Bhairavi - The Rāga that Tested Time

The Raga Series Oct 17, 2022

(Read Malayamarutham - A breeze from the hills - the previous article in this series)

Where do I even begin!

Just the name of the rāga is enough to kickstart the endorphin rush. The moment I hear the name of the rāga in a concert, I know what is to ensue for the next hour. I know just what awaits my ears. Just as the opening notes escape the vocalist’s lips or the violinist’s strings, an atmosphere of composure is established. Every note hence becomes a call for silence, a plea to the senses to forget all burden.

Ever since my first ever interaction with Carnatic music, I have only had one aspiration - to be able to sing the big five rāgas well - Bhairavi, Shankarābharanam, Kāmbhoji, Kalyāni and Thōdi. I think this desire gets ingrained into your musical personality over time. Nobody really calls these rāgas the ‘big five’ anymore - musicians, in an attempt to diversify concert sounds, have nearly brought all rāgas to equal footing. A Simhēndramadhyamam or even a Mōhanam does not find it difficult to replace a Bhairavi for the centrepiece of the concert.

But for me, Bhairavi is always the queen. There was only one and there will only be one.

Bhairavi is one of the foundation stones of Carnatic music. Having existed for centuries before the art even took form, Bhairavi was earlier referred to by the name Kaushikam. Sangathīs in Bhairavi possess striking charisma, making it a rāga even a relatively untrained ear can recognise. Bhairavi has accumulated a plethora of musical honorary titles over the years - rakti rāga or a rāga with tremendous scope for emotional expressivity; ghana rāga or a rāga with weight and majesty; and so many more.

Bhairavi is a sampūrna (has all seven notes) bhāshānga (has at least one note alien to its parent rāga) janya of the 20th mēlakarta Natabhairavi. The ascending and descending note frameworks of Bhairavi are:

Ārōhanam: S (G2) R2 G2 M1 P D2 N2 S

Avarōhanam: S N2 D1 P M1 G2 R2 S

Ārōhanam and Avarōhanam - Bhairavi

Bhairavi, being a janya rāga of Natabhairavi, predominantly uses the shuddha dha (D1). The D2 used in the ārōhanam is not the dha used in Natabhairavi, and hence this makes Bhairavi a bhāshānga rāga.

The Sangeetha Sampradāya Pradarshini of Subbarama Dikshitar provides a succinct shlokā enlisting the salient features of the rāga:

bhairavirāga saṁpūrṇassāyaṁkālē pragīyatē |

pañcaśruti dhaivataṁ ca kvacitsthānē prayujyatē ||

This shlokā roughly translates to, “Bhairavi is a sampūrna rāga (bhairavirāga saṁpūrṇa) that is best sung (pragīyatē) in the evenings (sāyaṁkālē). It employs (prayujyatē) the D2 (pañcaśruti dhaivataṁ) in occasional phrases (kvacitsthānē).” Let us have a moment of appreciation for the scholars of the past, who has condensed the identity of hundreds of rāgas like Bhairavi into meaningful, bit-sized couplets.

For those religious at heart, this rāga that bears the name of the Hindu mother goddess definitely creates a default sentiment in their minds. Strangely, rāgas that adopted names of deities occupy high positions in Carnatic music (think Shanmukhapriya, Shrī, Kalyāni). I find it interesting to think of it the other way round too: rāgas that are exceptionally memorable were intentionally named after deities. In either case, Bhairavi’s stature as a monumental rāga is justified not by nomenclature, but rather by the fact that composers and musicologists have managed to identify immense scope within its territories, and have studied its various possibilities in unfathomable depth. In fact, rāgas like the big-five have been explored so extensively that it is becoming increasingly difficult for musicians to creatively explore them. Very few musicians today are able to occasionally grab the attention of listeners with novel sangathis.

Bhairavi sports an armada of signature phrases including, but in no way limited to the ones I mention ahead. The vakra (zigzag) phrase SG2R2G2 is a very strong indicator of Bhairavi (Ānandabhairavi, don’t look at me like that). Natabhairavi, Bhairavi’s parent rāga, uses only the shuddha dha (D1) in both ascending and descending phrases. On the other hand, Bhairavi uses the chatushruthi dha (D2) in all ascending phrases and D1 in all descending phrases, a feature common to a handful of rāgas that are very similar to Bhairavi (read on to know more). Few musicians are also of the opinion that Bhairavi uses only the D1 and just occasionally uses the D2 in special phrases, as also indicated by the shlōka in the Sangeetha Sampradaya Pradarshini.

Phrases of Bhairavi

Every vāggēyakāra in this game boasts a Bhairavi; some even several Bhairavis. Bhairavi is estimated to have lent melody to nearly a thousand compositions spanning all Carnatic genres: from varnams to kritis, compositions of Bhairavi have plagued the lake of Carnatic music like a water hyacinth outbreak: you cannot really decide between appreciating the beauty of its flowers and bemoaning the hazards of the infestation.

Carnatic compositions in Bhairavi are chartbusters. The varnam Viriboni by Pachimiriyam Ādiyappaiyyā set to ata tāla is a difficult piece owing to the complexity of the rāga and the tāla. Considering the fact that varnams are sung in multiple speeds and time signatures; and that Bhairavi has very crucial gamakas that are hard to achieve in fast tempos; it is a nerve-wracking task to render this piece while keeping its musical beauty intact. In my opinion, the most legendary rendition of this masterpiece is one by Bharat Ratna Smt. MS Subbulakshmi and her daughter and frequent supporting vocalist, Smt. Radha Vishwanathan. The vidushis have rendered this piece with pinpoint accuracy and unreal speed, whilst maintaining the aesthetic appeal of the rāga.

The trinity have composed memorable compositions in Bhairavi. Shyāma Shāstri’s Kāmākshi Anudinamu set to a cycle of seven beats called mishra chāpu is a phenomenal swarajathi in Bhairavi. This is one of the most revered compositions in all of Carnatic music and has the unique privilege of bearing the rāga mudra (the phenomenon where the name of the rāga appears in the lyrics), a feature that is extremely rare in Shyāma Shāstri’s compositions.

dēvī parākēlanē brōvavē yipuḍu śrī bhairavi

The composition has alternating lines of swara (solfa syllables) and sāhitya (lyrics), where the tune of the line is first sung in swara, immediately followed by the words. There are eight charanams of swara-sahitya with each charanam starting at every note beginning from the lower sa to the upper sa. Shyāma Shāstri shows his mastery and command over laya by weaving in relaxing recurring patterns within the charanam, without rushing unnecessarily. A colossal work of art, to say the least.

Kāmakshi Swarajathi - An Excerpt

Muthuswāmi Dīkshitar has composed numerous Bhairavis; noteworthy ones include Shrī Kamalāmbāyāh, the fifth vibhakti kriti in his magnum opus kriti series, the Kamalāmba Navāvaranam. This composition bears the rāga mudra in the madhyamakāla sahityam (lyrics sung in double the regular speed) of the anupallavi.

shrīkara bahīrdashāra chakrasthityāh sēvita

bhairavi bhārgavī bhāratyāh

Shrī Kamalāmbāyāh param nahi rē!

Shrī Kamalāmbāyāh - Anupallavi Madhyamakāla

This composition is extremely scholarly and is rarely rendered in concerts.

A more popular work of Dīkshitar in Bhairavi is the iconic Bālagōpāla Pālayāshumām; it is a typical centre piece in concerts. Numerous musicians have presented this compositions in all its splendour, backing it with an alapana (the act of exploring the rāga without lyrics or rhythm) and performing niraval (improvisation on a single line of the composition) and kalpanaswaram (dove-tailing notes to a line, most often the line selected for niraval).

Chintaya Mākanda is another popular Bhairavi by Dīkshitar. This kriti from the panchabhūta linga kriti series, is dedicated to the element earth and based on the kshetra (location) Kancheepuram. This series of five kritis is dedicated to five Shiva temples across Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, each of which house the guardian lingam for the five elements of nature.

Chintaya Makanda - Charanam Madhyamakāla

Thyāgarāja’s popular Bhairavis are not slow and moving like those of Dikshitar and Shyāma Shāstri. They are usually peppy and have an unusual class to it. Some Thyāgarāja Bhairavis that find places in concerts are Raksha Bettarē, an utsava sampradāya kriti with a unique fervour to it; Lalithē Shrī Pravriddha, yet another beautiful composition; the very popular Upachāramu Jēsēvaru and Upachāramulanu Chēkonavayya (lovingly called the “chinnaUpacharamu and the “periyaUpacharamu respectively, to differentiate between their sizes); and Ēnati Nōmu Phalamō.

It is not possible to list out all the other compositions in Bhairavi and hence, I will state the names of the ones that I remember: Āryām Abhayāmbām from the Abhayāmba kriti series and Trilōchana Mōhinīm, both again by Dīkshitar; Janani Māmava from the Navaratri kriti series by Maharaja Swati Tirunal; Yārō Ivar Yārō, a padam (a romantic composition) by Arunachala Kavi; Shāradāmbā Sharadindu by H.H. Chandrashekhara Bharathi, and many more. Bhairavi has also been a no-brainer choice for RTPs (Rāgam Tānam Pallavi) due to its near infinite scope and universal appeal.

Bhairavi is a rāga that has no equivalent in any other form of music in the world. Scales may be similar, however the gamakas and pristine sanchārams of Bhairavi are inimitable. Hindustani music has a rāga by the name Bhairavi; it is also extremely popular but shares nothing in common with the Carnatic Bhairavi, other than the name.

Usually, core Carnatic rāgas are too intense for light film music and hence, Bhairavi remains largely unexplored in film music. However, legendary film composer MS Viswanathan, much to my delight, gives space to Bhairavi in one of his best ever songs, Adisaya Ragam, from the path-breaking film Apoorva Rāgangal. The song is admirable for many reasons. The main rāga of the song is a strange little rāga called Mahathi, recommended to MSV by legendary Dr. M Balamuralikrishna, who also created the rāga. However, the last charanam of the song is set to Bhairavi. Interestingly, the name of the rāga features in the last line muzhuvadum pārthāl aval oru Bhairavi. The icing on the cake: the name of the female lead (played by Srividya) to whom the male lead (played by Kamal Haasan) sings this song in the film, is Bhairavi.

That is Bhairavi for you! One can only appreciate the effort that has gone into exploring this world of a rāga by listening to some musicians’ hard work. Note the lengths of the videos in Bhairavi and that will be testimony to the scope it contains within itself. On that note, check out our exclusive playlist of Bhairavi on YouTube to experience its exquisite beauty.

Check out our Youtube playlist on the raga here!


Tharunkumar Dhanasekaran

By clicking on ‘I agree’, you are signing up for Carnatic music fanboying, obsession over fancy animals, incessant humming, tala tapping, social awkwardness and frequent unavailability due to YouTube.