A study in two parts
By R Vedavalli
(Edited excerpts from a lecture-demonstration for the Saraswati Vaggeyakara Trust)
In Carnatic classical music, Todi is a major raga with ample scope for elaboration and extensive creativity. Though the exact period of its origin is not known not known, it can surely be said that through the last three or four centuries it has grown and developed so much that today it is one of the most prominent and important ragas of Carnatic music.
The evolution and establishment of Todi as a magnificent raga was largely enabled by great musicians and vaggeyakaras. Among the vaggeyakaras, the Trinity, Sri Tyagaraja in particular, have contributed immensely in embellishing the beauty and depth of this raga.
Although there are no direct references to Todi’s ancestry in many of the prevalent texts, the 17th century music scholar Venkatamakhi classified it as the eighth mela. In the nomenclature of the Kanakambari-Phenadyuti scheme it is Janatodi and in the Kanakangi-Ratnangi scheme it is Hanumatodi. Somanatha called it a ‘turuska’ raga indicating its northern origin, a widely contested notion. The idea needs considerable scrutiny as the current Hindustani Todi family (with exceptions like the allied raga Bilaskhani Todi) corresponds not to the Carnatic Todi but to the Carnatic Subhapantuvarali. Some suggest the possibility that it was prevalent in the southern regions but went by a different name. Neither is the source of the name ‘Todi’ clear nor is there any recognizable meaning that could be attributed to it, unlike Sankarabharanam or Ramapriya.
Todi is said to be the rsabha murchana of the gandhara grama, which is not in vogue today. While we have heard from learned sources of the past that the rsabha murchana raga was once called Arsabhi, it is also known to correspond to the raga Sevvazhipplalai in the Tamil pann schemata. The Oduvamurtis or the singers of centuries-old Siva hymns deny knowledge of the existence of this raga in their musical tradition, but there seems to be some memory of Todi having been used by the singers of the Divyaprabandham, the Vaishnava hymns,.
Such is the mystery that surrounds the origin of Todi. Nevertheless, for centuries, Todi has captivated the souls and imagination of generations of musicians and composers by its sheer ocean-like depth and vastness. It has spawned more than 20 janya ragas. In practice, no other raga yields itself so generously to so much improvisation as Todi does. Every part of its progression allows endless scope for elaboration. It is a common practice to elaborate Todi with varja prayoga-s (skipping of notes). This is especially popular among nagaswara vidwans.
We frequently hear musicians sing long phrases without showing the shadja and panchama, There is an opinion that when Todi is sung entirely without the panchama it is called Suddha Todi, but it is not considered an adequate reason to justify the coining of a new name for the raga.
Before we begin to appreciate Todi or any other raga, especially in the creative dimension, we need to understand the rules and stages of raga improvisation or ragavistara. Authors of musical treatises like Sarangadeva and Govinda Dikshita have laid down a scheme consisting of six parts for raga vistara.
These are akshiptika, ragavardhani, vidari, thaya or sthayi, vardhani and nyasa or muktayi. This scheme is not being followed diligently today.
Akshiptika is the initial preparatory stage of the alapana when the chosen raga is unambiguously introduced by its characteristic phrases.
Next the raga is unraveled in ragavardhani. It is this stage that yields most to elaboration in three speeds. The number of sangatis or phrases sung in different kalas need to be proportionate and utmost care needs to be taken in maintaining the intrinsic tempo or kalapramana of the raga. The lower kala sangatis include long karvais or longish extensions of notes. The sangatis do not follow each other in the order of the speeds they are sung in. They are normally rendered combining all the three speeds. However in vilamba kala, the phrases are predominantly in the lower speed and respectively so in madhyama and durita kalas.
Ragavardhani is followed by vidari which is sung in the madhya sthayi.
Then comes sthayi which is a gradual note-by-note build-up in the upper octave. In this phase the musician attempts to reach as high as it is comfortably possible in the tara sthayi, However it is not mandatory to reach the panchama. A voice that easily manoeuvres the tara sthayi is called a sthayi sarira.
Sthayi comes from the root “stha” - sthapita, to establish or to create a base. It is said that musicians of the early 20th century, when performing a pallavi would sing niraval for the pallavi, first in its original sthayi and then create a base again in the tara sthayi to elaborate it further in the upper octave. Even in tanam singing, there was a practice of using the upper shadja as a base, a sthayi, and creating numerous madhyama kala sangatis in akara around it. This practice could be seen especially among the nagasvara vidwans.
Finally we come to the muktayi, where elaboration in the mandra sthayi leads to a grand ending of the alapana.
The raga vistara paddhati serves as a guideline that gives us possibilities rather than rules. Musicians of the past have used this paddhati to great effect.