Music and man have been inseparable co-travellers along the history of time and there is no doubt about the role that each has played and continues to play in the life of the other. If music wields the power to create waves of change in man, man too has been instrumental in the evolution of music. Therefore nothing is truer than to say that music is verily the language of divine love–the elixir that can mend bonds, cure illness and heal wounds that man has inflicted on himself. This is the story of the journey of a man from a small town in Kerala into the hearts of thousands of music lovers, treading on a path of devotion and musical passion.
Guruvayur is a small town in the Thrissur district of Kerala, put on the world map by the Sri Krishna Temple of Guruvayur that has been drawing hoards of devotees from across the world since ages and on July 14, 2018 the Vaijayanthi building towards the left of the Guruvayur Temple bore witness to a historic event. A musically talented man in his 40s, of meager and modest beginnings, sang the 24 Ashtapadis by Jayadeva non-stop, simultaneously playing the Edakka, to an audience that comprised of his Guru, family, friends, fellow musicians, lovers of his special brand of Sopana Sangeetham and critics alike!
After continuous twelve hours of singing the sacred verses and playing the Edakka, Jyothidas known as Jyothidas Guruvayur, walked into the galaxy of world record holders with an achievement never clinched before. It was perhaps also the first time that Sopana Sangeetham made its entry into the larger arena called world music!
To the uninitiated, Sopana Sangeetham is a temple art form; the singing of devotional verses by male members of certain castes of Kerala collectively called Ambalavasis, standing before the sanctum sanctorum of a temple (also called Sopanam), facing the deity. Sung to the accompaniment of the Edakka and the Chengila, this branch of devotional music is an offshoot of Carnatic music based on Carnatic ragas but sung rather simplistically, without the rigours or complications of a regular Carnatic performance, and minus profuse vocal dynamics.
Like with any other form of art, Sopana Sangeetham too has different styles of rendition which have given birth to different schools of stylized performance such as the Payyannur Baani, the Trithala Baani, and the Guruvayur Baani and so on and each baani is distinguished by its specific features. It is interesting to note that while Sopana Sangeetham is derived from Carnatic music, its unhurried pace and complete lack of the ornate nuances of Carnatic music contribute to its uniqueness yet the fact that selection of pieces to sing follows a pattern similar to that found in the Hindustani music system where different ragas are specified for different times of the day.
The Edakka is a percussion instrument shaped nearly like an hour-glass drum and is hung over the left shoulder and beaten by a curved end stick producing endearing sounds that are musical despite being an instrument of rhythm. Mythology states that the Edakka was sent to earth by none other than Lord Shiva Himself and is therefore also considered to be the most divine of the several auspicious instruments. The Chengila or Indian Gong is also a percussion instrument which helps keep rhythm.
Deeply rooted in Bhakti or devotion, the Sopana Sangeetham was always performed at the Sopanam before the deity as an offering until a few years ago when the legendary Njeralath Rama Poduval pioneered the move of this traditional art form from within the dark corridors of temples and silhouettes of oil lamps into vibrant venues of the modern day. Today while it is still performed in temples, it also finds an important place in celebrations such as marriage, inauguration and so on.
Nearly forty years ago in the early 1980s, an eight year old boy named Jyothidas who grew up listening to the devotional songs played in the nearby Thiruvenkitachalapathy Temple, found himself drawn towards the pana and para practices of this temple of which he became a part. At the age of 10, his desire to learn music led him to join the Chembai School of Classical Music to master Carnatic music under Leelavathi teacher. Little did he know then that this was just the beginning of a musical journey steeped in spirituality that would take him far and wide beyond his small town. From the age of 14, he started the parayanam or chanting of Ramayana at the Thiruvenkitachalapathy temple and this is a practice that he is still continuing to do. At the age of 18, deeply moved and influenced by the subtle nuances, devotion, mysticism and elements of simplicity in the art of Sopana Sangeetham that he was exposed to at the Guruvayur temple, coupled with his insatiable thirst to soak in the magic of this music, he became the student of the renowned Sopana Sangeetham vidwan Janardhanan Nedungadi of Guruvayur temple whose father and grandfather were also performers of Sopana Sangeetham before the deity at Guruvayur. They were the pioneers and practitioners of the Guruvayur Baani which is distinguished by its slow pace of rendition styled like Mohiniattom Padams.
Talking about his childhood, Jyothidas recalls, “those were days of great hardship and sadness as my parents had to provide for five children with the meagre income of my father and learning music was not the need of the hour, but my desire to learn music led me to many great masters whose grace helped me reach where I am today”. As one of his many students, Jyothidas went on to master this great art form from Guru Janardhanan Nedungadi who is a father figure to him and taught him the intricacies of this art form. In 2008, he joined the Vadya Kala Vidyalayam run by the Guruvayur Devaswom as a tutor of Ashtapadi and since then there has been no looking back. However, like with most other legendary artists, success did not come easily and the achievements of this very humble musician showcase not just talent, passion and effort but also the stain of criticism and the pain of challenges. If his earliest challenge was to find opportunities to practice his art living in a joint family, his later challenges came in the form of denigration and mockery from different quarters.
For the past 30 years he has been performing in Kerala and outside Kerala at various venues and events. For 28 years now, Jyothidas has been staging Ashtapadi concerts at the Chembai Music Festival under the special concert series. This recipient of the Gita Govindam Award is also a B High grade artist of All India Radio and has more than a hundred students many of whom are professional Sopana Sangeetham performers at various temples and institutions. There is a natural melancholy in his voice which adds layers of soulfulness to his Ashtapadis. And it is not uncommon to see listners shredding tears of spiritual exaltation at his performances. At some point in his career however, he felt it was not enough to simply keep performing to the accompaniment of the Edakka and the Chengila and that is when he felt the need to do something new and different that would give a facelift literally to the art and that is how he embarked on the very strenuous and exigent task of 12 hours non-stop Ashtapadi singing of 2018 to take this art onto a global platform, without robbing it of its sanctity.
As a performer and teacher to scores of students and practitioners of this art, he carries no worries at all about the future of this art form for more people have begun to realize its value and have begun to appreciate it for all the purity that it represents. At one time Sopana Sangeetham was considered the forte of only ‘men’ from the ‘Ambalavasi’ castes but these days this art has broken the shackles of caste and gender and women too have ventured into this arena. Jyothidas himself, who belongs to a non-Ambalavasi caste through years of practice and effort, needless to say the benevolence of his Guru, has carved a niche for himself in a space that was at one time dominated only by a chosen few. He says, “There are people wanting to study and practice this art everywhere and in most recent times, Sopana Sangeetham has also become a contest item in youth festivals across the State. With such recognition, and with more people joining as students, the future of this art form is certainly not at stake”!
So what is his message to aspirants and young practitioners of Sopana Sangeetham? He says that the basis of this art is nothing but devotion and therefore that is the essence that must be preserved at all times. He raises concerns that experiments like fusion might take away the element of sanctity of this art form, thus robbing it of its soul. He says, “Whether you perform at the Sopanam or in a hall, it is submission to the Lord and devotion at all times that is the most important aspect”!
Jyothidas is a man of many talents and he is also an expert in Melam and Tayambaka in the Chenda. Apart from this he has done music for a number of devotional albums, sung and acted in a handful of dramas and telefilms too. He has composed a few compositions for Sopana Sangeetham and continues to soak in the allure of art in all its different hues. The father of two has been training his young children too apart from hundreds of students.
Talking to Jyothidas, one realizes that this simple and plain form of art that has the ability to evoke strong spiritual emotions in the listener, is in essence an ocean of unfathomable depth with so many different styles of rendition and possibilities too. An article running into a few hundred words would perhaps do little justice to its profundity; nevertheless, this is a humble beginning of many journeys to come into the consecrated world of Sopana Sangeetham!