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The music of the Geeta Govinda
- Dr.Ileana Citaristi

December 8, 2023

(Excerpt from: I. Citaristi, Odissi and the Geeta Govinda, New Delhi, Manohar Publisher, 2022)

The first English translation of the Geeta Govinda to appear in the West was the one published by Sir William Jones in 1792. In the preface to the book he writes:
"When I first read the songs of Jayadeva who has prefixed to each the names of the mode in which it has to be sung, I had hoped to procure the original music, but the pundits of the South referred me to those of the West and the Brahmans of the West would have sent me to those of the North while they of Nepal and Kashmir declared that they had no ancient music but imagined that the notes of the Geeta Govinda must exist if anywhere, where the poet was born." [1]

The fact that most of the raga attributed by Jayadeva to each of his poems are described in the ancient and medieval texts on music written by Odia pundits, is considered by the scholars a further evidence to assert the belonging of the poet to the land of Odisha. Starting from the Sangeeta Damodara by Subhankara (eighth century or fifteenth century) to Geeta Prakash by Krishnadas Badajena Mohapatra and Sangeeta Muktavali by Harichandan (sixteenth century) to Sangeeta Narayana by Purushottama Mishra (eighteenth century) to name a few, all the treatises describe in detail, the particularities of each raga (raga lakshana) and their visual representations (dhyana murti). Barring some minimal differences, there is considerable uniformity among the manuscripts in relation to the list of the raga attributed to each song. The specified ragas are: Malava (1st, 6th and 13th), Gujjari (2nd, 5th, 7th, 11th, 15th and 18th), Basanta (3rd, 14th and 20th), Ramakiri (4th and 24th), Gondakiri (12th), Karnata (8th), Desakhya (9th and 16th), Varadi (10th, 21st and 22nd), Desavaradi (19th), Bhairavi (17th), Vibhasa (23rd). [2]

The Odia treatises on music follow the old moorchana system which classifies the raga into different grama (village) as laid down by the ancient musical texts Natya Shastra by Bharata Muni, Dattilam by Dattila (second-third century), Brihaddesi by Matanga Muni (sixth-seventh century) and Sangitaratnakara by Sarangadeva (thirteenth century). According to this system, the notes in a grama have a particular location at intervals of a fixed number of the 22 shruti or nadi which are the original sounds from which the swara originate. Each raga is further classified by its ansaswara or vadiswara, the main note which gives the raga its particular colour or sentiment, grahaswara or starting note and nyasaswara or concluding note. The melodic movements of the swara in a particular raga composition are of four types: arohi (ascending), avarohi (descending), sthayee (lingering on the same note), sancharee (wandering) and the raga can be sampoorna if it has all the seven notes, sadava if one note is barjita (missing) or audava if two notes are missing.

With the amalgamation of the influence of the Persian music brought in by the Muslim invaders and with the reformation in the system of classification of the raga from the fifteenth century onwards Indian music underwent significant transformations. In the new system grama was substituted by mela (unity), a grouping of raga having the same common notes under the leadership of a melakarta or principal raga. The number of swara was also reduced to 12 from the 19 of the moorchana system, and the highly scientific method of calculating their positions according to the number of intercalated shruti was substituted by the introduction of komal or flat notes having one shruti lower than their shuddha form (Re, Ga, Dha, Ni), and teevra (MA) or sharp note, one shruti above the shuddha form, which went on to add to the seven standard or shuddha notes. This system of twelve notes seems to have been brought to Odisha only in the beginning of the twentieth century by the musicologist King Harichandanan Jagadevan of Paralakemundi and author of the book Sangita Sarbaswa; until then the old moorchana system was followed.

As far as the music of the Geeta Govinda is concerned, this continuous process of change and amalgamation resulted in each region [3] interpreting the prescribed melodies in a variety of adaptations and modifications. [4] In Odisha the raga prescriptions laid down by these treatises have been maintained in the ways the ashtapadi are sung in rituals belonging to the traditional parampara. The Odissi music tradition often has multiple tunes for each of the ashtapadis, all of them ancient, some in accordance to the raga prescribed by Jayadeva, and some not; this indicates a flexibility in accommodating alternate tunings by latter composers even centuries ago.

In the dance renditions of the ashtapadi, the choice of a particular melody from the part of the music composers have been dictated more by the melodious suitability of a particular raga to the theme and character of the ashtapadi than by the desire to adhere to the prescribed melodies laid down by Jayadeva. The two raga which have remained unchanged as far as the name is concerned, are the Basanta raga for the 3rd song 'Lalita lavanga lata parisilana' and the Bhairavi raga for the 17th song 'Yahi Madhava yahi Keshava mahavada kaitava vadam'. The dyana murti of the Basanta raga in the Sangeeta Damodara [5] is described as follows: 'Basanta is wearing a tuft of attractive peacock feather in his hair, he feeds the cuckoos with buds of mango flowers, beautiful as Cupid, he roams in the garden with delight'. [6] This dyana murti shloka has been retained in the Odissi dance composition of the pallavi in raga Basanta, one of the first pallavi that was composed by Balakrishna Das in the early fifties.

The lakshana (feature) of the same raga given in Sangita Muktavali, [7] describes the raga as belonging to the sampoorna category, with both the nyasaswara and ansaswara in sadjaswara (Sa), with origin from the sadji and madyama jati and stated to be sung in the season of spring. Accordingly, the arohi of the raga if transcribed from the moorchana system into the current twelve swara system (prachalita), [8] should be: Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni with Ni komal. But the raga Basanta used for the dance composition of the 3rd song of the Geeta Govinda has the arohi as Sa Ga Ma Dha Ni Sa and the avarohi as Sa Ni Dha Ma Ga Re Sa with Re komal.

The dyana murti of raga Bhairavi visualizes the raga as a lady worshipping lord Shankara with offering of lotus flowers while she is sitting on an altar made of crystal inserted in a tank. She is very fair in complexion and is singing songs with regular beats. According to the lakshana, the raga is audava since rishaba and panchama (Re and Pa) are absent. The ansaswara and grahaswara is the dhaivata (Dha) and nyasaswara is the madhyama note (Ma). Following this description the arohi of the raga according to the moorchana system is Dha Ni Sa Ga Ma Dha which translated in the prachalita system reads as Sa Re Ga Pa Dha Sa with Ga and Dha, komal. But the music rendition for the dance composition of the 17th song of the Geeta Govinda is based on a raga by the same name which has the arohi as Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa with Re Ga Dha Ni komal and the same sequence as avarohi. Although not adhering to the definition of Bhairavi raga indicated in the ancient texts, this version of Bhairavi seems to be very much belonging to the Odissi style of music since Odia poets of the eighteenth century such as Kabisurya Baladev Rath and Gopalakrishna had also composed songs in this version.

The first song of the Geeta Govinda, the dashavatar item, is meant to be sung in the Malava raga, which in all the treatises, is considered to be the king of raga. The Sangita Damodhara visualizes the raga as a lotus face hero kissed by a beautiful damsel. His body colour being green like the parrot, wearing round ornaments in the ear, and intoxicated by desire, he enters the music hall in the evening time wearing a garland. The Malava [9] raga is described as audava being deprived of rishaba (Re) and panchama (Pa), nisada (Ni) is its ansa, nyasa and graha. Gandhara note (Ga) is profusely used and sadja (Sa) and dhaivata (Dha) are vibrating. The time for singing is in the evening during the summer season. According to the moorchana system, the arohi of the raga is Ni Sa Ga Ma Dha Ni Sa which is translated in the prachalita system of the twelve notes as Sa Re Ma Pa Ni Sa with Ni komal. Jayadeva seems to have followed the tradition by starting his poem with an invocation set to raga Malava and by doing this he has reaffirmed the superior status attributed to this particular raga and sets the trend for the others to follow. The same raga is also assigned to the 6th song 'Sakhi he kesi mathanam udharam' and the 13th song 'Yami he kam iha saranam'. The musical compositions for the dance version of these three ashtapadis are based respectively on raga Chandrakant (1st), raga Pahadi (6th) and raga Shankara Bharanam (13th). The dashavatar item of the Odissi dance repertoire has retained the same raga in which it had been composed for the nataka 'Jayadeva' produced by the Odisha Theatre of Kalicharan Patnaik, whereas the melodies for the other two songs were set by Pandit Bhubaneswar Mishra in the sixties.

The other well-known ashtapadi set to dance by Kelucharan Mohapatra with music by Bhubaneswar Mishra are also based on raga other than the ones specified by the poet. The 11th song 'Dhira samire Yamuna tire' has been set to raga Kalyani (instead of Gurjjari raga), the 12th song 'Pashyati dishi dishi' to raga Desh (instead of raga Gundakiri) and the 24th song 'Kuruyadu nandana' to raga Mishra Kafi (instead of raga Ramkeri).

One of the reasons for the discrepancy between the indications mentioned in the text and the actual rendition of the musical modes in the dance versions may be attributed to the fact that the practice of those particular raga whose names and descriptions are rendered in the treatises, had become obsolete by the time the dance started its journey towards its revival. The fact that the treatises dealing with the detailed instructions on the traditional raga and their characteristics were written in Sanskrit can also be taken into consideration as one of the reasons for the gradual disconnect of the theoretic aspects of the musical system from the ongoing practical usage. By the time the first institutions dedicated to the teaching of music started their activities in the middle of the twentieth century, the well established raga belonging to the Hindustani and Carnatic systems entered into the syllabus of the training system of these institutions slowing down the process of research into the indigenous traditional tunes.

The research in the field of music which was progressing at a slower pace than the one carried out by the practitioners of the dance tradition from the middle of the last century, has now taken a fresh impetus with a host of young music practitioners falling in the footsteps of the great pioneers in the field such as Tarini Charan Patra, Shyam Sundar Kar, Balakrishna Das and Kalicharan Patnaik who had kept alive the tradition until the last century and more recently of music pundits such as Gopal Panda, Shyamsundar Dhir, Kartik Narayan Padhi and others who have dedicated their life to establish the authenticity and peculiarity of the Odissi music tradition.

Considerable work in this direction has also been done by the Odissi Research Centre, an institution established in 1985 with the purpose of facilitating the sharing of expertise among the different doyens of music and dance through a series of seminars research-oriented. The indications about the structure of the traditional raga provided by the music treatises are supported by a rich oral tradition of musical tunes rendered through the different forms of the Odissi music such as champu, chhanda, chautisha, janana and bhajan. The Odia literary compositions of the medieval period (sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth century) indicate the names of raga to be attributed to each of the songs included. Composed on the lines of the Geeta Govinda, each work is a storehouse of melodic modes which were currently in use during their respective times.

While most of the raga already mentioned in the Geeta Govinda are used by the subsequent poets, several new ragas are also mentioned. In the very first imitation of the Geeta Govinda, the Abhinava Geeta Govinda (fifteenth century), the author has used only eight ragas from the previous work and he has added another 51 new ragas on his own. Similarly, Raya Ramananda in his Jagannatha Ballabha Nataka has only eight ragas in common with the Geeta Govinda, whereas the other 12 are new additions. Among the other imitations of the Geeta Govinda one can mention the Mukundavilasa by poet Raghuttama Tirtha (seventeenth century) with five new ragas, the Shivalilamrita by poet Agnichit Nityananda (eighteenth century) with four new ragas, and Srikrishnalilamrita by Pandit Nityananda with one new raga.

A systematic and scientific study of the grammar underlying this rich tradition is nowadays being carried on for the purpose of reconnecting the practical aspect to its theoretical foundation and disinvesting it of all the external elements which have crept into it. This would provide the answer to the query which Sir William Jones was posing more than two hundred years ago about where to find the original musical rendition of the ashtapadi according to the indications provided by the poet.

1- Quoted by Sir E. Arnold, The Indian Song of Songs, Kolkata: Jaico Publishing House, 1949, p. 153

2- According to the Sarvangasundari commentary, the oldest available commentary belonging to Odisha (fourteenth century), the raga mentioned in the Geeta Govinda are 12. The author attributes the raga Desi to the 19th song, Desavaradi to the 10th, Desakhya to the 9th and Varadi to the 16th.

3- The singing of the Geeta Govinda ashtapadi in the Kerala temples is rendered through the sopanam (lit. a flight of stairs) system of musical singing, a style which became very popular from the time the devotional rendering of the ashtapadi started to be part of the daily worship in the Vishnu temples of the region. The choice of the raga for each ashtapadi is determined by the hour of the day (morning, afternoon, evening) in which it is sung. The influence of the Geeta Govinda on the Kerala musical system can be dated back to the thirteenth century itself when the Krishna Giti by Manaveda composed on the metrical and structural pattern of the Geeta Govinda gave rise to a style of musical compositions known as ashtapadiattam.

4- According to K. Vatsyayan, 'Gita Govinda and the Artistic Traditions of India', Nartanam, vol. XV, no. 2, April-June 2015, p. 74, between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries the Geeta Govinda came to be an ideal script found suitable for rendering into a full and rounded musical composition by the musicologists of each region. She mentions that, according to the musicologists of the South, 'adaptability of the ashtapadi to the Karnataka music is amazing and they sound as if they had been originally composed in the present form'.

5- Subhankara, Sangeeta Damodara, Kolkata Sanskrit College, 1960, p. 30. An illustrated manuscript with illustrations by Raghunatha Prusty (1715) has been published by Kalicharan Patnaik in the form of a book in 1966 and reprinted as Raga-Chitra by Odisha State Museum in 2013.

6- Sikhandabarhochhayabaddhachuda pusnan pikam chutanabankurena | bhraman muda Sramamanangamurti matomatangasya basantaraga I

7-B.Harichandan, Sangita Muktavali, Bhubaneswar: Utkala Biswavidyalay (Sanskrit). n.d. p. 24

8- K.N. Padhi, Odissi Raga: Eka Tulanatmaka Adhyanana (Odia), Bhubaneswar: Institute of Indian Music, 2021, p. 149.

9-According to K.N. Padhi, Odissi Vocal, Bhubaneswar: Rawa Academy, 2007, p. 28, the Odissi raga Malaba, Malabagauda, Malabagiri, etc., testify the cross-cultural assimilation between Kalinga and Malaba which dates back to the legendary king Indradyumna, king of Malaba, who in the Satya Yuga came to Kalinga in search of Nilamadhava. The relationship between the two empires was further intensified through the matrimonial exchanges at the time of Kharavela (first century B C) and Chodagangadeva (eleventh century A D).

Dr. Ileana Citaristi
Dr. Ileana Citaristi is an Italian born dancer, who trained under Guru Kelucharan Mohapatra in Odissi and under Guru Hari Nayak in Mayurbhanj Chhau. She founded Art Vision in 1995 in Bhubaneswar. She has authored 'The making of a Guru' on Kelucharan Mohapatra, 'My Journey: A Tale of Two Births', Traditional Martial Practices in Odisha.'

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