I moved to Srirangam when I was nine-years-old. Having studied Malayalam and Hindi in schools all along, I had just started to read and write Tamil. My first introduction to the Tirukkural was in the 'Town bus,' which I would take to my school in Trichy every day. A picture of Tiruvalluvar, and a kural in bold font was prominently featured just behind the driver's seat and was visible to most passengers. Soon it became a pastime for me to test my Tamil reading skills with the Tirukkural and to try and comprehend the meaning by asking my cousin, and other elders at home. I developed a fascination for the values and everyday ethics that the kural embodied. The non-denominational nature of the verses made them even more appealing and accessible. Needless to say, I developed a lifelong love for both Tamil, and the Tirukkural.
Nearly three decades later, I was blessed to witness a world record set by the musical genius Chitravina N Ravikiran. He set the entire 1,330 verses of the Tirukkural to tune in merely sixteen hours using 169 different ragas (modes or scales) and several scarcely used talas (rhythm cycles). Despite the fact that it was done in a mind boggling time of 16 hours, each and every one of them is steeped in classicism and the highest order of musical aesthetics.
I incidentally had the honor of rendering the 89th Adhikaram (verses 880-891) that he tuned in the raga Brindavani, and released the following video (VC: https://www.lokeshnphotography.com/) today, in honor of Tiruvalluvar Day and Tamil Heritage month in Canada:
I interviewed Maestro Ravikiran with the intention of understanding his thought process with regards to tuning the Tirukkural.
1) A musical prodigy with over 800 compositions in five languages, do you have a favorite choice of language for composing?
I tend to compose in Tamil and Sanskrit, followed by Telugu, and then Kannada and Hindi. Each language is beautiful in its own way and comes to life through the creativity of great composers, writers and orators.
2) When you set lyrics to tune, do the meaning of the lyrics influence the choice of raga you pick?
Lyrics do influence the tunes I come up with. At times, the tunes just come to me sub-consciously. Especially when I compose, the raga I pick is a function of which ragas I have, and have not used in my other compositions, the mood of the lyrics, my own mindset, and at times, just an inspired choice.
3) The Tirukkural teaches everyday ethics and universal truths. I see your effort of tuning the Tirukkural a great way for Tamil and music enthusiasts like me to memorize them. Was this your intention in setting them to tune? In general, what are your thoughts on using music as an aid to enhancing memory?
There is no doubt that the universal truths and timeless values of the Tirukkural can be propagated better through music. Appreciating these truths through melody and rhythm is like a sweet pill that helps one swallow unpalatable words.
I firmly believe that anything set to music sticks longer in one’s mind and is reached easiest through the ears rather than the eyes. I have even set to tune concepts in Science and Math to help students remember and grasp them better. These can be very useful for neuro atypical children as well.
4) Would you consider the Tirukkural as tukdas (lighter pieces) that can be sung in the latter half of a Carnatic concert?
The way I have tuned the tirukkural, some of them can be rendered as opening pieces, others as tukdas or even as main pieces with improvisation like neraval (melodic variations keeping lyrics constant) and kalpana swaras (creative solfege improvisation). The music has been set in a way that keeps the lines and the meter thereby highlighting the lyrics and meaning even better. I have demonstrated an example of how to do this in Adhikaram 130 - verse 1295 that I tuned in the raga Simmhendra Madhyamam below and have taught the entire adhikaram on the learning portal www.acharyanet.com. In summary, a whole thematic concert on Tirukkural can be presented using my tunes.
Several of the Tirukkural tuned by Maestro Ravikiran have been sung by renowned artistes, and are available in his Genius at Work channel.