Mohanam is one of the oldest ragas in the history of world music. It is a pleasant pentatonic scale. Because of consonance amongst its notes, and due to its simple structure, the scale has been popular in the music of many countries including the music of primitive tribes. It has been an evergreen melody in India too. The raga is known as Bhupali in North India. In the South, Saint Manikkavachakar has utilised this melody extensively for his Tiruvachakam hymns. The raga was very much in vogue in the pann system employed during the Tevara period and was then known as Regupti. The Silappadikaram, the work of Ilango Adigal, gives the raga’s name as Mullai Pann.
In the system of South Indian music, Mohanam is classified under the 28th Mela raga Harikambhoji. There is however a school of thought that feels that Mohanam must be classified under Kalyani. It has an audava-audava (five notes in ascent and descent) scale: SRGPDS-SDPGRS. The svaras are Shadja, Chatussruti Rishabha, Antara Gandhara, Panchama and Chatussruti Dhaivata. All the svaras are essentially rendered with gamaka, in other words, it is a sarva svara gamaka varika rakti raga. Gandhara and Dhaivata are life-giving svaras, but generally all the svaras are important to establish the melody. The raga evokes multiple rasas, but it is usually employed to portray feelings of Vira and Ananda.
From time immemorial great composers of Carnatic Music, especially the Trinity and others belonging to the 18th and 19th Centuries, have recognized the raga’s beauty and potential and their contributions have been prolific. Amongst the Trinity, Tyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitar have composed in this raga. Tyagaraja’s famed kritis in this raga include nanu pAlimpa, mOhanarAma, evarU rA, dayarAnI and rAmA ninu namminA. It is said that nanu pAlimpa was composed at the time of Tyagaraja’s daughter’s marriage. His disciple Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar had brought a painting of Rama and Sita and his wedding gift. He came into the composer’s house holding the painting aloft. On seeing this, Tyagaraja’s joy knew no bounds and he composed this song, which asks Rama, if he had come walking all that distance to protect his devotee.
The maestro Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, was passionately fond of this raga and used to render another Tyagaraja classic in this raga – bhavanuta. He was considered the uncrowned king of this raga and when he received the title Sangita Bhoopati, the late Kalki Krishnamurthy interpreted it as Sangita Bhup Pati (Bhup is also a name for the Hindustani version of Mohanam). His son Maharajapuram V Santhanam continued this tradition and his rA rA rAjiva lOcana (composed by Mysore Vasudevachar) and rAmanai kaNNAra kanDEnE (Arunachala Kavi) were eagerly looked forward to by audiences.
Muttuswami Dikshitar’s narasimha Agacca, composed on the deity at Sholingur, though a small piece, brings out the vIra rasa that the raga symbolises. In addition there are kritis such as rAjagOpAlam (a favourite of Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar) and kAdambari priyAyai which attributed to Dikshitar. Ambi Dikshitar’s varnam kapAlIshavaram is an exquisite composition that was often rendered by DK Pattammal. Among latter day composers, Papanasam Sivan’s kriti, kapAli, on the deity at the Mylapore Temple is a jewel. Renditions by Madurai Mani Iyer and DK Jayaraman of this song were particularly popular. GNBalasubramaniam’s kriti shrI ramA ramaNi is an evergreen creation. The GNB school has a slightly innovative manner of rendering Mohanam, where they render the phrases sa da pa and pa ga ri, with just a hint of the missing ni and ma respectively. This is a classic case of anuswara (or next associated note) in Carnatic Music, which is used within limits to prevent the raga from sounding flat. The Dhanammal family used to render a padam vaDiga gOpAla very evocatively in this raga.
Mohanam is taught to students at a very early stage in their learning. Its five notes make it a raga that is easy to comprehend and the gItam vara vINa and the varnam ninnu kOri are the music tutor’s stock in trade. In films it has been a popular choice for songs. One of the earliest is Papanasam Sivan’s giridhara gOpAla, rendered on screen by MS Subbulakshmi in the film Meera.
For all its popularity, Mohanam is not a popular choice for rendering Ragam Tanam Pallavi. Most musicians prefer to render it as a raga with a kriti to follow. Sangita Kalanidhi ML Vasanthakumari often gave Mohanam the status of the main Raga in her concerts. With audiences it has remained an eternal favourite. Perhaps in its essential simplicity and yet its infinite potential, it depicts the essence of Carnatic Music in a nutshell. A universe in a grain of sand.