Music or lyrics?

!!! IMPORTANT – Read this first !!!

Last update: 20 May, 2020

Which is important – music or lyrics? The answer can vary based on whom you ask! Carnatic music is built on top of a strong base of composed parts (gItams, varNams, swarajatis, kIrtanais, their varNameTTu & chiTTaswaras etc.). The composed parts not only provide the lyrics/words to sing, but also act as the reference to the overall structure (swarUpa) of a rAga. Sometimes, one can see that the content may influence the choice of rAga for a kruti as some rAgas are better suited to portray a required emotion (this is not a rule and there are more than enough exceptions!), which may indicate that the composers did value the emotional content (and hence the lyrics) in a kruti. The importance given to the lyrics and emotional content of a kruti differed between different Carnatic musicians, and each had their own individual approaches. So, where does MDR fit?

For the un-informed, the way MDR handles some parts of the kruti/chiTTaswaras may seem a bit odd and the same can be interpreted as a disrespect to the composer. They may also assume that MDR cares more about music than the lyrics. But, if you spend some time with MDR’s music, one will understand that whenever MDR sings a kruti, he has already internalised the meaning of what he is singing. Various pointers like correct pronunciation of words, splitting/joining the words of a line in grammatically correct and also meaningful ways, stressing the right words/syllables, modulating the voice to bring out the right emotional content etc. all are taken care of at one or other place in the rendition (note the highlighted part!) and the deviations at other places are intentionally done to add to the overall musical effect. In addition, at critical points, he adds his own little embellishments without affecting the lyrical/laya structure that the original composer has set, and complimenting the existing lines/words/swaras. Some of these points are dealt in a bit more detail further below.

bhAva-laden singing

One of the most noticeable character of MDR’s music is the way he brings out the emotional content of the sAhitya, using the rAga bhAva. He understands the intent of the composer, and during the performance, along with the rAga bhAva, the emotional aspects are prominently brought out, enriching the listening experience. Whether it is excitement, devotion, pathos, valor or anger, MDR is easily able to convey this to the listener.

  • For example, in the below “angArakam ASrayAmyaham“, see how he handles the “dIna rakShakam” – the voice is modulated to bring the pathos, the word “ati” is added with the right stress to enhance the feel and the pauses (before and in between) give the listener time to reflect on the phrase and thus be virtually part of the performance.

  • varugalAmO” is a great example of how MDR can bring out the emotion in a kruti to the listener:

  • MDR is using the rAga and voice modulations during rendition of a shLoka to bring out the right rAga bhAva. When he sings “vIram“, he even comments that it is impossible to represent rAmA’svIram” by a singer, and whatever he is doing is just a “dummy” representation!

  • Another instance of navarasa shLOka – the way the various emotions like sringAram, vIram, kAruNyam, hAsyam etc really come out through MDR’s voice with appropriate modulations. At the part where he is singing vIram and the instance of rAma breaking the bow, see how he creates that effect. And when he sings hAsyam in a funny way, he asks the audience how else can he sing that part. Knowing MDR’s mannerisms, it would be safe to assume that his face would also be reflecting all these rasAs as he singes, making the presentation even more engaging to the listener!!!

This unification of the creator, performer and listener is considered the highest form of “rasana” and one can achieve this in an MDR concert at many points.

Singing “rare” charaNams

Due to the time constraints in a concert, many times, artists have to skip charaNams in a kruti, especially for those which have more than 2-3 charaNams. MDR had this habit of picking up some of those unsung charaNams occasionally.

  • Here is an example where he has sung all 9 charaNams in a “srI rAma raghurAma” (yadukulakAmbOji), that too in his un-hurried style. At the end, when he finally lands at “srI rAma raghurAma”, you can hear a chuckle !!!

One other well-known example will be “nI nAma” in his mangaLam.


There are two aspects to diction in MDR’s performance. On one hand, one may feel that it is difficult to comprehend the words that MDR is singing – may be due to the bass voice which takes away the crispness; and also sometimes due to the way MDR gives prominence to music over lyrics. On the other hand, if one is already familiar with the kruti, most times, the appropriate splitting of words and emphasis at the right points will give one a better understanding (and feel) of the lyrics compared to prevalent versions of the same kruti. Many times, we can observe that MDR explicitly sings the line once with the “lyrically right” way and in further Avartanas, focuses on the musical aspect of the line, appropriately prioritising (and de-prioritising as the case may apply) the clarity of sAhitya. One can find many examples of this across various recordings linked here.

Splitting words in the sahitya

As MDR was very particular about sAhitya, he tend to split the words in the sAhitya the right way in most cases (at times, he may deviate from this for the musical effect). In some cases, these changes are not very noticeable, but for some well known krutis the change that this splitting brings is immediately noticeable and the way the akSharas are placed and the effect generated becomes immediately obvious.

  • In the mOhanam varNam ninnukOri, in the line “sannutAnga srinivAsa”, “srInivasa” is not spit into “srI” and “nivAsa” like most people do. “srInivasa” is started a little bit later than the normal place (atIta), giving a different feel to that line.

  • In the kamAs krutisItApatE“, see how he sings “ramachandra tyAgarAaja vinuta” – he takes care not to split “tyAgarAja“!

  • nagarAjadhara nIdu paraivAru lella” – here is a very good example of how one can split the words better without losing musical effect and should be a model for all:

  • In “bhavayAmi raghurAmam“, in the mukhAri stanza, there are these two lines “anagham pampAtIra sangatAnjanEya nabhOmaNi; tanuja sakhyakaram vAlI tanu dalanamIsham“. If you go by the meaning, “nabhOmaNi tanuja” together makes the proper meaning as “sugrIva“, but in the lines, “nabhOmaNi” comes as part of first line and “tanuja” comes as part of second line. Most singers sing these two words as part of different lines, focusing only on the music part and ignoring the lyrical meaning. MDR takes care of many such instances (though he may also ignore it occasionally). Here is one such instance where he handles it the right way:

Splitting/spacing words for musical effect

Though most of the time MDR pronounces/splits the words the right way (as per the language rules, and without affecting the musical flow), occasionally, the grammar/meaning is given rest and words are split for producing unique musical effects. But, it is clear that MDR is doing this purposefully, as he mostly sings the line the “right” way in the first/initial Avartana(s) and make such interesting alterations in the later Avartanas.

  • When he sings “pAnDya kEraLAdi dESa prabhAvakaram” in the below “hariharaputram“, he actually splits as “kEra”-“LAdi“. This is surely not because he does not know (as he himself is from Kerala!). From the way he renders this part, it is clear that he has aimed for more musical impact than correct word splitting. And he does this consistently in this rendition. (For full concert, refer

  • Another way of producing interesting musical effect is seen in the below rendition of “angArakam ASrayAmyaham” at around 16:08-16:12

  • Typically, in varNams, the pronunciation of sAhitya is not given importance. And, MDR also followed the standard approach and used the syllables for musical effect without worrying about language rules. For example, in the below “sAmi ninne kOri“, he splits the kAmakOti as “ka – Ama – akO – ti” , at around 6:27-6:30 to create the maximum musical effect!

Can neraval and kalpanAswara compliment sAhitya?

Yes, when MDR sings! Listen and experience!

  • Here, when MDR starts the swaras, he does not do it in his usual way (slow and small phrases), but it is fast, filled with energy and movements, aligned to the pallavi line – “AnandanatamAduvar tillai“. Subtle, but profound!!!

  • The line taken up for neraval here is “minnal vegamadil magizhntiDa ceydAye” – meaning something like “Devi showered blessings at the speed of lightning”. And see how MDR has done the neraval and swarasneraval is a fast paced one (like lightning 🙂 ) and finishes in lightning speed as well – only one Avartana! The swaras are also fairy fast and short compared to typical MDR standard. Overall a lightning quick performance!!!

When “feel” takes over “grammar”…

If one asks if MDR prioritises grammar over feel or vice-versa, it is tough to answer. Most of the times, he gives importance to both and he can bring out the musical effect without compromising on the lyrical accuracy. But on some occasions, we can see that he indeed prioritises the musical effects (feel) over the grammar.

  • Here is an example of a shLoka where he breaks in between to a proper raga AlApana and then comes back to words during “kamAs” section and “sahAna” section.

This approach to music is also evident during those instances when he “swallows/smoothens” the words or splits them.

  • At the end of both the anupallavi and charaNam, MDR focuses on the musical flow than crisply spelling the lyrics (53:20 & 55:20) . And the pallavi line that follows these sections (“rAmachandram bhAvayAmi…”) is clearly and crisply spelt, so, it is clear that MDR is going after the overall musical effect!

  • In this sAmaja vara gamanA, around 1:06:16, the pallavi line itself is rendered in a muffled manner to bring out the beauty of the voice movement! (And when mrudangam follows, MDR appreciates that too!)

  • See the “floating-over” effect in the pallavi line in the below “aparAdhamu” 🙂

There are plenty of instances of this type of modifications across various renditions linked in this site.