LEAVING BEHIND THE sights and sounds of Thanjavur— the clang-clang of brisk service at evening tiffin, raucous tourists against the dramatic backdrop of the Big Temple, the iPad-equipped guide leading a party of Americans agog at the vimana, the kitsch of rosy-faced dolls nodding absentmindedly from shopfronts—it is with a sense of abashed relief that I eye the wind-raked paddy fields along the NH136. The rebarbative urbanity of the city, its market streets lined with glittering jewellery stores and multi-storeyed retail outlets, seems at odds with its past, a lost world now called up only in museums of Chola art and the halls of the Saraswati Mahal library. But culture, thankfully, is an indelible thing; it runs deep as the colour of a precious gem, even if one must fossick for it in the riverbed of time. And so, here I am, in the rich sands of Thiruvaiyaru, the land watered by five rivers. Fifteen kilometres north of Thanjavur, across the Vennar, the Kudamurutti and the Cauvery, it is today a tighter-strung garland of the arts than its touristy neighbour, thanks to one famous former resident. Thiruvaiyaru is the hallowed ground where Tyagaraja, the greatest composer to have enriched the Carnatic tradition, lived two centuries ago in a humble dwelling on Thirumanjana Veedhi near Panchanadeeswarar temple. He showered the village—and occasionally its presiding deity Siva, the subject of kritis like Evarunnaro brove in Maalavashree and Muccata brahmadulaku in Madhyamavati—with music born of his bhakti as he perambulated the streets to collect grains in donation from patrons, for unchavritti was the honourable way of life for a Brahmin.
In late-January, the narrow streets of Tyagaraja’s Panchanadipura and the banks of the river Cauvery—extolled by him as ‘kanyakamani’, a gem among maidens—will teem with thousands of musicians and amateurs. In what has become for many a yearly ritual, they will honour the saint with a congregational singing of his Pancharatna kritis—long intricate compositions with sinuous stanzas in the five ghana ragas that have traditionally been chosen for detailed exposition. A febrile atmosphere will engulf the nondescript town as silk-swathed artistes vie for kutcheri slots, rasikas arrive from far and wide and locals brace for yet another televised spectacle.
On a regular day, however, Tyagaraja lies in silence in his Samadhi by the Cauvery, his mass of work in Telugu and Sanskrit inscribed like epitaphs on marble tablets set into the walls. Built in 1925 by Bangalore Nagarathnamma— a revolutionary musician, dancer and scholar who hailed from the Devadasi tradition and ensured the participation of women in Tyagaraja Aradhana—and visited ever since by nearly every practising Carnatic musician, it is an unassuming structure, painted yellow and surrounded by tombstones marking the graves of other sadhus who chose Thiruvaiyaru as their final resting place. The priest at the shrine, Srinivasa Bhagavatar, offers aarti to the idol of Tyagaraja, the most deified figure in Indian art music. He is the grandson of Ramudu Bhagavatar, a direct descendant of Tyagaraja’s brother who, in the popular imagination, is vilified as a materialistic reprobate who threw the composer’s beloved idol of Rama into the Cauvery. Yet it is to his family that Nagarathnamma, who is laid to rest nearby, entrusted the worship of Tyagaraja. “It is not always so lonely here. Renowned artistes and troupes come to pay respects and sing at least four-five of their favourite kritis. For some, Thiruvaiyaru is not just a pilgrimage but a place for saadhana , and they stay for days on end for akhanda kirtana—singing Tyagaraja’s songs nonstop without repeating any of them,” says Srinivasa Bhagavatar. The notebooks come out after the first few hours of singing Adamodi and Kshira sagara, he says, and the rarer compositions pour forth—Noremi Sri Rama in Varali, Evarito ne in Manavati, the Sanskrit composition Janakaja sameta in Asaveri... I choose, from my limited repertoire, Dasarathi ni runamu, a song of gratitude in Todi raga where Tyagaraja deviates from his usual plaintive supplication to his ishta devata Lord Rama, and instead, thanks him for his success. “O greatest connoisseur of music who, to the fulfilment of my desire, made me shine in distant lands,” he says in the anupallavi. The kriti makes one wonder if Tyagaraja foresaw his glory and was aware of his transformative role in south Indian art music.
JUST AS MUSICAL instruments are tuned to the achala swaras, the unchanging Sa and Pa that form the tonal foundation for all music, so is the Carnatic musical tradition centred around its three major composers: Kakarla Tyagabrahmam (1767-1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835) and Syama Sastri or Venkatasubrahmanya (1762-1827). A search for their legacies must inevitably begin at Thanjavur. Up until half a century ago, the temples and mantapams of the Thanjavur region reverberated with classical music and dance. Resident vidwaans like OV Subramanian and Mahalingam Pillai and itinerant musicians performed before discerning audiences, taking care not to repeat compositions and continually adding to their repertoire of songs. The concerts may be few and far between now, but history bestows on Thanjavur a singular majesty.
Like a prescient author writing page-turners in an age of overwrought literature, Tyagaraja made Carnatic music, until then a preserve of court musicians, palatable to a wider audience
One such spot enshrined in the annals of Carnatic music is the Bangaru Kamakshi temple on Thanjavur’s West Main Street. In the late 1700s, fearing an invasion by Muslim kings, a family of priests, who had for generations worshipped a golden idol of Kamakshi, moved base several times before finally settling down in Thanjavur, where the Maratha king Tulaja built them a temple. Venkatasubrahmanya, or Syama Krishna, as the young man schooled in the classical languages and astrology was known, was devoted to this goddess worshipped by his forefathers. A travelling musician initiated him in raga music and when he began to compose, who should become the subject of his heart- rending implorations in rakti ragas—ragas that please not just with their notes but by dint of special phrases or gamakas characteristic to them—like Anandabhairavi, Saveri and Dhanyasi but the Divine Mother? Syama Sastri’s music, forged from the same raw material of bhakti as Tyagaraja’s, is, additionally, free of didactic burden. He employs a beseeching tone, as a child is wont to with its mother, and uses a clutch of standard adjectives, often channelling popular Devi stotras like Lalita sahasranamam and Soundaryalahari to describe her. He is said to have written 300 songs, of which barely 50 survive. As the late Sanskrit scholar and musicologist Dr V Raghavan wrote: ‘Sastrigal was an absolute musician, his songs absolute music. In fact, the very absence of the over-anxiety to go on composing and composing, reveals him to be a selective artiste.’ Sastri did not, however, shy away from raga or taala complexities, pioneering difficult rhythmic structures like the viloma chapu, embelling many a kriti with swara-sahitya, and composing a swarajathi in Bhairavi that is a veritable treatise on the raga. Perhaps he wrote it on a Friday morning sitting in his puja, attired in a bordered veshti and contemplating his goddess’ face permanently blackened with civet musk. The house, a blue, tile-roofed structure wedged between newer dwellings on a street behind the temple, still stands, largely untouched by time. It is presently occupied by S Visalam, a descendent of Sastri’s who shows me around, taking me through the two halls and into the back garden full of citron trees and kanakambaram blossoms. Is it not entirely possible that Syama Sastri and his friend Tyagaraja, to whom he sent his son Subbaraya Sastri for musical training, sat here comparing notes on the kriti form?
Tyagaraja was the most prolific of the Trinity—over 600 of his kritis are extant—and he created something for every palate, from simple namasankeerthanas (chanting the Lord’s name) to pioneering compositions in parent ragas like Vagadheeswari, Gowrimanohari, Kharaharapriya and Kiravani, besides definitive kritis in rare ragas like Nalinakanti (Manavyalakinchara), Jaganmohini (Sobillu saptaswara), Amritavahini (Sri Rama Padama) and Kapinarayani (Sarasa sama dana). Tyagaraja’s music is often likened to eating a grape that readily releases its nectar—this quality is known as draksha-rasa in classical literature—as against the narikela-rasa, or coconut nectar, of other composers. The blazing genius of Tyagaraja lay in his minimal lyric, most of it in Telugu, and his emphasis on sangatis, or creative melodic variations on the refrain or the pallavi . There had been composers before him—he was admittedly inspired by Purandaradasa and Bhadrachala Ramadas—but Tyagaraja and his contemporaries had many more ragas to work with, thanks to early musicologists Venkatamakhi’s and Govindacharya’s codification of melakarta or parent ragas from which others may be derived. Tyagaraja composed in over 200 ragas. As emotional as his compositions are, given his all-consuming devotion to Lord Rama, he was also a pragmatist: he redefined the kriti as a tripartite form of musical rendition, packing all the flavour of the raga in just a few lines of spontaneous verse. Like a prescient author writing page-turners in an age of overwrought literature, he made Carnatic music, until then a preserve of court musicians who indulged in hours-long ragam-tanam-pallavis, palatable to a wider audience.
“There are Tyagaraja kritis that a three- year-old can sing. And there are others unknown even to vidwaans,” says Rama Kausalya, a gregarious musicologist who retired as principal of the Government Music College at Thiruvaiyaru. She lives in a gracious old house in the neighbouring village of Thillaisthanam and devotes much of her time to teaching music to underprivileged children and trained musicians alike. Part of Tyagaraja’s genius lay in grooming a vast number of disciples, mainly from three regions: Umayalpuram and Thillaisthanam in Thanjavur district and Walajapet in Vellore. It is thanks to these assiduous shishya paramparas that his compositions—and the story of his life, if aggrandised over time—have lived on. Kausalya—and just about every child in her village—learned under Venkatasubrahmanya Bhagavatar, the grandson of Narasimha Bhagavatar, a disciple of Thillaisthanam Rama Iyengar, who in turn was among the most eminent of Tyagaraja’s disciples. Iyengar once lived on the same street that Kausalya’s house stands on, but the village has long since forsaken its living, pulsing tradition. “All the musicians and teachers moved to Chennai decades ago. I am the only one stubbornly clinging on to the hope that I can bring music back to the village,” says Kausalya, 68. “There is no art for art’s sake anymore. Music is no longer an essential part of life. You learn it only if you have ambitions of becoming a stage artiste, and even then, you tend to have hangups about what compositions you want to learn.”
TYAGARAJA—LITERALLY, the great giver—is the chief deity of the Tiruvarur temple, a manifestation of Siva with Uma and Skanda worshipped as Somaskanda. The ancient town, 70 km east of Thanjavur in the Cauvery delta, prides itself on being the birthplace of the Trinity even if only one of them ever lived here long enough. After a dispiriting morning spent at the concrete memorials to Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri, their ancestral homes made more offensive with each subsequent ‘renovation’, I make my way into the colossal temple complex through the Eastern Gopuram. Walking past a glorious 1,000-pillared mandapam that is under lock and key, I spy through the grille intricate murals on the roof and wonder how Dikshitar would have described them. Poet, chronicler and meticulous musician, he captured graphic details of nearly every deity worshipped at the temple—Valmikeshwara, Vallabha- Panchamukha-Vatapi Ganapatis, Dakshinamurti, Kamalamba, the nava grahas— through the stately vehicle of Sanskrit. His weighty exploration of ragas, coupled with his tongue-twisting, at times gnomic, language, and references to arcane concepts of mantra and tantra shastra, made his kritis formidable classics. Take, for instance, his Kamalamba navavarana kritis, each embedded with an enclosure of the Tantric Srichakra and describing its sacred geometry. Or his gaulanta kritis—eight ambitious compositions, each set in a raga ending in ‘gaula’—on Tiruvarur’s Nilotpalamba.
Popularity and scholarship, however, may not have been compossible even for an 18th-century classical composer. Dikshitar might have known this. Perhaps he wasn’t as ambitious as Tyagaraja to spread his art. He travelled extensively, from Madurai (Meenakshi memudam in Gamakakriya) to Kanchipuram (Chintaya makanda in Bhairavi), always returning to reflect on his muse in Kamalanagaram, as he called Tiruvarur. In this town, Lord Tyagaraja is accorded the status of a king, and he has at his disposal not only the largest chariot in Tamil Nadu and the immense tank called Kamalalayam, but the choicest musical genius in Dikshitar. Lord Tyagaraja of Tiruvarur is said to dance to the breath of Vishnu in a ritual called Ajapa natana. To my not-so-mystic mind, he seems to be dancing in ecstasy at Dikshitar’s lilting stuti in Ahiri to the divine omniscience. ‘Sri Kamalamba jayati’ on my lips, I leave Tiruvarur with a cache of 50 other Dikshitar kritis composed at this exalted site. Need I say I will be back?