assortment of ragas—with streaks of Kedaragowla, Dwijavanti, Sahana, Puraneera, etc.

Not surprising, perhaps thus, that an illustrious Carnatic musician like K V Narayanaswamy often entered the territory of Husaini when he sung ragas unrelated to it, another late vocalist M D Ramanathan had the habit of conjuring up Kedaram in unexpected situations. Let us not forget that both were from Palakkad, which has been one of the regions where Sopanasangeetam has flourished over time, courtesy also to its geographical proximity to certain villages of Kathakali—a classical dance-drama which has adopted elements of Sopanasangeetam.

Own Set of Rhythms

Secondly, coming to rhythms, Sopanasangeetam, again, has its set of taalas besides the more often heard Aadi, Triputa and champa. For instance, Kumbha, Kundanachi, Lakshmi, Kaarika, takatu, shakatu, mutakku, ekam are some rhythmic cycles specially employed in Kerala’s temple music besides some of them in Mohiniyattam and the more folksy traditional art called Thullal which has been a contribution by 18th-century Malayalam poet Kunchan Nambiar.

Contextually, let us here not forget to mention that Sopanasangeetam has its application in a lot of Kerala forms such as solo presentation called Ottanthullal, the female group dance called Kaikottikkali where women clap and dance in a circle that moves rightward most of the time.

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Then, there is the Brahmanippaattu that females of the Pushpaka community sing within certain temples and the Kalampaattu sung in front of images of divine beings sketched on the floor by using natural powders, besides in pre-classical temple-related performing arts such as Mudiyettu and Thiyyattu that have elements of drawing, dance, music, percussion and theatre.

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More importantly, it figures as the singing style in the pre-classical Krishnanattam dance-drama that was one harbinger to Kathakali. Krishnanattam, whose training is now concentrated around the pilgrim town of Guruvayur, however underwent a watershed change in its singing style in the 1970s and ’80s when the Devaswom-run institute brought in a frontline Kathakali musician called Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambisan to fine-tune the vocals.

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At this point, let us also note that Sopanasangeetam, being innately bhava-laden, has always had the potential to lend itself to the emotional quotient of performing arts. After all, even in the case of Ashtapadi, the story goes that Jayadeva sang while his wife Padmavati danced to the lyrics of the Gita Govinda. It is thus of no wonder that the music of Odissi, the dance that took place in Jayadeva’s region, has a special appeal and capacity to enhance the emotion of the dancer or danseuse on the stage.

Instruments Used

Thirdly, on to the instruments used in Sopanasangeetam. The primary accompaniment to the music, as you have already noticed in this session is edakka. Now, edakka is a small handy percussion instrument which is very similar to the pan-Indian damaru. While the damaru is played by rattling knotted cords against the resonators, the idakka is played with a stick. Like the damaru, the idakka's pitch may be bent by squeezing the lacing in the middle.

The idakka is slung over the left shoulder and the right side of the instrument is beaten with a stick. The left hand is used for tightening and loosening the tape wound round the middle. Varying the tension of the tape produces variations in tones. Simple melodies extending over one octave can be played in this instrument.

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Canonically, the idakka is considered to be a Devavadyam (a divine instrument) and is customarily played standalone during the puja at temples or as the accompaniment to the Sopanam music just outside the sanctum sanctorum. Customarily, the practitioners are from the temple-allied Ambalavasi communities such as Marar or Poduval in middle and north Kerala, sometimes called Ochchan in North Malabar and from castes such as Panickar and Kurup down the state in Travancore. It is another matter that today Kerala has people from other castes also performing Sopanasangeetam in temples.

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Edakka is also employed as accompanying instrument in Kathakali, besides the classical Sanskrit theatre Koodiyattam and its female-oriented offshoot called Nangiarkoothu, besides in the ethnic percussion ensemble called panchavadyam. Outside temples, modern-day Kerala has seen females too singing Sopanasangeetam.

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While the edakka is played by the singer himself or herself, he or she has an accompanist to keep the time. The taalam is maintained as taps with a fat and round wooden rule on the ethnic gong called chengila.

Now, Sopanasangeetam also has had accompaniments on temple instruments such as thoppi maddalam, maram, timila — but apparently in the days of yore. On special occasions, or when the vocalist is a known artiste wanting to also show of his musical prowess, Sopanasangeetam even gets the backing of the harmonium. But if you spare such instances, the form is largely accompanied by just the idakka and the chengila.

That makes idakka playing integral to the repertoire of a Sopanam musician. He has to get minimal exercises done in rolling the wrist and pressuring the small wooden cylinder — kutti as it is called in Malayalam — which are typical of its playing. In short, Sopanam artiste is both a musician and a drummer. That is why it is locally called Kottippaadi seva — a service in the form of drumming and singing. The name Sopanam, many say, comes from its meaning steps in Sanskrit — a language that Kerala’s Malayalam has heavily borrowed during its process of shaping up. While the ‘steps’ could literally mean the flight of staircase to sreekovil or sanctum sanctorum on the side of which the artiste stands and performs the music, it could also indicate, according to some scholars, the step-like progression of the notes, which is a hint at the andolika gamakam this style employs.

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Presentation format

In fact, ahead of his alapana — all of it in akaara — the musician presents a brief passage on the edakka. This portion called kooru, is in a way or experientially speaking, akin to what you hear at a nadaswaram concert, where the tavil will come up with set of introductory beats and roles ahead of the alapanam on the pipe. Only that in Sopanam, Bhakti, or spiritually-inclined devotion, is focal to his bhava or musical expression.

That point brings us to a certain historicity associated with Sopanasangeetam. This music form, somewhere down the line, absorbed verses from Gita Govinda, the 12th-century poem by Jayadeva who lived in the eastern part of the country. This has been one of the results of several instances of give-and-take that happened across Hindustan during the Bhakti movement that last for more than 600 years till the 18th century. (Let us not forget that Shadkaala Govinda Marar himself travelled not just to Thanjavur but further up the country to Pandharpur near Sholapur in what is now Maharashtra before he died in 1843 when he was 45.)

Back to the point on the Gita Govinda, its 12-chapter text is further divided into 24 divisions. Prabandhas, as they are called, contain couplets grouped into eight-liners. Known as ashtapadis, it is the same meter that Sopanasangeetam, even before Jayadeva, employed in its repertoire. Dhyanis, which is their name, are eight-liners too. A Dhyani, or more commonly called Tyani, is a meditative invocation of the god or goddess of a temple in Kerala.

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As for ragas and their use in temple pujas, there are timings set for them. For instance, the usha puja inside the sancoturum at dawn will have the musical accompaniment in raga Desakshi. The song for the following Etritha puja in the morning is set to Srikanti. The late-morning panteeradi punja has Nalattha. At noon, uchcha puja employs Malahari (a Carnatic raga which is akin to the Gunkali in the Hindustani style). If the uchcha puja is delayed for some reason, the raga becomes Aahari, also employed in south Indian classical. At the athazha puja at night, it is Nattai or Bouli—this could sound somewhat strange today, given that both these Carnatic ragas are associated with dawn or morning time. Together, in local parlance, they are called Kattlappadi ragangal, or fixed melody-types. The concept is somewhat akin to what is called ghanaragas in Carnatic music.

That said, this time theory concept, which is called Samay Raag up north of the country, is a point of similarity that Sopanasangeetam has with Hindustani classical. Also, the slowness, which manifests as, say, vilambit lay in the Khayal form, finds mood-wise parallels in this Kerala music, which also can be slow at times—even on its stage-presentation mode such as a shringara padam which depicts the romantic love scene in Kathakali where, for instance, the 14-beat adatha is expanded four-fold and stretched over a span of 56 beats.

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As for vocal practice techniques of Sopana Sangeetam, the general two ways followed today are either go by sessions that are much like what is followed in Carnatic music, or a straighter approach where the student is initiated into the art by being made to sing ragas in akaaram and learn the songs, that is tyanis and ashtapadis,

Schools of Rendition

If one were to split Sopanasangeetam into schools, the broadest could be north and south. Vadakkan and Thekkan as in Malayalam, with a river called Chalakkudippuzha being the divider. South of that slender river now flowing across Thrissur district is the Thekkan style where the initial classes of Sopanasangeetam follow lessons such as swarashtakam (which is sa-ri-ga-ma-pa-dha-ni-sa [in Mayalamalavagoula]) followed by solfa exercises like jhanda varisa and salari varisa which involve the doubles and triples of each swara. There are also exercises in akaarama, ikaaram, ekaaram, okaaram etc before touching upon the geetam and varnam. Then the shift happens to learning Tyanis and ashtapadis. This kind of a technique is largely absent in Malabar, where learning exercises are largely in a grey area even as the region has produced a lot of Sopanam masters and boast of them even today.

So, how does a branching out from one stage, which is after learning a Carnatic varnam or two ensure that the student sticks on to a largely less gamaka-centric Sopanam style. The loud singing in akaaram helps it, according to scholars and practitioners.

Sopanasangeetam today spreads across the state of Kerala, though the deep-south style has effectively become almost non-existent what with the areas of Kuttanad and neighbouring regions in south-central Kerala’s Alappuzha and Kottayam districts of today marking the last stops of a unbroken heritage over generations. Down from there, of late, there are practitioners who are largely young and are alumni of a Sopanasangeetam teaching institute called Kshetra Kala Peetham in Vaikkom on the banks of the Vembanad Lake.

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Some of the Practitioners

Even before this institute in Kottayam district was founded in 1982, the last century saw a bloom with the rise of several masters. Some among them, such as Aliparambu Sivarama Poduval, Pallavur Appu Marar, his brothers Maniyan and Kunjukutta Marar, Chottanikkara Narayana Marar, Mankompu Viswanatha Kurup, Puthussery Raghava Kurup and Trikkampuram Krishnankutty Marar and Sadanam Divakara Marar from the Travancore, Kochi and Malabar regions of Kerala are no more. Today, among the masters we have musicians like octogenarian Guruvayur Janardanan Nedungadi and nonagenarian P S Marar of north Malabar. The other senior and younger-generation musicians include Ooramana Rajendra Marar, Chottanikkara Subhash Marar, Eloor Biju and the more popular Ambalapuzha Vijayakumar. Girija Balakrishnan from south Malabar is gaining name as a female vocalist of Sopanasangeetam.

To end with a special mention of historicity, Njeralath Rama Poduval has been an iconic musician in the field in the last century, having taken Sopanasangeetam possibly for the first time outside temple precincts and popularising it in a big way as a wandering vocalist till his death in 1996 at age 80. His music has found representation in a few highbrow Malayalam movies, courtesy the fascination he earned from a few new-wave Kerala filmmakers and actors. Today, his son, Njeralathu Harigovindan, known for his largely unconventional approach to the art-form, is in the midst of promoting Sopana Sangeetam by making efforts to set up a Kalashramam at their native village near Perinthalmanna in Malappuram district.

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Employment in Mohiniyattam

A brief introduction to the use of Sopanasangeetam in present-day Mohiniyattam. This Kerala classical dance is believed to have originated in the 16th century, it is noted for its graceful movements of the body and meant to be earlier performed as solo recitals by women. Today, group items have become common in Mohiniyattam, which has even got men dancing occasionally.

Mohiniyattam gained popularity in the 19th century, courtesy the arts-loving Swathi Thirunal, the Maharaja of Travancore in southern Kerala, who brought in Vadivelu, a key figure of the famed Thanjavur Quartet, thereby adding to the Mohiniyattam repertoire elements that were hitherto unexperimented in it as well.

In the 20th century, as the art form spread its wings, another litterateur, this time from south-central Kerala, came in with ideas of incorporating Sopana Sangeetam into Mohiniyattam. That was how poet-playwright Kavalam Narayana Panicker fused Kerala’s own music into its classical female dance towards the 1970s and ’80s.

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Many scholars and exponents of Mohiniyattam hailed that incorporation of Sopana Sangeetam into the dance as a retreat into Kerala’s own forgotten treasures which were latent in the ritual dance traditions. As an observer notes, Panicker tried to re-look on the vāchika aspect of Mōhiniyāṭtam. Rendering of music in this tradition mainly tried to bring out the emotions and feelings through the eloquent pauses to stress on the lyrics. Panicker advocated that this style of rendering would be more apt for Mōhiniyāṭtam rather than using Carnatic music which laid more stress on gamaka prayoga. Interestingly, the introduction of Sopana Sangeetam was more readily accepted by Mohiniyattam dancers outside Kerala. Such as veteran Kanak Rele of Mumbai and Delhi-based Bharati Sivaji who is from Tanjavur of Tamil Nadu.

Sopana Sangeetam in Kathakali

Somewhat contrary to the case of Mohiniyattam music, the vocals for Kathakali today are more in sync with the Carnatic style. This has happened not only because of increasing absorption of south Indian classical gamakas by Kathakali musicians in our times of greater synergies, but also because a historical episode that happened around a 100 years ago when a Tamil Brahmin was destined to overhaul the vocals for the classical Kerala dance-drama. Venkitakrishna Bhagavatar, who lived in Mundaya village not far from Kerala Kalamandalam where he taught a few students Kathakali music, hailed from a family of Thevaram singers of Tamil Nadu. The inevitable Carnatic influence his music had on Kathakali vocal continued, but got mellowed down a generation or two later because all his prominent disciples were Malayalis.

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Even so, in today’s world the Carnatic style of rendition has regained some degree of its earlier prominence—more so for the music in Kathakali’s mainstream Kalluvazhi style that has flourished in central Kerala and is largely propagated by Kalamandalam. Kathakali music down south of Kerala, called the Thekkan style, is facing loss of identity, but in its brighter and more individualistic times in the last century, the rendition sounded more native to Kerala than Carnatic. In the north, Kerala has very less presence of rooted Kathakali north of Kozhikode, barring some belts of Kannur.


Overall, Sopana Sangeetam can be seen as something that is not just a system of music rendition which isn’t contained to singing by the steps to temple sanctorum, but a way of modulation—endemic to the region and employed in a variety of its performing arts.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and media consultant based in Delhi.)




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