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Sopanam Style

Southern India an ancient land and many different cultures have prospered over the ages and one of these cultures is that of Kerala – distinct with its own language, art and music. Sopanam Sangeetam is the traditional music of Kerala that is based on ragas of the Indian Vedic tradition beautifully mingled with the indigenous tribal and folk elements. The Sangeetam or music is deeply involved with the rituals and ceremonies of the temples in Kerala besides being a part of the religious festivities of the populace.

The roots of Sopana are found in the thirteenth century classical poetry – The Geeta Govinda of Jayadeva, as most of the lyrics are based on his themes. The ‘Bhakti Movement’ that swept Kerala during the same time, became the spirit of the Sopanam Sangeetam.


Traditionally the music is performed in front of the temples with the singers standing in front of the temple steps which are called Sopana (holiest chambers), hence the name Sopana Sangeetam. The musicians usually stand to the left of the singers to accompany the ragas. The songs are called ‘dyani’ whose theme is the devotion of a deity or ‘bhakti’. Songs vary from temple to temple as different songs are composed for distinct deities. Another peculiar characteristic of the Sangeetam is the importance of the time in the day. Similar to the North Indian classical ragas the Samaya ragas in the Sopanam are assigned to a specific time or samaya and songs in only those ragas are sung during that time.

Most of the songs are devoted to chief gods like Krishna, Shiva, Vishnu and the goddess Baghavathi. The quintessential Kerala drum – the Edakka and the Chengila provide rhythm to the singers.


The simplicity of compositions and a heavy focus on the lyrical elements are the characteristics of Sopanam Sangeetam. Musical composition is only an envelope for the rich lyrics forms the underlying philosophy of this style. The disuse of the gamaka technique and the use of the instrumental music to convey feeling; separates the Sopanam style from the rest of the Carnatic or South Indian music styles. Today, many Carnatic elements have been introduced and the pure Sopanam style has become exceedingly rare.

The unique waxing and waning of the tempo or laya is employed typically in Sopanam style for poetic effect. The scale and the tempo are modulated with the tempo corresponding to the change in pitch. This along with the rhythmic drums, a sense of movement and depth is added to the harmonic elements. For example, the Kathakalipadams that are the sung only for Kathakali dances, demonstrate all these features of the Sopanam Sangeetam.

Rendition Styles

Devotion is the primary style of Sopanam Sangeetam but slowly it has spread to almost all the cultural aspects of Kerala, starting with the devotions in Kalam-pattu then as music of various epic dances like Kathakali, Ashtapadiyattam and Krishnanattam, finally culminating in the dramatic renditions of Mudiyettu.


The Sopanam structure of music is designed to depict the emotional and metaphysical ascent of the devotee in his devotion for his god. For the practice of the invocations, a five-color Kalam or carpet of the Kali goddess is drawn with natural pigments, which represents the layers of inner sanctums of the Hindu temples. As it is seen in Indian classical music as a whole, the Sopanam style is practiced as several different schools. Each school in this style has a peculiar characteristic that identifies it. For instance, the Sopanam Sangeetam of Ramamangalam and Pazhoor temples situated along Moovattupuzha River in south Kerala is different from the Sopanam Sangeetam of the Guruvayoor and Thirumandhamkunnu temples in north Kerala. One of the reasons is that the same families of artists are employed by a particular patron temple in all their religious ceremonies and festivals.


The acceptance of new students of Sopanam Sangeetam in any of its schools is based strictly on the Indian classical tradition and the legacy of the student himself. The schools housed in the temples of Tiumandhamkunnu, Ramamangalam, Guruvayoor and Pazhoor are the major stylistic schools in the Sangeetam. The teachers are usually the respective Masters of their style and a student may eventually become a Master himself if he is hereditarily chosen to succeed.

Prominent names in Sopana Sangeetam are: Janardhanan Nedungadi from Guruvayoor School Damodara Marar from the Pazhoor School and Neralattu Rama Poduval from the Tirumandhamkunnu School.

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