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Navagraham in Carnatic Music (Variations of a Theme)

  • October 15, 2007
  • T. Parasaran

(From Sruti Ranjani 2004)

Navagraham evokes many emotions in many people in India, particularly in the Southern part of the country. The skeptics dismiss it as a lot of balderdash; the scientifically inclined ones call it superstitious but the ones with faith endow them with attributes of Devatas and one of the Grahams is even elevated to “Iswarhood”, as in “Saniswara”.

(It could as well be that the name is a distorted version of the original name for the Graham, Sanaicharaha meaning, “The slow mover”, in Sanskrit, derived from “sanaihi charathi”. For Saturn astronomically being the slowest of the six planets around the sun in our solar system, it is a fitting name.)

Be it as it may, Navagraham is very much in the Hindu psyche. In many of our rituals before undertaking a major task we start off with Ganesh puja followed by Navagraham Santhi puja to invoke the propitious intervention of the Grahams for the successful completion of the undertaking in question.

When I was asked to write the above article, I thought that it was quite a coincidence; during my recent trip to India I had the good fortune of attending a multimedia dance festival by Abhinaya Natyalaya of Chennai, consisting of performances on Ganapathi, Venkatadri Mahatmyam and finally Navagraham Ula in the Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai. In the last program, each one of the Grahams (the planets) is explained scientifically and then the descriptions of the Graham starting from the complexion, the vastram or garb he is adorned with and finally the Sthalam or geographical town where the Graham is worshipped as a demi-god was shown in a video presentation. Next came the piece de resistance, the dance drama of one episode on each Graham followed by a stage representation of the graham in the accepted form and dress and vahanam. The finale was a procession of all the Navagraham that left a lasting impression on the audience.

Coming back to our point of discussion we see many references to appease the Grahams or invoking a higher power to ensure the invokers well being. Many strong believers in religion scoff at giving too much importance to Navagraham and astrology because after all the planets can only reflect what has been ordained by God. Therefore meditating truly on the chosen Deity should be sufficient to ward off all the negative happenings that could be caused by the planets. Both Purandhara Dasa and Sri Thyagaraja believed in this and did not think of offering prayers to the Grahams. [1]

A very similar approach is seen in an early reference to the topic from early seventh century CE Tamil literature. It is an invocation by the child saint, Sri ThiruGnana Sambandar. In his famous and oft quoted set of verses from Tevaram, the songs and poems praising Lord Siva, there is the “Thirukkolaru Padigam”. The title means poems to remove bad happenings caused by Grahams. Those who are aficionados of Carnatic Music would be familiar with late Sri Madurai Mani Iyer and later Sri T. V. Sankaranarayanan singing this “Veyuru Toli pangan”. The gist is as follows. He who is the half of Parvati, of beautiful shoulders, He who has the throat that swallowed the poison and He who plays the Veena, He who wears the Ganga which has no blemish and the moon on His head, has entered our minds and so all the nine Grahams (These are listed by their names in the poem) are not only good to us the devotees but indeed very good. This is sometimes rendered by artists as a post pallavi light piece, more like a, “palastuti or Kadai kaappu”, to assure the listener that no evil will befall them. [2]

A rather similar idea is seen in Sri Purandhara’s composition sung in Atana, which is self explanatory.
“Sakala graha bala nine sarasijaksha
nikhilavyapaka nine visvarakshaka
Ravi Candra Budha nine Rahu Ketu nine
Kavi Guru Saniyu Mangalanu nine
Divaratriyu nine…”

Sri Thyagaraja’s, Revagupti Raga, “Grahabalamemi” is a slight twist of the same idea.
“Grahabalamemi Sri Ramanugrahabalame balamu
grahabamemi Tejomaya vigrahamunu
dhyaninchu variki (navagraha)
grahapeedala pancha papamulanagrahamulu
gala kaamaadiiripula nigrahamu
jeyu Harini Bhajinchu
Thyagarajuniki rasikagrsarulaku”

This is a beautiful piece as a composition with a clever play of the word Graha: Anugraha, vigrahamu, nigrahamu, for example. It is clear in Sri Thyagaraja’s mind just as in Sri Purandhara’s that no importance should be attached to astrology for it is the Lord who is the basis of all the forces of planets, He being the sarvagraha adhara Bhuta. thus resembling the Tevaram concept. [1]. The story goes that this was the response of Sri Thyagaraja when his disciples wanted him to write some prayers for Navagraham just as Sri Dikshitar did for one of his suffering disciples.

Sri Dikshitar had a different attitude and being a strong believer in astrology being himself an adept in the Sastra, (as was Sri Syama Sastri), he did believe in rituals and local traditions. He, therefore, did not have any second thoughts about writing songs to appease the Grahams. Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar wrote individual compositions on the Navagraham or at least there is no contention to say seven of them. It is the belief of many Carnatic Music pundits that the first seven were written by Sri Dikshitar definitely but the last two were added to the set later on. [3]

It appears that one of his foremost disciples, Thambi Appan suffered from an incurable stomach-ache and the astrologer in Dikshitar attributed the ailment to the transition of Guru or Brahaspati. He thought that singing Guru’s praise would appease Guru sufficiently to ensure a cure for his disciple. The story goes that the disciple sang the song daily, faithfully as instructed and was cured. The same story is told differently in different references that the transit was Sani’s and not Jupiter, but the main idea is still the same. Satisfied that it worked Dikshitar was prompted to complete the series of writing on all the Navagraham so that whoever wanted to appease the Navagraham thus could do so. [4, 5]. A listing of all the seven Navagraham kritis, of Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar [6] is given in the accompanying table.

It may be noted that the first seven are in different Talas and all of them are exquisitely executed with so much of information packed about the Grahas and it is no wonder that they have been popular in the Music repertoire.

I believe that the readers may remember many more references, anecdotes and music pertaining to the Navagraham and it would be interesting to hear from them on the topic. I want to thank my sister Sarada for the write up on Tevaram and for typing the script.

SuryamurtheSaurashtraChatusra Dhruva
Chandram BhajeAsaveriChatusra Matya
AngarahamSuratiChatusra Rupaka
Bhudham AsrayamiNatakurunjiMisra Jampa
BruhaspateAtanaTisra Triputa
Sri Sukra BhagavantamParasKanta Ata
Divakara TanujamYadukula kambodhiChatusra ekam
Smaraamyaham SadaRama manohariRupaka
Mahasuram KetumSamaraRupaka

1. Spiritual heritage Of Sri Tyagaraja. Introductory Thesis. Dr. V. Raghavan. Text and Translation by C. Ramanujachari. Sri R.K. Mutt, Chennai, India 1966.
2. Contributed by T. Sarada.
3. One on one talk between Mani Subramaniyam and T. Sarada.
4. Muthuswami Dikshitar. Justice T. L. Venkatarama Iyer. National Book Trust. New Delhi, India.1968.
5. Thyagaraja Ganamrutam. Book1. S. K. Seetha Devi. Ganamrutam Press, Chennai, India. 1967.
6. Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar Keethanaigal. A. S. Sundharam Iyer, Music book Publishers, Chennai, India. 1989.

(Sri Parasaran, a chemist by profession, is a regular contributor to Sruti publications. He is a long time life member of Sruti and an avid music enthusiast.)

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