Classical Claim For Odissi Music-I: Lyrics or Composition, What Is First?

Author: Shyamanuja Das-
Odissi Music accompaniments during an Odissi dance performance.
(Photo: Dr Madhumita Parida/FB Page)
Some time back, I met  Narayan Prasad Singh, arguably the most popular Odia lyricist of the 1960s and 70s—the man behind songs such as Jibana JamunareJochhana Luchana, Udi Udi Udi, Kainchi Kakudi Nalita Pita, Sapana Bilasi and many more  to his credit, and popularly known as Rasaraj to Odia music lovers. 
During the conversation, he made a comment. “Today, many performers are adding unnecessary alaaps in Odissi compositions,” he said adding that this trend, apparently aimed at trying to project Odissi as a classical music “is killing its sweetness.”   Shri Singh is not a musician and he was not concerned about anything such as “dilution” of the form, as he clarified. As a lyricist, he was just worried about the “sweetness” getting lost.

Unwittingly, Shri Singh was making a very significant point about the treatment of lyrics in music in Odissi vis-à-vis other streams such as Hindustani. It is important to note here that we were not discussing Odissi music, its status as classical music or anything remotely related to that. We were discussing Odia modern music—and its evolution in the 1950s to 80s. So, the comment came as an illustration during the discussion.   

My friends outside Odisha (mostly in Delhi, where I live) who are involved with Indian classical music in some way or other have very little knowledge about Odissi music and its claim for being recognized as a classical music. That itself is not surprising. Good thing is they are quite open to know more.  

And with whatever little knowledge I have, I try to satisfy their queries, pointing often to better sources online. But as the discussion progresses, their interest invariably takes a dip, when I tell them that the songs are usually identified with the lyrics; and those are some of the greatest poetry of Odia literature. That is something that many are unable to digest.  While some become openly skeptical, some start comparing Odissi with thumri and dadra, giving it tags like light classical, semi classical etc.

Somehow, there’s an inherent assumption that if it is serious (read classical) music, the lyrics must play second fiddle to the music.

Many do not say it as crudely as I put it but try to argue the same in different words. “The musicians do not have the free hand to compose and show the true characteristics of a raga, if they have to compose to the songs of great poets.” That many of those poets were musicians themselves and had specifically mentioned the raga (and often tala) on which a particular song has to be sung is not enough to convince them.

 “When words take over, like it or not, music loses its prominence”.

“True music should not be confined to a language; when lyrics get this much prominence that is not possible.”

These are just some of the comments that I hear. Many do not say anything explicitly but their body language says it all. The fact that Odissi gives so much importance to lyrics is reason enough to question its stature as a classical music. An exponent identifying a composition as Dashavatara or Pashyati dishi dishi, Mallimala Shyamaku Debi or Ahe Nila Shaila, is something that has no parallel in Hindustani music. This Odissi tradition of focusing on the song as a whole—where the words and notes are given equal importance—did carry itself to early modern Odia music too.

Consider this, most early popular Hindi film composers like Naushad, Anil Biswas, O P Nayyar and SD Burman—created tunes first for lyricists to write on.  Even someone of the stature of Shakeel Badayuni, whose songs almost made Begum Akhtar, had to conform to this arrangement. In contrast, the founding fathers of popular Odia film music—who also set the tone for Odia modern music as a whole—followed the Odissi tradition of composing the poems. Pandit Balakrushna Dash and Pandit Bhubaneswar Mishra, two stalwarts of Odissi music, who ruled Odia film music in the 1950s and 60s almost always allowed the lyricists to write first. It is only later day composers like Basudev Rath who started the practice of asking lyricists to write to the tune. This is something Rasaraj unequivocally confirmed too.

This deep respect for the complete song and not the notes alone is a characteristic of Odissi music in particular, Odia music in general and people of Odisha in a broader sense. What Rasaraj was worried about is the effort by a section of practitioner to discard this age old tradition in order to prove Odissi as a classical music by aping the current practice in Hindustani music.

[The Writer is a Delhi based senior journalist and a classical music enthusiast. This is first part of a two part series on Classical status to Odissi music.]

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