tODi is one of the most powerful rAgAs of Carnatic music. The ability to render tODi is often considered to be the best measure of an artiste’s calibre. We do find mention of tODi in few ancient works like sangIta samaya sAra of Parsvadeva (circa 11th century) and sangIta ratnAkara of Sarngadeva (circa 13th century), and also in some of the later day works like Somanatha’s rAga vibOdha(17th century), sangIta sArAmrita(1735) of Tulaja, and Govindacharya’s sangraha cUDAmaNi (18-19th century). One also comes across names like chAyA tODi and turuShka tODi in sangIta samaya sAra and sangIta ratnAkara. In the anubandham to the monumental caturdaNDiprakAsika (of Venkatamahin), believed to have been authored by Muddu Venkatamakhin, we have janatODi classified as the 8th mELa. And then we of course have the sampUrNa mELa system of sangraha cUDAmaNi, wherein Govindacharya replaced the kaTapayAdi prefix ‘jana’ by ‘hanuma’, and thus we have hanumatODi or just tODi. All said and done, the tODi that we know of today has come down to us through the Trinity, Kshetrajna and other great vAggEyakAras. The thAT tODi of Hindustani sangIta has nothing in common with the Carnatic tODi, except the name. The latter’s equivalent in Hindustani system, is bhairavi thAT.
In the hands of the great composers, tODi has received special treatment that has further enhanced its status among rAgAs. Earlier to the Trinity there may have been songs set to tODi, but as the works of the composers of that period have since then been tuned many times again, one is not able to say with any degree of accuracy. One such song of Purandara Dasa, yEnu dhanyaLO lakumi is now sung in tODi. The song expresses wonder at the good fortune of Goddess Lakshmi that she is the chosen one of the Lord. kOdaNDa rAma of Bhadrachala Ramadasa is another early piece. The song is said to have been composed when Ramadasa’s son fell into a vat of gruel and was killed. The song it is said moved Lord Rama to restore the boy to life. Among the Trinity, it was Tyagaraja who left behind the largest corpus of songs in tODi. Amongst these, such songs as kaddanu vAriki, kOluvamarEgada, endudAginADO and AragimpavE are very popular on stage. The last is a moving work depicting the waking up of Lord Rama in the morning and proceeding in stages to his breakfast and mid day meal, with his wife and brothers. Yet another kriti of Tyagaraja, rAjUvEDala is one of the Sriranga Pancaratnam and is on Lord Ranganatha. Emi jEsitEnEmi is a very moving piece on the futility of being worldly. Of particular interest to etymologists is the word lAndaru (adapted from the English lantern) which appears in the song. It must have come into contemporary Telugu from the English conquerors.
Muttuswami Dikshitar composed a pada varna, rUpamu jUci on Lord Tyagaraja of Tiruvarur. This varnam was used by Dikshitar’s disciple Tiruvarur Kamalam in her dance arangETram. The dhyAna kriti of the kamalAmba navAvaraNam, is in tODi. Yet another kriti is dAkshAyani which is one of the abhayAmba vibhakti kritis of Dikshitar. shrI subrahmaNyO is a moving piece. It is composed on the deity at Tiruchendur. The song mentions the line patra vibhUti pradhAna (he who gives the sacred ash on a leaf). This practice is continued till date at this temple. Interestingly Adi Sankara’s subrahmaNya bhujangam composed almost 1200 years earlier mentions the same fact. Another song attributed to Muttuswami Dikshitar is shrI krShNam bhaja which is on the deity at Guruvayur.
Syama Sastry too has composed in tODi (thereby making tODi one of the few rAgAs in which each of the Trinity has composed). His ninnE nammi nAnu is an absolute gem. So is his svarajati rAvE himagirikumAri. His son Subburaya Sastry has given us nannu brOcuTaku and shrI kamalAmbikE in the rAga.
Among those who composed varnams in the rAga, Patnam Subramanya Iyer and Pallavi Gopalayyar stand out. Subramanya Iyer’s ErAnApai is a brisk beginner in concerts. Patnam has also composed a varnam in shuddha tODi (leaving out the pancama). There is a school of thought that ErAnApai was also originally in shuddha tODi for it abounds in svarAs without the pancama in many places. Gopalayyar’s aTa tALa varnam kanakAngi is in praise of King Sarabhoji of Tanjore. Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer and his brother Ramaswami Sivan, composed Ananda naTEsha in the rAga. Patnam’s disciple Poochi Iyengar composed many kritis in tODi of which shrI vENkaTEsham is the most famous. His kriti satatamu brOvumayya in tODi, composed for the coronation durbar of King George V in Delhi in 1912, is an interesting piece historically. The Muthialpet sabha of George Town, Madras, presented him with a gold medal for it. Ghanam Krishna Iyer’s yAr pOi sOlluvAr and many padams of Kshetragna further embellish this rAga. Several of Gopalakrishna Bharati’s pieces have now been tuned in this rAga. Muttutandavar’s EnnEramum, a humorous piece on Lord Nataraja is a very beautiful kriti.
With arrival of Papanasam Sivan, the rAga received yet another bountiful harvest. The composer’s imagination gave vent to a large number of songs in this rAga. taNigai vaLar and tAmadam En are but two examples. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar made kArtikEya gAngEya of Sivan very famous. Sivan, forced by his extreme poverty, asked Ariyakkudi for copyright. The singer neatly sidestepped the issue by singing the song of Kotiswara Iyer, kali tIra vandaruL in the same rAga in all subsequent concerts, till friends brought about reconciliation between Ariyakkudi and Sivan. So fond was Ariyakkudi of this rAga that it was said that he sang it in all his concerts.
Among the other great singers, GN Balasubramaniam was known for his rendition of tAmadam En (Sivan) and Ananda naTEsha (Ramaswamy Sivan). The Alathoor Brothers rendered ninnE nammi nAnu(Syama Sastry) beautifully and so did KV Narayanaswami. For extensive renditions of the rAga both Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and ML Vasanthakumari were well known. MD Ramanathan made brindAvana lOla his own. T Brinda and T Mukta were famed for their renditions of Emi jEsitE nEmi and nE mOrabETTitE (both Tyagaraja). Many believe that the latter song was originally set in rAga rUpavati by the composer and later changed by singers to tODi. MS Subbulakshmi sang kArtikEya gAngEya (Sivan) often and DK Pattammal and DK Jayaraman rendered songs such as dAcukOvalEna (Tyagaraja) most evocatively. Madurai Mani Iyer made his concerts lively with his rendition of tAyE yashOda (Oothukkadu Venkatasubbayyar). Musiri Subramanya Iyer moved audiences to tears with his endu dAginADO (Tyagaraja).
Among the entire music fraternity, it was TN Rajarathinam Pillai, the nAgaswara wizard, who was considered the emperor of tODi. It is said he practiced tODi all the time and set the highest standards in its rendition. The few recordings that survive of him testify to his wizardry. His short gamaka laden phrases, kArvais, long swooping jArus, lightning fast brighas seemed tailor made for expanding tODi.
Predating Rajarathinam by many years was one tODi Sitaramayya who earned the prefix for his expertise in the rAga. Once, due to penury he borrowed money on the pledge of the rAga, promising not to sing it till he could repay the loan. King Sarabhoji it is said cleared off the debt, for he could not bear the thought of Sitaramayya not rendering tODi.
The name tODi itself is a mystery. Many believe that it means that which is tough and that its full name (hanumatODi) means that which breaks the singers’ jaws, such being a measure of the difficulty involved in mastering it. Whatever be the meaning, it is considered the acme of musical excellence. It arouses varied emotions in its listeners. It is deep, alluring and mysterious in its captivating charm. In many ways it is the quintessence of Carnatic Music.