Raagi Thandheera is one of a large body of songs attributed to Purandara Daasa Vitthala, one of the key figures in the history of South Indian music. The name bestowed on him in adulthood (by his spiritual mentor) identifies him as the servant (daasa) of Purandara Vitthala, the incarnation of the god Vishnu who resides in Pandaripura. He wrote thousands of devotional songs, many of which address social and moral issues. He was also the first to systematize Carnatic music, and his teaching methods are still used today.
Raagi Thandheera—literally meaning “have you brought millet?—is essentially about the spiritual value of giving alms. The beautifully rhythmic and alliterative lyrics are in the Kannada language of the Karnataka region of southwest India. There’s a strong play on words in the song: ‘raagi’ means a kind of millet, but it is also a fragment of several words that bear the sense of ‘bringing’ and ‘becoming’. The last line is Purandara Daasa’s signature.
In this choral arrangement of the song, the soft opening drum-beats represent the sound of the footsteps of a humble mendicant as he or she goes from door to door, seeking alms. The mendicant fervently addresses the occupants of the house, and the cascade of words has an increasingly intense impact on the listener. At the end of the song, the mendicant withdraws, and the sound of footsteps dies away—but we are left spiritually nourished by the message of the song (common to many of the world’s religions): by giving, you receive.
Purandara Daasa’s songs have come down through the centuries both in written records and in the oral tradition, and are sung to many different tunes. This version of Raagi Thandheera is set in raaga Revati, a raaga associated with devotion, gravitas, and pathos. The name of its North Indian counterpart, Bairagi, actually carries the meaning of mendicant. The pitches used in raaga Revati (including a flattened second and seventh) give the song a similar feel to the Phrygian mode of medieval church music.
Smitha Vishveshwara learned this version of the song in the 1980s as a student at the Valley School, the Krishnamurti Foundation, Bangalore, India. Students and teachers of the school aged from five to over eighty still assemble together daily to sing from a large body of traditional Indian music – in lively unison, often accompanied by a simple drone and percussion.