Shabdam – A discussion

shabdam_image

Reproducing a discussion on Shabdam that happened in a Facebook group few months ago. It all started with few questions on Shabdam.

1. How do you define a Shabdam?
2. What is its value/role in a repertoire?
3. Based on % of nritta/abhinaya, isn’t it a baby varnam waiting to evolve?
4. What makes a shabdam a shabdam?
5. Why do all Shabdams sound the same? How did that even become a guideline?

So, here is the discussion on these questions:

On the outset, I want to say that I am profusely quoting from dancers and scholars from the sources I have/read. The main reason is one should read the source and then interpret it on their individual basis. So, read it and then come to some conclusion. Another reason is that Sabdham has some flexibility that can be seen after reading the following passages. I have not cherry-picked these since they agree to the previous statement, rather picked the entire passages that talk about Sabdham. After reading all this, you can see at the end my responses to each of the questions raised like a 2-mark answers 🙂

There are other sources, which I have not come across, yet. If I find anything different or in detail then the ones given here, I will update this document.

Balasaraswati says in her presidential address of Tamil Isai Sangam’s conference in 1975, where she gives the temple entering analogy.

Then, comes the Shabdam. It is here that compositions, with words and meanings, which enable the expression of the myriad moods of BN are introduced.

The BN recital is structured like a Great Temple: we enter through the gopuram of alarippu, cross the ardhamadapam of jatiswaram, then the mandapa of shabdam, and enter the holy precinct of the deity in the varnam…The padams follow…cool and quiet of entering the sanctum from its external precinct. Dancing to padam is akin to the juncture when the cascading lights of worship are withdrawn and the drum beats die down to the simple and solemn chanting of the sacred verses. Then the thillana breaks into movement like the final burning of camphor accompanied by  a measure of din and bustle.

At first, mere metre, the melody and metre; continuing with music, meaning and metre;  its expansion in the centerpiece of the varnam; thereafter, music and meaning without metre; in variation of this, melody and metre; in contrast to the pure rhythmical beginning a non-metrical song at the end.

Refined in the crucible of alarippu and jatiswaram, the dancer potrays the emotions of the musical text in the shabdam in their pristine purity. In the shabdam, emotions are withheld at the beginning; thereafter, when the dancer has clarified herself, they are released in a measured and disciplined manner.

In her book “Bharatanatyam” published in 1958, Balasaraswati adds: (I have translated from Tamil to the best of my knowledge)

The third urupadi (item) is shabdam. Shabdam means word. That is meaningful words that make a story are shown for the first time. Another meaning exists. In praise of a god, in the temple or in a procession, or a king/ruler, pointing to them and praising their qualities is called Yasogeethi. Such words filled with praises is called Shabdam. This is seen in Kathak and similar compositions in Kathak is called kavitham or kavithavam. This exists as kavuthuvam in BN. Making this word more pristine to kausthubam is wrong, not correct. In this context, shabdams exist that end with Salamure. For eg: “Prathapa Simma Bhopala Salamure” and “Padhmanadha salamure” are present in Shabdam in praise of Tanjavur king and Trivandrum Padmanabha swamy, respectively. This is the reason, why Shabdam were also known as Salamu.

In general, Shabdams describe the hero’s qualities, for the scope of abhinaya other Bhavas are introduced. Dasavataram, Ramayana, Gajendra Moksham are some themes explored in Shabdams. Earlier they were composed in Kambodi, now Ragamalika Shabdams are danced to.

After showing the abhinaya, at the end of each line in the sahityam, striking the foot to “Takita takadhimi” followed by Tat tai ta ha once, followed by the jati “tari taki nanaka tadhi mi dhi mi ki ta” is used. After this, the second line of the sahityam is done in abhinaya. The adavu can be changed to another. In the end, the dit dit tai adavus are used once to finish the shabdam

Rukmini Devi Arundale says in an article published in Kalakshetra Quarterly, 1980, Vol II. No 3, Pg 20

I may also add that I used kirtanas like “Anandanatanaprakasam” of Dikshitar and “O jagadamba” for an invocatory dance taking often the place of the Sabdam, which contains very much the same kind of sringara bhava as is found in padams and javalis…I found the Sabdam, which is a well known dance item, musically uninteresting, as it depended much on the Manodharma and the quality of the singer to make it good. Good singers were also difficult to find …

On the origins of Sabdam, Dr. V. Raghavan says in the article “Merattur Kasinatha, A composer of Sabdas of the 18th century AD.” published in 1943 Journal of the Music Academy pg 130

The sahitya is always in praise of a deity or a patron, who is a Zamindar or King. It goes on elaborating in epithets the qualities, acts and glories of the deity or patron and ends by exclaiming “Salute unto thee”. Padmanabha Salamu re, ends a Sabda of Tajore Vadivelu Pillai on Sri padmanabhaswami at Trivandrum. Many other exclaim at the end “Paraku”, “Attention” giving the picture of the deity or patron eulogized as arriving or sitting in court or going in procession, being announced by the bards….Sabda itself means in Sanskrit ‘Yasogiti’, a song praising one’s fame

The most renowned Sabda of Kasinatha appears to be his Gajendra Moksa Sabda, which is otherwise called the Manduka or Frog Sabda. In the Tiruvarur manuscript, the sabda contains a long sequence of rhythmic syllables in which the poet tries to capture the sound effect of frogs croaking in the lotus pond where the Gajendra gets caught.

In his opening paper titled “Bharata Natya” presented in the Dance Seminar held by the Sangeet Natak Academi, 1958, Dr. V. Raghavan says

The third item called Sabda occurs in the oder texts mentioned previously….it being called Sabda and Salamu forms a tell-tale links between the Kathak and BN…Sabda as an old word in classical Sanskrit means the words of praise with which a deity, a hero and a king are greeted as they come in procession or seated in court. The oldest form of these is a pile of laudatory epithets of the hero, then a poetic description of the qualities of the head and heart, and then a love-theme was introduced; but, in a tell-tale manner, even the love pieces ended with a salutation.

There have been long Sabda compositions of a narrative type which were also separately danced and interpreted in gestures in other schools, like the Kucipudi.

This is said here to emphasise the important fact that after the introduction of the Tala and Raga in the first two items (alarippu and Jatiswaram),here in the third, for the first time, the recital introduces words of a Sahitya ad rhythmic passages, intended respectively for abhinaya and dance, alternate here. Both parts of Natya, the Nrtta as well as Nrtya , having thus been introduced, we go on now to the Varna…

‎1. How do you define a Shabdam?

Literally meaning word, that describe the qualities of a person whom is directly addressed. It is in the present, with retelling  of the past stories. It was called previously as “salamu”, indicating that they were performed in the presence of the person, who is praised.

2. What is its value/role in a repertoire?

After the abstract dances, this is ice-breaker for the audience to know the nritya part of dance that will follow. As subha said, “Once u transition from alarippu (warm up your upangas and microangas (whatever they are called) to major angas) you are ready for a jathiswaram involving hardcore nritta involving the repertoire of adavus u have been taught. The next to next major item is varnam. It has longer lasting and more structured nritta and nritya and natya. It demands a whole lot of energy. Having finished a jathiswaram launching into varnam is harmful for both the mind and body of dancer. Not being familiar with nritya at all in learning repertoire upto the jatiswaram u cannot do any justice to nritya and natya in a varnam. It’s like after learning to crawl (alarippu), stand erect (jathiswaram) u immediately want to run. So shabdam is a spacer that  a) Teaches u nritya for hte first time b) Gives ur body a break after jathiswaram and emotional state of mind a little warm up before varnam”

Analogy of just before entering the sanctum after crossing the ardha mandapam in a temple.

3. Based on % of nritta/abhinaya, isn’t it a baby varnam waiting to evolve?

Unlike varnam, there are no swara-sahityas and multiple sanchari bhavas interpreted. Maximum of two sancharis are done. Thus, it cannot be called as a varnam waiting to evolve.

4. What makes a shabdam a shabdam?

All the above. 🙂

5. Why do all Shabdams sound the same? How did that even become a guideline?

It was sung in Kambodi but many are in ragamalika. Chronologically, the ragamalika shabdams are more recent compositions. Again quoting Subha “ THe sancharis are usually accompanied by singing the whole line. No neravals or any such complexities in singing. THe singing is filled with a lot of akarams giving the singer enough warm up for the varnam as well.”

As to why they have the same tune, one possible theory could be that after Jatiswaram, the melody can be identified by the audience as that of Shabdam and look forward to the Varnam. Other than that, I don’t know why they have the same tune. Coming back to the first sentence of mine in the beginning that the rules for Shabdam are very flexible, so it can be set to any tune of Kambodi or any set of Ragas to form a ragamalika.

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Subha’s response on Shabdam

A shabdam is an introduction to nritya. Not natya or the fad called “abhinaya”. Nritya is expressive gesturing converting poetry to body language, hasta mudras and mukhabhinaya. Once you transition from alarippu (warm up your upangas and major angas) you are ready for a jathiswaram involving hardcore nritta involving the repertoire of adavus you have been taught. The next to next major item is varnam. It has longer lasting and more structured nritta and nritya and natya. It demands a whole lot of energy. Having finished a jathiswaram launching into varnam is harmful for both the mind and body of dancer. Not being familiar with nritya at all in learning repertoire upto the jatiswaram you cannot do any justice to nritya and natya in a varnam. Its like after learning to crawl (alarippu), stand erect (jathiswaram) and you immediately want to run. So shabdam is a spacer that 1. Teaches you nritya for the first time 2. Gives your body a break after jathiswaram and emotional state of mind a little warm up before varnam

Havign said that the basic unit of nritya is padarta (interpreting each word). Thus all shabdams have to teach a kid how to translate each word into a gesture (with the whole body, hand gestures and mukhabhinaya, not like “abhinaya” of “abhinaya schools” ). Every word of the shabdam poetry must be interpreted. It can also have simple vakyartas and simple 2-3 line sancharis. The sancharis are usually accompanied by singing the whole line. No neravals or any such complexities in singing. The singing is filled with a lot of akarams giving the singer enough warm up for the varnam as well.

The child is basically taught how to coordinate hands, facial expression, mental state while interpreting poetry.

The poetry is interspersed with shollukattus sung to the tune of the shabdam. This is also the first time shollukattus are sung (this part later elaborated as mridangam shollukattus sung in thllana )and not recited like in jathis. so that evolution is happening as well.

The material chosen for a shabdam differentiates it from a varnam usually. The focus is on narrative poetry. This happened. that happened etc. rather than interaction of a character with another. You are a third person (basically a narrative dancer). Varnams are more involved in that you are a character who has some emotional involvement with a hero. It is heavily based on nayika bhava. It is all about you and him and everyone else involved in between. Sringara based, viraha based, relationship stuff, rona-dhona and all that. Basically more grown up nonsense than yosogitams.

Shabdams are very short. pallavi and three charanas. NO swaras. no swara sahityas.

Another distinguishing feature of a shabdam to its testimony of being simple is that each tala akshara is accompanied by a vowel/consonant. So, in its most recognisable format the song always goes as 3+4. not just the tune but the poetry also follows the same meter.So there are no sangatis. Varnams have sparse words with tightly packed melody. Which means the words/swaras ratio is filled with a lot of akarams,ikarams, ekarams and ukarams. It is hard to sing especially at higher speeds. Shabdams on the contrary have simple almost 1:1 correspondence with swaras and sahitya aksharas. Kind of like geethams vs. varnams.

As this is the first chapu tala the student is taught and the tala structure being assymetric (alarippu is purely odd and jathiswaram is symmetrically even/odd when first taught), this allows the student to grasp an assymetric tala cycle for the first time.

I only have some random theories on why TQ used kamboji/misra chapu for shabdam. Before TQ, shabdas (considered precursors to shabdams) were in all ragas and talas.

1. Kamboji is a desi raga, it has origins of being based on folk tunes of kamboja jana/tribe. So, among all heavyweight items, its a break melodically with a simple folksy tune. A folksy flavor also explians choice of mishra chapu. One theory holds that kambojas are indo-iranian tribes…so influence of sufi/iraninan 7 beats is a possible long-shot extrapolation.

2. TQs developed margams for basically rajas and their patronage. Among all the repertoire havign a familiar folksy simple tune is probably strategic when contents are varied within it. Not only is the tune preserved, the shollukattus are also translational. They remain the same/similar in all songs. So, today when someone says shabdam, i can hum tadana tandana in the all familiar tune.

Other thoughts by other people on rasikas:

“If they could compose other dance items in different raga’s and talas, then would have very well done the same for the sabdams. If they needed it easy because they conducted and sang the sabdams then they would have set the varnams also only to one raga/tala. Only some of the sabdams are published. Many of the sabdams written by the TQ don’t have the raga/tala mentioned. And some of the TQ sabdams we use now were set to Kambodhi by Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai. ”

“Interestingly, the thesis posted by KSL a few days ago says “MOST of the sabdams composed by TQ are in Kamboji raga and misra chapu tala. Kamboji being a rakthi raga with its varied melodic improvisations facilities in establishing and enriching the latent shades of the nayika-nayaka bhava and……”. And the researcher interviewed Kittappa Pillai (descendant of TQ) and descendant of Maratha Kings still living in Tanjavur.”

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