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Music, Muthuswami and Tsunami

- Dr.K.Ramaprasad

December in Chennai. Balmy winter sun warming up the city, early in the morning, as people brush past each other on crowded sidewalks surely on some great mission. The music season is in full swing, as you can see the mostly middle-aged men and women, briskly walking towards some sabha or other, with the program sheets clutched in their hands, Some of the early birds are at their favorite sabha canteen, breakfasting on pongal and coffee. Into this innocent morning comes the news, first in trickles, then in a torrent, that tidal waves have flooded the eastern coast of India. Whisperings of fishermen lost at sea, huts washed off and early joggers on the marina swallowed by the sea punctuate the order for coffee or dosa. Pictures of devastation, splashed in the media, have brought the word tsunami into the general consciousness again.

The Coramandel coast, hit by the tsunami on December 26, 2004 is also the eastern border of what could be called the land of the Carnatic Trinity. And a natural disaster of the magnitude that the December 26 tsunami was could not but affect, in some degree or other, the mood and music of the season. The hardest hit was Nagapattinam, once a bustling port and home to many shrines. All the members of the Trinity had visited this and other neighboring places at one time or other. The hot topic was identifying the kirtis of the Trinity, if any, that had specific references to this aspect of its history. Sriram, in particular, mentioned two kritis, V. [1]. Both were composed at Nagapattinam. One is Thyagaraja’s karmamE balavanda mAyA in Saveri, where he says, “vAridhi madi garvinci yIvasudhaku tA rAnEncaci ninnu (when the sea spurred by arrogance threatened to overwhelm the land, you humbled his onslaught). The other is Dikshitar’s kriti in Brindavana Saranga, soundara rAjam Ashraye, in which the line “ambudhi garva nigraham (suppressed the pride of the ocean) appears. Sriram, after quoting V. Raghavan (from his Spiritual Heritage of Thyagaraja) that possibly the composers were speaking of a local legend, asks the question whether such a tsunami phenomenon occurred on this coast during the period 1800 to 1835. Are there any historical records to rely on?

An earthquake in the Indus delta set off the oldest sea-related disaster that is understood to be a tsunami in the year 326 B.C.E. [2]. Though the Indian subcontinent is seismically active, the numerous reports of tsunamis along the Indian coastline are not accepted because of scanty evidence. The major dates of reported tsunami events, relevant to the time of the Trinity lived, are 1737, 1762 and 1819. The 1762 event was in the Bay of Bengal. T. S. Murty, one of the leading authorities on tsunamis, thinks that they were probably storm surges [3]. He is an adjunct professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, Ottawa University, Canada and formerly tsunami advisor to the Canadian government.

Murty’s choice of tsunami studies for a career itself makes an interesting story, yes, connecting tsunamis to Indian music. After leaving the University of Chicago with a Ph.D., he joined the Canadian Oceanographic Service. His first assignment was to find an explanation for the damage pattern of the tsunami caused by the 1964 earthquake in Alaska. The largest amplitude was at an inland place called Port Alberni in British Columbia, which was not in accord with the thinking at the time that the amplitude would be greatest at the open coast. He modestly says that he knew a little bit of Indian music and string instruments like veena and sitar, which work on the principle of quarter-wave amplification. Extending this idea to tsunamis, he was able to explain the paradox in tsunami behavior that won him many awards.

Coming back to the question whether there were “authentic” tsunamis during or just prior to the time of the Thanjavur Trinity, Murty feels that, probably, what was observed were storm surges, which are identical to tsunamis as far as, coastal effects are concerned. “The only difference,” he writes, “is that while tsunamis occur due to under-ocean earthquakes, storm surges are due to cyclones. Cyclones are very frequent and Tamil Nadu is hit by a cyclone, on the average, at least once in four years.” These great composers would certainly have heard of, or seen, these cyclones and their coastal impacts. Murty estimates that during the 1800-1835 period, Nagapattinam area was struck by at least five cyclones, and probably up to seven. There was even a super cyclone in 1831.

Thyagaraja and Dikshitar might not have known the difference between a tsunami and storm surge the way we do now, but the fury of the ocean waves and its impact on coastal and inland life that they heard about or were witness to would surely have aroused imageries in the minds of these geniuses, resulting in karmamE balavanda and soundararAjam Ashraye for future generations to enjoy.

[1] Sriram, V., A rising of the sea, Sangeetham.com archives, December 27, 2004
[2] Ramachandran, R., Waves from the past, Frontline, Vol. 22 (2), January 15-28, 2005
[3] I thank Dr. T. S. Murty for giving me his time and sharing with me his insights into Tsunamis

This article was originally published in Sruthy magazine and being published here with the author's permission.