It is very unlikely that visitors to Kanchipuram’s famed Kailasanatha temple bestow even a passing glance at the rather modern building on their right. A painted sign on the wall informs the more observant that this is the Upanishad Brahmam Matham. A grille door leading down a concrete passageway hardly prepares you for the old world charm that lies hidden behind this prosaic exterior.
Inside is a vast water body with chambers leading off it. One of these is a large prayer hall, complete with Madras terraced roofing and green wooden pillars supporting it. Leading away from this room is a passageway that takes you to an open courtyard, central to which is a small temple to Agastyeswara. Behind this is another small sanctum, dedicated to another Siva linga, that goes by the name of Hayagriva! This is perhaps the only temple where the Vaishnavite deity of knowledge is worshipped like this.
The main prayer hall has an old Thanjavur-style painting of Rama. This is the tutelary deity of the Math. And when you reflect that this smiling God must have listened to the music of Muttuswami Dikshitar and Tyagaraja live, you practically stop breathing. Yes, this Math is a place that two members of the hallowed Trinity of Carnatic music visited in person.
But before we get on to that, let us see what information there is on Upanishad Brahmam, the seer after whom this Math takes its name. The scholar Dr V Raghavan, in a paper presented at the All India Oriental Conference at the Annamalai University in 1953, compiled all that is available. Born into the Vadhula gotra sometime in the early 18th century, Upanishad Brahmam was the son of Sadasiva and Lakshmi of Brahmapuram, a village on the banks of the Palar, near Kanchi. Named Sivarama at birth, he was given the education of the times and in due course married and had a son. Thereafter, tiring of worldly life, he became a Sanyasi, taking the name of Ramachandrendra Sadguru. Vasudevendra Sadguru of the Agastyasrama, Kanchi, initiated him into this and after the latter’s demise, he became the pontiff of the Math. He was popularly known as Upanishad Brahmam because of the systematic commentaries he wrote on the Upanishads.
This was however no dry scholar expounding esoteric philosophy. He was an accomplished musician and advocated the singing of the Lord’s name, in particular that of Rama. Under him, his Math became a place where, to quote Dr Raghavan, “anyone could drop in, not for ordinary food but for spiritual sustenance, practice of devotional exercise and the seeking of emancipation.” Dr Raghavan also quotes from another passage where the seer declares – “I have flown the flag of devotional singing and spiritual effort here; let everyone come, sing my Tarangas and other songs; the food at my Sattra (rest house) is not for momentary satisfaction of physical hunger but for everlasting bliss.”
As is clear from the above, Upanishad Brahmam was a composer too, and apart from the Rama Taranga, he created Divyanama kritis on Rama, Namavalis and a Rama Ashtapadi. Early in the 19th century, Muttuswami Dikshitar, fresh from his sojourn at Kasi and shortly after his visit to Tiruttani, came over to Kanchi. He was invited by Upanishad Brahmam to musically edit his Rama Ashtapadi. Dikshitar stayed in Kanchi for four years and worked on the text, even as he composed songs on the deities in the principal temples of the town. As Raghavan points out, it is noteworthy that both Upanishad Brahmam and Dikshitar were advaitins. The former’s songs appear to have had an impact on the latter and Raghavan cites the sixth Rama Ashtapadi’s striking similarity to Dikshitar’s Sri Guruguhasya Dasoham (Purvi) as an illustration. The music that Dikshitar gave the Rama Ashtapadi is now lost, which is a pity, for if it had survived, we would have an instance of him setting someone else’s work to music. Interestingly, the list of songs by Upanishad Brahmam, given by Dr Raghavan, with their ragas, reflects a strong influence of the Dikshitar school – names such Mangala Kaishiki, Ghanta, Manji, Dvijavanti and Navaroz, to give afew, dominate.
The list also has several songs in Jingala, a raga that Tyagaraja is generally believed to be the first to compose in. He too travelled to Kanchi, at the invitation of Upanishad Brahmam, in 1837. The seer had known Tyagaraja’s father and on that basis, invited the composer to his Matham. This letter is preserved among Tyagaraja’s manuscripts at the Saurashtra Sabha. Devotion to Rama must have been another common factor.
Today, complete silence prevails where two great composers came to meet a great philosopher who also was well-versed in music. It is still a great place to go to and reflect on our musical heritage.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated February 24, 2017