About this Piece
Sarasvati is the daughter of the Hindu god Shiva and the goddess Durga. It is believed that she endows humankind with the powers of speech, wisdom, and the ability to learn. She is often depicted with four hands that symbolize the four aspects of the human personality. She holds the sacred scriptures in one hand, a lotus in another, and carries the stringed instrument, the vina, in her third and fourth arms. She often wears white, and rides upon a swan. Also a prominent figure in Buddhist iconography, Sarasvati is the consort of Manjushri.
Although Sarasvati is best-known as the Hindu goddess of music, her purview reaches far beyond this single art. In many ancient texts, Sarasvati is also referred to as the goddess of all the arts, the dispenser of knowledge, the arbiter of abstract thought, and the custodian of the river in India that bears her name. Sarasvati vandana is the Hindu mantra that is sung on Sarasvati’s birthday, Vasant Panchami, five days after the first day of spring. On this festival day, all who worship Sarasvati adorn themselves and each other with the holy color yellow, and prepare foods with a saffron hue. However, the most significant aspect of this holiday is that children are taught their first words, for it is considered an auspicious day to begin to read and write.
Since Sarasvati represents the free flow of wisdom and consciousness, she is known as ‘the mother of the Vedas,’ and her vandana is recited as a prayer for higher understanding at the beginning and end all Vedic lessons. Those that choose to worship Sarasvati are individuals who attach great importance to spiritual growth and life-long education – those who are in search of true enlightenment. The goddess Sarasvati is the authority on academics as well as the arts. In India, everyone from musicians to scientists pray to her for guidance and knowledge, and her vandana is recited by her devotees every morning for good luck.
Ever since my first trip to India in 2005, I have wanted to compose a choral piece that would honor this goddess and all that she represents. For my piece, I have incorporated two different texts, and blended two different musical influences as well. The texts I chose are the Sarasvati vandana (mentioned above), and three verses from Vedic hymn (Rig Veda 1:3:10-12) that Sarasvati’s praise. I chose to set the text from the Rig Veda with a pitch contour that is used in ancient Vedic chant. In this type of chant, there are only three pitches: high (which are denoted by accents above each Sanskrit syllable), medium (which always follow each high pitch directly), and low (the default). In this piece, I elected to set the nine lines of Vedic chant with the pitches E G# and A# (low, medium, and high), the first three pitches of Basant (the Sanskrit word for “spring”), one of the oldest ragas that still continues to be sung today.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, the raga is not so much a scale as it is a collection of pitches that may differ on ascent and descent, one that has particular melodic patterns and/or formulas that are entrenched within the meaning of each collection. There also have been extra-musical associations with every raga, such as the practice that specific raga are to be performed during certain hours of the day. The Basant raga, which is associated with spring, provides the perfect association with Sarasvati and her birthday, Vasant Panchami. On its ascent, Basant only includes the pitches [E G# A# C and D#]; upon descent, the pitches [B and F] are added, and, at times [A]. The melody of the Sarasvati vandana that I incorporated into this piece is in raga Basant. It is based on a performance by a Marathi singer named Ninad Anil Shukla. I first heard Mr Shukla’s rendition of this mantra on YouTube, and found it compellingly sincere, so I transcribed it and adapted it for my piece. Here’s the link to the original: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CHf9wuSUGX0.
The “groove” in this piece is based on a layering of the nine lines of Vedic chant on top of each other, and extracting unvoiced and voiced consonants (for vocal percussion), nasals (for droning), and vowels (for a whirling, “oceanic” effect toward the end of the piece).
The translations of these Sanskrit texts into English are my own, and are meant for the specific meter of this piece, 11/8.