Fidelity to original lyrics in Carnatic Music

When it comes to lyrics of Tamil songs or poems or hymns, many singers of Carnatic music do not seem to pay any heed to what the original authors intended the words to be.

An example is the song beginning with the words ‘tūmaṇi māṭattu’ (தூமணி மாடத்து) from the Tiruppāvai of Aṇṭāḷ. (I have used the transliteration system of University of Madras Tamil Lexicon.)

தூமணி மாடத்துச் சுற்றும் விளக்கு எரியத்
தூமம் கமழத் துயில்-அணைமேல் கண்வளரும்
மாமான் மகளே மணிக் கதவம் தாள் திறவாய்
மாமீர் அவளை எழுப்பீரோ உன் மகள் தான்
ஊமையோ அன்றிச் செவிடோ அனந்தலோ
ஏமப் பெருந்துயில் மந்திரப் பட்டாளோ
மா மாயன் மாதவன் வைகுந்தன் என்று என்று
நாமம் பலவும் நவின்று ஏலோர் எம்பாவாய்.

(Adapted fromநாலாயிர-திவ்ய-பிரபந்தம்/நித்யாநு-ஸந்தானம்/)

I would not split ‘tuyilaṇai’ (துயிலணை) into ‘tuyil’ and ‘aṇai’ as given in the site cited above. When it is split and sung, it sounds as though the girl is sleeping on a dam instead of a bed. Be that as it may, the more important issue I want to discuss is what happens to the word ‘tūmam’ (தூமம்).

(The word ‘tūmam’ is derived from Sanskrit ‘dhūma’ meaning ‘smoke’. But when the word follows the sandhi ‘t’ (த்) after ‘eriya’ (எரிய), the first letter beginning the next word should be pronounced as ‘tū’ and not as ‘dū’. Following the same logic, when following the sandhi ‘c’ (ச்), the first letter of சுற்றும் should be pronounced as ‘cu’ and not as ‘su’ or ‘śu’, where ‘c’ represents the sound ‘ch’ as in Chennai.)

In the site, when giving the whole verse, we see that ‘tūmam’ is used. But, while explaining the meaning of individual words, ‘tūpam’ is used! (See

A look at the words ‘tūmaṇi’, ‘tūmam’, ‘māmāṉ’, ‘māmīr’, ‘ūmāiyō’, ‘ēma’, ‘māmāyaṉ’, and ‘nāmam’ shows that the words have ‘makara etukai’ or second syllable alliteration based on ‘m’. One of the purposes of devices such as alliteration and rhyme is to preserve the texts without change. Given this, I do not know why most, if not all, Carnatic singers have taken the word as ‘tūpam’ (தூபம்) and sing it as ‘dūpam’ (from Sanskrit ‘dhūpa’ meaning ‘incense’). After all, the word ‘tūmam’ has been used already in Kalittokai 104.43 in the sense of ‘smoke’ and in Puṟanāṉūṟu 117.1 in the sense of ‘comet’.

Here is a rendition by Mrs. M. L. Vasantakumari.

One can notice that she sings ‘dūpam’ and also splits ‘tuyilaṇai’ into ‘tuyil’ and ‘aṇai’:-(

Here is Mrs. R. Vedavalli’s rendition beginning at 17:07

While she sings ‘dūpam’, she does not split ‘tuyilaṇai’.

Here is Mrs. Sudha Raghunathan’s rendition.

Although she has taken the relevant word to be ‘tūpam’ too, at least she sings it as ‘tūpam’ and not dūpam’. However, she has split the word ‘tuyilaṇai’ into ‘tuyil’ and ‘aṇai’.

The singers cited above are all native Tamils. If the song by Āṇṭāḷ included in the sacred Nālāyiram is treated like this, one can only imagine how the lyrics by other composers either in Tamil or other languages are handled.

While the above example shows the inattention paid to the lyrics of a verse more than a millennium old, the following case deals with a song of a composer, who lived in the 20th century!

Sometime ago, one of the songs being taught to students singing Papanasam Sivan’s compositions in the 2018 Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival included ‘entaṉiṭatu tōḷum kaṇṇum tuṭippateṉṉa’ (எந்தனிடது தோளும் கண்ணும் துடிப்பதென்ன) from the film Sakuntalai.

The students were taught the following lines.
எந்தனிடது தோளும் கண்ணும் துடிப்பதென்ன
இன்பம் வருவதென்று சொல் சொல் சொல் கிளியே
தென்றல் தவழ மலர் கந்தம் கமழ நறும்
தேன்பருகி சுழலும் சில் சில் சில்லடியே

The use of ‘aṭiyē’ (அடியே) in the fourth line did not make sense to me. After all, no human being drinks honey and hovers.

I saw a YouTube clip of the song, where M.S. Subbulakshmi seems to sing ‘aḷiyē’ (அளியே), where aḷi (அளி) could mean a bee or beetle and make eminent sense. Also, ‘aḷiyē’ rhymed with ‘kiḷiyē’ (கிளியே). I reached out to Prof. N. Ramanathan of Music Research Library in Chennai to check the lyrics in the song book of the film, if available. While Prof. Ramanathan did not have the song book in his library, he obtained the relevant pages of the song book from his friend, Mr. P. S. Gnanaprakash, and forwarded them to me. The song book had the following lines confirming the fact that Papanasam Sivan did use the word ‘aḷiyē’ (அளியே).

எந்தனிடது தோளும் கண்ணும் துடிப்பதென்ன
இன்பம் வருவதென்று சொல் சொல் சொல் கிளியே
தென்றல் தவழ மலர்க் கந்தம் கமழ நறும்
தேன்பருகிச் சுழலும் சில் சில் சில் அளியே

This again shows the usefulness of the employment of alliteration or rhyme in preserving the original lyrics.

The following link has M. S. Subbulakshmi clearly singing ‘aḷiyē’ (அளியே)

I hope Carnatic singers really pay attention to the lyrics as originally authored by the poets or composers. That is one way they can really show their respect to the authors of the poems or compositions.