For performers, the stage is their home and travelling from one city or country to another is a way a life. While The Covid-19 induced lockdowns have given a welcome break for a few, some others have benefitted from it by engaging in creative pursuits.
It has been well over a year since Chennai-based vocal and Chitravina artiste and Guru Bhargavi Balasubramanian took to the stage for her live concerts. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns gave the performer and music teacher some much-needed time to work on her dream projects, while also continuing to teach and nurture young talents via the new normal – Zoom.
For years, the ancient composer Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi and his compositions have enthralled Bhargavi. The pre-trinity (Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri) composer who lived approximately from 1700 to 1765 is an enigma for Carnatic musicians, given that he neither took on disciples nor did he have any progeny to carry on his legacy.
During the lockdown, Bhargavi along with Sathish Kumar, an app developer from X Concepts, developed an app ‘Venkata Kavi’ and revamped a website (http://www.venkatakavi.org) dedicated to the ancient composer.
The integrated website, which is a one-stop site for all the compositions of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, contains close to 600 complete works of the composer, lyrics to his songs, pronunciation guides, a history of the composer, his contribution to music, musical facts, the historical significance of the songs and more.
The Venkata Kavi app, which is the first of its kind for Carnatic music, enables users to listen to interpreted songs composed by the ancient composer along with the lyrics appearing on the screen in real time and create playlists like Spotify. Additionally, users can also watch YouTube videos while browsing the lyrics.
Bhargavi explained that according to legends, Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, who had moved to the village of Oottukkadu as a child wanted to learn music from a renowned teacher there. However, he was turned down by the teacher, following which he went to a temple dedicated to Lord Krishna, prompted by a family member and prayed to the deity there.
“It is believed that Lord Krishna blessed the composer there and used to come before him everyday to listen and dance to his songs. While the composer is famous for having penned numerous songs on his ishta devata (favourite deity) Lord Krishna, he has also penned compositions on other deities such as Lord Anjaneya, Lord Rama, Goddess Saraswati, Goddess Devi and more”, Bhargavi told Indianexpress.com.
“I was exposed to Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi’s compositions during my pre-teens. I had even learnt a few of his rare and popular kritis and picked my favourites without even knowing much about him”, she said.
The vocalist said that she later learned a lot of other songs under the tutelage of Chitravina N Ravikiran, who has been propagating the works of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi among others. A child prodigy himself, Ravikiran has been collecting the composer’s compositions from various sources for years, which he then adds to his music archives and also teaches to his students.
“I was in complete awe of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi’s imagination, vocabulary and scholarship and I began appreciating these more after I started learning from Ravikiran sir. He would explain and teach us a lot of rare compositions which were not prevalent in mainstream Carnatic music. In turn, I was inspired to learn more about the composer and his works and I began collecting and archiving his works from various sources for years”, she said.
Such is the intricacy of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi’s works that musicians today are still discovering hidden meanings in his compositions even after a lot of research.
Bhargavi said that she had been toying with the idea of a website as a dream project back in 2012, which then took off in 2014.
“I had created a website in 2014 over the course of three months. Since it was a unique site, I received warm feedback from everyone and a lot of suggestions for additions to the site. The responses inspired me and made me realise that the website would serve as a long-term contribution to music. But given the technology at that time, my resources and functions on the user end were limited for an academic site of this scale. I wanted to work more on creating a seamless user experience but with constant travelling for my concerts, it was put on the back burner”, she said.
It was Bhargavi’s subsequent discussions with a well-wisher that led to the idea of a ‘Venkata Kavi’ app.
“Today, everyone prefers using a mobile phone where everything is available at the tip of your finger and is more accessible than using the same on a computer. While this was a good idea, I also realised that doing something like this for Carnatic music and for a lesser known composer like Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi were a few things that I had to keep in mind for a simpler user experience and ensure that users are drawn towards using the app regularly”, she said.
Bhargavi began working on the app in 2018. “Yet again, I could not work on it constructively then. The lockdown proved to be a ‘blessing in disguise’ for me. I spent a lot of time working on the app last year and after a few technical hurdles, we were able to get the app running”, she said.
The musician added that that features of the app will help students, rasikas (music lovers) and musicians to learn the compositions.
While the revamped Venkata Kavi website was launched on July 2, 2021, the app was released two weeks later on July 15. The app can be downloaded from Google Play Store for Android users and App Store for iOS users.
While there are several websites which provide lyrics to the songs of various composers, both the Venkata Kavi app and website are the first of their kind which contain the works of the composer, lyrics, history of the composer and more, all on an integrated platform.
“The site and app list close to 600 compositions of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi out of which the lyrics of almost 450 compositions have been put up. Some of them are still bring researched for lyrical accuracy while others are being researched to learn the original tunes”, Bhargavi said.
Most of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi’s compositions are now being discovered and interpreted after being passed along over the years through his brother’s family.
“It was Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar, a seventh generation descendant of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi and a Harikatha exponent who propagated Venkata Kavi’s works through mainstream Carnatic concerts and various discourses from around 1940 to 1983”, Bhargavi explained.
The Chitravina artiste said that the original lyrics of the ancient composer’s works were shared with Ravikiran by Bhagavatar’s late wife. These archives have been instrumental in aiding the database for the Venkata Kavi app and site.
Besides working on the app and website, Bhargavi said she had launched a YouTube channel ‘OVK Music‘ in August, 2019, exclusively for Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi’s compositions. The channel features compositions performed by her students and various other artistes.
Bhargavi also turned producer and video editor, along with Sreenidhi Venkat, an audio engineer and Divya Ramesh, a designer through the production of Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi’s Saptaratnas and Navavarnams.
During Navratri last year, the music teacher said that she had reached out to several young and upcoming musicians and established musicians to present the Navavarnams, a set of 12 compositions on Goddess Devi by Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi, as solos.
“I collaborated with 12 artistes to present them for the 12 days of the festival. The songs were sung by the artistes, the salient features and lyrical explanations were given by two younger artistes and Ravikiran sir explained the musical aspects of the Navavarnams”, Bhargavi said.
Following the response received for the Navavarnams, the musician decided to make a production of Ootukkadu Venkata Kavi’s Saptaratnas, a set of seven compositions. “The series will be a collaboration featuring several famous artistes, disciples of Ravikiran sir and my disciples”, she said. The series will feature introductions by popular artistes and will be produced once a month, she added.
The first Saptaratna, featuring 54 artistes, was released in June this year followed by the second one this month.
The Saptaratna videos, featuring dynamic musicians as young as eight years old to senior musicians, were all recorded remotely at home sans studio set up and edited and mixed by Bhargavi and Sreenidhi.
“This is perhaps the first large scale production featuring several artistes do be done remotely. While there were technological challenges, the humility exuded by the composer and his beautiful compositions made the challenges faced by us a ‘small speck in a huge ocean'”, Bhargavi said.
Having donned various caps over the years, the Chitravina artiste said that being a musician will always come first for her. “Being a musician has helped me pursue these projects and work on the various technical aspects”, she said.
Besides the OVK Channel, Bhargavi said that Ravikiran had organised day-long aradhanas (concerts) dedicated to Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi in 2007 and 2008, where several artistes performed in one-hour concerts held throughout the day.
“We also conducted a two-day Navavarana festival in 2008 featuring 12 artistes. This has been taken up by other premier organisations who have done dedicated festivals or aradhanas for Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi in India and USA. We also plan to do a monthly concert series on our Facebook page for Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi in a couple of months”, the musician said.
Bhargavi said the Oottukkadu Venkata Kavi app, website and channel are free for all. “The aim is to propagate the works of the composer and it would be great if a lot of students and people in general access these. While app and website were funded by me, the production is being funded by our foundation”, she added.