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Tyagaraja & Dikshitar - A Study in Comparison

R.R. Ayyangar, Yogavedanta Forest Academy, Rishikesh, 1958

'Hamlet' staged, with the Prince of Denmark left out - such has been the case of Carnatic Music. Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, and Syama Sastri have been deified as the Trinity of South Indian Music. But the genius who first gave the art 'a local habitation and a name' has almost been forgotten. It was Purandaradasa who took the cue from the Tallapakam fraternity and popularised the modern Kriti with its clear cut features of Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam. He thus created the model for the Trinity and a host of latter-day composers.

However, a combination of circumstances, most of them obvious enough, has kept in oblivion a composer of his eminence and denied to generations of musicians and music lovers the great art treasure of this hoary patriarch. Tradition has it that Tyagaraja learnt hundreds of Purandara's compositions from his own mother. It is not improbable that Dikshitar also drew upon this abundant lore for his inspiration (vide 'Krishnadvaipayana' in Kamboji). Though Tyagaraja and Dikshitar built on similar foundations each developed a technique and style all his own. Consequently there have been two schools of music in South India, one passionately devoted to Tyagaraja, and the other upholding the traditions of Dikshitar. It is a healthy sign of the times that the 'cold war' between the protagonists of the two schools has been slowly dying out for sometime now.

An earnest Sadhaka, calm and serene, with his mind detached from worldly pursuits and tuned to Sri Vidyopasana, dedicating his vast classical erudition and knowledge of music to the service of his tutelary deity, Lord Tyagaraja of Tiruvarur shrine - this is the personality that Dikshitar reveals through his compositions.

Why did he choose Sanskrit as his medium of expression? With the exception of Jayadeva, there has been no Sanskrit composer of standing, either before or after Dikshitar. Even in his own times Telugu had established its reputation as a language pre-eminently suited for music, thanks to Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and others. Dikshitar himself could not resist its charms. This is borne out by a number of Telugu compositions that stand to his credit.

Another illustrious contemporary, Gopalakrishna Bharati, poured forth the longings of his awakened soul in his own mother-tongue, Tamil. Therefore, something more than traditional reverence for 'the language of the Gods' prompted the choice. The intellectual highbrow and the philosopher that Dikshitar was, he perhaps felt like the Devonshire congregation of the Reformation days, when it declared that the new English Prayer-Book was like a Christmas game and demanded the restoration of the old Latin Mass. Be that as it may, Dikshitar has amply justified his choice. He drew liberally on the ancient Vedic lore, rather than on the poetic or literary output of the more recent past-the Vaidika, as distinct from the Lowkika, style in Sanskrit. His exquisite sense of the value of diction has made his compositions models of pure and dignified Sanskrit. He has tapped the boundless wealth of rhyme and meter for which Sanskrit holds the field, and wrought a perfect concord between word and sound.

Doubtless, the limitations of an unspoken language were there. And Dikshitar added to them by restricting the scope of his utterances to a rather stereotyped rhymnody in praise of the vast Hindu Pantheon. Profusion of words, lack of emotional appeal, unvarying theme and want of spirit are some of the features that have told on the worth and popularity of Dikshitar's output. On the other hand, his mastery of Sanskrit and the Classics was thorough. His Swarakshara Prayogas, Raga - Mudras ('Arabhi' concealed in 'Samsara Bheeti') Srothovaha and Gopuchcha Yathi artifices ('Thyagaraja' in Anandabhairavi), etc., are marvels of verbal imagery and consummate craftsmanship in musical architecture. Interesting details of topography and local history abound in songs like 'Sri Mahaganapati' in Goula. The delineation of planets and their satellites in the Navagraha Keertanas, the Shodasa Ganapati series, the Panchalinga series, the Tyagaraja Ashtakam and the Guru Ashtakam in all the eight cases, the Abhayamba and Navavarana series, combine sweetness of music form and ineffable lingual charm. In short, Dikshitar's kritis are epitomes of Sanskrit culture and exalted melodic expression.

The unvarying theme, referred to above, coupled, perhaps, with a philosophic bias towards passivity and exclusiveness, if not downright inhibition, set very definite limits to the subject matter of his compositions. Besides, he had to free himself from the shackles of an outworn nebulous, musical tradition before he could rise to his full stature. Therefore, the effort and strain that his unfolding involved stamped his compositions with a heavy, ponderous gait, which, however, lacked neither force nor majesty. Besides, the deliberate, long-drawn out tempo had its refreshing counterpart in the sumptuous complement of smart Madhyama - kaala frills that usually adorn Dikshitar's Kritis.

But for one or two hints like those in the Vegavahini and Amritavarshini Kritis about his prayer for relief from famine and the anguish born of disappointment at the hands of the base and the vulgar, we have no clue to Dikshitar as a man. He leaves us in wonder, the more so by the cosmopolitan taste and impressionism with which he has chosen the tune of the English National Anthem and a number of other English songs for his own pieces, impressed touches of Hindustani music in quite a number of his Kritis, and composed a Manipravala song in praise of the deity at Pulivalam.

From the placid, contemplative tenor of Dikshitar's outpourings to the myriad varieties of melody-types, swelling crescendos and delicate arabesques of Tyagaraja is a delectable experience at seesaw, 'balancing the one with his opposite, on which the health of the state depends'. His fecund creative genius and spontaneous emotional upsurges have no parallel, on the count of either quality or quantity of output, in the history of music as a whole.

In the process of its evolution from Sanskrit the Telugu Language acquired a great phonetic refinement. One of the sweetest and most popular living languages in India, it was also Tyagaraja's mother tongue. He turned these advantages to good account and succeeded in presenting beauty in sound framed in the minimum of words. This departure from the tradition, referred to above, was a turning point in the progress of art. Till then, music had played a secondary part. As in the Thevaram and Thirupugazh, the theme developed through the same texture of music repeated ad infinitum. It was all that Dikshitar could do to circumvent this by resorting to madhyamakala appendages. But it was given to Tyagaraja to proclaim the proper function of music as a vehicle of emotional expression. The greater the music content of a piece, the fewer were the words he employed. On this congenial ground, he built the variations unknown to those before him. The picturesque combination of notes in all their sustained cadences, compressed within a particular time measure, with the distribution of words intact, (Padagarbham) and with the whole edifice of the melody type growing more impressive, varied and elaborate at each successive step - this is popularly known as sangatis. The introduction of this ingenious device revolutionised the entire system of our music. Consequently the post- Tyagaraja period of more than a century now has altogether broken from the past and followed the line opened by him.

Dikshitar composed one or two pieces in the seventy-two major modes of Venkatamakhi. Only a limited number of janya ragas came in for his notice. But they all bear testimony to the scrupulous care with which he made them perfect and complete in themselves. Nevertheless, the region of the raga remained as yet unexplored. Tyagaraja's contribution in this respect cannot be adequately measured. He composed a large number of songs in ragas that were familiar in his days. He brought to light hundreds of unknown ragas and wrought priceless gems in them. His genius was so prolific that songs in the same raga were sufficiently marked and bore distinct features of it. The range and extent of his treatment of ragas, the astounding variety in tempo and style, the exhaustive treatment of Laya and the spirit and liveliness of 'turning and wheeling with the agility of a hawk upon its wing', are characteristics peculiar to Tyagaraja. Dikshitar, perhaps, intended it as a homage to his great contemporary, when, he adopted the latter's tunes for his own compositions, 'Sri Guruguho', 'Kshitijaramanam' and 'Anantha Balakrishnam'.

Tyagaraja differed from Dikshitar not only in the choice of medium and mode of expression, but in that of the theme as well. A profound mystic to whom Sri Rama was the warp and woof of his very existence, he has been hailed as the incarnation of Valmiki. In moods of ecstasy he had visions which bodied forth in the lyrical flow of word and song (Paritapamu, Datsukovalena, Upacharamu). The aesthetic and spiritual influence of music stirred the depths of his emotion. Swara-raga-sudha, Seeta-vara, Mokshamu and Sangeethajnanamu are specimens of his panegyric on music. From references to the small rubs from unkind neighbours and his own kith and kin (Teliyaleru, Adaya, Palukavemi) to serious dissertation on life's eternal problems (Dvaitamu, Paramatmudu) he covered a vast ground. This wholesome variety all round was the keynote of Tyagaraja's greatness. Appropriately enough, his compositions have been spoken of as Tyagopanishad.

The foregoing survey, by no means exhaustive or comprehensive, may yet explain the abiding, universal popularity of the one as compared with the limited appeal of the other. Tyagaraja's compositions have penetrated the aesthetic life of a whole nation. No musical activity, be it a performance, a dramatic show, or even a conference, may be imagined without the place of honour assigned to them. Pride of place is assuredly theirs even in Tamil homes afflicted with blind language predilections, till, perhaps, another Tyagaraja rises in the firmament and brings light and life to Tamil Music. Thus Tyagaraja enjoys the status of a national composer and the most outstanding tone-poet of the world, while Dikshitar, with all his creative genius and prodigious skill, has reached but a few.

Nevertheless, both were men of great learning, deep piety and rare gifts of vision and originality. They pursued the same ideal of a simple, virtuous life, with no eye on popular applause or other worldly gains. They were pioneer veterans who transformed the course of the history of our music by the sheer vitality and enduring quality of their contribution. So long as music retains its hold on our minds as a source of joy and solace, both Tyagaraja and Dikshitar will live enshrined in the hearts of all true lovers of art and culture.