Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Tyagaraja (1767-1847)

A link from Chapter 1

By V Ramnarayan

Tyagaraja was one of the greatest composers in Carnatic music. Known as the ‘pitamaha’ of the realm, he became part of a miraculous trinity of the greatest composers in the tradition-the other two were Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835) and Syama Sastry (1762-1827)-born in the same little town of Tiruvarur, within a few years of one another.

Tyagaraja was born to Kakarla Ramabrahmam and Sitamma, a Telugu brahmin couple, at the home of his maternal grandfather Giriraja Kavi, a poet-composer in the court of the king of Tanjavur. He was named after the presiding deity of the temple at Tiruvarur.

Tyagaraja began his musical training under Sonti Venkataramanayya, a noted music scholar and court musician, at an early age. Music was a spiritual pursuit for him, his expression of his devotion to his favourite god, Rama. From a talented and devout singer, he eventually became a composer. Singing the praises of Rama was reward in itself for him, so much so that he refused lucrative offers to become a court musician. His rejection of worldly success and wealth in favour of the service of Rama is beautifully encapsulated in the famous song Nidhi chala sukhama in the raga Kalyani. “His lyrics reveal great depth of knowledge of the sciptures, epics, legends, purana, musical expertise, his humility as well as self-respect, introspection, and sense of humour,” says The Illustrated Companion to South Indian Classical Music (by Ludwig Pesch, Oxford University Press, 1999).

Tyagaraja was a prolific composer who had a major impact on the development of the south Indian classical music tradition, the structure of the typical Carnatic music composition, in particular. He developed the kriti as we know it today from the kirtanas belonging to the utsava sampradaya or tradition of festivals celebrating gods.

To Tyagaraja is attributed the origin of the present pattern of the kriti consisting of the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam, the song developing upwards from the opening or pallavi towards the middle part or anupallavi and concluding in the charanam. All three portions of the song, which occur in seamless progression, are marked by sangatis or melodic and rhythmic variations on the lines of verse that make up the song. The sangati is regarded as Tyagaraja’s major contribution to Carnatic music.

While Tyagaraja composed kirtanas in the bhajana tradition as well, but predominantly kritis in over 200 ragas-including several he created-he was also responsible for Prahlada bhakti vijayam and Nauka charitam, musical narratives of myths in the operatic style. Most of his compositions were in Telugu, a language brought to Tanjavur from migrants from Vijayanagar in present-day Andhra Pradesh.

His pancharatna kritis are five compositions in the ghana ragas Nattai, Gowlai, Arabhi, Sriragam and Varali, which crown the annual Tyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru where his samadhi or final resting place is situated.

Tyagaraja sang his compositions facing Rama’s idol while his disciples wrote the lyrics down on palm leaves, which were handed down to future generations of disciples in an unbroken thread. Though he is said to have composed thousands of songs, only some 800 or so have survived.


Dr S Radhakrishnan says in his preface to The Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja by Sri C Ramanujachari:

“The name Tyagaraja means the prince of renouncers, of those who give up worldly desires. Tyaga or renunciation is the way to mental peace and freedom. In one of his songs Tera tiyagarada? Tyagaraja says, “O Supreme Being, Tirupati Venkataramana, could you not remove the screen of pride and envy, which is taking a firm stand within me, keeping me out of the reach of dharma and the like.”

“Tyagaraja was a person of great humility. He expresses the truths of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in simple and appealing language. He addresses the Supreme as Rama. The kingdom of God acquired through devotion is the greatest of all treasures: Rama bhakti samrajyamu.

 “If we have faith in the Divine, there is no need to worry: ma kelara vicharamu.

“The secular must be invaded by the spiritual; only then is life dignified. Self-realisation is through self-giving.”

In the Introductory Thesis of the same book, Dr V Raghavan says Tyagaraja is probably the greatest of the great music-makers of south India.

He attributes his success to his powerful genius that comprehended the varied excellences of the early masters as well as his own brilliant contemporaries. 

He compares Tyagaraja with Purandaradasa and Kshetrayya for sheer volume of output; he calls him a second Bhadrachala Ramadasa in his anguished appeals to Rama; he finds him as lyrical as Kshetrayya; in devotion, religious fervour and reformatory zeal, he considers him an equal of Purandaradasa again, and so on and so forth.

“From plain Divyanama sankirtana, full of words, epithets and long and difficult compounds, he soars to artistic creations in which, into a few words, an eddying flood of music is thrown.”

Dr Raghavan speaks of the poetic excellence and spiritual value of Tyagaraja’s compositions. He describes his creativity as the consummation of fragrant gold as in the works of Jayadeva, Purandaradasa and Kshetrayya. However, while praising his sangita, he also speaks of his sahitya as “a treasure of thought the contemplation of which would make one forget everything about his music.”

An article in Issue 41 of Sruti by N.S. Srinivasan, a producer at AIR-Hyderabad and a flautist trained by Mali, titled Tyagaraja As Composer: More Human Than Divine argues that Tyagaraja’s music is a product of great musical intelligence and acumen, not the handiwork of Providence alone.

Srinivasan asks if the bhava which is said to be the lifeblood of Tyagaraja’s kritis is sahitya bhava or sangita bhava.

He maintains that the musical mood conveys the meaning of a song even when the singer mutilates the lyrics, as in the case of classical musicians who do not know Telugu.

They may mispronounce words or split them ridiculously when they sing Tyagaraja’s songs, sometimes unwittingly conveying inappropriate meaning in the process, but the emotional appeal of the music is still intact.

He stresses that not sahitya alone but music also contributes to the bhava of a composition. “It has been rightly said that a song is a fusion (samyuktam) of notes (datu) and words (matu). This fusion is indeed one of the secrets of Tyagaraja’s success.”

Tyagaraja was a Rama bhakta but also a composer par excellence. To call his compositions the products of divine ecstasy is to ascribe his genius to his heart and take away credit from his brilliant mind.

Tyagaraja expressed sorrow and turmoil with great musical beauty. He handled ragas rare and common, even vakra ragas, with ease, intimating the raga in a flash and painting its whole picture in the very first line. His kritis show perfect balance between form and structure. To place too much emphasis on his bhakti alone is an injustice to his musical genius.

According to his biographer William Jackson, Tyagaraja represents an archetype, a symbol in which opposites unite dynamically. 

He may be accessible, even popular in his musical outpourings, but he is inwardly a mystic with the power that emanates from self-realisation. 

His songs, steeped in the essence of over 200 ragas, including some he created, draw from a reservoir of collective memory and wisdom. In turn, he made a lasting impression on the collective memory of south India.

Sangita Kalanidhi TV Subba Rao as quoted by Jackson, said, “Tyagaraja united the apparently opposite qualities of conservatism and progress, of reverence for antiquity and impatience of restraint, of the prejudices of the heart and the revolt of intellect. He is a classic romanticist and a conservative radical. His life in ethics and aesthetics is the evolution of perfect harmony and attunement from the discordant principles of thought and action. Nothing short of the absolute universality of his mind could have succeeded in saturating his songs with that spirit of sweetness, peace and bliss which lingers in our soul long after the sounds have faded away.”

No wonder Tyagaraja’s anniversary has been commemorated for over 160 years—now in several parts of the world. For this we must thank the thousands of humble devotees who have selflessly contributed time and effort, as well as money, to show their reverence to the saint composer through music.

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