An earlier instalment in this series (Inspired by the Ramayanas, The Hindu Aug 4, 2016) looked at the various versions of the epic that influenced Tyagaraja. Reader Ravindra Narayanan commented that it was surprising that there was no reference to Kamba Ramayanam. The answer to that appears to be in Entarani tanaku. The piece asks if Shiva did not manifest himself as Hanuman so that he could stay with the Lord when he came to earth as Rama. Similarly, Tyagaraja asks if Adi Sesha did not incarnate as Lakshmana and the Devas came down to earth as monkeys. The song also asks Rama if Vasishta, the great sage did not serve as his preceptor. The first version of the Ramayana that has this interpretation is Kamban’s. The Tiru Avatha Padalam of the work has all of the above details, as described by Vasishta himself. Tyagaraja was probably inspired by the Tamil work in composing this song, and perhaps to reflect that, chose to cast it in Harikamboji, a raga that came from the Tamil pann tradition. This however just a conjecture.
Tyagaraja composed songs on each of the four principal characters of the Ramayana. The hero Rama of course has numerous songs in his praise. Sita gets a few too. Ma Janaki is well known. Not so often heard are Sariyevvare Sri Janaki (Sriranjani), Sri Janaka Tanaye (Kalakanti) and Dehi Tava Pada Bhaktim (Sahana). Anjaneya is sung of in Pahi Ramaduta (Vasanta Varali) and Kaluguna Padaniraja (Purna Lalita) apart from the oft-heard Gitarthamu (Surati). Lakshmana is the central character in Mitri Bhagyame (Kharaharapriya). Sabari is envied for her good fortune in Entani Ne (Mukhari).
If these were on specific characters in the Ramayana, the songs that describe various scenes from the epic are aplenty. Thus you have Adamodi (Charukesi) where Rama’s first meeting with Hanuman is depicted. Munnu Ravana (Todi) speaks of Vibhishana and Sugriva taking refuge at Rama’s feet, unable to bear the torments of their respective brothers. Being troubled by siblings was perhaps something that the composer could associate with for there are several references to Vibhishana and Sugriva as can be seen in Chesinadella (Todi) and Namoralakimpavemi (Devagandhari). In Appa Ramabhakti (Pantuvarali), Tyagaraja marvels at the devotion that enabled a monkey to cross the sea. Alakalalla Lada (Madhyamavati) has Viswamitra gazing adoringly at Rama’s curly locks even as the Lord subjugates Maricha. Endukichalamu (Sankarabharanam) asks Rama if four women – Kausalya, Ahalya, Sita and Swayamprabha had anything to say against Tyagaraja!
But of the lot it is perhaps Vinayamu Nanu (Saurashtram) that is the most comprehensive. In a series of eleven stanzas Tyagaraja wonders as to when he can see various episodes of the Ramayana in person. He begins with Rama following Viswamitra to the forest and ends with the Lord reclining on the ocean of milk, His work on earth completed. This song is almost never heard on the concert platform. Eleven stanzas in probably the same tune would make it monotonous perhaps but when it comes to lyrical content, it is unbeaten. Of a similar quality is the exquisite Srirama Jayarama (Yadukula Kamboji), which wonders in nine stanzas as to what penance the principal characters of the Ramayana did to merit familiarity with the Lord.
There are other scenes that could fit into any Ramayana but are clearly the products of the composer’s imagination. In Vinana asakoni (Pratapa Varali), Tyagaraja has Rama and Sita playing dice with Anjaneya and Bharata eavesdropping on their conversation. The two songs beginning Koluvaiyunnade, one in Devagandhari and the other in Bhairavi, describe the grandeur of Rama’s durbar. In both the Lord is wielding his bow, the Kodanda, and is in the company of Sita. The first is more descriptive – Rama, with Sita, Bharata and others is wearing golden raiment, has partaken of offerings, is listening to Sanaka chanting the Vedas even as the Gods and other sages watch in delight. Heady perfumes pervade the place and the celestial nymphs dance. Then the Lord rests on Adi Sesha and Sita smears him with sandal paste. The sequence in this song is quite similar to poetic works of the Thanjavur durbar such as Jagannatha Pandita that describe the ruler’s daily routine.
Upacharamu jesevaru (Bhairavi) has Tyagaraja telling Rama that just because Anjaneya guards the door, the brothers are ever present to do His bidding and Sita is there to share His privacy, he ought not to be forgotten. Given so many references to the Ramayana, it is no wonder that Tyagaraja became the mainstay of Harikathas. It was Chidambara Bhagavatar of Agara Mangudi who first began the tradition of using Tyagaraja’s songs to subtstantiate his discoursing on the Ramayana. Later, TS Balakrishna Sastrigal fashioned his telling of the epic with just the songs of Tyagaraja.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated August 4, 2018 and is part of a series to commemorate Tyagaraja’s 250th year of birth. The earlier parts can be read here