In the world of Carnatic Music, the Rama Natakam of Arunachala Kavi (1711-1779) is special. Simple in language and high in emotional content, it exerts a universal appeal. Some of the songs from the opera have made it as independent concert pieces as well.

Arunachala Kavi
Painting of Arunachala Kavi by Keshav, courtesy The Hindu

Arunachala Kavi’s life history was published in what is arguably the first edition of his work – brought out by ST Reddiar at the Vidyabhivardhini Press, Kollam, Travancore in the Malayalam year 1083, which corresponds to 1908 in the Gregorian calendar. Certain interesting facts emerge from it. Nallathambi Pillai, the poet’s father, who was from Thillaiyadi near Tarangampadi, was of the Jain faith initially and later became a staunch Shaivite. Married to Valliammal, he had four sons of whom Arunachalam was the youngest. Initiated into education at the age of five, he proved precocious. Losing his parents by the time he was 12, Arunachalam became a student in residence at the Dharmapuram Adhinam where he learnt Sanskrit and Tamil to a high degree of proficiency. By the time he was 18, he had come to the notice of the pontiff. An offer was made to initiate him into monkhood with the premise that he would eventually take over as head of the Math. Arunachalam did not take it up.

He eventually went back to Thillayadi where he married at the age of 30. Having to run a household, he set himself up as a goldsmith. The purchase of precious metals necessitated travel to Pondicherry frequently and he invariably broke journey at the Dharmapuram Adheenam in Sirkali. On one occasion he completed a verse that had been taxing other scholars and not bothering to find out its reception, went on his way. When he returned he was informed that the work had so impressed the Math officials that they built a house for him in Sirkali and what’s more, brought his family from Thillaiyadi and settled them there! He therefore stayed on and became known as Sirkali Arunachala Kavi. Together with Marimutha Pillai and Muthuthandavar, he would eventually form the Sirkali Moovar.

It was in Sirkali that he composed the Ajomukhinatakam, an opera, the Sirkali Sthala Puranam and the Sirkali Kovai. Venkataramayyar and Kothandaramayyar, two musicians of the neighbouring village of Sattanathapuram approached him with a request to compose the Ramayana as an opera. Arunachala Kavi took up the challenge, basing his work largely on the Kamba Ramayanam. The music was by Venkataramayyar and Kothandaramayyar.

The Rama Natakam begins with an invocation to Ganesha. The second song is on Anjaneya. Then follows the Avaiadakkam which song expresses the inability of the composer when compared to great scholars of the past. Describing himself as a mosquito that dares fly in the path taken by poets who were like the mighty Garuda, Arunchala Kavi says his attempt is like a canal trying to maintain its flow against an ocean. When the work was complete, the composer desired to premier it at Srirangam rather in the manner of Kamban. Divine permission came when the Kavi composed En Pallikondir Ayya. The Lord it is said commanded him, just as he had asked Kamban to sing in praise of Nammalwar as a prelude, to compose a piece on his Alwars and other close devotees. Arunachala Kavi created a Todayam that praises the Nityasuris, Vishvakesana, the five divine weapons, the Alwars and the Acharyas.

The work in its entirety, spanning the six kandas of the Ramayana, uses different forms of verse. In all there are six kocchakams, two venbas, one vachana, one kalithurai, 268 viruttams, one todayam, 60 dvipadas and 197 darus. The last named are equivalent to kirtanais and these are divided into pallavi, anupallavi and many charanams. The Rama Natakam has all its darus preceded by viruttams. These are not sung today but if they were, would make for magnificent preludes to the songs proper. The dvipadas are put to great effect by Arunachala Kavi especially when there is a sequence involving two people such as Rama and Parasurama, Mantra and Kaikeyi, Kaikeyi and Dasaratha, etc. These have an opening verse followed by kannis, each of which has two lines. The structure is more like a dialogue or an argument. The Tamil used is colloquial with a liberal usage of Sanskrit words.

The disciples took the opera far and wide. Ananda Ranga Pillai, the dubash of Joseph Francois Dupleix, the Governor of Pondicherry referred them to Manali Muthukrishna Mudali, then dubash of the East India Company in Madras. The opera was such a success in the city that the two disciples came back wealthy, married and settled down. Their feedback encouraged Arunachala Kavi to add around 50 songs to the work and complete it in its present form. He turned sixty just as he finished the opera.

It was his desire that Raja Tulaja II of Tanjore heard the work but in 1773, Madar Ul Mulk, the second son of the Nawab of Arcot laid siege to that town. The Kavi therefore decided to come to Madras where he met Muthukrishna Mudali. The dubash showered him with gold. Tepperumal Chetty, the son of Lingi Chetty conferred a similar honour. An interesting aspect is Arunachala Kavi composing songs on his patrons and supporters. In these he includes their father’s name, their place of residence and above all their professional designations. Seeing words such as Deputy Manager of Government Bank, Accountant General Office and Clothing Board in Tamil songs makes for amusing reading.

Arunachala Kavi’s last years were spent in Sirkali. The ragas and tunes of his opera underwent considerable changes after his time. Even in 1908, the publishers lamented that the original music was as good as lost. The songs in the book are in fairly common ragas, with Saveri, Asaveri and Mohanam preponderating. There are only two talas – Adi and Ata Tala Chappu. The present tunes of many songs are attributed to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, who published some of them with notation in the Swadesamitran in 1948.

This article appeared in an abridged form in The Hindu dated April 12, 2019.