An in-depth study of the available compositions of Venkata Kavi, his contributions and the technical terms and ragas used and mentioned in his compositions and the luminaries mentioned help us have a very fresh perspective on various historical aspects.
The significance of many historical aspects can be understood by objectively analyzing certain points.
Standard of music during pre-trinity period: It is generally assumed that the original music of many pre-trinity composers were lost and tuned by latter day artistes. But the available tunes of pre-trinity composers like Karveti Brothers and Ramaswamy Dikshitar are excellent indicators of the high levels of evolution our system had attained even by the end of the 17th century. This dispels the wide-spread opinion that music was fairly unremarkable before the Trinity. On the contrary, it was more sophisticated and complicated and the Trinity’s foremost contribution to Carnatic music (especially Tyagaraja) was to simplify many of those for the future generations such as eschewing some of the unwieldy aspects like gait changes and minimizing medium and fast passages and use of complex talas. Therefore, it is no surprise that Venkata Kavi’s music was highly sophisticated and exquisite with respect to melody, rhythm and lyrics. His prolific creations place things in a sharper perspective. His style and musicianship suggest that Carnatic music must have evolved to a very high degree of intricacy and test the best in business.
Many firsts to his credit: Venkata Kavi had many firsts to his credit and it is evident that few composers handled madhyamakalas or gait changes as extensively, skillfully or colourfully as he did. Other firsts to his credit include speed shift (kalai change) within a composition and pre-composed mathematical reduction (kuraippu) to lead to climactic finale. This has paved the way for many of these concepts to be used in ragam-tanam-pallavis and other contemporary compositions today.
Use of technical terms and raga mudra: Venkata Kavi has incorporated the name of the raga (and in some instances, the name of the Tamil Pann) in a few compositions. He has also referred to his own compositions in others. This is unquestionable proof that these are his own creations and cannot have been tuned by others. Moreover, he has also made many musical references in his works which also indicate the concepts that were relevant in that period and origin of some of the technical terms in music could also prove to be good historical pointers.
Mention of various luminaries and many operatic creations: Venkata Kavi has mentioned various great personalities, saints and composers in several compositions and even dedicated full compositions or even full operas to them. This helps us understand or deduce the time period of his existence. Among many personalities mentioned by him such as Tulasidasa, Tukaram, Namadev etc, Bhadrachala Ramadasa seems to be the last personality mentioned by him, when looked at in the chronological perspective. So this helps us roughly ascertain the time period of his existence.
Ragas handled by the composer: The composer has used all the major ragas such as Kalyani, Kambhodhi, Bhairavi, Todi, Shankarabharanam and Kharaharapriya. He has also handled rakti ragas such as Shahana, Surati, Devagandhari, Anandabhairavi and Athana and relatively minor ragas such as Hamsanadam, Umabharanam, Malavi, Jayantashree and Kannadagowla. Some of the ragas like Kannadagowla have been mentioned in early treatises itself but ragas like Abhogi, Malayamarutam, Manjari, Sarasvati and Navarasakannada which were believed to be used by Tyagaraja first, might have existed before. There are also instances where different ragas with same names have been prevalent. For example, Malavi was classified under Mayamalavagowla (as per Sangeeta Saramrta). But this Malavi was entirely different from the Malavi composed in Tyagaraja’s Nenarunchinanu (which is a derivative of Harikambhodhi scale). However, it is very interesting to note that Venkata Kavi has composed Vallari Samane in Malavi and also mentions the name of this raga in another Ragamalika composition.
Dating of ragas – an important historic perspective: The dating of ragas lends a very important angle to viewing the historical significance of many factors in this art form.
The exact period of some treatises such as Sangraha Choodamani and Meladhikara Lakshana has not been established.
Prof S R Janakiraman mentions that dating ragas cannot be based on the fact that composers have used them. Other factors have to be considered in dating a treatise.
Given many factors, the contention that Jayantashree and Umabharanam could not have existed before Sangraha Choodamani is not axiomatic.
An important point to note that a treatise generally provides us a clue only about the period after which a raga could not have been created and not what period it could have been discovered.
Some ragas may have been in existence but not yet known outside a small region.
There could also be other treatises mentioning some ragas that have been found so far.
There could have been several ragas that the authors of the treatises would have been aware of but these might not have gained overall acceptance to merit their inclusion, when they compiled lists.
Handling of melakartas and Hindustani ragas: Venkata kavi did not compose in each of the 72 melakartas – as they may not have been codified or classified at that time. But he definitely seems to have used a few like Chakravakam, Gowrimanohari, Sarasangi that were generally believed to have been used later. Ragas like Harikambhodhi and Kharaharapriya which were again attributed to the Trinity period have been used by Venkata kavi and he has composed several masterpieces in these ragas. He has also incorporated the name Simhendramadhyamam in one of his Mahabharata songs. If one were to accept the point mentioned by Prof S R Janakiraman that Sangraha Choodamani and Meladhikara lakshana were 1750, it is not improbable that the seeds of the mela nomenclature had been sown at least in the case of some ragas, much earlier than the time they found mention in the books. It has been generally accepted that Muttuswami Dikshitar introduced several ragas from the north which he got acquainted with when we visited North India. However, Venkata Kavi has composed in ragas such as Dvijayavanti, Hameerkalyani and Sindhubhairavi. This could also be attributed to the Maratha influence in the Tanjore area.
Rare ragas: Venkata kavi has also composed in ragas such as Kannadamaruvam, Hamsageervani, Lalitagandharvam and Deeparam which do not seem to have been handled by any other major composer. The period and origin of these ragas calls for deeper study.
Therefore, one can observe the state of the art as a whole and gain fresh perspectives on many historical aspects and lead to more refreshing perspectives too.