Kerala’s own and unique music form, the beginnings of Sopana Sangeetham (music) can be traced to the temples of Kerala. The music is based on ragas. The method of singing is however, different from Carnatic Music.
The word ‘Sopanam’ refers to the steps leading to the sanctum sanctorum. So, the Sopanam music also means singing from the side of the temple steps. There is another interpretation also. Sopanam sangeetham is similar to the ascending and descending order of raga. Accepting some ‘swaras’ (notes) as permanent and avoiding others completely, the music starts in Vilambitkal (slow tempo) and progresses to its acme and gradually descends. This is the style of Sopanam Sangeetham.
Sopana Sangeetham is of two types, ‘Kottipaadi Seva’ and ‘Ranga Sopanam’. ‘Kottipaadi Seva’ is the style in which the Marar strikes the edakka (small hour glass – shaped ethnic drum) standing near the temple steps at the time of puja (worship). In the beginning a ‘Keerthan’ is sung in praise of the main deity. After that, ‘ashtapadi’ from Jayadeva’s Gita Govindam is sung. Sometimes on rare occasions Sivasthuti is also rendered.
Sopana Sangeetham is a continuation of Dravidian music. The period of Dravidian music is from the Sanghom period to the rule of the Cheras (4AD to 10 AD). Prominent among them are the ancient Tamil songs, ‘thevaram’ songs etc. Elangovadikals’s ‘Chilapatikaaram’ clearly mentions raga-based music. The heroine in Chilapatikaaram is an expert in dance and music. She possesses all the qualities of a music teacher. We get a lot of information about the rules of music, musical instruments etc. from Chilapatikaaram. Sapta Swarangal or the seven notes were known as Vazhiku Vazhikural, thutham, Kaikila, Uzhai, Illi, Vilari and Taram. Sruthi was known as ‘alah’ and raga as ‘Punn’. The musical instrument used was yazh which had many strings. Ragas were known by the names of native lands like Naital punn, Palai punn, Marutham punn, Kurinji punn, Mullai punn etc.
With the Aryan invasion taking firm ground during 8th century AD, temples sprang up in Kerala. During this period musical offerings were offered in Saiva-vaishanav temples. In Vishnu temples it was ‘tiruvaimozhi’ and in Saiva temples, ‘thevaram pattukal. ‘Tevaram pattukal’ were based on 28 ragas. Prominent Tamil ragas included Koushikam, Vyzhakurinji, Pazham Panjooram, Gandhara pachamam, Thakesi, Sadari, Chenthuruthi Sevazhi, Thiruthadavam, Pazhamthakka, Indhalam, Gandharam, Puraneermai and Kolli.
Kutiyattam emerged during the period of Kulashekaran Varman (8th century AD). Kutiyattam also had a raga-based composition – ‘swarikal’.
By 12th century AD Jaydeva’s Gita Govindam became popular both as music and dance in Kerala. Even the songs sung by striking the edakka was based on ragas. Ahari, Kalyani, Kamodari, Kedaragoula, Kedarapanth, Gujjari, Khanda, Devagandhaari, Desakhsi, Panthuvarali, Punnagavarali, Bhupalam, Madhyamavati, Malahari, Malva, Mukhari, Ramakriya, Vasanthabhairavi, Sakarabharanam and Sourastram were some of the ragas used for ‘Kottipadi Seva’.
The most important branch of Sopana Sangeetham is ‘Arangu Sangeetham’. This is also known as Abhinaya Sangeetham. The music is used in folk-art forms like Mudiyettu, Arjuna nritham and classical arts like Kutiyattam, Krishnanattom and Kathakali. The music is based on the abhinaya. This is thouryatrika – based. On stage, the singer sings, the instrumentalist strikes on his instrument, and the actor dons the role of different characters. The role of music here is to describe to the audience the story and the characters. A peculiarity of this form of music is the ragas and talas used to portray the expressions of the characters.
The songs in Mudiyettu are rendered in the Sopana sangeetham style. Ragas like Kedaragoula, Todi and kharaharapriya are used.
Instruments like chenda, veekan chenda, chengila, ilatalam and sanku are used. ‘Thourgatrikam’ is structured on talas like ekam, triputa, chempada, chamba, adantha, muriadantha etc.