Ganesh Chaturthi is around the corner and there is much merriment all over. It marks the official beginning of the festival season in several parts of the country. Across several cities, the main markets have been flooded with the seasonal Ganesha idol sellers.
Ganeshas of all shapes, sizes, forms and types are available in the market. From sizes smaller than your palm to larger than your home, Ganeshas are being sold.
The biggest events take place in Maharashtra. Thanks to the efforts of freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, this festival gained national importance over time in the 20th century. But long before it became a festival of this magnitude, Ganesha was always worshipped and celebrated across South India.
Being a prominent seat of Shaivites and Shaktas, several geographic belts in the South worshipped Ganesha in different forms.
In the ancient Ramappa temple in current Warangal in Telangana, one can find one of the earliest sculptures of a dancing Ganesha. This temple was built by the Kakatiya rulers in the 13th century. The famous treatise on dance, ‘Nritta Ratnavali’ by Jayappa Senapati was written here when he saw the dancing sculptures on this temple walls. Did this intricately carved little Ganesha inspire him? We will never know!
Photo: Dancing Ganesha in Ramappa Temple in Warangal
It is obvious that the music of the region, Carnatic as we know it now, was one way of celebrating Ganesha. Several poets, saints and composers down the centuries wrote elaborately, in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Sanskrit, expressing their devotion to the elephant headed god.
Carnatic music began blossoming into fullness during the Vijayanagara Empire times. One of the first composers to pay his obeisance to Ganesha was Purandara Dasa (1484 – 1564). Known as the ‘Sangita Pitamaha’ or the father of Carnatic music, Purandhara composed thousands of poems in praise of various gods.
He systematized the method of teaching Carnatic. He became a student of Vyasathirtha, the royal Guru of Emperor Krishadevaraya and composed a number of songs as he traveled around the towns to various temples across the Vijayanagara Kingdom. Karnataka has some of the most ancient temples dedicated to Ganesha.
Be it Idagunji or Anegudde, Ganesha worship has been a long-standing tradition. In the Vijayanagara’s capital city of Hampi, amidst all the ruins on the Hemakuta hill is a massive temple dedicated to a monolithic Ganesha. He is known as the ‘Sasve Kallu Ganapati’ or Ganapati made of mustard seeds. This name comes from the fact that the statue’s large belly has been sculpted so meticulously, if you took a closer look at it, the surface feels like a sheet of mustard seeds, laid out thin.
Photo: Monolithic Ganesha in Hampi
There are many more shrines dedicated to Ganesha. It is difficult to point out to the exact temple or holy site that Purandhara Dasa might have visited while he composed because not all songs give away the names of places in them. Among several Kritis he composed, dedicated to Ganesha, the most popular one is ‘Gajavadana Beduve’ set to Ragam Hamsadhwani.
The best version of this song is by M L Vasantakumari (1928 -1990) who played a significant role in popularizing the songs of the Dasas in her illustrious musical career. Since that track is not available, let us listen to the same rendered by Bombay Jayashree:
In fact in Yakshagana, the ancient dance theatre tradition of Karnataka, no act on stage begins without paying obeisance to Ganesha. The same procedure can be seen in the Kuchipudi dance drama tradition of Andhra Pradesh. In Karnataka, the Pooja is often for Ganesha worshipped in the temple of Idagunji.
The Poorva-Ranga or the prelude to any play is a short invocation to Ganesha to bless the stage, the actors and the audiences. The most famous group Keramane that saw some of the greatest legends of Yakshagana in the 20th century has kept this tradition alive for several generations. Watch one such Ganesha Pooja before the main performance here:
All of you have heard of the famous Carnatic composition ‘Vatapi Ganapatim Bhaje’ written and set to tune in Ragam Hamsadhwani by one of the famous Carnatic trio Muththuswamy Deekshitaar (1775-1835). In fact, every other Carnatic music recital begins with this popular Kriti. But many wonder where this temple of Ganesha is situated.
Vatapi was the ancient name of the city of Badami in current day northern Karnataka. The famous clash of Chalukyas and Pallavas took place here in the year 617. The Chalukya ruler Pulakeshi –II was defeated by Narasimhavarma –I.
As was the custom of war, the winning Pallava ruler looted the city of Badami and fled with several precious artifacts. Among those was an idol of Ganesha. His commander-in-chief Paranjyothi brought it to his hometown of Thiruchengattankudi in the Thiruvarur district in Tamil Nadu and enshrined it in a temple dedicated.
Photo: The famous Ganesha of Vatapi
The Uthrapathiswaraswamy Temple here is dedicated to lord Shiva. In the same temple complex, the commander built another temple for this new Ganesha and installed it. Many centuries later when the Carnatic composer Deekshitaar went traveling around the region, he wrote a set of sixteen songs dedicated to Ganesha installed in sixteen different temples.
The famous ‘Vatapi Ganapatim’ was dedicated to this Ganesha. Listen to it sung by the Carnatic superstar Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna:
From there we come to Kerala where the great philosopher saint Shankara Bhagavadpada in the 8th century composed a number of songs as he traveled the length and breadth of the country. Whichever holy place or temple he visited, he left his footprint in the form of an exquisite Sanskrit composition. There are several in praise of Ganesha.
The most popular of them is the ‘Ganesha Pancharatnam’ or five stanzas in praise of Ganesha. Though we don’t have the details of the exact place or temple he might have written this at, we know how Kerala is dotted with several prominent Ganesha temples.
This particular composition gained great popularity when it was set to tune and sung by none other than Bharat Ratna awardee M S Subbulakshmi. She, with her impeccable pronunciation in Sanskrit, made it a regular item in many of her concerts in later years. Listen to one such vintage concert:
With so much music, can rhythm be far behind? The art of Carnatic percussion is easily one of the most complex and difficult art forms to master, anywhere in the world.
In ancient Shaiva temple rituals in South India, whenever the Kumbhabhishekam was performed to the main god, priests chanted the ritual of Ganapati Taalanam. The authorship of this particular text remains a mystery. It was chanted along with the temples’ Nadaswaram and Thavil artistes putting a soft beat to it.
In the modern times, the legendary Ghatam Vidwan Vikku Vinayakaram has revived the same. He not only revived it but gave it a new flavor. Including slokas like ‘Sripathikaam’ written by his grandfather Kavi Chakravarthy Vaidyanatha Sharma, he set to tune the Ganapati Talam. He begins with a simple ‘thakita dhikita’ beat where he describes the form of Ganesha using the percussion vocabulary. Set to Adi talam , with each beat of five Maatras and late set to two and half beats, the Ganapati Talam is a lively composition that can energize any performance.
Listen to it here:
Ganesha, the remover of obstacles is the first Hindu god worshipped. This weekend as India gears up for yet another Ganesh Chaturthi, what better way to celebrate him than music? Here’s wishing you all a happy, holy and divine Ganesh Chaturthi!
Photos courtesy : Krishnamurthy, Selva Kumar, Rangarajan P
(Veejay Sai is an award-winning writer, editor and a culture critic. He writes extensively on Indian performing arts, cultural history, food and philosophy. He lives in New Delhi and can be reached at email@example.com)