Thala Adhyaya in Sangeetha Ratnakara by Sarngadeva
It is stated by Nisanka Sarngadeva who wrote the Sangeetha Ratnakara that Laya or rhythm is a law of nature. Life, human and otherwise, is a supreme manifestation of nature. The role of rhythm in life is imperative and indispensible. Its function, however, is mostly involuntary, if not also imperceptible. Rhythm, in its general sense, is a steadying, directive force, a sort of brake on the jerks and jolts that disturb even the tenor of life. In its restricted sense, it means the Thala system in music, its technique and function. Appropriately enough, the chapter, ‘Thala Adhyaya’ in ‘Sangeetha Ratnakaram’ opens with the statement that it is the basis of Raga and Prabhanda treated in previous pages. Yagnyavalkya’s testimony, too, equated Thalagnya with Veena Vadana Tatvagnya and Sruti Sastra Visarada, reinforcing this concept as long ago as the 5th Century, B.C.
The first verse invoking the grace of Dakshinamurthi is epigrammatic in content, Vedic in text and appeal and glittering with imagery and dexterity. For the sake of brevity, Bheemasena and Satyabhama are often referred to as Bheema and Bhama. So also, the verse addresses Dakshinamurthi and Dakshina. A yati (sage) attains Laya (absorption) with Dakshinamurthi through practice of Ashtanga Yoga and other austerities. Yati (a pun on the word), familiar in music composition as a group of six ingenious combinations of Dhatu as well as Matu- Sama, Srotovaha, Gopuchati, Mridanga, Damaru and Pipeelika- as also other facets of rhythm like Mantra or unit content, tempo, Sabda kriya and Nis-sabda kriya and an infinite variety of thalas, flow from the Divine source, Dakshinamurthi , the embodiment of Siva Sakti conferring the five-fold blessings of knowledge, strength, stability and fulfillment, from the bondage of birth and death, peace and beatitude that transcends it. ‘Sivam, Chitram, Vrittimayam, Dhrutam’ are the pregnant epithets in the verse that glorify the Divine Kalanidhi through a play of pun and fantasy on every word. This is how the ancient Hindu looked upon all knowledge as a Divine gift to be dedicated, with all devotion and humility, to the service of God and humanity. It is this lofty, sensitive level of understanding and deep insight into the secrets of sound that evolved the rare Raga concept peculiar to Indian Music and the vast, intricate network of rhythm that shines as the greatest achievement of Carnatic Music.
Vocal and instrumental music as well as dance are firmly rooted in Thala, which provides, as it were, the supporting plinth. Thala is inseparably wedded to Kala or time, and is reckoned in unit measures of time like Drutam, Laghu, Guru and Plutam. The Margi and Desi complexion on Indian music applied to Thala as well.
The smallest unit of rhythm in Marga Thala was Nimesha. Its duration was the time taken to pronounce a single letter. Five Nimeshas constituted a Matra or Laghu, while half the number made up a Drutam. Two Laghus or ten Nimeshas made a Guru, which was identical with Chitra. Three Laghus or fifteen Nimeshas formed a Pluta. A Vartika comprised of four Laghus or twenty Nimeshas. A Dakshina covered two Vartikas or eight Laghus amounting to forty Nimeshas. A Kashtha accounted for eighteen Nimeshas. Lastly, a six Laghu current equal to thirty Nimesha was Kala with a flow of eight seconds normally.
Desi Thala was simpler and less complicated. It had two main divisions, Sasabda and Nisabda. The former involved an audible sound. The latter was a mental process measuring an interval between beats in terms of rhythmic units strung together these days in sol-fa corresponding to the five Jatis, Tisra, Chatusra, Khanda, Misra and Sankeerna (Takita, Tadhinginatom, Takadhimi-takita and Takadhimi-tadhinginatom). So Sasabda Kriya was a beat and Nis-sabda an interval calculated mentally. It follows, of course, that the former, Pata, was constant, while the latter, Kala, was variable.
Gestures generally associated with the act of keeping time are at present in the nature of individual mannerism. Loud clapping and waving of hands and thumping either of the thighs or both are common. A firm grip of rhythm gives confidence and steers clear of clatter and uncouth, clap-trap gestures. Sarngadeva had an eye on aesthetics when he touched this problem. Sasabda kriya had four elements- Dhruva, Sampa, Thala and Sannipata. The first, Dhruva, was a Pata, a beat. Whatever the Thala, the Dhruva was a constant factor, as it was its starting point. In later times it was rechristened Anudruta, the Sasabda limb of a Drutam with its Nisabda complement of a Visrajita of Veechu in Tamil. Being just a beat, it would take as much time as a Nimesha.
Chotika was the ticking sound of the thumb and the middle finger locking each other and falling off with a swish. Keeping time with the right palm was Sampa, with the left, Thala and with both palms together (a common experience) was Sannipata. Nisabda Kriya, too, had its quota of four elements- Avapa, Nishkrama, Vikshepa and Pravesaka. Spreading the fingers with the palm turned downward was Nishkrama. It’s reverse with Avapa. Waving the open palm to the right with outstretched fingers was Vikshepa and closing the palm to indicate a specific interval (Kala) was Pravesaka.
Taking Laghu, Guru and Plutam as units, any four of them together composed a Chachchatputa Thala while a combination of three made a Chachaputa Thala. Every such combination has its own matra count. One get here the glimpse of the five jatis, Tisra, Chatusra, etc. A third variety of Thala, Shatpitaputraka, had a wider range, as it embraced six units instead of three and four. All these,, along with Matanga’s nine thalas, became obsolete in subsequent centuries. Nevertheless, they are of great historical value as they provided the solid, expansive foundation for the phenomenal growth of the rhythmic sector in Carnatic Music by and by. Dhruva had for its complement as many as eight gestures of the palm- Dhruvaka, Sarpini, Krishna, Padmini, Visarjita, Vikshipta, Pataka and Patita,- which indicated its movement up and down, to the right and to the left, etc, each with a specific interval of time and Kala in constant Pata (Dhruva beat)
Of course these gestures were parts of Sasabda-kriya starting with the Dhruva. Sarpini took the palm to the left and Krishna to the right. Padmini moved it down while Pataka threw it up. Visarjita stretched it forward and Vikshepa withdrew it. Lastly, Patita, significantly enough, jerked the palm down. The intervals pertaining to these gestures determined the total Matra count of the Thala, though they were all Nis-sabda by themselves.
A few of these gestures figures some of the 108 Thalas current in the early years of this century when specialization in the various branches of Carnatic Music had not died out. The author cherishes the poignant memory of two dauntless champions of Carnatic rhythm- Kanchipuram Nayana and Mannargudi Konnokol Pakiri- batting their eyelids, jerking their heads and right and left forearms and tapping their toes on the floor in turn. Nis-sabda kriya involved infinitesimal rhythmic fractions in the exposition of long, intricate Pallavis.
Chachaputa, Chachchatputa and Shatpitaputraka were three varieties of Marga Thala. They presented an array of Laghu, Guru and Plutam in different assortments. The word Kala was synonymous with Guru in previous pages. In his commentary, Kallinatha took care to clarify the different uses of Kala- Sakti, Guru, the Nis-sabda section of a Thala, a ten Nimesha interval and a thirty Nimesha interval, too (Nis-sabda), according to the context.