“Music is an endless sea. I am a child on its shore, gazing at it in wonder. To stand here and look at the waves alone is a boon, a joy. What if I can touch the water?”
So says the actor Mohanlal on the soundtrack album of the Malayalam film His Highness Abdullah (1990). As the title character, he could be referring to any of the songs – as someone who has been listening to them since I was six I can vouch for their excellence – but he recites these lines to introduce the one that defines the film: "Devasabhaathalam" ("Abode of the Gods").
The 'Highness' of the film is Maharaja Udayavarma, a childless minor king whose extended family wants to kill him and seize his wealth. Their search for a murderer leads them to an unlikely candidate: Abdullah, a poor Malayali who earns a living singing qawwalis in Bombay (yes, that's an honest-to-goodness Hindi song in a Malayalam film).
Despite his misgivings, Abdullah agrees out of desperation and arrives at the Maharaja's palace disguised as Ananthan Namboothiri, a friend of one of the Maharaja's nephews. He slowly ingratiates himself with the Maharaja and his mentally unstable wife, who thinks 'Ananthan' is her long-dead son. The Maharaja is impressed by his musical ability and comes to treat him as such; this, coupled with Ananthan/Abdullah's reluctance to do the deed, does not go down well with the family.
In an attempt to get Abdullah thrown out, another of the Maharaja's nephews tells the relatively famous musician Ramanattukara Ananthan Namboothiri that his namesake has insulted him (by claiming that he bought a national honour, among other things). The real Ananthan shows up and demands a jugalbandi (competition) to see who's the better musician. However much one Ananthan demurs ("I am not even worthy to sit before you”), the other has his way.
And that sets the stage for "Devasabhaathalam", one of those dizzying musical achievements that are about music, but are more strongly felt than understood because no amount of analysis can even begin to explain how their craft becomes art (JS Bach's Art of the Fugue would be an apt comparison). This song crams so much into nine minutes that it can only be followed by silence.
"Devasabhaathalam" is a rāgamālika ('a garland of ragas'), specifically a through-composed one with each of its ten sections in a different raga. My personal theory is that each of these ragas evokes one of the ten rasas ('juices'/'colours') or classical emotions: this could at least partly account for the catharsis the song seems to cause in most listeners. Abdullah is originally from a family of Hindustani musicians settled in Kerala – the Maharaja knew his father – and this is very subtly hinted at in two ways: his use of a tabla instead of a mridangam (which accompanies Ananthan) and the fact that all the ragas he sings in have slightly more common Hindustani counterparts.
Lyrically, the song begins with an invocation and then travels up the octave, dedicating most sections to descriptions of the swaras or syllables of sargam (the Indian equivalent of solfège); each swara is traditionally associated with an animal that is mentioned in the lyrics. It then turns to philosophy: one section mentions, and is sung in, the three swaras of Vedic chants that are the basis of Indian classical music – anudātta (flat), udātta (natural), and swarita (sharp); the ending proclaims that music, as pranava or the primordial sound of the universe, is bliss ("ānantham").
Of course, all this would fall flat without the voices of K.J. Yesudas for Abdullah (Mohanlal), composer Raveendran for Ananthan (Renaissance man Kaithapram, who also wrote the lyrics) and Raveendran's assistant/keyboardist/disciple of Carnatic vocal titan Dr M Balamuralikrishna/unsung enfant terrible composer Sharreth (credited by his real name Sujith) for the Maharaja (Nedumudi Venu in a National Award-winning performance). The album also has an unused version of the song with MG Sreekumar replacing Raveendran: early in the film, he sings the stellar "Naadaroopini" (also a National Award winner) filmed on Kaithapram's character.
While there is at least one other song that takes a slightly different approach to the same basic concept – Ravindra Jain's "Shadaj Ne Paaya" from the unreleased Hindi film Tansen (1979), which Yesudas claims to be one of the most difficult songs he has ever sung – "Devasabhaathalam" gets so deeply into music that nothing else seems to exist: no performer, no listener, no medium, no technique. All is music, and music just is.
[First in Hindolam – Malkauns in Hindustani– and then in Tōdi]
Welcome, O peacock of music!
To make the royal abode of the gods melodious
[Pantuvarali – Puriya Dhanashri in Hindustani]
Shadjam, the immortal chant that blooms like the song of a peacock
Shadjam, the rhythm that blends with the dance of a peacock
Rishabham, the sound of the bull Nandi that lends masculinity
Rishabham, discovered by ancient sages, brings joy to the heart
[Mohanam – Bhupali in Hindustani]
Gāndhāram, the sound that causes joy and resembles a goat’s bleat
Gāndhāram, the sound that leads to happiness
Madhyamam, the bass whisper of a crane that wakes you up
Madhyamam, the kindness that merges with the song of Lord Krishna
[Dharmavati – Madhuvanti in Hindustani]
Panchamam, the sound of a koel in spring
Dhaivatam, the sound of frogs that awakens the clouds
Dhaivatam, the sound that stirs up the cyclical trot of horses
[Chakravakam – Ahir Bhairav in Hindustani]
Nishādam, the sound that comes from the face of an elephant,
The soft and comforting feeling, the oncoming form of sorrow
Innumerable droplets of sounds uniting and flowing like the Ganges
[Revati – Bairagi in Hindustani]
Music is the union of the flat, the natural and the sharp
The intense and terrifying Tāndavam
Music is what flows from a conch
Music is the body of Pranavam
Music is bliss, never ending bliss
The bliss enveloping the entire universe
Music by Raveendran
Lyrics by Kaithapram
Performed by K.J. Yesudas, Raveendran and Sharreth (as Sujith)
From the original soundtrack of His Highness Abdullah (1990)
Translation from the Malayalam by Vijay Kumar