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Sri Tyagaraja

R.R. Ayyangar, Tyagaraja Aradhana Souvenir, Poona, 1954

This is a day of great significance for every Indian who loves art and culture. Votaries of Carnatic Music all over the country turn their minds today towards the small shrine at Tiruvayyar, where lie in Samadhi, the mortal remains of Sri Tyagaraja, one of the greatest composers that the world has seen. Country wide celebrations of the Saint's Varshika Aradhana are just now in full swing. Thanks to the enterprise of All-India Radio, the pulse of a whole nation throbs in tune with the surging melody that envelops the holy shrine at this moment. Poona, the ancient seat of Hindu civilization, hallowed by a thousand memories of a heroic race of men and supermen whose glorious names adorn the pages of history, takes a unique part in this celebration. To seek me out for the honor and privilege of inaugurating this festival is a gesture of grace and courtesy for which I am deeply indebted to the Festival Committee in general and the honorary secretaries in particular. A humble devotee of art, groping my way in search of a streak of light, I have always fought shy of the limelight and sought my place rather among those who bring up the rear. Therefore, I now feel greatly embarrassed, and let me bank on your patience and indulgence when I make a few observations which, perhaps, may not be out of place on this occasion.

It may never be stressed too much, or too often, that in our land music has always been regarded as a vehicle for higher pursuits in life. May I submit that the impact of modern life, with its keynote of materialism, speed and hurry, and slogans of democracy and practical utility, has come as a rude shock to the finer aspects and higher values of life that have always been prized by those who built our civilization? Viewed in this light, mammoth crowds, carnivals, gate crash and the like in the field of art and culture may be good business, but bad ethics. The high seriousness, idealism, refinement, and sanctity associated with a principal branch of Atma Vidya are out of court in what looks like a gladiator's amphitheater or a Punch and Judy show. Ancient Rome and modern France are pointers to what happens when the sublime crumbles into the ridiculous, and the noble is distorted into the hideous. The rot set in at the dawn of the century when the box-office, the middle-man and the pseudo-critic usurped the role of the munificent patron, the genuine; discerning connoisseur, and the temple. For half a century now, it has been the way down. Sensitive minds alive to the situation cannot but recoil from the repulsive, sinking welter of sordid commercialism and callous charlatanry that the present day music hall presents, and represents, too.

This picture may appear overdrawn to those on whom the gregarious instinct plays havoc and to whom music is nothing more than a pastime or an entertainment. The purpose and significance of a festival like this will be lost if we do nothing more than deify the saint, make a fetish of him, and burn incense before it and close our eyes to the necessity for stock-taking, or even for a sort of spring cleaning. 'He that doeth the will of my Father will inherit His kingdom', said Jesus Christ. Even so, it is incumbent upon us to understand the personality of Sri Tyagaraja and try to see wherein his greatness lies, so that we may know best to honour his memory. Valmiki's epic is characterised as 'samudramiva ratnadaya sarvasruti manoharam'

The same is true of Sri Tyagaraja's compositions. In fact no other composer known to the world has revealed in his songs so many facets of his personality, or dealt with such a variety of themes, rich with material of perennial and absorbing interest from quite a number of angles. His songs reveal in turn the man, the scholar, the creative genius, the moralist, the satirist, aesthete, the teacher, poet, the Nadopasaka, the Rama Bhakta, and the mystic. Narada's present to Sri Tyagaraja of the precious treatise, 'Swararnava', containing the dialogue between 'Rajata Girisudu' and 'Nagaja' Parameswara and Parvati - on the principles of music, the homage, that he pays Narada as his Guru, the abundant internal evidence of not only the Adi Kavya but also its offshoots like Ananda Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana, Uttara Ramayana, Mahanataka, Tulsidas, and Kamba Ramayana, his arduous penance for 21 years and 15 days repeating Tarakanama at the rate of 25 thousands a day till he had done the total of 96 crores, and his own original contribution to the narrative in a number of contexts support the belief that was an incarnation of Valmiki come to interpret the epic again. In short, he represents the perfect Vaggeyakara, whose qualifications are laid down by Sarangadeva in 'Sangeeta Ratnakaram'.

A list of the songs that cover each of these aspects will make this address ponderous and tiresome. More over my objective is to stimulate interest, rather than to hold forth at any length. As is well known most of the Classical compositions are either in Sanskrit, Telugu or Canarese. None of these languages is, spoken or widely prevalent in Tamil Districts where music holds supreme sway. This has relegated sahityam to the background, with the result that the distinction, so vital in Carnatic Music, between music with words and that without them has been wholly lost sight of. Intensive study and propagation of the great truths that lie embedded in the songs are clearly beyond the province of pandal music which is a feature of modern life.

If the elevating influence of music is to be rediscovered, and its spiritual power restored to it, exponents of music must understand the relation between word, sound and emotion, learn the meaning of songs, and get an insight into the mind and heart of the composer. The habit of ignoring Sahityam has become almost universal. It has gathered such momentum that few are aware of its danger but listen to the tune and stop there. This has come to be regarded as quite sufficient, proper and normal. Sponsors of festivals like this can do a geat deal to remedy this evil, and bring about a cleaner, healthier, more receptive atmosphere, by organising a second line of activities to supplement platform music with lectures, demonstrations, visual instruction like dramatization, ete. Though less spectacular than the usual carnivals and gala shows, these will help in the long run keep alive the spirit of our ancient culture. What better tribute can we pay to those whose memory we profess to cherish and honour? In the light of the foregoing, it behoves everyone that learns Sri Tyagaraja's compositions not to stop with only one charanam as is commonly done, but to preserve the unity of the whole song by singing it entirely.

And now about the music of Sri Tyagaraja. Besides a hereditary instinct for music, he had advantages like congenial surroundings, a good teacher, a gifted voice, and a diligent study of the vast literature on the subject that he collected. His own mother taught him 700 Devarnamaas. How did he get the urge for composing even as a boy? It is said that the sight of the flowers that he gathered for his father's puja fading and losing their fragrance by and by made his heart bleed, as was the case with Oscar Wilde. This led him to look about for blossoms that would never fade. He discovered them in his Ishtadevata. Shall we not, as inheritors, preserve them, and keep them fresh and fragrant?

We do not know for certain how many songs he composed. At present we have sahityam for about 700 pieces with notation for most of them. But barely half the number enjoy wide currency, while the rest await publicity. But whatever the number, their inherent beauty, incomparable grandeur, and irresistible appeal cast a magic spell on every hand and swept the entire music world off its feet, so that even today no music can be thought of without giving the pride of place to Sri Tyagaraja.

At a time when modern mechanical facilities like printing, recording and wireless broadcasting were not known, the repositories of these songs had a good time, as they were much sought after. This brought to the fore imposters who plied a good trade with lables of Guru and Sishya parampara, Suddha paatam and the like. More than three decades of continuous search and research, scrutiny, analysis, and synthesis of various renderings of nearly 15 hundred classical compositions of different composers gathered from innumerable sources, and contact with two generations of practising pandits versed in theory have made it clear to me that it is impossible to decide if any of Sri Tyagaraja's songs retains its original musical setting. For, neither the composer nor his direct disciples left definite, tangible or reliable records in writing. When, therefore, in the course of the century that followed, the songs passed by sheer word of mouth from hand to hand, inevitably their shape kept changing too. Only the nature and extent of actual deviation from the original, or the degree of damage it suffered depended upon the capacity of the persons concerned.

The height of excellence, the subtle beauty and the elusive nuances of Sri Tyagaraja's magnificent music, however, were recaptured in part subsequently by great masters like Maha Vaidyanatha Ayyar, Sarabha Sastri, Patnam Subramanya Ayyar, Thirukodikaval Krishna Ayyar, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Ayyar, Govindswamy Pillay and Siddha Vidhyadhari Srimati Veena Dhanammal who, by the way was the last, though not the least, of the glorious fraternity that wrought the Golden Age of Carnatic Music in the period between 1880 and 1920 A.D. A study of the available material is a profound experience that reveals the dimensions of the art Sri Tyagaraja enlarged. He alone knew the secret of using the minimum of words with maximum of telling effect in the matter of both music and diction. He perfected the pattern of the Kriti popularized by those before him by adding the multi - purpose embellishments, known as Sangathis. They his many birds at one stroke, as it were.

They brought to light for the first time the immense scope for the element of surprise and creative improvisation, in contrast to set forms of recitative music like that of the Vedas. They put in details in the picture of the Raga, wove crisp phrases of layam into the body of the song, drove its meaning home by leading to a climax in tempo and finally relaxed the tension by yielding place to the first simple, introductory step of the song. In this way, they enhanced the worth and effect of both word and sound. It is Tyagaraja who invented the Madhyadi Tala which is so popular today for madhayama kala pieces. Other composers have only one or two kritis in the same Raga. But Sri Tyagaraja's large number of kritis in a particular Raga give such definite and composite picture of it that not a shade seems to have been omitted. This exhaustiveness is so pronounced that the traditional aids in grammar like Gita and Suladi look obsolete and outmoded. Above all, he created a number or Ragas and gave a definite form to solfa singing through the famous Pancharatnas.

Lastly, a word about our duty to Sri Tyagaraja, When ever I sit through festivals and memorial meetings, I am reminded of the following lines of English verse:
'I often say my prayers, but do I ever pray?
I may as well kneel down before a god of stone,
As offer to the living God a prayer of words alone
For the Lord will never hear,
nor to those lips attend Whose words are not sincere.'

It is in this vein of thought that I make an earnest appeal to all those assembled here to study the compositions of Sri Tyagaraja with the reverence and attention they deserve and put into practice the code of conduct that he prescribes, for a full, well integrated life of virtue, all round discipline, and faith in God on the one hand, and the cardinal principles of Satva Sangeeta that he lays down for the realisation of Nada Brahman, on the other.

To that end, let me offer a few practical suggestions based on my own experience. A working knowledge of Telugu and Canarese, which is closely allied to Tamil and Telugu in several respects, is indispensable to all students of Carnatic Music, and can be very easily acquired by those whose mother tongue is Tamil. The scripts can be learnt in less than ten days, and word for word translation for about thirty pieces is ,the 'open sesame' to understand all the rest. As, for the Dhatu or the music setting, constant practice in reading and writing down songs in detailed notation, careful listening and intelligent scrutiny of renderings - these endow the ear and the mind with an alert sensitiveness to precision in rhythm, standard and quality of rendering and polish in melody.

Stereotyped, repetitive music and poor repertoire are among agents that promote stagnation and decay. As an offset against this, new and rare songs of Sri Tyagaraja should become a regular feature in Bhajans and performances, and scripts with elaborate notation should be very widely used. Music Sabhas, schools, and teachers, imbued with exalted idealism can contribute a great deal to foster and maintain standards in the study and appreciation of Sri Tyagaraja's music and rescue his compositions from distortion or total disappearance.