It has been at least a century, since Tyagaraja, whom admirers reverently address as ‘Saint Tyagaraja’ became the presiding deity of Carnatic music. The origin of Carnatic music has been customarily attributed to Purandaradasa in the 15th century. This was because it was Purandaradasa (1484-1564) who composed swaraas, alankaaras, geetham and taayam, which were essential components of Carnatic music lessons and used Mayamalavagoula raga for early music lessons. Long before Purandaradasa lived other stalwarts of Carnatic music like Thalappakkam Annamacharya (Born 1408), author of Thirupugazh and Arunagirinathan (Born 1450), who instituted path-breaking contributions in the field of music. Hence considering Purandaradasa as the initiator is only ceremonial.
In the history of Carnatic music there has been no musician who adorned a paramount status like Tyagaraja. Even though they were contemporaries and belonged to the Trinity of Carnatic music, without doubt one can say that Syamasastri (1762-1827) and Muthuswami Deekshitar (1775-1834) were unable to claim such an exemplary supremacy like Tyagaraja. They have not been worshipped as deities in Carnatic music world. Venkitamakhin, who proposed the systematic and scientific way of classifying ragas, (the Melakartha) and Vaggeyakaras like Annamacharya and Papanasam Sivam, never got the milieu and status of Tyagaraja. They are just the planets and sub planets in the solar system of Carnatic music. Tyagaraja was the center of such a system, ever shining and immortal sun. He is revered as the incarnation of supreme sacrifice (Tyaga) in the field of Carnatic music. In the editorial published in The Hindu, commemorating 100 years of Tyagaraja, with utmost reverence, it was mentioned that Tyagaraja is now understood as ‘a person with an amalgamation of all human qualities born only once or twice in a century’. One of the biographers (Menon 2002:3) of Tyagaraja devotedly wrote that it would be impossible for the future generation to believe that such a person lived among us similar to what Einstein wrote about Mahatma Gandhi, ‘Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth’. ‘It is only once in a millennium, out of human consciousness and spirit that such a great soul takes Avatar to sanctify Bhoologam, our lives and soul’, wrote Bombay Jayasree in her article written on the occasion of the 250th birth anniversary of Tyagaraja. In the world of Cranatic Music, none other than Tyagaraja has withstood time with such unassailable and invincible repute.
Tyagaraja’s life did not unfold in such a way as to ascend to this religious and historical divine status with ease. He lived from 1767 to 1847(80 years). Initially there was lack of clarity about his day of birth. The day suggested by MS Ramaswamy Iyer, who had debated extensively on this matter, in his book ‘Tyagaraja: A great musician Saint’, was later proved to be wrong. It was P Sambamoorthi who proposed 1767, May 4 as his date of birth from the palmyra leaf horoscope, which was discovered later. At present, Carnatic music scholars accept this date as his day of birth. Tyagaraja died on January 6, 1847. There were no controversies regarding his day of death.
Tyagaraja lived during a time when colonial rule and modern ideologies from the West were getting established in India. Tyagaraja was born in Thiruvarur in Tanjavur District. His ancestors migrated from Karkkala village in Andra Pradesh during the 17th century Nayak reign. Tyagaraja’s father was Ramabrahmam who was a Sanskrit scholar and a Smarta scholar (one who adheres to Smriti corpus of texts). According to biographer and translator of Tyagaraja’s compositions, William Jackson, Tyagaraja’s Smarta legacy has a great influence on the history of Carnatic music. Among the two groups of Telugu Brahmins, Niyogi and Vaidiki, the former group had tolerant religious views and were accountants in palaces and houses of bureaucrats. The latter group comprised of Sanskrit scholars who served as priests. Tyagaraja belonged to the latter Vaidiga group. The strict adherence to Smriti texts and Smarta way of life were responsible for his strong and ethereal outlook towards life. (Jackson 1999:31).
Ramabhrahmam was entrusted with the job of reading Ramayana in Tanjavur palace. The palace musician Sondi VenkataRamana was Tyagaraja’s guru. Biographers say that under his Guru, Tyagaraja learnt all the music lessons in a single year. It is a popular belief that before his adolescent years, Tyagaraja wrote and composed ‘namonamo raghavaya’. Ramabhrahmam’s father Girirajan was one of the renowned poets of that time. He composed Yakshagana and Vedanta poems. It was when Tyagaraja was eight years old that his family shifted to Thiruvayyar. Veena Kalahasthi Iyer who was an established musician in Tanjavur court was the father of Seethamma who was Tyagaraja’s mother. Tyagaraja was the third son of Seethamma- Ramabrahmam couple. His elder brothers were Panchaapakeshan and Panchaanandakeshan. Panchaapakeshan died in childhood. Like any other hagiography, Panchaanandakeshan has been described as an adversary and a person who ill-treated Tyagaraja. Tyagaraja had to revolt against Panchaapanandakeshan’s insistence on using music for livelihood in order to remain a selfless devotee.
Tyagaraja’s life evolved along with great moments in modern history. Tyagaraja was twenty-two years old at the time of French revolution. (Though he might not have known it). In 1847, when Tyagaraja died, Europe was witnessing industrial revolution and revolts by labor unions in response. Two years before his death, Marx and Engels jointly wrote The German Ideology and a year after his death, published the Communist manifesto. Mozart and Beethovan who gave newer frontiers to Western classical music lived as contemporaries of Tyagaraja. It was during the life time of Tyagaraja that, Beethoven (1770-1827) , inspired by French revolution, paved way for modern revolution in Western music by expanding its horizon with the speed of romanticism. In India, by that time, British rule had strengthened and Colonial/modern establishments had come into existence. By that time, after a massive resistance against the British, Tipu Sultan had surrendered. Symbols of modern civilization like press, newspaper, allopathy and courts of law were already established. This was the time when the novel upper middle class who reaped the benefits of English education, made efforts for religious and social reforms. Raja Ramhmohan Roy established the Brahma samaj (1828) and William Benendict Prabhu abolished Sati (1829) following widespread protests. Sir William Joshnson (1784) established the Asiatic society and Max Muller, Charles Wilkins and HH Wilson published a variety of books on Western knowledge from centers in Kolkatta, Bombay and London.
As part of expansion of the British empire under the leadership of Lord Wellesly and Warren Hastings, during this time period, Thanjavur(1799), Surat(1800) and Karnatik(1801) were absorbed to British India. In addition to their interest in trade, Colonial expansion policies began to intervene in Indian education and local governance. Mecaulay designed The Mecaulay minutes (educational reforms by Mecaulay) and draft of the Indian penal code, which altered the history of India later, during the lifetime of Tyagaraja.
Tanjavur, where Tyagaraja was living during this time under the rule of Sarabhoji II (1798-1832) became one of the few places in India, to get exposed to Western culture. Sharabhoji got trained in Western medicine, anatomy, European music and horse riding. There were eminent musicians in his court. Saharabhoji was equally interested in South Indian music. A popular belief is that Sharabhoji who heard of his compositions, invited Tyagaraja to his court. But Tyagaraja refused his invitation because he believed that there was no greater blessing for him that his devotion to Lord Ram. His famous composition in Kalyani raga, Nidhisala sugama is based on this incident. Sharabhoji used to read English newspapers like Guardian and he instituted an orchestra in Western music model in his palace. In 1803 Sharabhoji composed certain pieces as marching tunes for his military. His compositions for the military band were apt for their fast and slow paced marching footsteps. Even though it appears like a relatively insignificant event, according to Lakshmi Subramanian, this could be the first instance when Indian music was composed in Western style in India. (2006:4)
Sharabhoji established the first printing press in Devnagari script, a hospital with Western system of medicine and a library named ‘ Saraswati Mahal’. Sharabhoji also began the efforts to depict Carnatic music using Western notations. Swati Tirunal who invited Tyagaraja to his palace in Thiruvithaamkoor had already established English schools and public library in his kingdom. Printing in vernacular languages, newspapers and modern literary forms were already established in the first half of the19th century. During that time period, topics like history, biographies, economics and environmental sciences began to be publicized. Tyagaraja’s life was so much within the confines of immediate past that one of his disciples wrote his life story and published it. Tyagaraja’s life and art existed in this immediate past, which was termed as early modernity or colonial modernity.
Even though these are the available evidences, in the popular imagination of Carnatic music and South Indian music, Saint Tyagaraja exists in distant past. Saint Tyagaraja who sacrificed all worldly pleasures and followed Unchavrithi Dhrama for meeting his daily needs, has procured a supernatural and eternal place in the imaginary boundaries of Carnatic music. In the last one hundred years in Carnatic music, Tyagaraja still retains his image as an embodiment of divinity motivated only by pure devotion and renouncement of all material pleasures. When many scholars and musicians who lived before and after him exist as humble mortal beings with humane qualities, Tyagaraja has endured beyond time and history as immortal singleness, embodiment of unblemished serene happiness and an auspicious voice, which silenced all historical conflicts of that time.
Why did this happen? Tyagaraja lived amidst adverse situations and has recorded those conflicts in his compositions and music. How did such a person ascend to a divine status without getting tainted by time and worldly relations? Why did the Carnatic music history place Tyagaraja as a polar star above all other contemporary musical geniuses? Or else, what is the historical meaning of this historical tolerance?
The answers to these questions cannot be found within the confines of musicology or conventional history of music. For that, we should attain the ability to consider art history as cultural history and develop methods to record the euphoria that art evokes in addition to the content of art. The beginning of such a journey should be the quest to find out the socio political context of the evolution of classical art forms and the efforts for their retrieval in India. Only by such a quest we will be able to chronicle a sensation like Tyagaraja.
NB: This is the translation of the original essay in Malayalam published by Sunil P Elayidom in his book Thyagarajagyogavaibhavom. I have not included the references in this translation. The author is not responsible for any error in content which could have come up during my amateur effort in translation.