Monday, September 13, 2010

The Language of Puns

Sanskrit grammarians and poets loovveee to create puns. The creation of a good pun was the height of intelligence along with logical rhetoric.

I'm quite sure that it's no coincidence that punning within dance is a derivation of this. One great example is a particular thillana I came across that employed this meaning to great effect. The raga scale in Indian music, as we know, is made up of Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Da, Ne...

Now, these seven basic svaras have also been known as Nishada, Rishaba, Gandhara, Madhyama, Pajja, Daivat and Samjamam in Sanskrit. These svaras were supposedly visualized by the ancient rishis who did research in music in forest universities. They observed the animals and birds around them and ascribed each svara to the tone produced by particular ones.*

Ancient scripts describes the svaras thus:

Shadja: It is based on the cry of peahen. It is called Shadja because it is produced from six places in the body – nose, throat, top of palate, base of palate, lips and teeth. It is sung by Agni (Fire). It has the color of a lotus petal.

Rishabha: It makes a sound like the cow. It has the color of the parrot. The sound strikes against the throat and head. It is uttered by Brahman.

Gandhara: While producing this note, the breath touches the throat and head and eyes from the nose ( hence it is called Gandhara from gandha). It is in the color of gold. It is sung by the moon. It is derived from the bleating of goats.

Madhyama: Resembles the tone of the kraunka bird. It is produced from the chest. Its color is that of the white jasmine. The gandharvas (celestial musicians) level in it. Vishnu sings the madhyama.

Panchama: Sounds like the cuckoo. Its color is black, produced from 5 places in the body – navel, heart, lungs, throat and head, so it is called panchama. Narada the noble one sings the panchama.

Dhaivata: Has the tone of the horse. It is produced in the forehead. It is produced in the fore head. It has a yellow color. Tumburu, the rishi sings Dhaivata.

Nishada: Sounds like the elephant. It gets its power from the sun god. Tumburu sings the Nishada. It is multi colored because it gets tinged by all the other svaras.

Now, this thillana (of a ragam I am unable to recollect), during the charanam, the lyrics were "Nishaba, Rishaba, Gandhara,..." where the pitch of each note corresponded with its namesake. But as a dancer, you had to interpret it as the animal the meaning of the word represented. So for the first note, Nishaba, where the singer is referring to the pitch of the note, the dancer refers to the elephant through her movements.

Just goes to show how all these subjects mesh together to create this incredibly complex, layered works of literature, art, etc.

*I did get this information from a website but can't seem to find it again...

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