Stretching the boundaries: Creativity in Composed Music

!!! IMPORTANT – Read this first !!!

Last update: 25 May, 2020

The question “Does composed music allow exhibition of individual creativity by the performer(s)?” has been discussed in depth by many in the context of different forms of music like Western Classical music and Indian (Hindustani and Carnatic) music. The prominence given to composed music is different in these various forms and how they treat the composed music is also different.

In a typical Carnatic music concert, there are elements of instantaneous creativity like AlApana, neraval, kalpanAswara etc and there are also composed parts (various forms of krutis). Then there is also the concept of RTP which revolves mostly around individual creativity. But, in general, one can say that major part of a typical Carnatic concert is built around the krutis (composed part) and the artist is expected to express his creativity in bits and pieces as he/she works with the composed parts.

Since the krutis form the core of Carnatic musical tradition, discussions on whether a singer can modify anything (rAga, words etc) about a kruti from what is “supposedly” original version is a debate that always surfaces. MDR’s approach to this topic can be deduced from his renditions. He had utmost respect to every kruti that he took up, and he internalised each of those. And for him, music was bhakti. This meant that, a kruti was not just a “script” that he was rendering, but it was the way through with he gets unified with the para-brahma . So, he never felt any hesitations to make embellishments to the krutis that aided this process of unification. The additions/modifications that came out were true to the spirit of the composer and the listener will feel that, if the composer would have sung this kruti on this day, he would also have sung like this. At no point, a listener would feel that the additions are out of place.

We can place his embellishments broadly into three major buckets (others too exist, but these constitute the bulk):


First one would be sambOdhanas or salutation. MDR adds the subject of the kruti or a reference to this subject in appropriate places. For example, if the kruti is in praise of rAma, he will add the word “rAma“/”rAmayyA” at the right places, giving extra weight to the line sung.

  • For example, here is an instance where he adds “rAmayyA” to the “mura khara hara” to add to the pleading effect of the line.

Examples of this type of embellishments can be found in plenty of his renderings and is one of the commonest.


Second one would be addition of “adjectives”. At appropriate places, he will add beautiful adjectives around the subject of the kruti, enhancing the feel of the lines.

  • Take this instance, where around 22:30, he adds “srI” to “tyAgarAjanuta” which actually enhances the line compared to just singing  “tyAgarAjanuta

  • The extra adjectives typically give extra impact both in terms of meaning as well as the musicality. For example, he consistently adds “sAma” to the “veda” in “sAmaja vara gamana” when he sings the line “vEda Siro“. For example, in the below rendition, he adds an “O” and also “sAma” to the above line. Beautiful! And the recording has got exactly this part duplicated, may be, to make sure that one does not miss it 🙂 Check for a minute from around 5:30. (For the full concert, refer here)

  • Note the ornamentations he is giving to “buddhi” in this tODi kruti – “kaddanu vAriki” – for doing this, a singer needs to understand the whole kruti, the current context, have a good vocabulary in the language concerned and finally, the conviction that what one is doing is adding to the overall impact of the rendition!

Embellishments to pre-set swaras

At times, not just sahitya, even swaras (eg: in chiTTaswaras) or varNameTTu were modified by MDR to enhance the musical effect.

1. For exmaple, take this “sAmi ninne kOri“. Here, he is singing the fourth chiTTaswara passage. The passage is as given below

N , P M R G R S | N , P M P N S R |  
N , S R G R R S | N , S R M R G R ||
N , S R P M R S | N , S R M P N P |
N , S R N S N P | N , P M R M P N ||

The last swara of the passage is N. But, as he finishes the first Avartana and goes to the second Avartana, he uses S instead of N (so that the flow becomes “P S || N ,” instead of “P N || N ,” as the former sounds musically better than the latter. This happens around 6:50 – check the effect yourself! When he ends the second Avartana, he uses N as is written, so, it is clear that he is doing this change intentionally and is not just a slip of tongue 🙂

2. Here is another example from the popular mOhanam varNam “ninnukOri“. The original swaras are:

S , R G  R S R S  |  D S D P  G R S R  | 
S , , ,  , , S S  |  R R G G  P P D D ||

Now, note how he is using his own versions in the first two Avaranas after “S , , , , ,” and then falls back to the text book version in the last Avartana. He builds up the complexity incrementally, and these additions gels nicely with the existing composition and enhances its beauty!

Misc other embellishments!

Some of the embellishments are really spontaneous ones! These happen on the spur of the moment and many times, depends on audience response to his singing.

  • For example, in the below “vAtApi“, he adds the work “Om” in front of “praNava swarUpa“. Very subtle, but looks so natural and just goes with the flow!

  • Here, he is dynamically enhancing his own kruti! The first Avartana is the original one, the next two repetitions are all on the spot improvisations. He also adds a “srI” to “jAnaki” later:

  • Another example of contextual update in the sAhitya in “varugalAmO” 🙂

sakala / akhila …
o rAma, rAma ….
“I” kalini ………….
o rAma, re re …..
rAma ………………
gunamula ……….
“iru” pAdamula ..

  • In “nanu pAlimpa“, the pallavi goes like this “nanu pAlimpa naDaci vaccitivO nA prANanAtha“. While singing, the second tALa cycle typically starts around “nA prANanAtha” and since there are only two words to fill the whole tALa cycle, invariably, most singers complete the words quickly and then use a long kArvai. See how MDR handles this scenario in two different ways below. In the first instance, he inserts some extra sAhitya of his own, enhancing the meaning of the line in the process!

And in this instance, he did it without adding words, but with laya play!