Colonial India and the birth of the Nottuswara Sahityas

Dikshitar lived during the rule of the British East India Company. Along with the British, various forms of music from the European music repertoire arrived in India.  Amongst these were the British National Anthem and other marches, waltzes, Celtic jigs and reels, polkas and more.

 When Muthusvami Dikshitar lived in Manali near Chennai, he came in contact with the bands of the British East India company and the music played by them.

Dikshitar wrote lyrics in Sanskrit to many of the Western melodies that he came in contact with. Thus was born a new genre of music, known as nottuswara sahitya.  This new genre of music is both Indian and western and at the same time it is neither completely Indian nor completely western. It is unique and special. This genre of music represents a unique dimension of creativity and is also a pointer to the relatively unknown aspect of the cultural interaction between the East and the West in the 1800s.

The nottuswara sahityas are thus a body of compositions based on western original melodies (largely of Irish/Scottish origin) and Sanskrit text. These compositions are totally Indian from the standpoint of the stotra literature-based lyrics that constitute their body although the melody is devoid of characteristic Indian ornamentation..

The beauty of this largely ’Indo Celtic’ genre of music lies in the fact that the introduction of Sanskrit lyrics into Western melodic themes has not resulted in anything jarring or incongruous.

A study of the nottuswaras reveals the contrast between the light-natured tunes and the classical sahityas that adorn them. However, the heavier compositions of Dikshitar and his nottuswara sahityas (listen to these tunes) addressed to the same deities show interesting parallels in lyrics. It is also of great significance to note that the nature of the meticulousness that characterizes the lyrical component of Dikshitar’s work also pervades the nottuswara sahityas.

That one of the foremost masters of Indian classical music has actually created a lighter genre of music is a fascinating and a little known fact in Indian cultural history.

To children, these compositions are a great way of getting introduced to the Indian classical world.

Please follow this  link  to an earlier article on Dikshitar on Templenet.

Please also read a three part article summarizing the research presented by Kanniks Kannikeswaran on this topic at the Music Academy Madras.


Vismaya - An Indo Celtic Musical Journey Copyright © 2008 K. Kannikeswaran


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