Navagraha Kritis

Muttuswami Dikshitar (1775/6-1835) is one of the greatest composers in Carnatic Music. Born in Tiruvarur, he learnt music from his father Ramaswami Dikshitar, a great musician and composer. Later in Madras, Muttuswami Dikshitar came under the influence of Chidambaranatha Yogin, a great seer. He travelled to Kashi with his Guru and was initiated into the Sri Vidya cult. Returning around 1799 to Madras, he began composing, the first song being at the Tiruttani temple. Dikshitar travelled to many shrines of South India and left behind his impressions of these places in the form of his songs, many of which include details of local folklore, architectural aspects of the temples and the greatness of the deities enshrined therein. The largest corpus of songs is dedicated to his native Tiruvarur where he spent many years. Towards the end of his life, he moved to Ettayapuram in Tirunelveli District where his younger brother Balaswami Dikshitar was a palace artiste. Here Dikshitar breathed his last. A memorial was erected over the spot where he was cremated.

Dikshitar was an expert vainika and a singer. His songs are said to be ideally suited for the instrument, being full of graces and bearing the classical impress of the ragas in which they are composed. Most of the songs are in Sanskrit and some are in Manipravalam (songs in which more than one language is used). He is credited with composing forty songs based on Western orchestral music, which were used by him to train his younger brother on a Western import – the violin. He is also credited with composing songs in all the 72 raganga ragas (the predecessors of the present day melakarta scheme). A unique aspect of the Dikshitar lineage in music was that it included musicians of various castes, for he freely parted with his musical wealth to singers, nagaswaram artistes and Devadasi dancers.

One of his disciples was Tambiappa Pillai, a shuddha maddalam (a variety of percussion) artiste. Pillai suffered from stomach ailments which were traced to a malefic influence of the planet Jupiter in his horoscope. Dikshitar composed the song “Brhaspate” (raga Athana, tala Triputa) in praise of Jupiter and taught it to his disciple who sang it everyday and was cured of his illness. Subsequent to this, Dikshitar embarked on creating songs on six other principal celestial beings (the Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Venus and Saturn), who along with Jupiter and Rahu and Ketu, form the Navagraha. As each of the seven songs composed by Dikshitar was for the presiding deity of one day of the week, they came to be called the Vara (Daily) Kritis (songs).

What is very interesting in the series is the tala setting of the songs. Dikshitar has used the Suladi Sapta Talas, the seven types of beats as the rhythmic cycles for the seven songs. The songs are sequentially in Dhruva, Matya, Rupaka, Jhampa, Triputa, Ata and Eka talas, the same order in which alankarams are taught to beginners in these talas.

All the songs are in Sanskrit and each one of them gives various details on the deities being propitiated. The hymns that are used for praying to the Grahas are mentioned (Saura mantra in Surya Murte and Malini mantra in Divakara Tanujam). The consorts of some of the planets are mentioned (Chaya in Surya Murte, Rohini in Chandram Bhaja, Tara in Brhaspate, while Angarakam states that Mars is in the company of his resplendent consort). The benefits conferred by the planets is given in the respective songs (good health from the Sun, land, brothers and happy marriage from Mars, wealth and ability to compose poetry from Mercury, fame and male progeny from Jupiter, wealth and happiness in matrimony from Venus and great suffering for the worldly and happiness to the devout from Saturn). The constellations over which the planets preside are mentioned in all the kritis except in Chandram Bhaja, though the Kallidaikurichi school of Dikshitar’s lineage has a line mentioning the constellation Kataka (Cancer) in its version. In Angarakam, a specific place of pilgrimage to propitiate the deity – Vaitheeswaran Koil is mentioned. So too in Chandram Bhaja, there is an indirect reference to Tirupati, for it has long been a site for pilgrimage for those wishing to please Chandra, the moon god. There are besides, plenty of references to mythological stories, of curses, battles between the planets and other episodes in all the songs. In short, as in all of Dikshitar kritis, there is a wealth of information set to the best of music. The songs, Shri Shukra in particular stand testimony to Dikshitar’s deep knowledge of astrology. The precious stones to be worn to propitiate each deity are mentioned in some of the songs and so are the favourite colours of the planets. Surya Murte specifically mentions that Surya is mounted on a chariot drawn by seven horses, while Angarakam describes Mars as riding on a Ram. Divakara Tanujam sings of Saturn as riding on the crow.

The Hindu pantheon of Navagraha includes two other celestials – Rahu and Ketu, both created from the demon Simhika who was cut into two halves, the head and the torso by Maha Vishnu at the end of the Kurmavataram. As the demon had already tasted the nectar of immortality he could not die and the two parts became celestial objects. The head acquired the body of a snake and the body took on the head of the serpent and the two became Rahu and Ketu. They are called Chaya Grahas (Shadow Planets). There are two songs attributed to Muttuswami Dikshitar in praise of Rahu and Ketu. These, “Smaramyaham” (Ramapriya) and “Mahasuram” (Chamaram) are added to the Vara Kritis and the set is called the Navagraha Kriti series of Muttuswami Dikshitar. However, several scholars are of the view that these two songs are latter day additions in the Dikshitar style by other composers who by adding the Guruguha mudra of the great composer have attempted to pass off the songs as his. Several inadequacies in the lyrics have been cited for substantiating this claim. However, today most books on Dikshitar songs include these songs as his.

The Navagraha kritis are prayers set to music. They bless those that sing them and those who listen.

This write-up was for the sleeve of Jyotisham, a CD released by Charsur featuring Savita Narasimhan’s rendering of the Navagraha kritis