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Tyagaraja - A Critique

R.R. Ayyangar, Illustrated Weekly of India, 7th May, 1967

This is an era of progress. Not a day passes, but one hears of a discovery, an invention, or a gadget that comes in handy. But presently one takes these for granted. They seem to have been there all along. This is true of Tyagarajah. His songs are taken for granted, too. He has been so much with us that we hardly think of a music recital without pride of place for his songs. Many composers come and go. Their songs enjoy a brief spell of popularity. Very soon, however, they become stale and sink into oblivion. But Tyagarajah holds the field for all time. Why and how is it so?

A stranger to the Carnatic Music world will hardly believe quips such as the following.

Firstly, no two singers present a song in the same rendering, interpretation depending upon voice, level of musical understanding, etc. Secondly, only about 200 songs have been current all the time, though about 700 have been published in elaborate, authentic notation. Thirdly, the oftener a song is sung or listened to, the more is it enjoyed and looked forward to - one has never had enough of it. 'Telisi Rama', 'Rama Bhakti', 'Mohana Rama' and 'Darini' have figured in the repertoire of popular musicians for more than 40 years. The appreciation they have evoked has remained constant through the years. Fourthly, the march of time, the change in values, the shift from the spiritual to the aesthetic appeal of music and the inroad of snobbery and linguistic prejudices into the realm of art, the oft-repeated plea for reform in the pattern and content of songs, have not undermined the premier status of Tyagaraja among composers.

Tamil Classics of the 'Sangam Age' tell us about the patronage and popularity music enjoyed in those far off times. Classics of a later period throw some light on the evaluation of the art, the birth of instruments and the status of art exponents. These tomes of literature, however, tell us precious little about the music that clothed the words. Samskrit treatises of subsequent times welter in a babel. The task of sifting some coherent material as the foundation for present day music is beset with hurdles inherent in pedantry, hyperbole, lack of objectivity and poor historic sense.

This confusion persisted even after the days of Purandardasa. The system of teaching which he built up has come down to us intact. But his songs were stripped of all music and their words used for cacaphonic recitation in the mutts of Kannada Pontifs. A similar fate overtook the compositions of the Tallappakam fraternity, the pioneers of the modern kriti. The rudiments scattered in Classics like Bharata's 'Natya Sastra' Ilango's 'Silappadikaram' and Sarangdeva's 'Sangeeta Ratnakaram' can be pieced together in a scientific manner. The emerging pictures will enable one to reconstruct the basis for Tyagaraja's music. Also his own songs carry internal evidence for sources of his music, his homage in a number of songs to forerunners in the field indicates his extensive study. Purandaradas blazed the trail for him in kirti composition. The Ghana Raga Pancharatnam and songs like 'Tanayuni' , 'Aragimpave', 'Anupama', 'Ramabhirama' and 'Ennaga Manasuku' have almost the same dhatu (varna mettu) as those of Purandaradasa. Frequent reference in his songs to contemporary exponents of music, both genuine and pseudo, extolling the one and pouring ridicule on the other, reveal a spirit of enquiry and a ready, receptive mind.

Syama Sastri from Tanjore, Govinda Marar and Vadivelu from Trivandrum, Gopalkrishna Bharati from Mayuram and even Gopinatha Bhattacharya from distant Banaras visited him not on a courtesy call but for a fruitful exchange of ideas and mutual enlightenment. His preceptor, Sonti Venkatramanayyah, was the doyen of the Tanjore Court musicians. He belonged to the Sishya Parampara of Narayana Theertha, the author of the casket of Gems known as 'Krishna Leela Tarangini'. He would surely have shared his hereditary treasure of music with an illustrious disciple like Tyagaraja. The Tevaram and Tirupugazh lore that echoed all round the Pranatharthihara shrine at Tiruvayyar was another link with traditional music. Long before Tyagarajah's days Jayadeva's Geeta Govindam had travelled from Orissa and merged into Carnatic Music. Great savants, immersed in Nada Yoga and endowed with sublime, aesthetic flair, had poured into the 'Ashtapadi' the cream of Carnatic Music. This tradition, preserved for centuries in a few families in Tanjore District and published by the writer in 1959 with detailed notation, is a marvel of quintessential music expression.

This expansive, congenial background for Tyagarja's unfoldment renders the legend of Narada's gift of 'Swararnava' superflous. The reference in 'Swararaga Sudha Rasa' that 'Rajata Girisudu' expounded Swararnava to Nagaja only confirm this.

It is against this background again that Tyagaraja's music may be evaluated. Arunagirinatha's Tirupugazh abounds in rhythmic patterns, but each of his songs is set to one particular unit measure for all the stanzas, with no built in intricacies of rhythm to enlarge the dimensions of the songs, provide variety and avoid monotony. The start of a song, before or after the first beat Anagatam, Vishamam was Tyagaraja's unique contribution to the development of rhythm. It thew open the floodgates of creative activities in rhythm, leading to the phenomenal growth of its dimensions Pallavi, Swara Prastara, the solo turn for rhythmic instruments, etc. The elaborate rhythmic content of every song has to be scrutinised independent of its melody. This will turn out a most rewarding experience. The start of a song in Adi Tala between the little and the fourth fingers (six units after the Laghu) is Tyagaraja's original idea. It is not unlikely that Syama Sastra owed his mastery of rhythm to Tyagaraja's inspiration. The variety in tempo and the diversity in rhythmic phrases will be clear if the opening line of a number of songs are sung or played in quick succession, with particular emphasis on the flow of rhythm (e.g. Makelara, Parasakti, Brochevaru, Rama Neepai, Manasu nilpa, Palukavemina, Sangeeta Gnanamu and Sri Rama Paadama).

The meanderings of rhythm are the more remarkable and astonishing as the above songs are all in Adi Tala, single stride. Another execursion of perennial interest is to analyse songs like 'Kolu Amare', 'Ksheennamai' and Ethavunara' into rhythmic phrases that support them and sing them as such without the melody, as we sing in Tillana.

Technical points like Eduppu, Arudi and Muthaippu fixed at various landmarks, balance and symmetry in structure, the device of cross measures or 'Jati Vinyasa' etc. fall in the domain of the expert and the specialist, who will find plenty of grist for all their mills in Tyagaraja's compositions. Suffice it to say that Carnatic Music owes its stupendous development in rhythm to Tyagaraja.

From rhythm to melody is the natural sequence in our music, even as the superstructure follows the basement. The seventy two Mela Karta scheme is the product of Venkatamakhi's genius (1660). It was a pioneer contribution of great ingenuity. But it was subsequently recast by Govindachari in his 'Sangraha Choodamani'. This change was doubtless an improvement as it made the Melakarta scheme cogent, broad-based, scientific, consistent and aesthetic. Ramaswami Dikshitar, learnt music from Venkata Vaidyanatha Dikshitar, known as Muddu Venkatamakhi, a grandson of Venkatamakhi. So Muthuswami Dikshitar belonged to the Sishya Parampara of Venkatamakhi, and of course, he followed the latter's Mela Karta scheme in toto. Tyagaraja adopted Govindachari's table of Ragas in preference to Venkatamakhi's.

In the absence of authentic evidence it is idle to speculate whether Tyagaraja was at home in the Vivadi Swara Ragas. His compositions in this group are only thirty seven out of a total of six hundred and ninety published in 'Kritimanimalai', the largest collection known or published hitherto. Researches in the past led savants like Madurai Ponnuswami to believe that a few songs had strayed into the Vivadi wilderness in the confusion that followed the passing away of the Saint. With more than half a century of continuous research at his back, the writer is perhaps one of the very few in the post - Tyagaraja period who have studied the Dhatu and Matu of the entire available material. If this may be regarded as any credential at all, epicure that Tyagaraja was, he would not have thought much of an aberration which was not blessed even by its progenitor, viz, Venkatamakhi.

Tyagaraja has songs in about 210 ragas, while Dikshitar has used 50 less. Ragas like Todi, Sankarabharanam, Kambhoji, Pantuvarali, Karaharpriya, Bhairavi and Kalyani receive elaborate treatment nowadays. They seldom become stale. They are generally spoken of as common, familiar ragas. It is Tyagaraja's prolific output that filled the canvas with the extensive pictures of Raga, the crown jewel of world music. The 31 songs in Todi, 30 in Sankarabharanam, 19 in Bhairavi, 17 in Sourashtra, 19 in Kalyani, 15 in Madhyamavati, 13 in Athana and 12 in Kambhoji, may be analysed and the music phrases, (Raga Sancharis) re-arranged in sequence. The resulting picture is an organic whole, pulsating with verve and beauty, flooding mind and heart with a mysterious effulgence. It is a fascinating excursion into the region of melody to conjure up the whole range of sound pictures presented by the 130 songs in Harikamboji and its Janya Ragas.

Dikshitar's favourite seems to have been Malavagoula and its derivatives, which account for 41 songs, By tradition, upbringing and temperament, the two were cast in different moulds. But each provides material for a life time of study, albeit from different angles. Dikshitar was born 8 years after Tyagaraja, and he died 12 years before the latter. Perhaps, by sheer accident, the two never met, though it may not be wide of the mark that 'Dinamani', 'Kalaharana' and 'Ksheerasagara' had reached his ears and inspired his 'Ananta Balakrishna', 'Sri Guru Guha' and 'Kshitija Ramanam'. The rigorous Nitya Karma Anushthanam, Sri Vidya Upasana and constant pilgrimage all over India stamped Dikshitar's music with a high seriousness and rigidity. Tyagaraja, on the other hand, was primarily a 'Nada Vidya Upasaka', absorbed in the contemplation and enjoyment of Primordial Sound, which bodied forth from the tip of his tongue as rapturous song, describing his mystic experiences and glorifying Divinity.

The artistic device of Sangathi is another of Tyagaraja's original ideas. It is a capital stroke of psychological stimulus. It works up the music step by step to a climax. 'Chakkani', has as many as forty-two such steps in Pallavi alone. 'Na Jeevadhara' and 'Bhava nuta', 'Dorukuna' , 'Karuvelpulu', 'Chera Rava Demira' and 'O Ranga Sayi' have half the number. This mounting crescendo of sparkling music phrases is not a mere exercise in melody. It has the force of physical gestures that language employs to drive points home, The melody that surges up and down the octave, using a line of the song as scaffolding, now moving with the heavy, measured gait of an elephant, and now playing hide and seek with the fleeting gleam of a lightning, all the while weaving endless patterns of rhythm, is a race with the words of the song to emphasise a point, as in 'Eduta Nilichite' , 'Ksheenamai', 'Vanaja Nayana', 'Nenendu'. 'Ksheera Sagara', 'Chera Ravademi' and 'Chesinadella'. From this has stemmed 'Neraval' the extempore improvisation that is the mark of creative excellence.;

6. HIS PHILOSOPHY A detailed study of Tyagaraja's philosophy is beyond the scope of this spotlight on his music. As a facet of Hindu Culture, music has been regarded an Upaveda and a means of Adhyatma Sadhana. Appropriately enough, South Indian temples have fostered the art in all its manifold aspects. In tune with this spirit, all our classical composers have been saints and holy men. Tyagaraja, the greatest of them all, wove philosophy and mysticism into his music. The philosophic content of his songs has elevated them to the level of Upanishads. His brand of Theism is a rational reconciliation of differenct systems of thought that have commanded general acceptance through the ages. His approach to God and religion is based upon right conduct, self-control and Jignyasa.

7. SOME PROBLEMS Tyagaraja's kritis have a universal appeal. They have, therefore, been models for all composers since his time. What is more songs of composers, pre- and post- Tyagarajah which lost currency, have been unearthed and dressed up in patches of his music. But plagiarism, 'though it hath no tongue, will speak', and has always met with short shrift. It poses no serious problem. The danger lies elsewhere.

For about half a century now, creative talent has not been much in evidence. Idealism and disinterested pursuit of art have given place to an eye on box-office and cheap entertainment. Commercialism, competition and showmanship have brought Gresham's Law into operation. Music institutions that run on lines of big business do keep popular enthusiasm alive. As entrepreneurs, they have their hands on the pulse of the public, whose attention they switch on as readily to a cine orchestra show as to the amateur theatre. The boom in Bharata Natyam is receding, with only a trail of foreign teenagers nibbling at it. Seminars and conferences bemoan the fall in standards and plead for new patterns of creative music. 'We have enjoyed the kriti far too long. Let us turn to something else,' is the impatient cry. All this is the writing on the wall. Research and constructive work are not spectacular. They fight shy of lime-light. They proceed on a long range plan that promises neither quick results nor personal gain.

A working knowledge of Telugu, a thorough grasp of Carnatic rhythm, an insight into canons of composition, acquired from a wide repertoire, and a mastery of the technique of advanced notation, are the sine qua non for a study of Tyagaraja. Reliance on Karna Parampara, the ear and rote method of learning, and apathy to the use of written material can only promote stagnation and decay. A healthy rivalry should spur musicians to popularise new songs of Tyagarajah that lie quite handy these days. The echo of new songs on every hand will electrify the atmosphere and revive the flagging interest in classical music. It were but fitting, in this context, to recall that during the short period of twenty years that the late Kancheepuram Naina Pillay dominated the world of Carnatic Music, he brought to light more than two hundred kritis of Tyagaraja.

The crying need of the hour, therefore, is for a band of selfless votaries of art who will preserve the music of Tyagaraja in the best traditional manner and propagate it along with his philosophy, with genuine zeal, competence and humility. There can be no better homage to him than this, and the Birth Bi-Centenary is an auspicious moment for this dedication.