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Articles on Carnatic Music

Ootthukkadu Venkata Kavi
by Chitravina N Ravikiran

In the galaxy of all time great vaggeyakaras of Carnatic Music, Ootthukkadu Venkata Kavi will always find a place as a shining star. He is said to have lived between the period of Purandara Dasa-Annamacharya and the Trinity and his date is placed roughly between 1700-1765. OVK was a great personality, an innovator who contributed a lot to Carnatic Music.

He was a complete master of music in all senses of the term – melody, rhythm or lyrics and was fluent in Sanskrit and Tamil. He was proficient in a variety of musical forms such as the krti, javali, tillana and kavadichindu. He composed several types of krtis apart from the usual style of pallavi, anupallavi and charanam with the tune of the last few lines coinciding with that of the anupallavi. Venkata Kavi composed many songs with madhyama kala passages, some with more than one charana but with the same tune, others with multiple charanas in different tunes, some with just a samshti charana, some with gati bhedam and so on. He used talas and themes that few other Carnatic composers have used before or since.

It is hardly surprising that Ootthukkadu Venkata Kavi, also referred to as Ootthukkadu Venkata Subbaier accomplished so much. Legend has it that he had his musical insights from Lord Krishna himself, in the Kalinga Nartana Temple in Ootthukkadu, which was then known as Dhenushwasapuram.

Early years:

Venkata Kavi was born to Ramachandran and Kamalanarayani and was very interested in music and culture from a very early age. His brother Krishna Iyer had already established himself as a wonderful singer and won rewards from the King of Tanjore. Venkata Kavi was very keen on learning music formally and is supposed to have approached Krishna yogi, a great artiste of his times. But when the yogi declined to teach him for reasons best known to himself, a disappointed Venkata Kavi went back home where he was advised to seek the grace of the Lord Himself. The intensity of his prayers were answered by the Lord himself. Venkata Kavi’s own words lend credence to this fact in his piece in Sriranjani ‘Guru padaravinda komalam ennul kondapode kolahalam’. In the anupallavi, he declares:

paramayogayagam vedam padittilen
Padittadu pol nadittilen
Parvai onrile vilainda bhagyamidu
Yarkkumidu aridanadu parimala sad (guru padaravinda komalam).

‘I have never studied the scriptures or yoga nor pretended to have done so. I received my whole fortune in the benevolent glance of my guru.’

Venkata Kavi composed at least 14 songs only on the greatness of Guru. A few of them seem to suggest that may also have had another human guru but external information on this aspect is not readily available at this point in time.


The greatest evidence of his musical pedigree is his compositions. His works reveal his high quality musicianship. There are several references to good musical approach, practices and even technical terms of ornamentation like aahatam and pratyaagatam. There are references to hundreds of ragas and numerous talas in his krtis. Some of these are so intelligently woven in that they never seem like dry facts but shine with larger than life images.

Venkata Kavi believed that music had to be blended with bhakti in order to shine. His theme ‘bhakti yoga sangeeta margame paramapavana mahume’ is exactly seen in the work of another great composer, Tyagaraja in his sangeeta gnanamu bhakti vina sanmargamu galade. Need more be said of great minds think alike? Venkata Kavi’s works reflect his philosophy; they are an ideal combination of music, devotion, intellect and a soul that was in a state of spiritual bliss.

It will be best to study every facet of his musicianship separately – melody, rhythm lyrics, themes, etc. but let me only attempt to give a glimpse for now.

Melody: Venkata Kavi had a vast knowledge of music and musical nuances. Venkata Kavi used a wide variety of ragas ranging from the well known such as Todi, Kalyani, Kharaharapriya, Shahana, through minor ones like Kannadagowla, Jayantashri, Malavi, Umabharanam and also a few that are seldom used today like Balahamsa and Rasamanjari. In some instances, his works are the first or only ones to be available in a given raga. Examples: Sri Shivanayike in Lalitagandharvam and Padasevanam in Deeparam.

His vision of the raga and melody as a whole is considerable and can be seen in the number of different styles in which he composed various krtis in the same raga. For instance, his krtis in Madyamavati – Shankari, Sundara nandakumara, - bring out different facets of this beautiful raga. He also employed attractive swaraksharas – a technique where the lyrics match the solfa notes of the tune.


Venkata Kavi’s command over rhythm has been without precedent and has not yet been surpassed. He made complex eduppus (starting or landing points of various sections of a composition) seem like child’s play and used them naturally, without ever affecting the flow of the music or the lyrics. His handling of talas like Khanda Dhruvam, Sankeerna Mathyam, and Khanda Triputam would leave even seasoned musicians and scholars awe-struck. Again, he has made the talas look as simple as, Adi or Roopakam, which only a genius of the highest order can do.

Lyrical felicity:

Venkata Kavi’s class in Sanskrit or Tamil is in a league of its own. His remarkable Niagara-like flow and choice of words that are music to the ears even when rendered without melody, often conceals his deep scholarship. When one attempts to study them a little closely can one even begin to grasp his greatness in this area. His vocabulary is stupendous and he has used words and phrases that are hardly otherwise found in Carnatic literature. Sanskrit scholars have been left scampering for the best dictionaries and thesauruses. They have found uncommon words and even common ones like ‘bhaja’ used in several novel contexts.

Venkata Kavi was a man for details. His expression so facile that every song came alive with whatever theme he touched. His works transport us to wherever he wants us to be not merely because of a colourful imagination but also because of his ability to describe even minor details. For instance, in his krti ‘Ranganatham anisham’ in Gambheeranattai, he talks of the Lord of Srirangam being situated between two rivers while most other compositions only mention the banks of Cauveri. In another krti, ‘Gajamukhanujam’, he talks of the kunkuma in the centre of Lord Subramanya’s ash- lined forehead.

Taking another popular example, we can visualise the scene vividly in his Taye yashoda (Todi) where the gopis are complaining to Yashoda about her son Lord Krishna. This song actually has 8 charanams and each one abounds in description of the humourous pranks that make us smile at Krishna. Incredibly, there is a superb reply by the Lord to every one of these charges in another piece by Venkata Kavi in Mohanam, ‘Illai illai’. This song also has 8 charanams.


Venkata Kavi has composed on a wide range of themes. Most people are familiar with some of his works on Lord Krishna but he has composed with equal felicity on other deities as well, such as Vinayaka, Tyagaraja (of Tiruvarur), Kamakshi, Rama, Kartikeya, Narasimha, Anjaneya, Ranganatha, and also on Soorya, Radha and other such important mythological characters. He has composed on great people such as Shuka Brahma rishi, Jayadeva and Valmiki. Besides, he has composed several songs on the greatness of Guru, and general philosophy and approach to God. His works contain references to Azhwars, Nayanmars, Ramanuja, Tulasidasa and many other greats, which reveal not merely his knowledge of their works and contributions but also his high reverence towards them.


OVK seems to have composed an entire opera narrating Krishna’s birth and childhood, beginning from Devaki-Vasudeva’s wedding and Kamsa’s curse. I have not been able to ascertain if these stories go on further after Krishna’s childhood. But there are separate group songs describing Krishna’s wedding with Rukmini and another group covering his marriage with Radha.

There is a set of songs narrating the story on Lord Rama’s childhood starting from Dasharatha’s Putrakameshti yagna to Rama’s trip with Vishwamitra. Each song is so vivid and the description of the demoness Tataka alone is worth the whole read!! There is also another lovely ragamalika piece ‘Sri Rama jayame jayam’ which covers the whole Ramayana.

There is no doubt that Venkata Kavi was well versed in Bhagavatam, Ramayanam and several other minor stories and his deep knowledge comes to the fore in many krtis as he covers a great many episodes, many of them hardly referred to by other composers, with effortless ease and natural felicity.

Group compositions:

Venkata Kavi has also composed several group krtis like Saptaratnas, Kamakshi Navavaranam, and Anjaneya Pancharatnas. Besides, he has composed several shlokas like Madhava panchakam, Nrsimha panchakam, Ranganatha Panchakam and so on.

His Saptaratnas are similar in style to Tyagaraja’s pancharatnas in musical structure. They have pallavi, anupallavi and a set of madhyamakala charanas which can be rendered as swaras and lyrics. The 2nd, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 7th songs have an anchor charanam like Samayaniki in Sadhinchane. Sometimes, it is not the first line of the charanam but the 3rd line that is the anchor and Venkata Kavi has set the landing points in several complex ways, which again offer proof of his rhythmic skills. The saptaratnas are:

1. Bhajanamrta – Nattai
2. Aganitamahima – Gowla
Balasarasa murali – Keeravani
5. Jatadhara – Todi
6. Madhava hrdi khelini – Kalyani
7. Sundara Nandakumara – Madhyamavati


Venkata Kavi’s Navavaranams abound in Srividya Upasana aspects and show his scholarship in no small measure. Apart from the main 9 songs for the nine nights, he has also a Vinayaka stuti, Dhyana stuti and a Phala stuti too. There are several similarities (and differences) between his Navavaranams and that of Dikshitar but both reveal the composers’ scholarship in the mantric and tantric aspects of Devi worship. These are:

Sri Ganeshwara – Shanmukhapriya – Adi – Vinayaka stuti
Vanchayati yadi kushalam – Kalyani – Adi – Dhyana stuti
(1st avaranam) Santatam aham seve – Deshakshi – Adi
(2nd avaranam) Bhajaswa shree – Nadanamakriya – Adi
(3rd avaranam) Sarvajeeva dayapari – Shuddhasaveri – Mishra Chapu
(4th avaranam) Yoga yogeshwari – Anandabhairavi – Khanda Triputa (2 kalais)
(5th avaranam) Neelalohita ramani – Balahamsa – Khanda Dhruvam (2 kalais)
(6th avaranam) Sadanandamayi – Hindolam – Sankeerna Matyam
(7th avaranam) Sakalaloka nayika – Arabhi – Adi
(8th avaranam) Shankari Shri Rajarajeshwari – Madhyamavati – Adi
(9th avaranam) Natajana kalpavalli – Punnagavarali – Adi
Srichakra matangi – Suruti - Adi - Mangala krti

As seen from above, Venkata Kavi has revealed more proof of his vidwat in talas like Khanda Dhruvam, Sankeerna Matyam and Khanda Triputa. The 4th avaranam in Anandabhairavi has a Madhyamakala, where he has evenly split the 9-beat tala into 4 equal parts of 2.25 matras each. The 5th avaranam in Balahamsa is, in my opinion, the weightiest piece of this group, set in a majestic gait in the 17 akshara tala and has 2 superb madhyamakalams. This 8th avaranam in Madhyamavati has been set in 2 gatis – Chaturashram and Tishram.

Attitude: Probably even more amazing than all of the above is Venkata Kavi’s mental state. His compositions reveal his utmost humility, positive humour, cheer and most remarkably an almost consistent high state of bliss – which no ordinary person can achieve. His works scarcely contain any autobiographical sob stories and show that he had reached tremendous spiritual and philosophical heights. His works also reveal the proximity he felt towards God and show his deep bhakti (a blend of devotion and love). All in all, Venkata Kavi was a great man who stands immortal through his genius.

N. Ravikiran is the famous exponent of the Chitravina as well as an accomplished singer, music educator and scholar, and all-around musician. ravikiranmusic@yahoo.com You can also read a review of his CD here in Microsoft Word format and visit his website at ravikiranmusic.com.

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updated on 03/20/2009