The timelessness of Tyagaraja
Remembering Carnatic music's greatest composer on his 250th birth anniversary
Every genre of music has its influencers and demigods. Some of them change the course of history. In Western classical, you have Beethoven and Mozart. In Hindustani music, you have the Sufi saint Amir Khusrau and Miyan Tansen from Akbar’s court. But Carnatic music can be divided simply into two eras: pre-Tyagaraja and post-Tyagaraja. Tyagaraja (1767–1847) is indisputably the most celebrated poet-composer and singer in Carnatic music. 2017 marks his 250th birth anniversary year.
Thanjavur, the cultural heartland of Tamil Nadu, was once under the reign of great patrons of the arts: the Cholas, the Vijayanagara kings, and the Marathas. It was there, in the temple town of Thiruvarur, that Tyagaraja was born as the third child of Kaakarla Rama Brahmam and Sitamma on 4 May 1767. They were Telugu Vaidiki Mulakanadu Brahmins. The family moved to Thiruvaiyaru, where king Tulaja II gave Tyagaraja’s father a gift of land and a home. Thiruvaiyaru, with its fertile land where all the five branches of the Kaveri flowed, was a prosperous place, an ideal ground for Tyagaraja’s art to flourish.
It is important to understand the political milieu in which Tyagaraja lived. Thanjavur had already seen two major invasions by the time he was born: the English in 1749 and the French in 1758. From 1773-76, the nawab of Arcot waged war and ruled the place. In 1780, Hyder Ali invaded Thanjavur and occupied the region for a couple of years. When he retreated, he did so by causing much destruction. Over 60,000 people fled the region and over 2,000 were killed in the war. There was a famine. In the first 30 years of his life, Tyaragaja was witness to a lot of these events and many of them then found mention in his writings.
It is not as if there were no other singer-composers before Tyagaraja. The Bhakti literature that originated in the Tamil-speaking regions of south India in the 5th century found many poets who composed songs to their favourite gods. Several poets had emerged across the Dravidian landscape by the 15th century: the Dasa Sampradaya poets in Karnataka, who rose to prominence during the Vijayanagara era, composers Bhadrachala Ramadasu, Kshetrayya and Narayana Theertha in the Andhra region, and many more. Tyagaraja learnt music from Sonti Venkataramanayya, a musician in the court of king Tulaja II. But he knew about saints in the north, such as Tulsidas, Namdev and Tukaram. In Thanjavur, there was also the little village of Merattur, where the theatrical form of the Bhagavata Mela tradition flourished. He took his musical inspiration and influence from all this as he was growing up.
Tyagaraja lived to be 80. After his death, however, his students split into several warring fractions. They were united by the efforts of celebrated singer Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who hailed from the Devadasi community and donated all her lifetime earnings to build a memorial for Tyagaraja at his samadhi in Thiruvaiyaru. Her own samadhi lies opposite his; a life-size statue of hers faces his samadhi with folded hands.
Tyagaraja began composing at the age of 15 and today, several hundreds of his songs survive. He also wrote and composed two operas, Nauka Charitram and Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam. While he was never photographed, there are several popular artistic impressions, the most popular being the one created by musician and painter S. Rajam. Tyagaraja dolls continue to adorn the famous toy exhibits in every south Indian home during the Dussehra festival. And unless it is a thematic affair, almost no Carnatic concert is complete without at least one good composition of his. In fact, Tyagaraja’s compositions play a crucial role in assessing the growth of a student of Carnatic music.
Tyagaraja and his contemporaries Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1775-1835) and Shyama Shastri (1762 -1827) are considered the holy trinity of Carnatic composers. To this day, thousands of Carnatic music lovers throng Tyagaraja’s samadhi in remote Thiruvaiyaru on the anniversary of his demise, commemorated as Tyagaraja Aradhana. Pushya Bahula Panchami is earmarked on every Carnatic musician’s calendar. In what turns out to be the world’s largest annual congregation of Carnatic musicians, they sing his songs over a period of five days. It is a pilgrimage.
While Tyagaraja’s bloodline ended with his grandson, who died very early, his musical lineage has survived through his vast network of disciples. Several biographies of Tyagaraja were written in his own lifetime. And there have been many good and bad biographies after that as well. Academics consider Tyagaraja: Life And Lyrics (1992) by William J. Jackson as one of the best. There have also been movies on his life, the most well-known being the one directed by Chittoor V. Nagaiah, a musician and a devotee of Tyagaraja himself.
Tyagaraja’s house, which stood strong in Thiruvaiyaru till a few years ago, was demolished to make way for a granite structure that has images of local politicians on display. If this house had been elsewhere, in a musical town like Vienna, for instance, it would most definitely have been a museum today.
What’s heartening, though, is that over the last year, the eminent Chennai-based historian and scholar Sriram Venkatakrishnan has been posting a series of interesting facts about Tyagaraja, his music and his life, on social media. And it’s clear that so much about this poet-saint remains to be discovered.
The Music Academy in Chennai conducted a series of lecture-demonstrations celebrating Tyagaraja during last year’s December music season as well, with musicians and scholars from across the world presenting lectures highlighting his life and times. As the late Sangita Kalanidhi T.V. Subba Rao said: “Tyagaraja united the apparently opposite qualities of conservatism and progress, of reverence for antiquity and impatience of restraint, of the prejudices of the heart and the revolt of intellect... His life in ethics and aesthetics is the evolution of perfect harmony and attunement from the discordant principles of thought and action. Nothing short of the absolute universality of his mind could have succeeded in saturating his songs with that spirit of sweetness, peace and bliss which lingers in our soul long after the sounds have faded away."
In no other country or culture has a poet and composer been elevated to the status of a saint, as Tyagaraja has been in India. It is in this state of timelessness that Tyagaraja continues to flourish, immortalized in his own songs, and in his bhakti to his gods.
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