Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore
There is any number of musical instruments. There are stringed instruments like the VeeNA, the Violin and the YAzh. There are percussion instruments like the Mridangam, the Ghatam, the KanjirA etc., which help in adhering to TALAm or layam, which is supposed to be the Father of Music, while Shruti is the Mother (‘shruti mAtA, laya: pitA”). And there are Wind instruments like the nAdasvaram and the Flute, which emit sweet sounds through the controlled play of wind through seven strategically placed holes in a cylindrical wooden device. Of these, one might say that the Stringed Instruments are man-made, while music derived through the other two forms is very much present in nature. The rhythmic lapping of waves against the banks of a river represents Nature’s own unvarying TALam, keeping beat to some cosmic music. Similarly, the Wind, whistiling through tunnels and trees, plays a unique tune, with a melody all its own.
Of all the instruments, perhaps the simplest is the Flute, which consists merely of a cylindrical bamboo tube, with holes drilled in at intervals. It doesn”t need any tuning or adjustment, as other instruments do, before they are ready for a performance. The Flute is an ever-ready device, ready to pour out melodies the moment the player’s mouth is put to it. There has been a plethora of vidvAns who have won acclaim, playing one instrument or the other. In particular, the Flute can boast of any number of virtuosos, who have succeeded in holding appreciative audiences spell bound for hours together. The apparently effortless ease with which melodies can be made to flow out of this simple, cylindrical tube appeals to the imagination of all music-lovers. Tiruvalluvar too, while listing melodious devices, thinks of the Flute first and foremost “Kuzhal inidu, YAzh inidu enbar tam makkaL mazhalai chol kELAdavar”.
Obviously, the Flutists have a rich and hoary tradition, like other exponents of music. It would be interesting to discover who started the lineage of flutists, who have contributed so much to the entertainment of audiences. Speaking only of mortals, the earliest player of the VeeNA we can recount is the Rakshasa Ravana (though we hear of celestials like Sarasvati and NArada keeping constant company with the instrument) bestowing an undying stigma on the instrument.
The Flute, on the other hand, has no such dishonour to live down on the contrary, it is perhaps the only instrument which can claim the unique distinction of having been played by the Lord Himself. Have you heard of Emperuman using any other musical instrument” Have you come across any mention in the Scripture about the Veena, the nAdasvaram or the YAzh having been played by the Lord” Thus, the Flute appears to be the only musical device to have had the eminent good fortune of having Emperuman as one of its exponents. We might also say that Sri Krishna was the first ever player of this instrument, since there appears to be no mention about the flute, in earlier literature.
It is thus clear that the first ever musical maestro to adopt the Flute as His instrument of choice, was none other than the Lord. We are therefore curious to know what His performance was like. The Shruti tells us that the Lord is adept at whatever He does and is the Master of all that exists. As if to prove this true, Emperuman’s portrayal of a Musician, and a Flutist in particular, was magnificent beyond measure.
Before we embark on a critique of the Lord’s concert, we should find out the nature of the instrument He handled. We are told that the Lord’s flute was made of the finest of bamboo, neither too old nor too tender, perfectly seasoned and ideal for the production of the most marvellous of melodies. We have this on the authority of Swami Desikan, who mentions this in GOpAla Vimsati”adharAhita chAru vamsa nAlA:”. This, in turn, is based on Sri Tondaradippodi Azhwar’s pasuram in Tiruppalliezhucchi, confirming that the Lord’s flute was made of beautiful bamboo”vEynkuzhal Osaiyum vidai maNi kuralum eettiya isai disai parandana”. This flute is described as “divya vENu” by Swami Desikan the divine device of bamboo, to denote its capacity to produce mesmerising melodies. And the Lord is described as “divya vENu rasika:” to denote His fascination for the flute.
Before going into the quality of the Lord’s music, we should first ascertain the reaction of His audiences, which would give us a fair idea of His talents in the field. Music in general, irrespective of the exponent, appeals to our aesthetic sense. Even a VidvAn of mediocre talent is able to hold people’s ears, while ones with even a little expertise are able to impress audiences. It is therefore no wonder that those endowed with real talent enthral their listeners. However, even their capabilities stop with human audiences and cannot exercise sway over bestial ones.
There appears to be no word, adequately descriptive, which is capable of portraying in full the enthralling effect the Lord’s music had on listeners. Sri Periazhwar considers the melodiousness so alluring, that he devotes all of ten pasurams”nAvalam periya teevinil vAzhum nangaimeergAL”. Without any prelude, Azhwar comes straight down to the task of describing the melody, and tells us that the same is unprecedented, unheard of ever before or after “idu Or arpudam kELeer”. It is significant to note that all the ten pasurams have a single theme, viz., extolling the music emanating from the Lord’s flute.
Young girls, yet to enter their teens, hearing the divine tunes, were so enchanted, that they rushed towards the source of the music involuntarily, with each individual part of their budding physiques aflame with passion and totally out of control with delight, to surround the Flutist, forming a colourful garland. Due to the sudden physical change, their dresses, worn tight around their waists, automatically slipped and their hair, worn in a comely coiffure, tumbled down. Becoming totally dishevelled, they ran homewards again to restore their physical and mental composure, holding their trailing dresses in their hands, but unable to prise their eyes away from the bewitching figure and their ears from the melodies emanating from Him.
One might consider such a reaction from unlettered and impressionable GOpIs, who are hardly connoiseurs of good music, to be nothing extraordinary. Let us see then, how the delightful damsels from DEvalOka, to whom music and dance are the daily occupation, were affected in this regard. The moment the bewitching tunes fell on their ears, these boundlessly beautiful young women from Paradise rushed to Nandagokulam, their minds mad with delight, their eyes filled with tears of joy, their carefully done-up hair coming down in a cascade with the flowers therein scattering all over GOkulam, and pearls of sweat adorning their blooming faces. When the captivating strains of the flute reached IndralOka, RambA, oorvasi, TilOtthama and MEnaka, who were the acclaimed virtuosos of music and dance, hung their heads in shame, acknowledging their abject defeat before the overpowering performance of the Lord. Tumburu and NArada, who had hitherto considered themselves unparalleled in their performance with the VeeNA, threw away their instruments in disgust and despair, the moment the enthralling melodies from Sri Krishna’s flute fell on their ears. Professional singers of the celestial breed, known as KinnarAs, vowed never to touch their respective musical devices, despairing of ever gathering up the courage to perform before audiences who had heard the bewitching strains emanating from the Divine Flutist even once. A similar fate befell the GandharvAs, who had music and dance as their reason de etre”these maestros were simply shamed into silence.
The Havis offered in the YAgAs and YagyAs forms the staple food of the Celestials, conveyed to them by the sacrificial fire. However, when the Lord’s lilting tunes reached the DEvalOka, the dEvAs forgot all about the Havis and rushed to the earth (which they normally despise), to surround the Boy Wonder, like bees attracted by honey-filled flowers. The BhAgavata Purana tells us that even exalted dEvatAs like Brahma, Shiva and Indra, hypnotised by the celestial strains, bowed their heads and minds in supplication and appreciation’savanasha: tat upadhArya surEshA: Shakra Sharva ParamEshtti purOgA:”
Was it only the human and celestial races which were rendered spellbound by the magnificent melodies of the Lord” No, says Sri Periazhwar, citing the conduct of dumb birds, bees, cows and deer. The moment they heard the mesmerising music, birds left their nests and flocked to the source of the strains, where they fell to the ground at the Lord’s feet, listening with rapturous attention. The bees nestling in the vanamAla worn around His neck buzzed with bliss, providing an apt accompaniment (Shruti) to the vENu gAnam. Whole herds of cows surrounded Sri Krishna, their heads down in attention, ears unmoving and legs giving away due to the overwhelmingly delightful experience. Whole herds of deer, listening raptly to the Flutist, completely forgot their grazing. Such was the overpowering bliss occasioned by this divine music that they even forgot to swallow the portions of grass they had already imbibed and stood like statues, with half-chewed grass and saliva dribbling down their chins from their gaping mouths”maruNdu mAn kaNangaL mEygai marandu, mEynda pullum kadai vAi vazhi sOra”. It was as if these beasts were proving VaLluvar’s dictum, ‘sevikku uNavillAda pozhudu siridu vayittrukkum eeyappadum”. So motionless were these deer as to resemble lifeless paintings, rather than living, breathing creatures”ezhudu chitthirangaL pOla nindranavE”. Srimad BhAgavata Purana depicts the same captivating scene in what is almost a translation of Azhwar’s sree sookti”
“VrindashO vraja vrishA mriga gAvO vENu vAdya hrita chEtasa ArAt
danta dashta kabalA dhrita karNA nidritA likhita chitram iva Asan”
It was not only living beings which were affected by the Lord’s concert”even lifeless trees were so delighted to hear the strains thereof, that they started secreting honey, in an endearing _expression_ of their enjoyment. Moved by the melodies, Flowers in full bloom fell to the ground on their own, imagining themselves to be adorning the Lord’s lotus feet, while up-growing shoots of plants bowed their heads automatically, as if lending their ears to the enchanting tunes emanating from the Lord’s kuzhal. Swift-flowing rivers slackened their pace and became almost motionless, with gentle waves dancing to the tunes of the Lord’s celestial song. Providing a majestic TALam were the clouds, which, enthralled by Sri Krishna’s melodies, gently sprinkled Him with light, fragrant showers of appreciation, moving along with Him to provide a protective canopy. The BhAgavata Purana wonders at the strange effect the Lord’s song had on living beings and non-living things”while living beings became mesmerised and motionless with bliss, acquiring the characteristics of non-living things, the latter exhibited behavioural traits common only in sentient beings.
It was not only the enthralling music flowing from the Lord’s lips that caused all this commotion”His mesmerising posture, with His left chin bewitichingly bent to rest on His left shoulder, the bow-like eyebrows dancing up and down, keeping beat to the music, His beautiful stomach filled with air to be blown into the flute (appearing to be still pregnant with all the worlds He had swallowed during the Cosmic Deluge), the corners of His coral lips touching the appropriate places and channelling air into the correct hole to generate various svarAs, the long and beautiful fingers holding the flute in place, His broad , black and lotus-like eyes dancing mischievously with a life of their own, mirroring emotions appropriate to the theme of music, His long, jet-black and curly hair moving in time with the low and high notes, resembling the dance of a peacock with its feathers in full display and His holy feet crossed in an endearing posture, with one foot resting firmly on the ground and the other raised slightly to display the glorious symbols (shankham, chakram, gadA, padmam, chariot, flag etc.) adorning the sole.
It is this peroformance, which was a treat as much to the eyes as to the ears, that made all sentient and non-sentient beings and objects forsake whatever they were engaged in and listen in rapturous attention to the Lord’s concert. It was as if the entire universe had come to a stand still, as if in a hypnotic trance. Nothing moved, nothing wanted to move, when the distinguished performance was in session. None had ears and eyes for anything else but the VENugAnam and the MuraLIdhara. Their ears were inundated by the facile flow of fabulous music and their wide-open eyes with the entrancing spectacle of the Lord’s endearing gOpa vEsham.
It is this captivating scene and enthralling melody that Azhwar recaptures for posterity in his ten pasurams. He is so filled with the blissful experience that he issues a clarion call to the entire JambUdvIpA to share the same “nAvalam periya teevinil vAzhum nangaimeer! Or arpudam kELeer. puviyuL nAn kaNdadOr arpudam kELeer!”.
GOpIs were under strict orders from their parents to avoid Krishna’s company. And as obedient offspring, they did stay at home, though their hearts very much throbbed with love for Him. However, the moment the strains of MuraLIdharA’s flute came wafting with the wind, the very same GOpIs threw all controls to the wind and ran to where the Lord was holding court on the sandy banks of the Yamuna, drawn to Him despite themselves, like fireflies to the lamp. It was the melody of Sri Krishna’s pAdukA which augmented the sweetness of His kuzhal, says Swami Desikan in Sri Paduka Sahasram
“Guru jana niyatam tat gOpikAnAm sahasram
Dinakara tanayAyA: saikatE divya GOpa:
Vasam anayat ayatnAt vamsa nAda anuyAtai:
Tava khalu PadarakshE! TAdrusai: manju nAdaI:”
There is extraordinary similarity in the depictions of the Lord’s enthralling vENu gAnam, between Sri Periazhwar Tirumozhi and the 35th Chapter of the Dasama Skanda of Sri BhAgavata Purana, so much so that the two appear to be translations of each other. This only goes to show that the thought processes of those who come under the spell of the Lord, is identical, with language never a barrier for expressing their blissful experience.
The Flute triumphs over the PAnchajanya in its relishment of the Lord’s fragrant lips. While the Shankha is raised to the lips but occasionally, the VENu enjoys a much more prolonged association with the coral lips of Krishna, during all His scintillating musical performances. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Sri Periazhwar devotes ten pasurams to the Flute’s blissful experience, compared to His distinguished Daughter’s pasurams devoted to the PAnchajanya, beseeching the same to tell Her the taste of the Lord’s perfumed lips “karuppooram nArumO, kamala poo nArumO..MAdhavan tan vai suvayum nAttramum sol Azhi veN sangE”. However, Sri Andal realises Her oversight later in Her NAcchiAr Tirumozhi and beseeches Her friends to treat Her fever of separation from the Lord, by showering Her with Krishna’s saliva flowing through His flute “nedumAl oodi varugindra kuzhalin tuLai vAi neer koNdu kuLira mugatthu tadaveerE”.
The Lord uses any number of strategies to attract and retain the affections of errant human beings. The bewitchingly beautiful tirumEni He sports during avatArAs, the endearing qualities He displays when dealing with mortals, the occasional exhibitions of His supremacy through enactment of apparently impossible acts”all these are but various tactics the Lord employs to entice wayward mortals, so that they come under His influence and forsake their usual life of sin and sorrow. The Lord’s vENu gAnam too would appear to be one of His numerous strategems to this end, which, according to Sri Periazhwar’s accounts, met with resounding success. His bewitching music is a net with which He catches elusive chEtanAs, says Azhwar “amuda geeta valai”.
Article by Sri Sadagopan Iyengar Swami, Coimbatore