Monday, 13 April 2015

When Worlds Collude - 7 (The Surprisingly Universal Appeal Of Swati Tirunal's Tillana in Dhanashree)

Once a long time ago, I heard a very catchy Carnatic music number, and the tune has stayed with me ever since. As I began to understand and recognise ragas, I identified that number as being in Bhimpalasi (Hindustani), known as Abheri in Carnatic.

Very recently, I learnt from my prodigiously knowledgeable friend, Seshadri Kumar, that it was not in Abheri at all, but in a closely related raga called Dhanashree. Kumar also mentioned, tongue in cheek, that it was from "the composers known collectively as Swati Tirunal". Swati Tirunal was the Maharaja of Travancore who has several compositions to his name. It is rumoured that many of the compositions attributed to him were in fact composed by musicians under his patronage.

In any case, the song is known as the "Dhanashree Tillana". A tillana is a rhythmic piece that has for its lyrics special syllables that resemble the sound of percussion instruments. Tillanas are popular accompaniments to dance performances for both these reasons.

What amazed me when I searched for this song on YouTube was its worldwide popularity. It has been performed as pure music and as dance accompaniment, using a variety of instruments, in both traditional and fusion forms. A sample of that variety is what I want to cover in this post.

As a baseline, let's start with a fairly standard, yet high-quality traditional rendition.

 This is by that doyen of Carnatic music, the late MS Subbulakshmi

The lyrics go as follows:

PallavigItta dhumiku takadhIm krtatatOm nAc rahe gOri tAdhittai tai tattai tirataka 
Anu Pallavi: bAja pAyala kahum jhanana jhanana bAja pAyala kahun jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana tOm jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana tOm jhaNana jhanana jhanana nanana
Charanam 1tAna gAvE takata tai ta tai taitta taitta tana tadhAm dhImna kiTa taka dhI  dhImna kiTa taka dhIm dhImna kiTa takadhIm hata tOm hata tOm hata
Charanam 2: padumanAbha tumhAri lIlA-kyA kahUm mai sAvarO  tApa sankaTa caaraNaya yAyO sOha mArO tumaharO
ChiTTasvaram:  tadhim tadhIm dhirana udanita tAni tAni tadhIm tadhim dhiranA nA dhittOm tata kata tari tattAra tara tAni dhIm alari kalari takata dhatAra tataka mAm tAni tanika tAm tAmta dhIm dhIm dhIm tanana alari tAm tAmta takatari alari tOm tOm tOm takanaka tani udari

Only the underlined text represents real words - a very South Indian rendition of Hindi! The rest are percussion sounds.

This tillana seems to be quite popular with Indian fusion groups.

This one has great instrumentals

The vocalist predominates here

Surprisingly, it seems to be popular with Western fusion groups too.

Students at a string camp in Florida fuse Dhanashree Tillana with "Wood vs Fire"

It gets better. Here's a church chorus performing the tillana as background music for an Indian dancer.

Even more incongruous than the sight of a Presbyterian church chorus playing a song in a Hindu-traditional style is the fact that Amasong is a lesbian/feminist chorus

It isn't just the Americans. Here's an all-Russian performance in St Petersburg.

The dancer, violinist and tabla player are all Russian

A Latvian couple's interpretation:

Larisa Podskochayaand and Alexey Furdak (who calls himself Gaura Nataraj)

More Russians:

Eleonora & Angelina Ukhanova

Among the few real words among the percussive lyrics is the phrase "nAc rahe gOri", which means "the fair-skinned woman be dancing". How apt for this piece to be performed by Caucasians!

And here is a jugalbandi (a term that Wikipedia defines as "entwined twins', but which I prefer to think of as a "joining of voices") of the Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi styles of dance.

The dancer on the left in red performs in the more energetic Bharatanatyam style. The one on the right presents the more relaxed and graceful Kuchipudi.

I don't know if it was Swati Tirunal or one of his court musicians who was responsible for the Dhanashree Tillana, but whoever it was certainly hit upon a composition of universal appeal.
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