The Krithi – Its Contribution to Modern Music

Sangeeta Kalanidhi G. N. Balasubramaniam, B. A. (Lit)


Life itself, according to the true Hindi ideal, is a dedication, in service to God-service in thought, word and deed. Music was born of the Sama Veda and the noblest use to which it could be put was singing the praises of the Almighty. All our men of God and latterly godly musicians and composers, sang only in praise of their Ishta Devata. The dissociation of music from this attitude began only about the latter half of the 19th Century, almost immediately after the time of the South Indian Trinity, who had then left us a varied and rich legacy of traditionally authentic and classical musical compositions. It is significant that these composers, on whose work modern music is built and thrives, took to the krithi-form of composition, to crystallise their musical thoughts and religious and philosophical sentiments in.

The history of the development of concert music is identical an analogous with that of the krithi in South India. The krithi again is a corollary and development of the older musical form, krithan. The krithan, as the word indicates, was sung on all religious and other occasions where namasankirthan of God was indicated. Every act of a Hindu, more so, singing has always been associated with God and religion. It is only very recently that music as such, and with a truly entertaining intention, has come into extensive use. The kirthan can be said to correspond to the bhajan or pad where the musical content of the composition is of lesser significance than the verbal or sahitya one. The kirthan or bhajan corresponds to the Divya-nama of the South. This is a musical form of composition with an opening refrain and usually with more than two or more charanas. Unlike the krithi it has no anupallavi. All charanas are sung in the same tune. In singing these divya-namas, after the end of every charana, the singer goes back to the beginning refrain or burden of the song, which is called pallavi.

The connotation of the word kirthan is different in the South. A Kirthankar (kirthan) in the North is a Harikatha performer – one who sings and expounds the meanings of the verbal content of the kirthans. In the South, kirthana is a musical composition with three parts: pallavi, anupallavi and charana. Around the tunes or musical concept of each part, the raga of the piece is expounded with variations, which are called sangathis, which are more often set in the original composition by the composer himself. It is the peculiar beauty of this type of composition, that it admits of other variations or sangathis which every performer or interpreter can add at the moment to the already existing ones, provided that these additions at the moment fit into the spirit and mood of the already set sangathis. It will be evident that the Northern kirthan is more for religious exposition and the Southern for a musical one.

The beginnings of the modern krithi was made by Jayadeva about the 12th Century AD in his ‘Gita Govinda’. The earliest krithis were written by Talapakkam Chinnayya who lived in the 15th Century. These have the three usual segments which make up a complete modern krithi. Though it is claimed that there were thousands of these compositions, all of them have been lost except a few. The next important composer of this form of music was Bhadrachala Ramdas, to who Thyagaraja has paid his homage as one of the sources for his musical inspiration. Till the beginnings of the 18th Century, music was literally a hand maid of religion and bhakthi. It was only later that attempts were made by scholars and musicologists to codify and formulate whatever was found in the past and what they thought a musical system should be, with a view to stabilising and helping future developments in the same field. With the advent of royal patronage, music and musicians were fostered and encouraged to such an extent, that religious functions in temples and palaces were always attended with music and dance, etc.

It was necessary to invest compositions with greater musical and entertaining value in order that the vast masses, who gathered around palaces or temples, could be made to listen to these performances even though the language and purport of the songs were not intelligible to them. It is not surprising therefore that new musical forms were invented and such of these which could lend themselves to the impress of the personality of the performer, survived and gained popularity and currency. It was just before this that composers, with or without the expectations of returns for their labour, came into being and produced many krithis.

It has always been found that in the history of music, periods of royal and private patronage have produced great composers and periods of active and wide public patronage, great performers. Thus the latter half of the 18th Century was the golden age of composers when the South Indian Trinity: Thyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Syama Sastri produced by far the largest number of musical compositions. The availability of such authentic, classical pieces, in abundance, led to the growth of the music consciousness of the public, and again moulded the concert as it is today. The krithi therefore came timely, when music ceased to be merely an aid to bhakti or religion and acquired the status of form and social entertainment. With the increase in the volume of the listening public and the number of performing musicians, the krithi was a particularly happy medium for the performer to ensure for himself the status of one who was pushing classical music across, and the peculiar advantage of admitting the ingress of the performer’s musical personality into the rendering of it.

Here one is reminded of its counterpart in the North, namely the drupad. In the form and rendering of both the krithi and the drupad there are many points of semblance. Both are almost invariably introduced with rag alap and in the musician’s interpretation of them, ample opportunities are given for the artiste’s manodharma or improvisation, according to certain fixed principles and in a particular pattern and also with the tacit understanding that the words of the composition should not be shifted from their original place in the rhythmic set-up of the piece. Thus both the drupad and the krithi are examples of a musical form, which combines kalpita and kalpana music. Though the khayal admits of kalpana sangeetha, it is more romantic and a less classical type of kalpita sangeetha, than the drupad, nor does it claim and enjoy the status of the drupad. It is indeed a great pity that such a great classical and musical form of composition, has of late, lost its ground and appeal with the general public, and more so with musicians. Possibly the history of Hindustani music might have been parallel to the South Indian or Carnatic, had the drupad been kept up as its counterpart in the South, the krithi, has been.

The contribution made by the krithi to the growth of the South Indian concert can be really assessed when one studies the history of the concert from its beginning. The modern concert is only about six or seven decades old. Before then, it lasted for two hours or so, and the major portion of it was taken with ragam, tanam and pallavi for an hour and a half, and it was rounded with a few devotional verses in Tamil or slokas in Sanskrit. Later a varnam and three or four krithis, unadorned with the artistes embellishment, were sung as a prelude to ragam, tanam and pallavi, which again continued to occupy the most important place and portion on the concert, as it does even today. Gradually a few enterprising performers, during the pre-pallavi portion, introduced, little by little, their own swara singing and neraval for the krithis also. It was then that the krithis of the Trinity, especially Thyagaraja, came in handy and opportune, for these performers to introduce more and more of new ragas and compositions into the concert, and their own personal abilities while rendering raga, neraval and swara. Along with this growth in the volume of listeners, the performers had perforce to add to the less serious and lighter portion of the post-pallavi aspect of the performance. It was on this account that the lighter variety of classical music, like javalis, etc. found place in the platform years ago. Even then the number of krithis in the pre-pallavi portion was not as big as today. Most than two-thirds of the concert from then on comprised authentically classical pieces of the Trinity and amongst them a majority of Thyagaraja’s. One wonders whether those who are not conversant with the South Indian Carnatic concert will be able to understand and realise what a performance today can be without krithis at all. A ‘krithi-less’ concert will be a contradiction in terms, like a typical South Indian meal with out rice or a North Indian one without wheat. If one may dare suggest, without being thought presumptuous, well-known and time-honoured drupads should gradually regain the ground and appeal that have lost, and the public and musicians should, by their mutual interest and co-operations, see that these drupads come to enjoy the same status and importance as krithis do in the South.

Reproduced from the ‘Sri Thyagaraja Music Festival, Cleveland USA, Commemorative brochure’ 1992. Sri G. N. Balasubramaniam (1910-1965) popularily known as GNB, revolutionised Carnatic music in style and rendering during his short life span.