Who taught music to Tyagaraja? From the biography written by Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar even while the great composer was alive, we get to know that this was Sonti Venkataramanayya. The son of Sonti Venkatasubbayya, he was an acclaimed musician in his own right and adorned the court of Sarabhoji II. The Sarva Deva Vilasa, the 19th century Sanskrit work on Madras, describes a get together of scholars, artists and patrons at Tirunirmalai where Sonti Venkataramanayya is brought in procession on an elephant by the dubash Venkatadri. It speaks of Venkataramanayya as an Indra among singers and says that he was unparalleled in the rendition of tanam. It goes on to state that the power of his music was such that even dead tree stumps would begin sprouting fresh shoots on hearing him.
Why Tyagaraja was apprenticed under Venkataramanayya is explained by Abraham Pandithar’s Karunamritha Sagaram. It has it that Venkataramanayya’s father Venkatasubbayya was a disciple of Tyagaraja’s maternal grandfather, Veena Kalahastiayya. ‘Nenarunci Yelukora’, an ata tala varnam that Venkatasubbayya composed in Bilahari on the ruler particularly pleased the latter. Dr. S Seetha in her ‘Tanjore As A Seat Of Music’ (University of Madras), has it that Venkatasubbayya was gifted 32 acres of fertile land by King Thulaja for his proficiency in music. She also adds that the composer Paidala Gurumurthy Sastri was a disciple of Venkatasubbayya and created a gitam in raga Nata on his guru. Though he is accredited with many compositions, the varnam in Bilahari and another in Purvikalyani are sole survivors of Venkatasubbayya’s works.
Venkatasubbayya later travelled to Madras and was honoured for his music by Manali Muttukrishna Mudali, the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company and dubash to Governor Pigot.
Wallajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar writes that on hearing Tyagaraja sing ‘Namo Namo Raghavaya’ (Punnagavarali), his father was impressed and took him to Venkataramanayya for training. Years later, the Guru rejoiced at his star disciple’s fame and sent for him. When Tyagaraja came, he was asked to present some of his new compositions to an assembly of leading musicians. Tyagaraja first sang ‘Janaki Ramana’ (Shuddha Seemantini) and then ‘Dorakuna Ituvanti Seva’ (Bilahari). In the latter song, he did elaborate niraval at the words Kamita Phala Dayaki. Venkataramanayya was so overjoyed that he gifted his disciple a gold medal and chain exclaiming Dorakuna Ituvanti Sishyudu (can anyone find a disciple like this?).
This version of Tyagaraja’s life has it that when Venkataramanayya’s daughter’s wedding was celebrated, Tyagaraja returned the gifts he had received to his guru.
A later biography of Tyagaraja’s written by Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar has some more details. As per this, “Tyagaraja, at the age of 25, showing his devotion to his guru, sang his lyrics before all the learned men of the court, and they remained immersed in his music, even forgetting their daily court duties normally performed before the king. Venkataramanayya, before all the pundits , honoured Tyagaraja, sharing with him the seat on which he sat, and he gave to Tyagaraja the decorations which had been presented to him by the king’s sabha, saying that he was not fit to call Tyagaraja his disciple. And he honoured Tyagaraja with praise, saying that Tyagaraja’s knowledge was like a great garden, and before it, his own was like a mere sprout” (translation taken from William Jackson’s ‘Tyagaraja And The Renewal Of Tradition’, Motilal Banarsidas). This version has it that Tyagaraja returned all the gifts to his guru at the time of his own wedding.
Tyagaraja has composed two songs that extol the qualities and characteristics of a good guru. These however describe a spiritual, as opposed to a musical guru. In his ‘Guruleka Etuvanti’ (Gaurimanohari), he describes the preceptor as a ‘special friend of Tyagaraja’ and states that he administers with love the medicine of enlightenment. In his ‘Ni Chittamu’ (Dhanyasi), the entire charanam is dedicated to describing what a good teacher ought to be. There are however songs on sage Narada (such as ‘Sri Narada Muni’ in Bhairavi), where he is accorded guru status. The song ‘Vidulaku Mrokkeda’ (Mayamalavagawla), is dedicated to experts in music and in it, after he sings of the gods who were proficient in the art, he includes Someshvara and Sarngadeva, two scholars who wrote treatises on music, respectively in the 12th and 13th centuries. Strangely enough, there is no mention of Venkataramanayya. Given Tyagaraja’s aversion to praising mortals, this is perhaps understandable.
(In my last article I had mentioned that in the Rama frieze worshipped by Tyagaraja, Anjaneya has his palms pressed together in prayer. M. Ravindra Narayanan of Tiruvannamalai writes that the Anjaneya here holds a manuscript in his left hand while the right is in chinmudra. I stand corrected.)
This article is fourth in a 12 part series written for The Hindu, to commemorate Tyagaraja’s 250th year. The earlier articles can be read here: