From North To South: The Ramayana Through Music

Veejay Sai

Mar 29, 2023, 10:41 PM | Updated Mar 30, 2023, 01:25 PM IST

Shri Rama, Devi Sita and Lakshmana in the forest; illustration of Raja Ravi Varma (Wikimedia Commons)
Shri Rama, Devi Sita and Lakshmana in the forest; illustration of Raja Ravi Varma (Wikimedia Commons)
  • From bhajans of Tulsidas to kritis of Tyagaraja Swamy, let us celebrate Rama Navmi with music that celebrates Shri Rama.
  • “रामो विग्रहवान् धर्मः।“ or “Rama is the embodiment of Dharma” is a famous quote from the Srimad Ramayana of Maharishi Valmiki. 

    If you ask many people, they wouldn’t know where in the Ramayana this occurs or who says it. 

    This immortal line was said by the Daanava Maricha. The same one who took the form of a golden deer and was a turning point in the course of the entire story. 

    He was the first to realise the greatness of Rama. He was also the first to have a divine vision of Rama and knew that he was not dealing with an ordinary prince from Ayodhya. 

    Srimad Ramayana is also called the ‘Aadi Kavya’ or loosely translated to the first poem. Over six cantos or Kandas, the entire poem gives us the immortal story of Lord Rama. It is said that the last Kanda ‘Uttarakanda’ was a later addition to the existing text. 

    Over the centuries, the Ramayana has inspired numerous poets, sages and composers. It has materialized in a hundred different forms and narratives across India. Many times, we have heard narrow-minded political activists say that Ramayana has got nothing to do with the South of India. In fact, the largest bulk of literature about Ramayana comes from the South. 

    In the Tamil Sangam literature, we find references of Rama and Ramayana in the Purananuru and Akananuru literature going back to the BCE. 

    The ancient poetic literature of the Azhwar saints of Tamil Nadu has numerous references to episodes from the Ramayana. In the Naalayira Divyaprabandham, a compilation of four thousand verses of the Azhwar poet saints, you can find a number of ‘Paasurams’ that make a note of some or the other episode in the Ramayana. 

    In the 12th century poet Kambar wrote the ‘Ramavataram’, more popular as ‘Kamba Ramayanam’ in Tamil. 

    The great poet and philosopher Sri Vedanta Desika (1268-1369) composed the ‘Raghuveera Gadyam’, hailing the valour of Lord Rama. 

    In northern India, Goswami Tulsidas wrote the ‘Sriramacharitamanas’. 

    Bhadrachalam Ramadasu (1620 -1688) and Sadguru Tyagaraja Swamy (1767 -1847) composed hundreds of songs in Telugu and Sanskrit. 

    Arunachala Kavirayar (1711-1779) composed his famous ‘Rama Natakam’ in Tamil with 197 songs and 278 devotional verses. 

    Over the centuries, so many various versions of Ramayana were composed, taking the life and message of Lord Rama across the world. 

    We look at a few samples in the world of music and poetry. This list is by no means an exhaustive one. There are so many more great poets, saints and philosophers, musicians and composers who have been inspired by Lord Rama and the Ramayana. 

    Bala Kanda 

    There are numerous songs composed about Rama as an infant. 

    Sadguru Tyagaraja Swami in his Utsava Sampradaya Kritis writes ‘Maa Paali Sri Rama’. The song tells us about bathing little Rama. Giving him a scrub of nalugu, a homemade powder used traditionally in bathing rituals. 

    Listen to this rendered by Carnatic twins Sriram and Ganesh of America, both disciples of Vidwan Abhishek Raghuram here.

    As Rama grows up, with the love of his three mothers, and begins to take his first steps in the palace, the little prince is the center of everything in Ayodhya. 

    Goswami Tulsidas churns out the essence of mother Kausalya’s love and admiration into a song.

    Listen to Thumak Chalat Ramachandra, tuned by Hridayanath Mangeshkar and made popular in the voice of playback singer Lata Mangeshkar (1929-2022) here.

    The young prince grows up, with much care and affection. His divine powers, not yet known to anyone in the family. 

    When Maharishi Vishwamitra comes to King Dasharatha and asks him to hand over Rama and Lakshmana, the father is in for a shock! How can these two teenagers be given the duty of killing demons like Maricha, Subahu and Tataka who have been disturbing the Yagnas and penances of sages in the forest? 

    They have barely grown up! 

    Is Vishwamitra asking for too much? 

    This was captured in a beautiful composition by Saddguru Tyagaraja Swamy. Alakalalla tells us the story of this episode in the most subtle way possible.

    Sung here by the famous musicians D Raghavachary and D Sheshachary, popular in the world of music as ‘Hyderabad Brothers’. 

    We all know how Rama and Lakshmana slayed Tataka and Subahu. They continued their journey onwards. Yaaro Ivar Yaaro is a song from the Rama Natakam of Sri Arunachala Kavirayar. 

    The prelude here is Rama and Lakshmana are walking behind Maharishi Vishwamitra in the streets of Mithila. There is a bustle in the balcony of the palace and Rama turns to look up. He has a glimpse of Sita in front of the ladies quarters. 

    He is wondering who is this exquisitely beautiful young lady. With her moon-like face, as she stood there, was there a connection from another life? 

    It was set to tune in Ragam Bhairavi by Sri Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar (1890 -1967), one of the greatest stalwarts of Carnatic classical music in the last century.  Rendered by Smt C Lalitha and Smt C Saroja, who were famous as ‘Bombay Sisters’, here.

    We all know the story of Rama breaking the bow and Sita Swayamvaram. Sadguru Tyagaraja Swamy composed ‘Seeta Kalayana Vaibhogame’. To this day, in most of the traditional South Indian marriages, this song is sung. 

    Most times, people sing the first few lines and jump to the last stanza. Listen to it here rendered in entirety by the young and talented Uthara Unnikrishnan. 

    Ayodhya Kanda

    We all know the story of the Ramayana. The famous ‘Kevat Prasang’ happens in Ayodhya Kanda. Kevat or Guha is a boatman. He was the first friend of Rama, in exile. 

    He was the head of the Nishada Kingdom. He welcomes Rama, Lakshmana and Sita with great hospitality and devotion. 

    He ferries them across the river and gives them a tearful farwell. 

    This beautiful friendship is described as the union of Jeevatma with that of Paramatma. 

    Shri Tulsidas in the Sriramacharitamanas has written out the devotion of Kevat in some of the most beautiful lines ever. 

    In the movie Ankahee (1985), music director Jaidev tuned these lyrics and Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi (1922 -2011) made this song immortal in his robust voice: Raghuvar Tumko Meri Laaj

    The same theme of ‘Kevat Prasang’ was written in an easier and more spoken Hindu by Poet Pandit Ramachandra Bagora. It was set to tune by Chandra Kamal and immortalized in the voice of Bhajan maestro Anup Jalota. Kabhi Kabhi Bhagwan Ko Bhi tells us the story of love and friendship between Rama and Kevat. 

    Aranya Kanda

    Once in the forest, Rama and Lakshmana are walking around. They reach the Ashram of Shabari. While we don’t have to go through the entire story of Shabari, we know how privileged she was to serve Rama. Sadguru Tyagaraja Swamy writes about in his beautiful composition Entani ne Varninthunu

    Rendered here by the great Carnatic maestro Dr Mangalampalli Balamurali Krishna. 

    Kishkinda Kanda

    Kancherla Gopanna who revived the ancient temple of Rama in Bhadrachalam became popular as ‘Bhadrachalam Ramadasu’. 

    A prolific writer and composer, this great devotee wrote a number of songs, all dedicated to Rama. Through many of the songs he narrated numerous episodes from the Ramayana. 

    One of his finest works encompasses the ‘Dasharathi Shatakam’, a collection of hundred poems in praise of Rama. 

    Listen to it rendered by playback singer SP Balasubramanyam here.

    In a recent movie made by Pravachanakarta Sri Dushyant Sridhar on the life of the great Visishtadwaita philosopher and saint, Sri Vedanta Desika, the  complicated ‘Raghuveera Gadyam’ was rendered by Vid Abhishek Raghuram.

    Extolling the valour of Lord Rama, this composition is in some of the most complicated poetic lines you can find in Sanskrit. 

    Sundara Kanda

    Sundarakandam is read like a separate Parayana Grantham in many parts of India. In Telugu states, it has been an ancient practice. Many parts of it have also been tuned and sung from time to time. 

    The Dwaita philosopher and saint Sri Vadiraja Theertharu (1480- 1600) wrote ‘Eshtu Sahasavanta’, a Kannada composition inspired by the Sundarakandam.

    Sundarakandam became extremely popular on the radio and television in the 20th century. The most popular of these was by Sri M S Rama Rao (1921-1992) who was called ‘Sundaradasu’ because of these songs.

    Listen to his immortal rendering of the same here

    Yuddha Kanda 

    Goswami Tulsidas wrote in great detail the war between Rama and Ravana. Vibheeshana, the noble brother of Ravana knows the divine power of Rama. He does not agree with his own brother and eventually attracts his hate. 

    Vibheeshana Gita is a part of this Kanda. The message Rama gives Vibheeshana is encompassed in a poetic form by Shri Tulsidas in this Kanda, which is also popular as Lanka Kanda. 

    Vibheeshana is also one of the eight Chiranjeevis or ‘immortals’ in our tradition. His devotion to Rama is equally inspiring. 

    Listen to the Vibheeshana Gita rendered soulfully and explained by the Bhajan maestro Pandit Channulal Mishra of Varanasi. 

    Swati Thirunal (1814 -1836), the erstwhile Maharaja of the Kingdom of Travancore was supposed to be a prolific composer. One of the most popular compositions Bhavayami Raghuramam has been sung by many stalwarts in the field of Carnatic music. It has also been choreographed and performed in several classical dance forms. 

    The composition is a musical summary of the Ramayanam. Listen to it here, sung by the superbly talented singer and dancer Ms Sivasri Skandaprasad.

    Listen to the beautiful Nama Ramayanam, composed by Sri Lakshmanacharya and rendered in a Ragamalika by Bharat Ratna MS Subbulakshmi (1916 -2004). This immortal song encompasses each episode of the Ramayana in a single line, Kanda after Kanda

    It is impossible to put the entire Ramayana or the story of Lord Rama into one list. That would be an endless list! One can go on singing the praises of Rama in every language possible and when language ends, in pure music too! 

    One can always aspire to be a devotee like Lord Hanuman. 

    This Sri Rama Navami, let us feel blessed for having got another occasion to remember him and strive for Rama Rajya! 

    Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor, columnist and culture critic. He has written and published extensively on Indian classical performing arts, cultural history and heritage, and Sanskrit. He is the author of 'Drama Queens: Women Who Created History On Stage' (Roli Books-2017) and ‘The Many Lives of Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna' (Penguin Random House -2022). He lives in New Delhi.

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