South Indian Classical Music:
Geetha Raja, vocals

Delve into the melodious world of Carnatic music with one of South India’s most renowned vocalists. Shrimati Geetha Raja traverses a variety of genres, from devotional repertoire (kritis, bhajans, and abhangs) to extended improvisations on a variety of ragas. Her lyrics praise Shiva, Rama, Krishna, and the goddess Devi using virtuosic melodic inventions to explore multifarious facets of Hindu divinity. This recital was recorded in concert in 2005 as part of a program  celebrating the newly installed South Asian and Himalayan galleries in the Freer.


South Indian Classical Music
Shrimati Geetha Raja, vocals
Radhika Mani, violin
Dattatreya Sharma, mridangam


An alapana (introduction) is followed by a devotional song (kriti) by Tyagaraja (1767–1847), which he sang to wake up Rama in the morning.

Mokshamu Galada

Tyagaraja laments that many of his fellow beings have not followed the music path toward salvation (nada yoga).

Nannu Brovu Lalitha

A short alapana is followed by improvisations on a verse and devotional song in praise of Devi, the great goddess, by Shyama Shastri (1762–1827).

Maal Marugane; Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi

A form called ragam-thanam-pallavi is usually the main piece of a Carnatic concert and is almost entirely improvisational. It develops across four sections, each with improvisations on different aspects melody, rhythm, and lyrics (here on Muruga, son of Shiva), utilizing voice, violin, and percussion as solos and in different combinations.


This song describes an eighth-century saint who was born an “untouchable” and must plead with Shiva to enter a temple to worship him.

Visaru Nako

A short improvisation in the raga Shivaranjani is followed by a devotional song extolling Rama.

Krishna Nee Begane Baro

A short improvisation in the raga Yamankalyani, followed by a song about Krishna in the same raga and a seven-beat tala (meter).

Chinnan Chiru Kiliye

Lyrics fondly describing Devi, the great goddess, as a little girl are explored through a “garland of ragas” (ragamala) which venture through a variety of moods in elaborate improvisations.

Pravisha Radhe

A segment of the twelfth-century poem Gita Govinda is treated to a variety of melodic interpretations in relating an episode in which Radha is persuaded by her confidante to join Krishna in a flower-bedecked bower.


One of Geetha Raja’s gurus composed this typical closing piece for a Carnatic recital in which vocal syllables imitate the drumbeats of the mridangam.



(provided by the artist)


Raga: Bowli; tala: Khanda Chapu (5 beats); composer: Tyagaraja; language: Telugu

This piece begins with a brief introductory improvisation (alapana) in the raga Bowli. A raga can be described, in simple terms, as a kind of scale with characteristic musical phrases. The alapana is followed by a song by the Carnatic composer Tyagaraja (1767–1847), which he sang to wake up Rama in the early morning. Most Carnatic music (the classical music of South India) is devotional, and Tyagaraja composed songs in praise of Rama for each activity of the day. The raga Bowli is a morning raga that evokes sunrise over a river. The tala (rhythmic cycle) is Khanda Chapu, a 5-beat cycle in a 2+3 rhythm.

Mokshamu Galada

Raga: Saramathi; tala: Adi (8 beats); composer: Tyagaraja; language: Telugu

Hindu philosophy suggests four principal objectives in life: dharma (righteous living), artha (wealth and prosperity), kama (love and family life), and moksha (salvation through release from the cycle of birth and death). There are many roads to moksha, and the devoted pursuit of music is one of them. In this haunting melody, Tyagaraja, for whom nada yoga (the path of music towards salvation) came so easily, laments that many of his fellow beings are not similarly fortunate.

Nannu Brovu Lalitha

Raga: Lalitha; tala: Misra Chapu (7 beats, in 3+2+2); composer: Shyama Shastri; language: Telugu

This piece begins with a short alapana in raga Lalitha. This segment is followed by improvisations on a short Sanskrit verse in praise of Devi, the great goddess, and a kriti (classical devotional song) in praise of Lalitha Devi. The composer, Shyama Shastri (1762–1827), is part of the famous trinity of Carnatic composers, the other two being Tyagaraja and Muttusvamy Dikshitar (1775–1835). The songs of this trinity form a substantial portion of a Carnatic musician’s repertoire. While Indian music is thousands of years old, the songs of the trinity are relatively recent, dating from the same period as Mozart and Beethoven.

Maal Marugane; Ragam-Thanam-Pallavi

Raga: Shanmukhapriya; tala: Khanda Jathi Triputa (9 beats, in 5+2+2); language: Tamil

The ragam-thanam-pallavi is the main piece of a typical Carnatic concert and is almost entirely improvisational. There are several distinct sections. The artist first sings an alapana (also called a ragam). An alapana starts with musical phrases centered around one part of the raga and then gradually expands to other parts. The violinist then undertakes a separate alapana. What follows is the thanam, an improvisation set to a rhythm that uses vocal syllables derived from the word anantham (infinite). The third section is the pallavi, in this case a short Tamil verse in praise of the Lord Muruga, the second son of Shiva, repeated in different melodic and rhythmic combinations. The fourth section is an elaboration of swaras, or solfège syllables, alternately by the vocalist and the violinist, with each improvisation ending at a specific note and at a specific beat of the rhythmic cycle (tala). The finale is a percussion solo called the thani (solo), in which the drummer on mridangam explores various combinations within the 9-beat tala and builds toward the conclusion.


Raga: Manji; tala: Misra Chapu (7 beats, in 3+2+2); composer: Gopala Krishna Bharathi; language: Tamil

This song comes from a nineteenth-century Indian opera, itself based on the life of the eighth-century saint, Nandanar. The song describes how Nandanar, by virtue of being born as an untouchable outside the Hindu caste system, was prohibited from entering the famous Chidambaram temple to which he had made a pilgrimage. He pleads with Shiva, in the form of Nataraja, to be allowed entry to the temple to worship him and witness his cosmic dance. The poignant song highlights the deep-rooted social problem of untouchability, which in recent times Mahatma Gandhi and other social reformers have attempted to address.

Visaru Nako

Raga: Shivaranjani; tala: Ekam (4 beats); language: Marathi

Centuries ago, saint-poets in the state of Maharashtra (in western India where Mumbai is located) sang popular devotional songs called abhangs. Performed in the local language of Marathi, these songs popularized ideas from holy scriptures written in the more abstruse language of Sanskrit. This item of the concert is a short improvisation of the raga Shivaranjani, followed by an abhang in that raga extolling Rama.

Krishna Nee Begane Baro

Raga: Yamankalyani; tala: Misra Chapu (7 beats, in 3+2+2); composer: Vyasa Raya; language: Kannada

The piece starts with a short improvisation in the raga Yamankalyani, followed by a song about Krishna in the same raga. The child Krishna pretends to eat mud, prompting his mother to ask him to open his mouth. When Krishna does so, his mother sees in the little child’s mouth the entire universe revealed, complete with the sun, the stars, and the oceans. She then realizes that her child is God incarnated in human form.

Chinnan Chiru Kiliye

Raga: Ragamalika (garland of ragas); tala: Tisram (3 beats); composer: Subramanya Bharathi; language: Tamil

Subramanya Bharathi (1882–1921), a Tamil poet and patriot, fondly describes Devi, the great goddess, as a little girl, calling her as endearing and pretty as a pet parrot. He describes various playful deeds of the child and her mother’s affectionate response. The song swings from one emotion to another in quick succession, marked by changes in the raga and emphasized by improvisational elaborations.

Pravisha Radhe

Raga: Abheri; tala: Khanda Chapu (5 beats, in 2+3); composer: Jayadeva; language: Sanskrit

The twelfth-century poet Jayadeva composed the popular epic poem Gita Govinda in a style of Sanskrit known for its gracefulness. The Gita Govinda extols the love of Krishna and Radha, and metaphorically conveys the pining of the individual soul for union with the infinite. This performance is an improvisation and interpretation on a short extract from the twenty-first song of the poem, in which Radha’s confidante persuades the lovelorn Radha to join Krishna in a flower-bedecked bower.


Raga: Valaji; tala: Khanda Chapu (5 beats, in 2+3); composer: Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan; language: Sanskrit

The tillana, a favorite form in classical Indian dance, is often the last item in a concert, as it finishes with a flourish. This tillana is composed by Shri Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, one of Geetha Raja’s gurus. It is a joyful piece sung at a fast pace, and its rhythmic syllables imitate the drumbeats of the mridangam.


Srimathi Geetha Raja has been a leading vocalist in South Indian classical music for nearly forty years, appearing in concerts across India and in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In addition to appearing at the Smithsonian’s Freer and Sackler Galleries in this recording, she has also performed at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and the Cleveland Tyagaraja Festival. Alongside her busy concert schedule, she performs regularly on Indian radio and television and has been heard as an A-grade artist on All India Radio since 1983. Her wide-ranging repertoire includes devotional songs in the classical style (kritis), popular religious songs (abhangs and bhajans), as well as padams, javalis, and devarnamas. She is a disciple of Sangita Kalanidhi Smt. T. Brinda. As a representative of the Brinda school of music in the Veena Dhanammal tradition, her concerts are marked by a strong adherence to classicism. She also credits other mentors in music: Sangita Kala Acharya Sri Bombay Ramachandran, Sangita Kalanidhi Sri. K. S. Narayanaswamy, and Padmashri Sri Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan.

Geetha Raja has master’s degrees in music and English and has taught music at the Nalanda Dance Research Centre, the SNDT Women’s University in Mumbai, and through lecture-demonstrations to audiences across Europe and the United States. She was awarded the title of Kalaimamani from the state of Tamil Nadu in 2006 and the title of Asthana Vidushi from Sringeri Sharada Peetham in 2001. Her other awards include the Thanjavur Ponniah Pillai and the Dr. Pinakapani Awards from the Music Academy, Madras; the Government of India performing arts fellowship; and titles of Sur Mani from the Sur Singar Samsad, Mumbai, and Asthana Vidushi from the Sringeri Mutt, Karnataka. More information on Geetha Raja’s music is available at

Radhika Mani, violin, has been performing in concerts for several years in the US, accompanying local and visiting artists from India. She has also been a regular performer at the Chennai music season in India. She began her musical studies with S. V. Ramachandran in Mumbai and later with R. Ganesh and Tanjore S. Kalyanaram.

Dattatreya Sharma, mridangam, is the son of violinist Anoor S. Ramakrishna and a disciple of Subbu and Bangalore Venkatram. His concert career began in 1975. He has since performed across India and in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and the United States, accompanying many of the leading artists in Carnatic music and performing in the percussion ensemble Laya Lahari. He is currently the principal of the Ayyanar College of Music, Bangalore, one of India’s leading musical institutions. It was founded in 1952 by the late violinist T. Chowdiah and has produced many of today’s top south Indian musicians. Sharma was given the honor of Laya Vadya Thilaka by Rama Seva Mandali of Koramangala.


This concert was presented as part of a series of weekend events titled “Inspired by India” that celebrated the opening of a new installation of the Freer Gallery’s South Asia and Himalayas galleries. That long-term installation showcases the extraordinary range of South Asian and Himalayan art in the collection—considered to be among the most important in the world. This concert and the “Inspired by India” series were made possible, in part, by support from Margaret and George Haldeman, Doris Weiner and family, Marion and Ashok Deshmukh, Arun and Rama Deva, Hart and Nancy Fessenden, Ranvir and Adarsh Trehan, Ashok and Stuti Kaveeshwar, and Kenneth and Joyce Robbins.

This podcast was coordinated by Michael Wilpers, manager of performing arts. Audio recording and editing by Andy Finch and Suraya Mohamed. Photography by Neil Greentree. Web production by Gio Camozzi. Copyediting by Ian Fry. Special thanks to the artists for granting permission to share their performances at the Freer and Sackler Galleries.