Kalinga Narthana Thillana: an experiment in rhythm and language

I’ve written about thillanas before–they’re a type of Carnatic composition, usually performed as upbeat, fast-paced pieces near the end of a concert or dance performance. There’s something very playful and energetic about this thillana, and I’ve been listening to it many, many times in the past few days. It’s a great example of the rhythmic complexity of Carnatic music.

“Kalinga narthana” literally means “Kalinga dance” in Sanskrit, and it refers to a popular mythological story in which the god Krishna, as a young boy, danced on the serpent Kaliya (aka Kalinga) to stop him from poisoning the Yamuna river. You can read more about it here.

From a very informative introduction given by Dr. U. R. Giridharan:

“Oothukadu Venkata Subbaiyer (popularly known as Oothukadu Venkata Kavi) was born in the early 18th century in the village of Oothukadu, in the Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. He was a devotee of Lord Krishna, and is believed to have composed over 400 compositions on Him. His compositions are known for his unpretentious, candid devotion and humility, at the same time showcasing his great skill and erudition in handling the language of the lyrics (whether Sanskrit or Tamil) and his deft use of music to suit the mood and rhythm he had chosen.

The Kalinga Narthana thillana describes the dance of the young Krishna on the hoods of the serpent Kaliya (also called Kalinga). A thillana contains many rhythmic words and intricate sequences that are fused with repetitive musical notes. It is similar to the Hindustani tarana.

Oothukadu Venkata Kavi had even set the singing style in such a way that, at one place, a particular word is enunciated to resemble the hissing sound made by the great serpent. He has liberally used gati-bhedam, that is change of rhythm, something that very few major Carnatic composers have done before or since. Jatis [rhythmic syllables] and lyrics intermingle, thereby giving a dramatic and striking effect of the rapid and cadenced foot movements and adroit swings of the dancing Lord.

This song was first brought to life during the last century by the famous Harikatha exponent, the late Brahmasri Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavathar. Though essentially suitable for classical dance performances and Harikatha, of late many singers of Carnatic music have started singing this composition in their concerts, captivated by the charm of the rhythm and style of this thillana.”

Here’s Aruna Sairam’s rendition of the Kalinga Narthana thillana.

Raga: Gambheera Nattai
Talam: Adi (eight beats)
Language: Sanskrit

*I will bold the Sanskrit lyrics. The rest of the unbolded text is made up of rhythmic syllables that don’t hold any meaning.


taam dhIm tarana taam dhIna takiTa

describing Krishna’s dance using rhythmic syllables


taam dhIm tarana taam dit takiTa dhigirtakiTa dhigir takiTa tadingiNatOm
taam dhIm tarana taam yamunaataDaaga pankEruhapada

With his lotus-like feet in the water of the Yamuna river…

tAkita tAkita sArasa dala naya
nAyaka sAyaka mudrita jayajaya

Variation: sArisa sArisa sArasa dala nayanAyatha
sAhasa modita jagadiha

…dances the one whose eyes are shaped like lotus petals, the one in whose valor the world is delighted.


taamita tajjam taka tajjam takadika tajjam taam

neela manohara jaala vibhooshana
nirata chalanchala bhujanga nartana
neeraja taDaaga (or dalAD) adika mrudulapada
nikaTa taranga tunga tADanga
nruttaka nruttaka taam tat taai

The beautiful blue-colored one, embellished by his enchantment, is dancing on the tumultuously moving serpent. With footsteps softer than lotus petals, on the turbulent waves, adorned by drops of water, he dances and dances.

taka tadimidhiyada taka
taakiTa takajaga dhigirjaganandham
takajaga takajaga dhigirjaganandham

yamuna taTAka tunga tarangam
himakara sthimita ramita subhAngam
itas tatascara karunApAngam
yadivara hrudaya sarOruhabhrungam

In the waves of the Yamuna river, Krishna’s graceful limbs are soaked in moonlight. His compassionate glance is looking here and there. He is the honeybee to the lotus-like hearts of the great sages.

dinata tillana dinata tillana dinata tillana dhigirtakiTa tillana
tilakasindoora alakasringAra vadana gambeera
uraga phana sanchAra

He has a sindoor tilak on his forehead, curly locks of hair, and a majestic face, and his feet are rapidly hitting the hoods of the serpent.

nandasukumAra navaneeta dadhichora
chanDa manihAra jalajabhava nuta dheera

He is the son of Nanda, the thief of butter and yogurt, the one who is bedecked in jewelry, the fearless one venerated by the god Brahma.

jaya vijayee bhava nandakumAra
vrajajana paramananda kishora
kaliya naTanAnanda gambheera
karunArasayuta bhAva shareera

Victory to you, son of Nanda! You are the adorable child who holds the people of Vraj in rapture, the valiant one delighting in dancing on the Kalinga serpent, the one whose very form is the mood of compassion (karuna rasa).

dheem ta taam ta dheem ta taam ta taai (3)

dimi tadimitakiTa janu
jugunagu nandari tagunagu nandari
dimita tAku dimi tadimitakiTajanu
vraja kumAra mahimAlanka
vanamAla durandara kruta krutAkAra

You are the youthful son of the Vraj region, who is enriched by his own greatness. You are wearing a garland of forest flowers, and you always accomplish your goals.

ta jam ta taka jam ta taka nam ta tagurram ta (2)

tAku janantari tataku janantari
tAku janantari tadimitakiTajanu (2)

adbhuta nartana chitrita mudrita vidyutam udbhavam adbhutam adbhutam (tAku) (2)

By your wonderful, indescribable dance, marked by the flash of lightning, you generate awe and amazement.

diti suta kAla vidhi nuta sheela atisaya neela drutapadalola (tAku)

You vanquished the offspring of Diti (the asuras, or demons), and you are venerated by Brahma, the creator. You have a unique blue color, and you are rapidly stepping on the serpent’s hoods.

ta dimitakita dimitAka dimitakita dimitAka
ta taai ta tOm ta taai dimitakiTa tOm tarikiTa tarikiTa (tAku)
ta dimi ti taiya tarikiTa taka tAka jam
atisaya sukha nirupamakara pAda jam

The movement of your feet and hands gives great happiness to us.

sarasa moha muralirava nAtha
sakala lOka sammOhana geeta

The melodies of your flute give ecstatic passion; you produce music that enchants all the worlds.

tAku tinnan taka tinnan taka taka tA taai taanga tA taai tA
dhigirtaka taka tinnan tAnga tAtaai tAnga tA taai tA
kadamba kisalaya milita noopura
padam calita kruta pAda tAm

Dangling on your feet are anklets made from the slender stalks of kadamba flowers.

tillAna driga tillAna drigadriga tillAnAkitatOm
ga tannan nangiTatom ta tOm ta taai ta tOm
taka tAkita tarikita taam ta deem ta tOm ta taai ta
thyajogabandha thaD bhujanga shirasee caranam calanam
kruthanam druthanam vadanam
jita chandramadam kara kankana kinkini nam na na nam
pada taka taka dimi dimi junu junu taam
ta tAKa tillAna kanaka bhooshana

After being released from the coils of the serpent, your feet are swiftly dancing on its head. Your face is shining with the moon’s beauty, your bangles and anklets are chiming, and you are adorned with golden jewelry.

takiTa tagadtagAya mukhabara mandasss-
mita naravara poojita pada yugalA hari

You have a cheerful smile on your brilliantly gleaming face, and your feet are worshiped by great men.

jaya vijayee bhava nandakumAra
vrajajana paramananda kishora
kaliya naTanAnanda gambheera
karunArasayuta bhAva shareera

Victory to you, son of Nanda! You are the adorable child who holds the people of Vraj in rapture, the valiant one delighting in dancing on the Kalinga serpent, the one whose very form is the mood of compassion (karuna rasa).

mada madhukara madhupa taraLa sama
nayana kamaladaLa, calana
muni hrudayam api chora chaatura
muraari sreekara

Like the stinger of a honey-intoxicated bee, with your ever-moving lotus-petal-like eyes, you are an expert in stealing the hearts of even pure sages. Oh compassionate one, you vanquished the demon Mura and you possess all the divine attributes of Sri: grace, auspiciousness, lustre, beauty, etc.

(source 1, source 2)

(image source 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)


8 thoughts on “Kalinga Narthana Thillana: an experiment in rhythm and language”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s