When I was studying for my PhD at the Department of Geography, Kent State University, Kent, Ohio in 1990, my guru, Dr Surinder Mohan Bhardwaj told me that I should start presenting original academic research papers at conferences. He asked me to think of topics that I would like to research and present a paper at the Annual South Asia Conference at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin that autumn.
I selected two topics.
One of these was about the sacred geography connections in the compositions of Śrī Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar (24 March 1776 – 21 October 1835). He is considered one of the trinity of karnātaka sangītam (also called Carnatic music) along with two others: Śrī Śyāma Śāstri (1762 – 1827) and Śrī Tyāgarāja (1767 – 1847).
Growing up in Bangalore (now Bengaluru), India, I was introduced to his compositions as a teenager. Most people’s introduction to his compositions is through his very popular composition on Ganéśa, vātāpi.ganapati.bhajéham.
For years, I had learned about Dīkshitar’s pilgrimages and how several of his songs were connected to specific places. I had also visited some of these places.
My guru, Dr Bhardwaj, is well-known expert on sacred geographies — he has studied, taught, and written about sacred places and pilgrimages for many decades.
We wrote a paper together titled Cultural Geography Themes in Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar’s Compositions, and presented it at the 1990 Annual South Asia Conference.
Subsequently, Dr Bhardwaj said we must edit the paper and publish it in some academic journal. We submitted the paper for review and it was published in 2001. You can read an online PDF version of the paper here.
Chandra S. Balachandran, Surinder M. 2001. “Geography as Melody in Muttusvami Dikshita’s Indian Musical Works.” The Geographical Review, volume 91 (4), p. 690-701.
Since the time we presented our original paper, I had been wanting to make a documentary about Dīkshitar and his contribution to cultural geography that no one else had looked at. I could not find the resources to do it. However, it was always in my mind to make.
In 2018, I visited Chennai for some geography workshops. There, I met several of my students, all teenagers. In the course of conversation, I mentioned this desire I have had to make a documentary on Dīkshitar’s work. They were all excited and they all volunteered to participate in this. (You can find their names in the project team listing below.)
In 2020, we were supposed to go to various places to shoot video for the documentary. However, the Covid-19 pandemic did not allow us to do that. Meanwhile, several team members moved on with their formal education.
It seemed that the project that I was desirous of making was again stopped.
In 2021, Kanishk Gokul expressed an interest in making an online, interactive version of the project. This sounded much better than the documentary that I had been thinking of. The documentary would not have been interactive. This idea completely changed my thinking and we started working on this new format. Several of the old team members returned to prepare the various pieces of the story. You can read them in this project site.
I wanted to make a documentary for school children. The topic is very “heavy”, but that should challenge young children rather than frighten them away to think, “Ayyo! This is all too much! I can’t understand all this!”
In the end, the team decided that we should not spoon-feed everything to our young minds. Rather, we want to get you asking questions and trying to find answers to them — think as geographers! In the process, we hope you will learn something about geography, Dīkshitar and his songs, research skills, using databases, and most important of all: Asking geography questions!
You will never understand until you explore! Now, you can.
And here we are.
I hope that you will explore all the components of this project and interact with it. Use the comments sections of individual essays to ask questions, share thoughts about what you found interesting, what was clear and what was tough.
— Dr Chandra Shekhar Balachandran, Geographer
Founder, Director of The Institute of Geographical Studies
Videos of the project launch event, Geophany, held at MithraVana, Mysuru on 24 June 2022.
This part features the inaugural talk by Śrī Sriram Venkatakrishnan, noted writer and historian of karnātaka sangītam (carnatic music) on the importance of travel and how geographical details in Śrī Muttusvāmi Dīkshitar’s compositions help a better understanding of pilgrimage geography.
Featured image: Project logo, by Maitreyi Ramasubramanian and The Institute of Geographical Studies, © 2021.
Thanks to everyone who has helped with this project in direct and indirect ways.