Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi (c.1700 - 1765 CE) was one of the pioneering composers in Indian classical Carnatic music.
He lived in South India in the present-day state of Tamil Nadu. Also known by the name Oothukkadu Venkatasubba Iyer, he composed hundreds of compositions in Sanskrit, Tamil and Marathi of which over 500 are available. These were handed down from generation to generation by the descendants of the composer's brother's family.
Venkata Kavi's compositions reveal that he was a complete master of the science and art of music in all senses of the term – melody, rhythm or lyrics and was eloquent in Sanskrit and Tamil. Renowned for his rare depth, scholarship and sublime appeal, he was proficient in a variety of musical forms such as the kriti, tillana and kavadichindu. He used talas and themes that not many other Carnatic composers have preferred to handle. His compositions are a blend of a high degree of scholarship on a variety of subjects and inspired expression.
Venkata Kavi, named as Venkata Subramanian, was born as the eldest of five children to the Tamil smarta couple of Subbu Kutti Iyer and Venkammam. Though his ancestors had resided in various villages in South Indian around the temple towns of Mannargudi (about 200 miles from Chennai), Venkata Kavi moved into the village of Oottukkadu (referred to as "Dhenushwasapuram" in Sanskrit ), near Kumbhakonam.
According to family sources, Venkata Kavi was passionate about music but could not find a guru of his choice in that area, which prompted him to appeal to the god Krishna himself, in the Kalinga Nartana Temple in Ootthukkadu. He is believed to have received initiation from the Lord himself, as asserted in one of his Tamil compositions, Guru paadaravindam komalamu - in the raga Abhogi, he declares: "I have never studied the scriptures or yoga nor pretended to have done so. I received the fortune of knowledge in the benevolent glance of my guru." Venkata Kavi composed at least 14 songs only on the greatness of his Guru Krishna. A few of them suggest that he may also have had another human guru, at least for spiritual purposes. According to sources from that area, this guru was Bhaskara Raya, the acclaimed authority of Devi worship of his times. This is further augmented by the immense scholarship seen in Venkata Kavi's Kamakshi Navavarana krtis dealing with the intricate details of avarana pooja (Srividya worship).
Venkata Kavi had a vast knowledge of music and musical nuances. He used a wide variety of ragas ranging from the well known such as Todi, Kalyani, Kharaharapriya, Sahana, through minor ones like Kannadagowla, Jayantashri, Malavi, Umabharanam and also a few that are seldom used today like Balahamsa and Rasamanjari. In some instances, his works are the first or only ones to be available in a given raga such as Sri Shivanayike in Lalitagandharvam and Padasevanam in Deeparam. His approach of even common ragas like Sahana, Paras, Nadanamakriya and Arabhi are distinctive and refreshing.
His vision of the raga and melody as a whole is considerable and can be seen in the number of different styles in which he composed various krtis in the same raga. For instance, his krtis in Madhyamavathi – Shankari Sri Rajarajeshwari, Sundara nandakumara and Aadadu ashangadu vaa Kanna - bring out different facets of this beautiful raga. He also employed attractive swaraksharas – a technique where the lyrics match the solfa notes of the tune. He has also incorporated raga mudra (mentioning the names of ragas of the composition) in several krtis. Examples: Shuddha Saveri, Navarasakannada. Several other compositions contain names of many other ragas mentioned in some other contexts.
Venkata Kavi also had great command over rhythm, as seen in his venture into scarcely attempted talas such as Khanda Dhruvam (17 units per cycle), Sankeerna Mathyam (20) and Mishra Atam (18). He made complex eduppus (starting or landing points of various sections of a composition) seem like child’s play and used them naturally, without ever affecting the flow of the music or the lyrics. Venkata Kavi had deep scholarship in Sanskrit and Tamil. His vocabulary and the use of words and phrases are unique in Carnatic literature.
Venkata Kavi's vivid imagination and picturisation can be seen in Taye yashoda in raga Todi, where the gopikas are complaining to Yashoda about her son Lord Krishna. This song has eight charanams (stanzas) and each one describes the pranks of Krishna very humorously. Not so well known is the reply by Krishna to every one of these charges in another piece, Illai illai in Mohanam, also with eight charanams. There are literally hundreds of similar examples in his operas based on the Bhagavatam, Ramayana, Pranavopadesham or similar epics and legends.
Sangatis are pre-composed variations in a composition and rendered in a disciplined manner (as opposed to variations born from free improvisation). Usually, variations are melodic in nature while the lyrics remain constant. Several of Venkata Kavi’s pieces have such sangatis but he has also shown the concept of lyrical variations. For instance, in the pallavi of his Abhogi piece, Mahashaya hrdaya, he has composed three variations in the madhyamakala passage as given below:
madhukara champaka vana vihara manamohana Madhusoodana navabhooshana
madhukara champaka vana vihara nava pallava padakara madana gambheera
madhukara champaka vana vihara govardhana dhara bhujaga nartana charana
Venkata Kavi also used his innovative skills in the structures of his compositions. In some songs Venkata Kavi has varied the ratios or inserted madhyamakalams between slower passages within a given section as seen in the pallavi of Padmini vallabha in raga Dhanyasi.
Venkata Kavi was a master of finishes. In several songs, his endings are in interesting rhythmic patterns. For example, Bhuvanamoha in Dhanyasi, where he has capped off the charanam with a pattern of 6 repeated 11 times, which is a wonderful way to get to half a beat landing (which is the commencing point of the pallavi) from the beat after 2 cycles of Adi tala. The words are superbly woven in lilting Sanskrit:
atinootana kusumakara vrjamohana saraseeruha dalalochana mamamanasa patuchorasu- swarageetasu- muraleedhara suramodita bhavamochana
There are many other instances of similar endings in krtis like Alavadennalo in Paras (5th charanam) and Mummada vezhamugattu Vinayakan in Nattai.
Venkata Kavi has composed on a wide range of themes. The most popular of his songs are on Lord Krishna but he has composed on a number of other deities as well, such as Vinayaka, Tyagaraja of Tiruvarur, Kamakshi, Rama, Kartikeya, Narasimha, Anjaneya, Ranganatha, and also on Surya, Radha and other mythological characters. He has composed on great sages such as Shuka Brahma Rishi, Jayadeva and Valmiki. Besides, he has composed several songs on the greatness of Guru, and general philosophy and approach to God. His works contain references to Azhwars, Nayanmars, Ramanuja, Tulasidas and many other revealing his knowledge of their works and contributions and his reverence towards them.
The most well known is "Krishna Ganam" based on Bhagavatam, which narrates Krishna’s birth and colourful childhood, beginning from Devaki-Vasudeva’s wedding and Kamsa’s curse and ending with Krishna’s wedding with Rukmini. It is now well known that many popular songs on Krishna like Taye yashoda, Alaippayude kanna, Pal vadiyum mukham, Parvai onre podume and Pullai piravi tara venum are part of this opera.
Venkata Kavi also composed an entire group of pieces covering Krishna's wedding with Radha. His other operas include:
Pranavopadesham (which is a single folk style piece with 83 stanzas narrating Lord Subramanya's famous story of teaching his father, Shiva)
Life sketch of Manickavachakar
Life sketch of Kungili Nayanar
Life sketch of Tirumangai Azhwar
Several songs from Ramayana and Mahabharata are missing but even the few songs which have been found showcase "his skills in giving original treatment of known episodes" as dancer Dr Vyjayantimala Bali states.
The composer also penned abridged versions of Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavatam.
Venkata Kavi has also composed several group krtis like Saptaratnas, Kamakshi Navavaranam and Anjaneya ratnas. He has also composed several shlokas like Madhava panchakam, Nrsimha panchakam, Ranganatha Panchakam and so on.
His Saptaratnas (seven gems = seven songs) are similar in style to Tyagaraja’s pancharatnas (five gems) in their musical structure consisting of the main refrain (pallavi), a contrasting section (anupallavi) and a series of other sections (charana) in medium tempo (madhyama kala) that can be rendered as swara and sahitya.
The saptaratnas are:
Bhajanamrta – Nattai
Aganita mahima – Gowla
Madhava hrdi khelini' – Kalyani
Balasarasa murali – Keeravani
Jatadara – Todi
Alavadennalo – Paras
Sundara nandakumara – Madhyamavathi
Besides, he composed the Anjaneya Saptaratna krtis, eulogizing Hanuman and this entire set is in Sanskrit. These are:
Pavana kumara - Vasantha
Veekshitoham - Kedaragowla
Anjanaananda ambodhi chandra - Todi
Shree raghavadhootam - Suruti
Bhaktabhagadheya - Madhyamavathi
Satvaguna virachitanga - Rasamanjari
Vahini tata - Malayamarutam
Of these, the last two were not published which led to a wrong categorization in some quarters. However, these have been subsequently located in the possession of the NKB's family and disciples.
Venkata Kavi also composed Navavarnams (nine varnams) on the goddess Srividya to be sung during Dasara. Apart from the main nine songs for the nine nights, he has also composed Vinayaka stuti, Dhyana stuti and a Phala stuti. There are several similarities (and differences) between his Navavaranams and that of Muthuswami Dikshitar but both reveal the composers’ scholarship in the various aspects of Devi worship. These are:
Sri Ganeshwara – Shanmukhapriya – Adi – Vinayaka stuti
Vanchayati yadi kushalam – Kalyani – Adi – Dhyana stuti
Santatam aham seve – Deshakshi – Adi - (1st avaranam)
Bhajaswa shree – Nadanamakriya – Adi - (2nd avaranam)
Sarvajeeva dayapari – Shuddha Saveri – Mishra Chapu - (3rd avaranam)
Yoga yogeshwari – Anandabhairavi – Khanda Triputa (2 kalais) - (4th avaranam)
Neelalohita ramani – Balahamsa – Khanda Dhruvam (2 kalais) - (5th avaranam)
Sadanandamayi – Hindolam – Sankeerna Matyam - (6th avaranam)
Sakalaloka nayika – Arabhi – Adi - (7th avaranam)
Shankari Shri Rajarajeshwari – Madhyamavathi – Adi - (8th avaranam)
Natajana kalpavalli – Punnagavarali – Adi - (9th avaranam)
Haladharanujam praptum - Manirangu - Adi - Phala stuti
While the pieces showcase the composer's high caliber approach to melody, lyric, poetry and culture, they stand out for his masterly handling of intricate time measures of 9, 17 and 20 units per cycle in the 4th, 5th and 6th avarana kris respectively. This 8th avaranam has been set in alternate time-signatures within the same tala – chaturashram (4/4) and tishram (3/4).