Tyagaraja as an avuncular idol


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.


Tumhari Sulu: A mainstream movie with a difference

Long before it’s release, Tumhari Sulu had captured my attention with its addictive and entertaining trailer, from which I could gather that it was the story of a woman seldom narrated in mainstream Hindi cinema. Tumhari Sulu is about a  woman classified as ‘ordinary’ by all standard yardsticks prevalent in our society.  Sulochana aka Sulu(Vidya Balan) is the youngest of three siblings and her twin elder sisters are ‘achievers’ because they are ‘educated’ and have a ‘respectable job’ in a bank. Sulu is a home maker in Mumbai and lives a not-so-extraordinary life with her husband, Ashok (Manav Kaul) and teenage son, Pranav. (Abhishek Sharma). Even in her monotonous life, she entertains herself by participating and winning in various ‘competitions meant for house wives and anticipates to discover herself in that process. The movie is about her personal journey of rediscovering and redefining herself and establishing her own identity once she starts working as a night radio jockey in a channel.

I have always adored Vidya Balan and was quite upset that Begum Jaan which was released earlier this year did not gain much attention and she was criticised for her ‘over performance’ in that movie. With Tumhari Sulu, Vidya has proven her critics wrong. Vidya has portrayed the character so well that it becomes impossible to imagine somebody else in that role. She is comfortable with her body and utilises it to the maximum making us empathise completely with her aspirations and dreams. Her unintentional ways of making us laugh out aloud is commendable and she amuses us with her contagious belly laughter. In the recent past, I cannot recall a movie where the audience’s laughter was uncontainable throughout.

Manav Kaul , as Vidya’s husband, Ashok, also has done justice to that role by being as natural as Vidya Balan. Ashok is a typical middle class man,working in a garment factory who believes that hard work would make life easier and better but ends up frustrated that it need not be so always. Though initially he encouraged his wife to go for a job, he becomes apprehensive about her ‘night job’ and the sort of people with whom she interacts. His portrayal of a jealous and insecure husband is exemplary, especially in a scene where he tells his son,(who was showing him the photograph of Sulu with Ayushmann Khurana ), that movie stars are ‘dirty’ and most of them do not take bath!

Neha Dhupia as Mariya( woman head of the channel) and Vijay Maurya as Pankaj( a comic good-at-heart program director) have handles their roles with ease and wisdom. The director Suresh Triveni deserves a special mention for maintaining a neutral tone in narration and trying to bring out the essence of each character making it easy for the audience to relate to. His success with this film asserts the fact that even in seemingly ordinary life situations, there is a chance for an extra ordinary story. He has tried to portray the middle class obsession with class 12 marks and a ‘respectable job’ with amazing grace. He has addressed some of the issues faced by working women including night travel, facing criticism from family for not being an achiever by societal standard and being taken too lightly because of lack of academic excellence. I felt some of the song sequences could have been avoided because they did not appear to be imperative in the narration of the story and slowed the pace of story telling.

Tumhari Sulu acts as a mirror where we can see ourselves as a society; a society which gives undue importance to academics, disrespects a woman who does a ‘night job’ , makes fun of ‘under achievers’ and criticises women who dare to dream. This movie asserts the fact that a woman need not be an achiever, need not smoke or drink( There is a scene where Vidya Balan secretly empties her glass when her colleagues force her to drink) or need not wear short modern dresses( Vidya Balan is comfortable in her saree) to be qualified as a liberated woman, but just needs listen to herself and pursue her passion. Definitely,every woman who dares to dream has an interesting story.


Why I recommend a menstrual cup

I had written an article in June 2017 regarding my personal predicaments, experiences and memories about menstruation. (http://www.dailyo.in/technology/menstrual-hygiene-period-shame-sanitary-napkins-taboo/story/1/17654.html). One of my acquaintances felt that I should not have narrated in  ‘first person’ when describing how uncomfortable I felt during my period. She suggested that in future,  I should use ‘third’ person narration when writing about such ‘intimate’ stuff! This is the outlook shared by many women, including educated ones, who still feel awkward in conversing about menstruation publicly. I feel it is essential that women deliberate,  discuss  and communicate about issues which are of utmost importance to them for their own sake as well as others’. Narrating my personal experience of using a menstrual cup and how it has transformed my menstrual days is an attempt in that direction.

Before using a menstrual cup:

Like most women, I used sanitary pads before I was introduced to menstrual cups. Once or twice I did try tampoon; but I had to use sanitary pads additionally, which I found even more difficult. Disposal of tampoons and sanitary pads always caused distress and high levels of anxiety, especially during travel.

My initial experiment with menstrual cups:

Thought I was born in 80’s, coinciding with the commercial introduction of  menstrual cups in the US market, I was unaware of their existence until two years ago. Since menstrual cups are reusable and provide a low profit margin, manufacturing companies seldom spend money on advertising. Thus it took  almost 30 years for the information to reach me by word of mouth! I cannot remember the brand I purchased initially, but can still recollect the physical and mental trauma I sustained in the process of learning to use that cup which was ill fitting and as hard as a plastic funnel!  Due to my inherent lack of perseverance, I abandoned the whole idea and disposed the cup.

Lesson 1: You should chose the cup wisely. Product quality does matter.

Lesson 2: You should have enough perseverance to master the skill! (Easy said than done!)

Recent experiment:

After reading a couple of blogs and watching Youtube videos on how to use a menstrual cup, I decided to give it a try. This time I chose a brand recommended by a friend (SheCup) which is available only in one universal size.(Small and large sizes are available with other brands). I found information on size specifications based on age, parity and blood flow quite confusing and preferred to try something which came in a standard size. As always, Youtube videos and discussion with friends helped me gain confidence and motivation. With a little practice, even a lackadaisical person like me, was easily able to manoeuvre the cup without any difficulty.

Lesson 3: See Youtube videos and do not hesitate to speak to a friend.


Once I found a suitable cup and a convenient way of manipulating it, life became simpler and easier during menstrual days. It fits snugly and many a times I had to keep a reminder on phone to remind me about the cup!( which means you will not have any sensation of this cup inside your vagina.) Thankfully, vagina is a flexible muscular tube which can expand and securely hold a menstrual cup. So worrying about the cup getting displaced and stuck  ‘high up’ in the vagina or the cup falling down while walking is irrational and unwarranted.

Since I started using menstrual cup, I have noticed a definite improvement in my quality of life, especially while at work. Once placed in the morning, I had to think about it only in the evening. It can be retained for 12 hours continuously without any hazard..(Women with heavy flow might need frequent cleaning of the cup).I found that there was a drastic improvement in sleep quality with minimal discomfort and no need for waking up in the middle of the night to ‘replace’, as in the case of sanitary pads.

I have used my menstrual cup while traveling and found it convenient because it was easy to carry and I did not have to worry about disposal.  Unlike used sanitary pads, blood in a menstrual cup is odourless, which indeed is a real blessing!

The price of a cup varies from Rs 700 to Rs 1000 and a cup can be used upto 15 years. It has been proven mathematically that it is much cheaper compared to sanitary pads.


The cup should be used with caution in public toilets because of the substandard facilities for hand wash. If tap water or hand faucet is not available inside a latrine, it becomes hard to clean the cup. Clean water and soap are integral components for proper use of menstrual cups. My experience of using the cup while travelling on a train(Indian Railways) has not been particularly pleasant. So it is advisable to have a backup option especially while on travel.

The process of introduction and retrieval of the cup will take some time to master. The trick is to understand the direction of the vagina and this would make the insertion of the cup easier. Even though I studied Obstetrics and Gynecology as a subject for under graduation, until my colleague explained, I was unaware of the strange angulation of human vagina! Learning the technique of folding the cup before insertion is also important.

Removal requires more skill than insertion is what I feel. We should not hesitate to forgive ourselves for spillage and soiling during the initial trial phase. Chance of leakage cannot be ignored until one becomes confident of the proper positioning of the cup.

The cup cannot be used by women with an altered position of cervix or women using intrauterine contraceptive devices.

Why I prefer a cup:

Menstrual cup is a revolution in menstrual hygiene and women health. I yearn ardently that every woman gets a chance to give it a try overcoming the financial, social and psychological barriers.  As mentioned umpteen times earlier, this method is environmental and pocket friendly and plays an important role in improving the quality of menstrual days. But more than that, I believe, using a menstrual cup allows women to outgrow the taboo of menstruation and menstrual blood.


High time to shift our focus to preventive medicine

Amidst the media frenzy, public outcry and fearful silence of authorities, I have not been able to ascertain or understand the exact cause for the death of children in BRD Medical College in Gorakhpur. Whatever the reason is , 70 children dying over a span of a few days in a Medical College hospital cannot be taken casually. Some reports say that some children had Japanese encephalitis and were ventilator dependent requiring oxygen supply. But nobody clearly states why in the first place 70 children became oxygen dependent. It is the responsibility of the authorities to investigate the cause and provide justice to the affected families. In addition to all this, spreading awareness of a potentially fatal disease like Japanese encephalitis is essential. We should not hesitate to lean from out mistakes. This article is all about simple preventive measures that could be adopted to combat Japanese encephalitis.

What is Japanese encephalitis(JE)?

It is the inflammation of the brain caused by a virus.(JE virus) which is  transmitted by female Culex mosquitoes to human beings. This virus mainly survives in  pigs, ardeid birds and in mosquitoes.  Man is an accidental host and is considered as the dead end in transmission because the virus cannot spread from one individual to another. In a document released by Indian Council of Medical Research, it has been stated that JE affects children below 15 years in South Indian states, where as it affects people of all age groups in North India. It is one of the leading causes of encephalitis in Asia. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are the two states which have witnessed an increasing number of encephalitis related deaths over the last few years.

What are the clinical features?

It can present with fever, head ache, vomiting, fits and can have rapid progression to disorientation and even coma over a span of hours or days. If the patient survives the acute stage, long term sequelae in the form of permanent neurological damage can occur. In an area where encephalitis is known to occur, it is important to seek medical advice at the onset of any of these symptoms.

Can JE be prevented?

The mosquitoes which transmit the virus to human beings live in dirty stagnant water, paddy fields and ditches. If measures are taken to eliminate the proliferation of these mosquitoes, especially after monsoon season, then the spread of the virus can be curbed to some extent. Only if there is a very high density of the mosquitoes, it can result in transmission of the virus to human beings. This is specifically the reason why we should focus on preventive measures. Just by decreasing the breeding of the mosquitoes, the spread of the disease can be reduced.

Taking personal precautionary measures against mosquito bite is essential. This can be achieved by wearing fully covered clothing and using mosquito repellants.

JE vaccine:

An effective vaccine is available for Japanese encephalitis since 2006. This vaccine is not recommended to be given as part of National Immunisation schedule. But two doses of the vaccine are recommended in children residing in endemic areas under 18 years of age.  Vaccine is also recommended for individuals traveling to areas with higher number of cases of Japanese encephalitis, with two doses of vaccine completed atleast one week before the travel. In our country, with enough anti vaccine campaigns, making vaccines available for children and adults in endemic areas and motivating people to get vaccinated, looks like a Herculean task.

As we progress in the field of medicine, finding cure and treatment for diseases, every outbreak of an infectious disease tries to teach us the same lesson: prevention is always better than cure. Instead of playing the blame game, let us shift our focus to taking  small steps towards our goal of prevention.