“Kesari’ seems to be a raga first used by Saint Thyagaraja, as there is only one composition in the raga, belonging to him. The confusion begins when we see the only composition of the Saint, “nannu kanna thalli” being shown under ‘Kesari’ and another raga ‘Sindhu kannada (janya of mela -28 harikambhoji). Even then, this is sung in the second one, Sindhu kannada, the origin of which is not known.
Let us first find the configurations of these ragas. Kesari, is a janya of MAraranjani, with notes:
S R2 G3 M1 P M1 D1 P D1 S // S D1 N1 D1 P M1 G2 R2 S
Sangeetha Sampradaya Pradarshini, by Subbarama Dikshithar does not give any reference about this raga, but his interpretation of ‘Sharavathi’ mela raga (25th in Dikshithar system) almost resembles this.
Ragapravaham by D.Pattammal places ‘Kesari under mela (13) GAyakapriya:
S R G M P D S // S N D P M G R S
And also under mela (25) MAraranjani:
S R G M P M D P D S // S D N D P M G R S
S R G M P M D P S // S N D P M G R S
S R G M P M D P D S // S N D P M G R S
On the other hand, ‘Sindhu kannada’ is seen with notes as a janya of Harikambhoji:
S M1 G3 M1 R2 G3 M1 P D2 P S // S N2 D2 P M1 G3 R2 S
Ragapravaham also confirms the same specification.
There is another specification found in some references as:
S M1 G3 M1 P S - S N2 D2 P M1 G3 R2 S
Which is almost similar to Navarasa kannada; in fact many feel the same raga also in some areas of the song.
Coming to the rendition of this composition, almost all the ones available in the domain are similar and they are all based on the Harikambhoji janya, thereby replacing the vivadi notes D1N1 by D2N2. Though there are some minor changes in the same from person to person, all are based on the same janya. Even the notation given in the site http://www.shivkumar.org/music/Nannukannathalli.pdf shows it as janya of mela 28 only. Various books like ‘Ragalakshanam’ and ‘Ragakosham’ and also Nadamuni Pandithar give references to Sindhu kannada. The only source of finding the authenticity is from the Walajpet sishya parampara, who follow the original of melody in the Thyagaraja krithis. Based on the manuscripts of the notation and text of many compositions maintained by the Walajpet parampara, Chinnaswami Mudaliar compiled the list of ragas, which shows the name of the raga as ‘Kesari’. ‘Sangraha Choodamani’ by Govindacharya, which, considered a lexicon of all ragas that Thyagaraja is said to have composed in, also does not mention about Sindhu kannada; in contrast the raga name Kesari appears in the Sangraha Cudamani and hence most likely the raga of ‘Nanu kanna talli’ can only be the melody which goes with the name of Kesari. Thus it can be concluded that while the composition, ‘nannu kanna thalli’ is rendered with D2 and N2 (Sindhu kannada), the theory backed by the above book confirms that it should be sung with D1 and N1 only. It may be noted that many such incidents have occurred – if we take Abheri, Thyagaraja composition, ‘nagumomu’ should have been sung with the original version carrying D1, which in course of time got changed to D2, which is followed even now, with the original edition gone into darkness.
Now the question - isn’t Kesari which uses D1 and N1, the raga of ‘nannu kanna talli’ the original tune of the composition? On the authority of ‘Sangraha Cudamani’, Kesari is indeed the raga of the composition and indeed it sports the vivadhi notes D1 and N1. But Kesari is not its original name. It is the name given by Sangraha Cudamani whose date is debatable. Kesari is a name without a textual history. And this melody masquerading under the name of Kesari is older than many of us think. It is older than the Trinity. It was not discovered by Thyagaraja. The melody of Kesari which goes by the arohana/avarohana murcchana as given by the Sangraha Chudamani, is found documented in the Anubandha to the Chaturdandi Prakashika dateable to the first half of the 18th century, prior to the days of the Trinity. Anyhow, the usage of almost same phrases in ragam Kesari (Thyagaraja) and Sharavathi (Dikshithar), would suggest that this should be the raga in which ‘nannu kanna thalli’ was composed; which, in a later stage, got migrated to the non-vivadi type being used now in singing.
Many expert musicologists have opined that the original ragas of very many compositions of Tyagaraja’s has been lost or mutilated. The raga of ‘nannu kanna talli’ is one such instance. Much of the evidence if any for such statements are now no longer available due to efflux of time. But with the texts and the so called internal evidence of the compositions themselves, we can attempt to divine the true melodic contours of some of these classics so that an attempt can be made to restore the pristine original beauty of these works of art. Saint Thyagaraja was not particular of embedding the Raga-mudra in his compositions, while Dikshithar was particular with this (except for some krithis like those in ragam Thodi), which made it easy to determine the ragas easily.
Coming to the discussion part, as the only composition available, we shall see ‘nannu kanna thalli’ of Saint Thyagaraja. In this composition, Sadguru praises the Goddess at Tiruvaiyaru:
“O Mother who bore me! O My Fortune! O nArAyaNi! O dharmAmbikE! O Mother whose limbs are golden hued! O Sister of vishNu! O kAtyAyani! O Lotus Eyed! O Mother who always grants boons - praised by this tyAgarAja! Please protect me; While I entreat You again and again to protect me and (I am) dissipating, if You remain without protecting me, who else will protect?”