Sopana Sangeetham

The music tradition of Kerala – A performance for the gods

We talked about the movement of Carnatic music stalwarts and capitals, its development in Tanjore, and the part played by the Tanjavur quartet. We also looked at the contributions of the famous Shadkala Govinda Marar from Kerala. Now let us change tack and focus on a music form which was in vogue in Kerala, one that was slightly different from the Carnatic music that we covered so far. In the process we will also very briefly touch upon the language prevalent in Kerala in the medieval times, namely Manipravalam and get to know the marar community.

There is nobody who has done better research on this subject than Leela Omcherry and her daughter Deepti Omcherry. The history of music in Kerala is explained by them in such detail and anybody who is keen on the subject is advised to refer their works or listen to their lucid interviews. This article will only serve to be an introduction and is based very much on the fine and painstaking research by Deepti and her mother, augmented with finer details provided by others (referenced at the end of the article), so I start with my thanks to those fine teachers.

Like everywhere else, there was traditional music which refined itself to Jati (tribe, clan) or nadodi (folk) sangeetham. They were but naturally simplistic and based on a few notes or swaras. This was in colloquial languages prevalent in various regions and suited the performance, dance and worship forms of the period, at primate places of worship be it located in groves or caves. Sometimes this kind of music was termed Dravidian music. But it became something different in the precinct of the temples, though quite naturally evolving out of the Jati sangeetham (Pulluvan pattu, Kaniyan pattu, pana pattui, Thottam Pattu, Arjuna nrittam etc) which we mentioned above.

Kulashekara Varman of Malayalam as many of you know, was instrumental in the building of some of the first temples after the various Chola temples in the Tamilakam region. With the construction of the sopana mandapam and the koothambalam in Kerala temples, the forms of offerings, prayers and methods (aradhana sampradaya) were augmented with music and dance, both of which ended up as samarpanams or devotional submissions to the reigning deity in the temple.

But there is more to all this for in the old days, most Siva temples followed Tamil practices and the songs sung were Saiva thevaram or Tevaram pattu (KVK Guruvayoor pg42). The arrival of Jayadeva’s Ashtapathi in the 13th-14th century (which details the romantic life of Krishna) and its acceptance resulted in its eventual implementation as the quasi standard in temples, coinciding with the prevalent Bhakti movement. Perhaps it also fitted well with the Sanskritized Manipravalam development in early medieval Kerala and hence gained popularity over the Tevaram practice in Tamil. The development of the Sopanam style gained popularity and, by the 14th century, singers of the sopanam style contributed extensively to temple music. It was also the period when the Sanketham concept was in vogue where the temple and its authorities exercised a good amount of authority. A large number of temples in Kerala were virtually sovereign states (akin to the Vatican today) with a well-defined territory called the Sanketham. The rituals and methods of worship were also prescribed by the Sanketham authorities. The temple owned property, employed many personnel for its upkeep, and laid strict rules. It also decided who did what and which caste was ideal for what. Bigger temples had a hand in promotion of specific art forms, such as Ramanattam, Kathakali and so on.

Music for the gods followed bhakti traditions and were usually in Sanskrit (hence termed Arya bhasha) and when done at the sopnama or temple steps was called Kotti paadi seva (prayers with vocal singing and drumming). Obviously as it involved an individual enacting various events of an epic or legend concerning the particular god, the intonation presented but one singular bhava (mood) and used only swaras (notes) most suited for that performance. This limited repertoire remained constant with the passage of time for the simple reason that it was ritualistic and any change would in theory have upset the gods. So the strict outline of a jeeva swara with its related swaras to create a sopnana sthayam remained unaltered with the passage of time and thankfully we still see it in Kerala.  But it was not necessarily one which fitted with what is today known as the structured (sashtriya) music from the Carnatic melekarta scheme, and did have a few anya swaras (unrelated notes) creeping in but suiting the creation of a bhava or moving within it.

The vocalist thus stood to one side of the sopanam and sang devotional hymns to a set structure devoid of too many complications. Whether he did it solo to the accompaniment of the idakka or with an edakka player is subject to debate, but as it is to the accompaniment of kottal or drumming, it was also known as kottipaadiseva. Njeralath Harigovindan a present day exponent explains - This music form was intended to be sung for a short while, while the doors of the sanctum were shut and the deity was not visible.  The aim was to fill the ears of the worshippers standing in front of the doorway, with devotional songs so that their attention did not wander while their eyes had nothing to look at.

The style of singing is seen to be quite influenced by the old ragas or ‘panns’ which were commonplace in the Tamilakam (The term “Pan” is used to denote the term “raga” in Tamil isai). The ancient panns evolved first into a five note scale and later into the seven note Carnatic Sargam or Ezhisai. Today, you can see the usage of these paans only in Kerala’s unaltered versions of Sopana Sangeetham. As a temple performance, and one which depended on what time of the day prayers and poojas were done, it was intrinsically related to time and hence termed samaya sangeetham.

Examples of the ancient ragas used for Sopana saneetham are Desakshi, Sreekandi, Malabari, Banli, Samantha, Malahosvi, Goulipantu, Nalatha, Puraniru, Padi, Kanakkurinchi, Khandaram and so on. These ragas as mentioned, are typically sung to the time theory or Ganakala Niyama (certain ragas for certain periods of the day or night) which was also prevalent in Tamilian music. The Sopana style of singing is focused on devotional moods and has less of raga sancharas and sangathis.

As Sanketams dictated, orchestra during the puja became the exclusive right of the Marar (Poduval) community from North Malabar. Maaran (Maaraar, Maran) is the name given to temple musicians of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar in Kerala, and their primary duty was to provide the traditional temple Sopanam music. In parts of North Malabar they are known as Ochhans and Poduvals instead of Marar while in Travancore Panicker and Kurup are used. The higher classes of Maarans (Asupani Maarans) claim the six privileges Pani or Pano, Koni, Thirumuttom, Nadumuttam, Velichor and Poochor. Pani is the right to play the Asu and Pani. (In the Travancore regions they are called Chitikans (chaitaka)). Kerala’s temple music allows only certain talas and the ones preferred are Chempada (adi), Adanta (ata), Muriadanta(chapu) , Champa (jhampa) and panchari (rupaka).

A music enthusiast would always want a comparison and in general one can say that while the
scientific basis behind Sopnam and Carnatic are similar, the main difference is in the style of rendition. As it is sung near the steps or sopanam, it was called Sopanathil Pattu and is today broadly termed Sopana Sangeetham. Those items required for a public Carnatic performance such as aalapana, sangathis, brighas and so on are mostly absent in Sopanam. The focus instead is on gamakas and a slow tempo with long pauses to provide dramatic effect provides a classic example of bhava sangeetham. The stress is on the sahitya (textual poem) and generally does not exceed one sthayi in Octave range. Sruthi is still paramount, and tempo is kept with the chengila – a gong tapped with a wooden stick. It is also termed as an example of kalpitha sangeetham set to specific norms whereas Carnatic is more manodharma. The edakka, the main shruti-laya instrument of Sopanam, is incidentally tuned to pancham (Pa) and has a range of only one sthayi, with panchamam as its base.

But there is a different angle proposed by some experts, that it was a music meant for sobhana or dance, and that they were originally sung by devasris or singing girls of the temple. Dr Omchery opines that in the South it was sung originally by the padi ilars or the Tali nangas of Travancore. They were the kriyangis or wives of god who alone had the authority to perform before god, be it music or dance. Similar to the Nuns of Chritianity, they were secluded inside the temple precincts and appeared only for the pooja performance. The girls belonging to the highest level were offerings by the king from his family and were called Uttamottama and were hardly seen, and spent all their time in prayers in seclusion.

The melodious rendering of Ashtapadi in the traditional Sopana style can still be heard in places like the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, but what is it actually? Imagine ascending the steps or sopanam, i.e. the steps leading to the sreekovil in a Kerala temple. Sopanam music is like climbing the steps, slowly, step by step in a slow tempo (like vilambit laya in Hindustani). The glide is akin to slow sea waves and very rhythmic (andolita gamaka), but unique to Sopana singing with a focus on bhakti. As exponents explain, typically you begin with a graha swara, rotating in and out of laya in vilambita, using one or two swaras and then moving on to the next step using the swaying adolita gamaka. Strictly old margam tala (Carnatic is laya bound) bound, it reaches a climactic phase through differing singing speeds vary from patikaala to shatkaala without the steps becoming evident. Purists will also notice that sopnam exhibits two additional swaras and they are termed the kairali gandhari and kairali nishada. Even the Sa and pa are shaken. The drum accompaniment to Kerala’s sopnam singing is the idakka, a small drum shaped like Siva’s damaru.

Sopana Sangeetham actually underwent some compositional changes when the Geeta Govindam or Ashtapadi by Jayadeva reached Kerala. Jayadeva’s Ashtapadi in Sanskrit covering the tales of Krishna and Radha (eight stanzas) soon became a norm for Sopanam singers and it was also the music for temple dances such as Ashtapadi attam. This was the forerunner to Krishnattam (Krishnagiti - covering the whole life of Krishna) later formulated in the courts of Manavedan the Zamorin of Calicut. As it moved Southwards, Krishnattam developed into Ramanattam (See related article under references) and later to Kathakali where Sopnaa sangeetham continued to form the bedrock, but based on manipravalam. And slowly it left the temple and got associated with performing arts. Some works like shivashtapadi also found popularity in those days.

Tamil language was the original language of Tamilakam, but Grantha bhasha used by the nobility of Cheranaad was a mixture of Tamil with Sanskrit. Manipravalam was a mixture of Sanskrit and early Malayalam (the version popular in Kerala – more like Karin Tamil) and was more of a literary style used in medieval Kerala. For cultural purposes at that time, Malayalam and Sanskrit formed a language known as Manipravalam, where both languages were used in an alternating style, and Manipravalam slowly transitioned to what we know as modern Malayalam. It was as you can imagine popular for poetry and used by poets and writers.

Sopanam was the music to which medieval Travancore dancers performed, as Sopana sangeetham evolved to abhinaya sangeetha. And so as you can see, it formed the musical basis of the Kerala’s tauryatrika – sageetham, nrittam and natakam. As time passed by, it found a powerful patron in the form of Swathi Tirunal of Travancore who together with his uncle Iraviyamman Thampi created even more manipravalam based compositions, in the Sopanam style and also used it as a base for the Dasiyattam of Travancore as well as the revitalized art form which we all know as Kerala’s Mohiniyattam. Post Swati Thirunal, we see that some of his compositions were being reset or polished and represented in relatively modern Carnatic ragas and styles due to the efforts of Sethu Parvathi Bayi, Muthaiah Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

Sugandhavalli Bayi and Nanditha Prabhu add that a style of Mohinyattam termed the Sopanam style was revived with Kavalam Narayan Panikkar’s efforts. As they put it, it was a retreat into Kerala’s own forgotten treasures which were latent in the ritual dance traditions. Panicker tried to re- look on the vāchika aspect of Mōhiniyāṭtam. Rendering of music in this tradition mainly tried to bring out the emotions and feelings through the eloquent pauses to stress on the lyrics. Kavalam Narayana Panicker advocated that this style of rendering would be more apt for Mōhiniyāṭtam rather than using Carnatic music which laid more stress on gamaka prayoga. In addition to the above, introduction of sopana sangeetham was more readily accepted by the dancers Kanak Rele of Bombay and Bharathi Sivaji of Delhi. They used this musical rendering in combination with their own definitions of Mōhiniyāṭtam (Angika aspect) which was well received by rasikas outside Kerala. This style developed a repertoire with items like Ganapathy, Mukhachalam, Tatvam, Niram, Padam and Jeeva. This was patterned as a journey of Jeevatma towards the Paramatma symbolically represented by a devotee’s journey from the entrance of the temple to the inner sanctum sanctorum. Today more dancers in Kerala are accepting this sopanam style.

The two styles Thekkan (south) and vadakkan (north) developed and the southern style virtually vanished. As days passed by, the vadakkan style started to get influenced by the populist Carnatic music. It is not an art taught in schools since Sopana sangeetham is traditionally taught by singers to boys of the next generation, so has few takers these days. While I was growing up, we used to have two great exponents Appu and Kunjukuttan, in Pallavur. The one name that is synonymous with Idakka and Sopana sangeetham is the legendary Pallavur AppuMarar—he was not only adept at using the edakka as a percussion drum, but also as a musical instrument.I can proudly say that I have been lucky to see many of his performances.

Nevertheless, there are a few Sopanam performers these days like Njeralath Harigovindan (Son of the great Rama Poduval), Sooranadu Harikumar, Ambalapuzha Vijayakumar and so on. We also have a lady singer of Sopanam these days, Girija Balakrishnan from Anamangad who plays her own edakka.

Mohiniyattam which utilized only Sopanam music is also evolving with faster Carnatic notes and we get to hear Sopanam only during daily performances in bigger temples. But perhaps that is where it always belonged, in the temple, as a performance only for gods….. And at the end of the day people will continue to ask – why did the people of Kerala always strive to be different, be it music, dance, language….well a tricky question, best answered another day.

So how does Sopana sangeetham, defined thus by Lakshmana Pillai as ‘simple, sweet, perhaps more languid, yet more pathetic and tender than the Aryan, and more sung in country parts than in towns’…. sound like? Click these links to hear some examples.


But the one that comes to the mind of most malayalee’s is that classic scene with Oduvil Unnikrishnan and his rendering of vande mukunda hare(Sung by MG Radhakrishnan) with an idakka accompaniment. 

My next article will focus on the temple dancers and a popular dance of Kerala – Mohiniyattam, the influence of Sopanam on it and many other related aspects

The Immortals of Indian Music – Ed Leela Omchery, Deepti Omchery Bhalla
Stylistic variations in Mohiniyattam – S Sugandhavalli Bayi and Nandita Prabhu
Contributions of Travancore to Carnatic music – Dr S Bhagyalekshmy
Madhurakala – Kerala theatrical arts – Dr Kanak Rele
Music in Travancore – RV Poduval
Kerala and Karnatic music – PN Krishnamoorthy
Music of the Sopanam – Brig RB Nayar
Mohiniyattam – A dance tradition of Kerala – Betty True Jones
Ritual music and Hindu rituals of Kerala – Rolf Killius
Vanishing temple arts- Deepti Omchery Bhalla
Music of Kerala - For a more detailed explanation please follow Leela Omchery’s explanation 
Role of Music in the temples of Northern Kerala – M Varma
Maddys Ramblings – From Krishnattam to Kathakali 


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