Interview with Prof. T.K. Venkatasubramanian in Gurgaon, June 5, 2015

Every country has a rich cultural heritage. Europe, China or India are places with a very rich cultural heritage. History is a record of the past and it has to be understood properly. Culture is a very big field comprising, among others, dance heritage, musical heritage, linguistic heritage etc. History is at the mercy of sources. You cannot have history without a proper understanding of sources. Each region has preserved or ‘sources’, as we call it, have survived in each region which tell us about our past.


The area that we are talking about is Kudumiyanmalai which is located in the present day Pudukottai district of Tamil Nadu. Was Pudukottai known by the same name earlier or did it belong to a larger region or sub-region? It was sandwiched between the Pandya and Chola regions. If we look into the cultural characteristics of the region, we find more Jaina influences than Buddhist. This is how historians have understood the cultural experience of the region.


About the rock inscription under discussion, why is it talked about so much? Why has it been talked about only 20th century onwards and not earlier? This is what is interesting about history. While this inscription did exist prior to 1904, it came to historians’ notice only from 1904. So the history of the inscription, as known to the historians, begins in 1904. We know that sources, ‘inscriptions’ etc. are products of a survey that was initiated by our colonial administrators. That is why we call it colonial historiography. Likewise, we have nationalist historiography, Marxist historiography and these days we have liberal historiography. Whatever be the historiographical debates or shifts, inscriptions should be understood as a piece of evidence of the past, and how to understand the inscription under discussion is what I am going to explain.


Let me make one statement first. The existence of this inscription is known from 1904. Who noticed it first? The first person to notice it was one H. Krishnashastri. Krishnashastri reported it to P.R. Bhandarkar who was editing the volumes of Epigraphia Indica. So it found its way into Epigraphia Indica, volume XII, immediately after 1904. The text at the back is also found in Pudukottai State Inscriptions as a part of the list of inscriptions of the Pudukottai state made by somebody else.


The Indian Council of Historical Research (ICHR) in the 1970s compiled inscriptions of each dynasty. Prof. Mahalingam was given the task of compiling inscriptions of the Pallava dynasty. ICHR compiled all these inscriptions and brought out a volume. Several volumes have come out since then. Such a compilation makes research very convenient as everything is given at one place. The entire text, numbering about 22, is edited and published in the Mahaligam inscriptions collection.


To me the inscription is important for two reasons. It is important to a historian. It is also important to a musicologist. The peculiar feature of this inscription is that there are seven sub-sections and 16 sets of four swaras each. Secondly, the kind of terms we use in musicology these days are also found here, but with a different intensity and meaning, used perhaps simply as  kinds of expressions. 


Say for example, madhyama grame chatush prakara swaragama is the first section.


Madhyama grama chatush prakara swara agama

Then madhyam, the ma,

Shadjagrame chatush prakara swaragama

Shadave chatush prakara swaragama

Saadharite chatush prakara swaragama

Panchame chatush prakara swaragama

Kaisika madhyame, kaisika chatush prakara swaragama


So these terms are important. People who know music will know that kaisika nishatam etc. are swaras that evolved later.   


There are other features of the inscription as well. Once you accept it is a set of swaras then another question arises. To whom is it addressed? Is it mentioned in the inscription? Yes, it is mentioned in the inscription. The terms are as follows:


Rudrachaarya shishyena parama maaheswarena raghya shishya hitarthah kritah swaragama


These are swaras meant for the disciple of Rudracharya. The next question then is, who is the author of this inscription? Because there are contestants for that. A colophon is also added here. What is interesting is that the inscription is in Sanskrit and the colophon is in Tamil. The colophon says that these swaras are intended for the eight and the seven. So now the question arises, what is this eight and what is this seven? These are all potential terms for interpretation and understanding.


The historian first takes into account the location, and then the format of the inscription. The format here is a very interesting one. It is an adaptation of what was practised by the Buddhists. It is copied here. The first term is siddham namashivayah. Namashivayah, as you all know, is a salutation to lord Shiva. So this is the general background of the inscription.


How do you assign a date to this inscription? What are the characteristics that a historian would take into account while assigning date? Bhandarkar who edited this inscription first suggested that this inscription belongs to the seventh century AD. He is totally silent on the author of the inscription. He has talked about the palaeography of the inscription where the characters are all Chalukyan. Jouveau Dubrueil is the first person to suggest that Mahendravarman could be the author. T.N. Ramachandran, the Joint Director-General of Archaeology, also tilts in favour of Mahendravarman and this is best articulated in a scintillating article titled ‘Mahendravarman, the Royal Artist’ (1931).   


As I mentioned a little earlier, the other possible author of this inscription is Rudracharya because Rudracharya has written a work called Shringara Tilakam and this work shows that he was a great rhetorician. Rudra, Rudraka, Rudrabhatta and Bhattarudra are names mentioned in Jaina and Shaivite literature of seventh-eighth century AD. This Rudra is also very closely associated with the courtesan culture of the seventh and eighth centuries AD.  Interestingly, here history throws light on the admiration of the art of courtesans. He is mentioned as the first acharya or the preceptor and also the author of the inscription.


So there are two possible authors for the inscription. One is Mahendravarman, posited by T.N. Ramachandran, the other Rudracharya. Then we have historians of Tamil Nadu who have written on the Pallavas. Dr. C. Minakshi, in her work Administration and Society under the Pallavas says that Rudra was an early authority on music. Nobody else has associated Rudra with music per se, but Rudracharya and courtesan art have actually been associated.


Then there are scholars who have a tendency to stretch the evidence. One Dr. V. Premalata who has worked in this area says that this was meant for abhyasagana. By this time another term gets associated with this inscription, ‘Parivadini’. It is not mentioned in the same inscription but is found in the Thirumayam Taluk. It is mentioned in inscription 23 and 25 of Dr. T.V. Mahalingam’s volume. Minakshi further goes on to say that in etirukkum or yezhirukkum, yezh (7) is always swara. We call it yezhissai in Tamil. Ett (8) is actually the suvai is one interpretation. Another interpretation is that ett (8) is a stringed instrument. So ‘Parivadini’ is a stringed instrument is what C. Minakshi has concluded. Premlata is of the opinion that it was meant for abhyasagana. There is a confusion over whether Parivadini is an eight-stringed instrument or a seven-stringed instrument. P. Sambamurthy, another authority, says that it is a seven-stringed instrument, saptatantri veena, as he finds it in the sculpture of Halebid.


Students of music have to steer clear of certain doubts here. Every musical culture evolves over a period of time. To put it simply, you have to mark out three stages in the evolution of music. The first stage is that of recitation and chanting. The next stage is of a slightly refined kind of recitation. Then the final stage of singing evolves over a period of time. So one has to make a distinction between musical literature and musicological literature of India where the dividing line, to me, is 13th century AD.


I am not in agreement with Premlata who is of the opinion that Mahendravarman was a musicologist himself who was well acquainted with the treatises, and Dhruva Veena, Chella Veena and Sankeerna Jaati. As far as I am concerned, these are stages of recitation because Bhakti music which followed is also a further evolution of this recitation. Then by the eighth and ninth century the ragas or pannas begin to take shape.  


 A historian interested in both history and music has certain concerns regarding this. While giving due historical consideration to a piece of evidence like this, the location of the institution is very important. The characteristic short label, ‘Parivadini’, the veena, which is not found in the inscription but in that area, is also to be taken into account. Also whether it has Jaina or Buddhist associations or influences needs to be probed into as the Jains at this stage were known for using a lot of instruments. The region was a very important Jaina centre.


The Kudumiyanmalai inscription is a very important inscription where recitation is actually defined.


Other things to be added to this is the date of Appar Thirugnanasambandar, the exact date of thevaram etc. which is a matter of another discourse, of the period between 590 AD to about the eighth century AD. So that makes the seventh century even more important. Dr. V. Raghavan is of the opinion that whatever was the nature of the instrument Parivadini, the swaras were definitely meant for practice.


So these are the ways in which the contents of the inscription have to be understood. My tentative conclusion is that, while the text is in Sanskrit, the inscription seems to be a record of notation. It is known as gramas. These are not evolved ragas, but gramas and jaatis. Nothing about the inscription suggests a raga, aarohana or avrohana.  It only speaks of arrangements of swaras in four. As far as I am concerned, the inscription should be taken as the earliest known example of pitch notation, and should not be confused with the measuring of microtonal intervals as we see in the case of Egypt which actually was perfected by Pythagoras.