Sopanam literally means the place surrounding the sanctum-sanctorum of a Temple in Sanskrit.
It is composed of two words:- sa (going up) and Upana (near).
Sopana Sangeetham is that strain of Classical Music that started its life around the
As has to be expected the music in its early days gave prominence to Devotional songs with
Bhakthi Rasam ( rich emotional content).
This strain of music is regarded as the sole Classical Music strain native to Kerala
(The most visible Classical Music of india is Carnatic Music )and
it occupies the pride of place among the art forms of Kerala. It is the primary music used
for other native art forms like Kathakali ,Mohiniaattam , Thiruvathirakali etc.
Some unique features of this strain of music.
It is a Music that proceeds slowly in ascending and descending order of its raga swaras (solfege).
(Raga is a sequence of structured sounds in Indian Classical Music that creates a symphony )
During ragalapana (recital of raga), the artist treats every note of a raga as its nila (base) and
proceeds to the immediate successor note and returns to the starting note to proceed to the next note
thus continuing always returning to the starting note.
The alapana is slow and tala (beat) bound , and is set to he beats of edakka (a percussion instrument
made of skin) , and elathalam (small cymbals), at different speeds with various koorus (permutations)
signifying different stages of its exposition.
Another is the use of straight and sharp notes of a raga and holding them for long which helps to
maintain the grip of the mood. It also employs sudden breaks that enhance the drama of presentation.
Gamakas (Gamakas are subtle -and not-so-subtle- decorations of notes, usually referred to as
"shaking the note" each swara has an associated Gamaka) are different in this strain of music ,
with the Gamakas like Triroopam , Andolitham , Leenam being prominent. and creating a very
different feeling from the main stream Carnatic Music.
It is marked by a tremor in music, even when straight notes are used (This is true of most of the
ancient systems of music.)
The singer usually selects a note as Sthaeebhavam or the overriding emotion of the raga, and uses
supporting swaras to create a Bhavam or emotion, and the succeeding notes that do not support it
are skipped over. This usually results in either the first half or the second half becoming prominent.
It uses Margitalams (a type of beats) which were in vogue before the advent of more modern desi
talams (a more modern variety of beats 35 in number).
More than fifty instruments can accompany Sopana Sangeetham of which the important ones are
chenda (Percussion), edakka(Percussion), chengila(type of cymbals), ilathalam(type of cymbals),
maddalam(Percussion), kuzhithalam(type of cymbals), thimila, mantuni, maram,
kompu(wind), kuzhal(wind), villu, and shanku(wind),
The music in Kerala was first associated with literature and poetry as the ancient
Keralites did not distinguish songs from poetry. Thus the infancy of this music lies intertwined
with the literature of the land, usually extolling heros of yore, of wars fought, and other
episodes in the life of ancient Kerala.
Later a few centuries before Christ, the music began to diverge into four distinct
categories , Folk Music , Vaideeka Sangeetham or Spiritual, Laukeeka Sangeetham relating to
life and its pleasures and Natya (meaning acting) which was a fusion of other three
The Laukeeka Sangeetham later on evolved into Desi Sangeetham while the spiritual Vaideeka
Sangeetham evolved into Marga Sangeetham which was the precursor to Sopana Sangeetham.
The four forms of music Folk, Vaideeka, Laukeeka and Natya were children of same philosophy
in that they used the same concept called Tauratrikam as their base.
Tauratrikam (meaning triad) was the method and philosophy of blending the three
portions of music namely Geetham (Vocal recitation or the songs), Vadyam (using Instruments) ,
and nrityam ( including dance and drama ).
These forms of music held their sway until the fifth century AD during which time the famed
epic Chilapathikaram (one of the Five great dravidian epics) was composed. We can see a reflection
of the a prevailing music form Natya (drama) in the epic where an entire chapter called
arangettru-kkadai was devoted to its description.It is said that around 12,000 ragas were in
usage at that time.
Around seventh century AD brahminical Hinduism made inroads into Kerala and the Spiritual
Vaideeka strain of music got into prominence. This was propagated by Nayanars (saivite saints
or saints who worshipped the lord Siva) and Alwars (Vaishnavite saints , or the saints who
worshipped lord Vishnu).
The preachings of Nayanars were called Thavaram and Thiruvachakam (the holy word) and those of
Alwars were called Thiruvaymozhi (the word of lord). The book Nalayira-Prabandham
(also called Dravida Veda Sagaram) which details these types of songs were composed
by Nada Muni (saint Nada -a famous devotee of Vishnu, poet and singer) during this time.
Later the singers who practiced the Thevaram style of music came to be known as Oduvars and those
that practiced Thiruvaimozhi came to be called Araivars.
As the music developed further , these two strands gradually intermingled and combined together
to produce the Sopana Sangeetham.
Sopana Sangeetham underwent major upheaval in fourteenth century when the great musical opera
Geetha Govindam or Ashtapadi by Jayadevan was composed. It caused a sweeping wave in Kerala where
it combined with the existing Sopana Sangeetham to give a new direction and outlook to the Sopana
Sangeetham. a few other works like shivashtapadi (an imitation of ashtapadi) and the translation
of a Sanskrit work Gaye Drishya Kavya were also popular at that time.
The next major change in the Sopana Sangeetham came under the reign of Swati Thirunal (King of
Thiruvithamkur :- a portion of modern Kerala) who patronised all art forms.
He paved the way for adoption and encouragement of Carnatic Music- the classical music strain
from southern India.But with the adoption of Carnatic music, the fortunes of Sopana Sangeetham
began to sag, and its prevalence sank to a very low level before being revived by renowned Malayalam
Poet Vallathol during nineteenth century who established a place for its restoration and
learning called Kerala Kala Mandalam.