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Grammar for the relation between the sounds of the letters and
music in ancient Tamil texts

Dr.S.A.Veerapandian (Dr.Vee)

Abstract:
The sounds of letters of a song in ancient music were governed by a grammar
discovered from the ancient Tamil texts. Even the sound of the letters and the words
borrowed from the other languages like Sanskrit had to obey a grammar in music.
Disobedience to this grammar will lead to the drowning of the sound of the letter in
the music notes rendered by a vocalist who strictly adhered to pitch accuracy (sruti
suddam) of the song. This will explain one of the reasons for the richness in old
songs.

Introduction- the sound of a letter merging with the sound of the
musical note

The sounds of letters of a song in music were governed by a grammar discovered
from the ancient Tamil texts. The sound of every letter in ancient Tamil was
associated with one or more of the musical notes. When a letter was used in a poetical
composition, the sound of that letter must completely merge with the sound of the
musical note while musically rendering that poetical composition.

This had been explained in ancient Tamil grammar book ‘tolkAppiyam’ (chapter
‘ezhuttu’-1: 33)

“ ‘ichayodu chivaNiya nharampin maRayia ‘ enmanAr pulavar.”

“(The letter’s) sound merging with the music of the note.” Said the expert poets.”

It must be noted that this was a formula cited in tolkAppiam.

In the above reference the word “ichayodu” referred to music. The word “chivaNiya”
referred to the act of complete merging of the sound of a letter with the sound of the
corresponding musical note. The word “nharampin” referred to the corresponding
musical note. The word “maRayia” referred to the complete matching of the sound of
the letter with the sound of its corresponding musical note.

There are many evidences in ancient Tamil literature to explain the above grammar
connecting the sound of a letter with musical notes.

“yAz ezhuttiR pavAR puNarkka “ – panja marapu 89.

“The sound of the letter of a poetical composition matched with the music note from
the string instrument yAz (a kind of harp) according to the rules in the grammar.”

panja marapu is an ancient music related Tamil literature cited in the commentaries to
chilappathikAram, a famous ancient Tamil literature. During 1970’s its manuscript
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was traced by Mr.theiva sikAmani kavuNdar and was published with the help of a
famous Tamil patron Dr.N.mahAlingam.

In the above reference, ‘yAz’ meant a string instrument. The word ‘ezhuttiR’ referred
to a letter in Tamil. The word ‘pavAR’ referred to a poetical composition. The word
‘puNarkka’ referred to the act of matching the letter in the poetical composition
following the rules in the grammar. The sound of the letter used in a poetical
composition, must completely match the sound of the corresponding musical note
from the string instrument yAz, according to the above reference.


Musically shaking or moving in terms of sound of the letter
leads to ‘acai’

The next step in this grammar is the smallest division of a line in a song from the
point of view of its syllabic sound of the letters. In Tamil it is called ‘achai’ (similar to
syllable). From the point of view of sounding of music, one or more letters join to
form an achai. The role of musical sounding in the formation of achai from letters is
explained in an ancient Tamil grammar book called ‘yApparungkala viruththi ‘ as
shown below.

“ ezuttu acaittu icaik kOdalin acaiyE “

“acai is formed by shacking the sound of the letters musically.”

We had seen that the word ‘ezuttu’ referred to a letter in Tamil. The word ‘acaithtu’
referred to the shaking or moving (in terms of sound) of the letter. The word ‘icai’
referred to music. The word ‘kOdalin’ referred to the above mentioned act of the
sound of the letter becoming music. The above formula explained how achai is
formed from the musical sound of the letters.

acai are of two kinds. The first one is called nhEr achai. Its sound will match one
syllable. Vowel sounds will belong to this category. Examples like mA, pA will match
one syllable and hence belong to nhEr acai. ‘nhEr’ means matching. This kind of
achai will directly match the musical note in a poetical composition.

The second kind of acai is called nhirai acai. Its sound will match two syllables.
Examples like puLi, karu will match two syllables (pu + Li or ka + ru) and hence
belong to nhirai acai. ‘nhirai’ means a kind of order. This kind of acai will have to
match the order of the corresponding musical notes for a group of two adjacent
syllables in a poetical composition.

Every line of the song must be divided into the syllables of the language. These
syllables must be grouped as one syllable group and two syllable groups. One syllable
group will be called nhEr acai and two syllable groups will be called nhirai acai.

The one syllable group, nhEr acai and two syllable group, nhirai acai are
distinguished by the relation of the syllables to music notes in the song. The one
syllable group, nhEr acai can match only one music note or more depending on its
role in the music notes structure of the song. But the two syllable group, nhirai acai,
must match a minimum of two music notes or more depending on its role in the music
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notes structure of the song. In other words each syllable in the two syllable group,
nhirai acai, can not have independent existence like the syllable in the one syllable
group, nhEr acai. The two syllables in the two syllable group ,nhirai acai, are tied
together musically, preventing independent musical existence for each of them.


Musical joining of ‘acai’ leads to ‘chIr’

These two kinds of acai will combine in many ways to form the next bigger division
of a line. It is called chIr, a music sub-structure. Please note that a chIr consists of
combination of achai and achai is categorized on the basis of its syllable’s musical
sound. Hence the syllables in every line of the song are grouped through acai to form
music substructures called chIr.

We had seen how chIr, a music sub-structure is formed due to the combination of the
syllables musically grouped as one syllable group- nhEr acai and two syllable groups-
nhirai achai.

chIr is a significant music sub-structure as it will have all the information of the scale
and other characteristic aspects of the music notes ( ‘pAlai nhlai & paNNu nhilai’)
including the colour of music ( ‘vaNNak kURupAtu’ ) and its percussion structure (
‘thALak kURupAtu’), according to chilappatikAram- arangkERRukkAtai – 26
commentary. There are many references in ancient Tamil texts to explain these
significant aspects of chIr. The unique music characteristics of chIr depended on the
sound of the letters through the role of acai.

The syllables grouped as one syllable group (nhEr achai) and two syllable groups
(nhirai achai), will lead to seven kinds of percussion sub-structures called thUkku,
subject to their matching the number of chIr. The percussion sub-structures called
thUkku play a significant role in the ancient grammar for percussive art. (visit
Grammar for Percussive Art from Ancient Texts in www.musicresearch.in)

The musical dimension of the sound of a word

A word (a meaningful group of letters) called ‘chol’ in Tamil, used in a poetical
composition must match the music from yAz, a string instrument, according to the
following reference in kamparAmAyaNam , a famous ancient Tamil literature.

“yAz okkum chol “ ( pAla kANtam- pUkkoi patalam- 24)

“A word matching the music from the string instrument yAz.”

A reference in another ancient Tamil literature ElAti explains how a word in a song
must match the musical sound in paN (scale & other unique aspects of a song)”.

“ paNNArum collAy “ – ElAti 35

“ A word matching the musical sound of paN.”

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The word ‘Ar’ in the above reference means sounding.’ paNNArum’ means the
sounding of the paN. ‘col’ means a word. Hence the sound of a word in music must
obey the rules of paN which is based on the sound of the letters in terms of achai and
chIr


‘taLai’, ‘adi’ ,’ todai’ - the other divisions of a song

We had seen the functional role of the sound of ezhuttu (letters), achai, chIr, tUkku in
this grammar. There are other divisions of a song called taLai, adi (line of a song),
todai that also play significant role in this grammar.

The combination of chIr will form thaLai. The combination of taLai will form adi.
The combination of adi will form todai. The combination of thodai will complete a
song. All these combinations starting from achai follow strict grammar based on the
sound of the letters. This is explained in the following reference in yApparungkala
virutti.

“ ezutap padutalin ezutte; avvezuttu
acaitticaik kOdalin acaiE; acai yiyaintu
chIr kola nhiRRalin chIrE; chIriraNdu
taddu nhiRRalin taLaiyE; attaLai
adutti nhdattalin adiyE; adiyiraNdu
toduttal mutalAyina todaiyE; attodai
pAvi nhdattalin pAvE;”

“letter comes from writing; musically shaking the sound of the letters will lead to
acai;
acai combine musically to match and form chIr; chIr will combine matching two
unique measure to form taLai; taLai combine to form adi (line); two adi combine to
form todai; todai together extend to complete a song:”

From the above discussion we find that the structure of a song is musically defined by
the ezuttu (letters) , acai, chIr, tUkku, taLai, adi (line), & todai.. It must be noted that
the sounds of the letters play a key role in these divisions of a song.

The sound of letters and the colour of music

The ultimate purpose of sounds of the letters in acai, chIr, tUkku, taLai, adi (line), &
todai of a song is to bring out a colourful music. Hence the next step in this grammar
deals with the relation between the colour of music and the sound of letters in a song.

When a letter with proper musical sound is selected and used in a poetical
composition, then the sound of the letter matching the musical note will sound
distinctively. A person who is an expert in this act of selecting and using right letters
in a colourful poetical composition was cited in the following inscription of 4th
century A.D.

“ ezuttum puNaruttAn maNiya
vaNNnakkan tEvan cAttan “ – arachchalUr inscription
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In the above reference the word “ ezhuttum “ referred to a letter in Tamil. The word
“puNaruttAn” referred to the act of selecting and combining the right letters according
to the rules in the grammar. The role of ‘puNar’ in helping a ‘pAdal’ (lyric ) to match
paN is explained in the following reference.

“arum puNarppin pAdal cAm paN” –nANmaNikktikai 47

“a lyric undergoes strict rules of matching a paN”


The word “maNiya” in the inscription referred to the distinct sounding of the letter as
explained below.

In a string instrument like vENai plucked by fingers, every musical note is distinctly
heard. This distinct sound will be similar to the sound from a bell. This fact is
highlighted in an ancient Tamil literature called ‘perunkatai’ as shown below.

“ maNi oli vENai “ – Chap 35: 101

“ the music from the string instrument vENai distinctly sound like a bell.”

‘vaNNam’ in the above inscription referred to the colour of music involving the sound of the
letters . tolkAppiam had defined 20 colours of music which had increased in the period of
chilappatikaram. ‘tevan cAttan’ referred to the expert in handling the sound of the letters in
bring out the colours of Music by following the rules of ‘puNar’.


‘oruU vaNNam’ employing the sound of letters borrowed from
Sanskrit

Even the sound of the letters borrowed from the other languages like Sanskrit had to obey a
grammar in music. One of the 20 colours of music in tolkAppiam was called ‘oruU
vaNNam’. The grammar for this kind of vaNNam is given below.

“ oruU vaNNam oriIth thodukkum”

“ The colour of music called oruU vaNNam shall involve letters evolved from the process of
oriI (i.e Sanskrit)”

References in tolkAppiam established that the letters evolved from the process of oriI were
from Sanskrit. (visit www.musicresearch.in). It is interesting that while distinguishing the
sound of the borrowed letters from the sound of Tamil letters in terms of distortion,
tolkAppiam permitted the use of the musical richness of the sound of such borrowed letters to
generate an unique colour of music called oruU vaNNam.

Hence every letter in ancient Tamil including those borrowed from the other languages had to
obey this grammar when they were used in music.


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Drowning of the sound of the letters in modern music

To apply the above grammar to a song, the poet must have a clear idea about the
sound of the letters and the words to be employed in the composition. A mismatch
will lead to the drowning of the sound of the letters in the music notes rendered by a
vocalist strictly adhering to pitch accuracy (sruti suddam) of the song. The words of
such songs may not be easily identified even in a good recording. The fault lies not in
the recording but in the letters and the words employed in the song. This will explain
one of the reasons for the richness in old songs.
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