Tyagaraja the great composer had a number of disciples of whom several left behind an enduring lineage. Of these, the Wallajahpet School is no doubt unique, for its founders were Walajahpet Venkataramana and Krishnaswami Bhagavatars, father and son, who between them encompassed Tyagaraja’s active years as a composer. They were also to write the first biography of Tyagaraja.
Venkataramana Bhagavatar was of Saurashtra Brahmin stock and though the family originated at Ariyalur near Trichy, it had settled at Ayyampettai around seven miles from Thiruvayyaru for quite some time. It was there that Venkataramana Bhagavatar was born on February 18, 1781. In course of time he learnt the ancestral trade of weaving. Though busy with it he found time to go to Thiruvayyaru and learn music from Tyagaraja. In course of time he became extremely close to his Guru. A painting of Lord Rama with Sita, Lakshmana and Hanuman, gifted by Venkataramana Bhagavatar on the occasion of the wedding of Tyagaraja’s daughter is said to have been a prized possession of the composer. Marrying when he was 40, Venkataramana Bhagavatar had his first son Krishnaswami in 1824. The boy was apprenticed under Tyagaraja when he was 16. His tutelage under the bard lasted seven years. Having a slightly weak voice, he trained on the Kinnari, a stringed instrument. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was an eyewitness to Tyagaraja’s last hours on earth and documented them.
By the time his son attached himself to Tyagaraja, Venkataramana Bhagavatar had moved to Wallajahpet near Kanchipuram for business reasons. There he built a bhajana mandiram, which was graced by Tyagaraja when he came on a pilgrimage in 1837. Mysore Sadasiva Rao, a disciple of Venkataramana Bhagavatar is said to have composed a song to commemorate the occasion. Though separated by several miles, the bond between Tyagaraja and Venkataramana Bhagavatar remained unbroken and when the former passed away in 1847, his tambura and sandals, apart from certain manuscripts that included his copy of the Potana Bhagavatam were handed over to the latter. After Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s passing on December 15, 1874, these were entrusted to the Saurashtra community, which is largely headquartered in Madurai. These precious relics remain with them, the manuscripts and sandals at the Saurashtra Sabha and the tambura at the community’s Krishna temple, all in Madurai. Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s tambura keeps Tyagaraja’s instrument company and both a worshipped by the waving of camphor each evening.
Venkataramana Bhagavatar was a composer of merit too, though his songs are hardly sung today, the works of his illustrious Guru no doubt overshadowing his. Two pieces – Kanularakonti nivu in Dhanyasi on Varadarajaswami of Kanchipuram and the Guru Mangalashtakam, a set of eight verses on Tyagaraja are well known. The Alathur Brothers who invested much energy into their rendition of it made the former famous. The ashtakam has been set into an exquisite ragamalika by Sanjay Subrahmanyan and sung for a commercial recording.
On the occasion of Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s birth anniversary this year, a special committee led chiefly by Prof TR Damodaran, published a compilation of his songs. This is not the first release as since the early 20th century there have been publications on his works. The present publication is a revised and enhanced edition of a 1991 release and being the latest it would be safe to assume that it is the most comprehensive. Though there is a claim in the preface that Venkataramana Bhagavatar composed over 150 pieces, the book has 81 songs in all, most of them in Telugu, the rest being in Saurashtra language and Sanskrit. All the works carry the mudra of Ramachandrapura, which is the Sanskrit name for Ayyampettai.
Unlike Tyagaraja, who restricted himself to the kriti format, Venkataramana Bhagavatar has composed four varnams, of which two are pada varnams, five swarajatis and two tillanas. His kritis largely follow Tyagaraja’s in their pattern and there is a liberal usage of familiar phrases from the latter’s lyrics as well. And yes, he appears to have been partial to Kedara Gaula given the number of songs set in the raga. Unlike Tyagaraja, he has made liberal use of Ananda Bhairavi as well. An interesting piece is a five-verse tribute to Tyagaraja in Saurashtra language. In addition, there are songs such as Guru Charanam Bhaja Re (Shankarabharanam) and Vada Rasane Sri Guru Prabhavam (Purvi Kalyani) where biographical details of Tyagaraja are given. A few songs are in rare ragas such as Kamalanarayani, Suvarnangi, Saraswathi and Namanarayani.
The book carries the notations of all the songs and will therefore be easy for musicians who wish to learn them. Priced at Rs 250, it can be had from the Srimat Venkataramana Bhagavata Swamigal Jayanti Committee, Sri Sangita Mahal, Krishnan Koil East Street, Ayyampettai, Ramachandrapuram 614201. Contact: TR Damodaran – 7598438972