In a villupattu performance last weekend maestro Subbu Arumugam dwelt on an imagined conversation with the Bard of Tiruvaiyaru, in which the former asks the latter to come to this earth again. Tyagaraja says that is impossible, for he has never left it. Nothing can be truer than that. The sun may have never set on the British Empire for around three centuries but in Tyagaraja’s sangita samrajyam, it is a valid claim for all time to come. Chances are that at any given point of time, given the strength of our Diaspora, someone somewhere on this earth is singing a Tyagaraja kriti or at least listening to it.
This great personality entered his 250th year earlier this week, for tradition has it that he was born on May 4, 1767. It is doubtful if at the time of his birth anyone would have realised the immortality for which he was rightfully destined. There is no denying that Tyagaraja earned his space in the galaxy of greats though a lot of hard work and effort that ensured each of his songs was a thing of beauty. That is of course, if you don’t believe all the hagiographies that are routinely churned out in his name wherein his greatness was predetermined and it only required him to open his mouth for these gems to flow out.
Musically speaking, South India can be clearly divided into pre-and post-Tyagaraja phases. In this context it would perhaps be more accurate to include Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar and attribute the sweeping changes to the entire Trinity. But with Tyagaraja’s output being the highest of the three, the most popular and wide-ranging in themes, he perhaps bore the largest burden in effecting the transformation.
What is it that makes Tyagaraja unique?
We owe much of the joy we experience in Carnatic music to him. His songs stand alone in lending themselves to multiple sangatis, plenty of niraval and swaras.
There is a school of thought that has it that these embellishments were the work of his disciples and subsequent musicians and even if that were so, we cannot deny that the original works had it in them and provided the required space for such interpretations.
This cannot be said of all Carnatic compositions. Those that came later and the earlier ones that were retuned were all to essentially follow the pattern set by Tyagaraja. He was to bring to the fore several unknown ragas and at least two — Harikhambodi and Kharaharapriya – largely owe their present popularity to the number of compositions he created in them.
In terms of tala too, Tyagaraja is unparalleled in his multiple gaits thereby ensuring that it is easy to populate an entire concert with just his kritis.
While lot is said of his devotion to Rama and there is always a tendency to portray him as a saintly personality with no connect to the here and now, Tyagaraja was anything but disconnected from the immediate environment in which he existed. As he acknowledges himself, his fame had spread far and wide even while he lived. His world, it must be remembered, was not just Tiruvaiyaru. In his long life of 80 years he travelled to an extent, entertained important visitors and left behind a long lineage of disciples who kept his memory alive. He does appear to have shunned patronage but he did not reject the company of rulers and nobility. From them he appears to have acquired his knowledge of court etiquette all of which he uses in descriptions of Rama’s durbar!
Largely forgotten is the fact that his songs are full of observations about daily life. There are rich men who decorate their houses with lanterns and bedeck their wives with jewels. There are poets and scholars who bare their teeth at patrons in the hope of rewards. Some wander around like stray bulls, eating what they can get at wherever convenient. With a sharp eye Tyagaraja notices the Somayaji performing sacrifices with the sole intention of going to heaven even as his wife is seeking satisfaction of a different kind elsewhere. In some house a daughter is going through a difficult labour and the parents are blaming the son-in-law for it. Out in the street, meanwhile, a procession of Haridasas is wending its way, bearing a portrait of the Lord, singing His praise and dancing with joy. Tyagaraja rejoices in the Kaveri that brings fresh water each year and makes his Tiruvaiyaru a veritable paradise where Rama is lucky enough to reside. And there in the sand bars of the riverbed, a procession bearing the palanquin of Lord Panchanadeeswarar sets off for the Sapta Sthanam festival. How many pictures he manages to paint in one pallavi, an anupallavi and at most three charanams! Tyagaraja’s songs are pen portraits of the Thanjavur region in the twilight years of Maratha rule.
Beginning with this issue, this column will embark on a twelve part series and will look at the saint-composer’s multifaceted personality. A lot of what follows in the subsequent editions will be from the composer’s own songs, the writings of his contemporaries and the few surviving possessions of his. This may not tread new ground as far as those in the know are concerned but then, as was said earlier, Tyagaraja does lend himself to fresh interpretations.
Click here to read the first part of the 12 part series:
You may also be interested in participating in our forthcoming tour of Tyagaraja’s Thiruvaiyaru and Thanjavur. If so click here