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Maargazhi Maasam

It is that time of the year. Yes, it is the Holiday season, the rainy season (in the West Coast) and the snow season (in the East Coast). But that is not what I am referring to. Around this time of December, the Tamizh month of Maargazhi kicks in, bringing with it a beautiful mix of devotion, music and a weather that perfectly complements it.

The Tamizh calendar is a Hindu calendar used predominantly in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and a few other places across the world. The Tamizh New Year kicks off usually on the 14th of April and a new month arrives around mid month of the Gregorian calendar. Maargazhi is the month that falls between mid-December and mid-January. It is followed by the month of Thai which has the popular harvest festival of Pongal (Makara Sankranthi in other states of the country). Margazhi and Thai together form the brief winter time in south India also referred to as Mun Pani (early dew) months.

srivilliputtur temple

Maargazhi gains its prominence in Hindu culture with its close association with the works of Sri Andal Aazhwar, a lady poet saint who lived many centuries ago. Aandal was born to Sri. Periazhwar, the head priest at the Srivilliputtur temple dedicated to the Lord Vatapathrasayee. The story of Godai (as she was known before becoming Andal) is interesting in itself and you can read all about it here. Of interest from a musical standpoint is her love for Lord Krishna and desire to marry him. Story goes that in the month of Maargazhi, Godhai woke up before dawn everyday and sang the glory of the Lord walking around town as she made her way to the temple. This set of thirty hymns is called as Thiruppavai.  At the end of the thirty days, the Lord is said to have taken her to be his consort.

Sri Andal, image courtesy www.divyadesam.com

Growing up, Thiruppavai was an integral part of our life during Maargazhi. The local Ramnagar Ramar Kovil Bhajana Goshti (relegious song group) would walk around the neighborhood singing not just Thiruppavai but very many songs in the praise of the Lord. Residents would wake up earlier than usual, take a quick bath and wait with rice outside the house. When the Bhajanai Goshti walked past each residence, the people in the house would come out and offer Bhikshai (alms). Concerts would happen all around town and the spirit of Maargazhi would be all pervasive at temples.

Image courtesy The Hindu. Art by Keshav.
Image courtesy The Hindu. Art by Keshav.

Coinciding with the month of Maargazhi, Chennai kicks off its annual tradition, the December music season. For the month of December, the large city of Chennai lives, breathes and thrives on music. Artists of all stripes and experience give concerts across the many Sabhas (music venues) around town. Crowds cram these concerts from late in the afternoon to late at night. While the music season itself is not directly affiliated to Maargazhi, it kind of works hand in glove to make the time all the more glorious. On TV and radio, concerts are a mainstay from 6 in the morning. Even the non-Carnatic-music-lover would find it hard to escape the joy that the season brings.

Over the years, many artists have offered their renditions of the full set of 30 hymns that constitute the Thiruppavai. From Maargazhi Thingal in a brisk Nattai through the elevated experience of Maayanai Mannu in Shri and the subtle Thoomani Maadathu in Amir Kalyani to the upbeat Pullin Vai in Atana, the peppy Maale Manivanni in Kuntala Varali culminating with Vanga Kadal Kadaintha in Surutti, Thiruppavai offers something for everyone. So here are some versions of the Thiruppavai for you to listen and enjoy.

Sri Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s Version

The definitive version rendered in Ariyakudi’s inimitable style, this is my go to rendition every year. You can hear it here <Part 1><Part 2>.

M.L.Vasanthakumari’s Version

As good as the Ariyakudi version, it boasts the talent and voice of the one and only MLV. An excellent way to experience Thiruppavai. You can listen to it here.

Sudha Raghunathan’s Version

Sudha, a disciple of MLV offers her own version of Thiruppavai. As much as her tutelage and style owes it to MLV, this version is good but not on par with her teacher’s. Nevertheless, it is very popular due to its wide availability.  You can listen to it here <Part 1><Part 2>.

The voices of devotion – Part 1

I recently started a Facebook group dedicated to Tamizh Isai (tamil music) where members post interesting Tamil songs based on a specific theme every day. A few weeks ago, the theme was devotional music. That got me thinking. Some voices and artists are just brilliant as devotional singers. It is almost as if they were placed in this Earth to eloquently deliver God’s music. A few of these are equally adept at Carnatic music. Others not so much. But the thread that connects them is the sheer devotion their voices inspire in listeners. Here is the first of a two part series that looks at the small list of such artists with a sampling of their music. This is by no means a comprehensive list nor is it objective. If you the reader feels that more artists need to be featured here, feel free to drop me a line and I will do my best to profile them too. Music by nature is subjective and a topic like this is even more so. With that minor caveat, here we go.


Any devotional list has to start with MS amma. Many of us woke up to her Venkatesa Suprabhatam or Vishnu Sahasranamam and heard Bhaja Govindam following one or both of them. It was the staple morning piece in most houses in our neighborhood. If someone kept track of how many tapes of the Sahasranamam and Suprabhatam were sold, I am sure it would warrant a place in the record books. Many artists have tried to release tapes of  the aforementioned shlokas but M.S.S voice is the only one lodged firmly in our brains.

When it came to Bhajans, M.S amma was extraordinary. There are innumerable bhajan pieces – compositions of Tulsidas, Meera, and many others where her utter devotion elevated the listener’s experience. Some of the pieces that come to mind are Sri Rangapura Vihara in Brindavana Saranga, Annamacharya’s Dolayam and Srimannarayana, Meera Bai’s Giridhara Gopala in Mohanam, Meera Bai’s  More To Giridhara in Behaag, the spectacular Hari Tum Haro composed by Meera in Darbari Kanada, Rajaji’s tamil composition Kurai Ondrum Illai, Tulsi Das’s Shri Ramachandra Kripalu in Sindhu Bhairavi and Shri Kanchi Periyavar’s Maitreem Bhajata. There are countless others but this small list gives you an idea of the breadth of composers M.S amma covered.


It would be unfair to compare MLV with MSS and there is a good reason for it. They were both incomparable peers who pioneered the way for classical music singing by women in the mid 20th century along with D.K.Pattammal. It can be argued that MLV had a wider carnatic repertoire compared to MSS amma but that doesnt take away the fact that MLV also did wonders with some devotional pieces. On top of that list is MLV’s definitive rendition of Sri Andal’s Thiruppavai. There is a Thiruppavai version by everybody today but none so that matches MLV’s version. Ariyakudi’s version is more elaborate and is less devotional and more carnatic music. MLV makes it more accessible to the common man and it is a joy to hear. It is my go-to version every Margazhi. Listen to the entire album here

She also had a wide repertoire of Purandaradasar Krithis and some of them standout for the depth and devotion they offer. Here is MLV singing the Dasar krithi “Venkatachala Nilayam” in Sindhu Bhairavi. Here is MLV using the same wondrous Sindhu Bhairavi on a Swathi Thirunal composition, “Vishweshwar Darshan Kar”. 

Here is a song on Murugan in Behag that a much older MLV sings with a young Sudha. And then there were the movies. MLV was the voice du jour for all the wonderful dance pieces in old tamil movies. They were steeped in Carnatic ethos with the lyrics praising the glory of the Gods. 


K.J.Yesudas is best known for his contributions to Malayalam and Tamil cinema but his devotional songs should very much be a part of any conversation of great devotional singers. While he made his chops with Hindu and Christian religious music, his collection for Lord Ayyappa are quite special. And it all starts with “Harivarasanam”.

Harivarasanam is probably the most heard and most loved Ayyappan song and Yesudas’s voice is inextricably linked to it. I have heard a few other versions of the song but nothing comes even close. Here is another piece from the 1972 movie Chembaruthi – Saranamayyappa worth a good listen. Yesudas has sung a lot of Lord Ayyappa’s songs over the years and I remember hearing them every November and December as friends prepared to go to Sabarimala. The devotional fervor whipped up in the evenings at Ayyappan Puja Sangham in Coimbatore is something I will remember all my life. 

Outside of Ayyappan songs, KJY did very well with popular devotional songs in Sanskrit, Tamil and Malayalam. Here is a beautiful rendition of Venkata Kavi’s “Swagatham Krishna”. Youtube offers very many devotional songs of Yesudas that have moved devotees over the decades.

Mohd. Rafi

Here is my outside pick for voices of devotion. If you are a fan of Rafi saab, you know why he is here. We live in a world torn by religious conflict. But music has no barriers, no boundaries. A.R.Rahman is an excellent example of that. ARR has composed some wonderful Bhajans in the last few years. But Rafi saab was the first in that list to make music universal. And his bhajans are a testimony. Here is my small pick of Rafi songs that deliver a devotional punch unlike any other. 

1. Man Tarpat Hari dhar – Baiju Bawra. This song will move you. You have my word for it. The Malkauns/Hindolam is gorgeous and Rafi’s voice just wafts like a breeze at the temple. I am transported. Simple as that. And if you wanted more secularism in music- this gorgeous Hari bhajan was written by Shakeel Badayuni and set to tune by Naushad saab. 

2. O Duniya ke Rakhwale – Baiju Bawra. Another classic piece composed by Naushad for the same movie and Rafi saab makes you feel every word of it. The Darbari Kanada is phenomenal and the song makes a strong impact.

3. Madhuban mein radhika – Kohinoor. What a song. The listener is transported to Brindavan on Rafi saab’s voice, Naushad saab’s tune and the wonderful lyrics of Shakeel saab. The song is set in Hameer and how lovely it sounds 53 years later. 

4. Badi der bhai nanda lala– Khandaan. Rafi saab does this Krishna bhajan beautifully.

5. Mujhe Apni Sharan – Tulsidas. Rafi again does a wonderful rendering of this Ram bhajan set to tune by Chandragupt. 

I have a different set of artists lined up for the next part of this musical journey on the voices that inspire devotion in us. Until then, enjoy the wonderful songs in this post and here is the public Youtube playlist with most of the songs