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Tamil Music Through the Ages

R.R. Ayyangar, The Hindu, Madras

Indian Music, in its, widest sense, has its origin in the Vedas. The slow development of the Indian Music scale, the evolution of the Raga system etc., have been objects of study and research for successive generations of scholars. There is no dearth of evidence, be it in architecture or in literature, to show that the ancient Tamils had attained a very high degree of musical culture. Silappadikaram, pathu pattu, Paripadal, and Jeevakachintamani, to mention only a few, provide a mine of information on the music of the Tamils. Perunarai and Isainunkkam are regular treatises on the art itself, though these latter are almost lost to us now. The eighteen varieties of the Yazh, the imposing galaxy of Pans - eleven thousands of them prevalent at time - the contests of musical prowess, the fostering care and lavish patronage of the royal courts - all these speak of almost a heroic age in the history of Tamil music. Every pillar and wall and ceiling in the old temples scattered all over South India may be regarded as the limb of a permanent public library of the art, as it were, carved on stone, and preserving, against the ravages of time and clime, picturesque illustrations of music and dancing. The very term Muthamizh denoted the importance attached to Isai.

The dawn of the seventh century ushered in the famous Trinity who composed the Thevaram, viz, Tirugnana Sambandar; Appar and Sundaramurti Swamigal. The First of these was rare prodigy who composed when he was barely three years old - perhaps a unique record in the annals of word music. The vast sacred hymondy that grew during the period went into oblivion by and by, like the Greek and Ionian Odes of old.

A tradition persisted that a grand collection of the Thevaram pieces lay scattered in some dark niche in the temple of Sri Nataraja at Chidambaram. In the time of the Cholas, a village named Tirunarai, in the neighborhood of Chidambaram, boasted of a Ganesa deity believed to be of hoary antiquity and possessed of divine power. The good priest who offered the customary Puja in the temple was once obliged to be away from the village for a short time. His little son did duty for him. The young innocent stood aghast when the offering (Naivedya) lay untouched by God. He had never once seen his father return home with the food rejected by the deity. He was frantic with grief and vexation over this difference in the God's behaviour towards sire and son. He wept, and cajoled, and threatened by turns, but all was in vain. He vowed to immolate himself on the spot, and knocked his head against the protruding pot-belly of the irate God. Lo and behold! Ganesa opened His mouth not only to appropriate the offering, but also to pronounce His benediction on the youth!

News of this miracle spread far and near. It reached the court of Raja Raja the Second. He was passionately devoted to the memory of the Thevaram Trinity. He hastened to the shrine and implored the deity for guidance in bringing to light the hidden treasures of the Thevaram. The oracle directed him to Chidambaram. But the priests there would not reveal the truth. Eventually, however, the priests were prevailed upon to part with the sacred lore. The emperor sought out a fair descendant of the ancient line of composers, who lived in a place known as Erukathampuliyur. This lady set the words to music, and gave the Thevaram songs a fresh lease of life stretching over a few centuries.

With the passing of years, the tunes of the pieces changed and then disappeared. Somewhere in the eighteenth century, a pious minstrel of Tiruvarur, named Guruswami Desigar, revived the singing of Thevarams in Saivite temples. His holy errand took him, among other places, to Tirumalairajanpattinam near Nagapattinam. There was a Mridangam player of name and fame in the village. The visitor sent him his compliments and invited him to join him in the Thevaram concert in the temple. The latter excused himself on the ground that the singer was no match for one of his own standing. He was present at the concert. He came to scoff, and remained to pray. At the end, he bowed humbly to the talented singer, and paid him his homage. From then on, the two worked together and composed the music of the Thevaram verses. It is the pale, attenuated echoes and remnants of these last that we find today, struggling for sheer existence, in the few Thevaram schools in places like Chidambaram, Madurai and Thiruvidaimarudur.

In the early years of the present century, the late Sundara Oduva Murti of Tirunelveli took upon himself the task of resuscitating the sacred hymns from the rut into which they had fallen due to long neglect and popular indifference. Those who were privileged to attend his Bhajans would ever remember his powerful and majestic voice and evangelistic zeal. It is a happy augury that, for some years now, the Annual Conference of the Madras Tamil Isai Sangam has been bringing together on a common platform a large number of Thevaram exponents for purposes of discussion, review, stock taking, and planning for the future. A lot of patient spadework has to be done to free the compositions from the cobwebs of pedantry and obscurantism and fit the scheme of Pan, Thiram, etc., into the Mela Karta system which has come to stay.

Of no less antiquity and spiritual worth are the Four Thousand Divya Prabandhams of Alwars. Sri Vaishnavas regard them as complement to the Vedas. Except the names of a few Ragas given at the top of the verses, we have no clues at all to the way they were ever sung. It is quite impossible to trace the original music. In this respect, they are in a sad plight compared to the Thevaram.

The next great collection of songs is the Thirupugazh of Arunagiri Natha. The words of about two thousand songs of this giant of lyal and Isai have been preserved. The original music has been lost. Nevertheless, the words proclaim the greatness of the compositions in the field of Laya. Now and then, sporadic attempts have been made to set a few of them to music and propagate them. As yet, hardly the fringe of the problem has been touched. There has been a lot of tinkering, and the hand of the vandal and the amateur has not a little to answer for.

Tbe Rama Natakam, of Arunachala Kavirayar, is an opera more than two centuries old. Its contribution to the wealth of music in the pre- Tyagaraja period may never be over rated. Saint Nandar Charitram, by Gopalakrishna Bharatiar, is an immortal opera which has held the field for a century now. Thanks to the Harikatha performers, the music of these two operas is in no fear of extinction, though a first rate publication with adequate musical notation, has yet to make its appearance. It is not, perhaps, as widely known, that a few more operas stand to the credit of Gopalakrishna Bharatiar.

Ramaswami Sivan was not only the elder brother of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, but also his friend, philosopher, and guide. The two put their heads together and composed the 'Peria Purana Keertanam', based on Chekizhar's classic, the 'Peria Puranam'. Anai and Ayya, two veterans, who, like Rattayar, the twin poets of Tamil literature, merged so completely in each other that posterity has come to imagine them as one individual, enriched Tamil Isai with a variety of compositions that are very popular even today. Bhagavata Keertanas of Ananta Bharati, and Skanda Purana Keertanas of Kavi Kunjara Bharati are also well-known collections of Tamil songs.

Chidambara Bharati, Achyuta Dasar, Syama Sastri and his son Subbaraya Sastri, Subbarama Dikshitar, Swaminatha Kavirayar, Ramaswami Pillay of Tiruvarur, Ghanam Krishnayyar, Marimutha Pillay, Muthu Thandavar, Subbaramayyar, Papavinasa Mudaliar, Vedanayagam Pillay, the 'Kuravanji' composers like Rasappa Kavirayar, Annamalai Reddiar of 'Kavadichiudu', Doraswami Kavirayar, Tanjore Ponnayya Pillar, Kotiswara Ayyar and Trivandrum Lakshmana Pillar - these belong to a glorious hierarchy of Tamil composers who added to the wealth of South Indian music.

At present music is identified with the pattern usually served out from platforms. If the host of composers and their compositions are not to be swept out of existence other lines of musical activity have to supplement the platform. Competitions and prize awards invariably stop with amateurs, novices, and children. The quality of music and level of performance in such cases may not be always adequate to keep alive in the public eye the intrinsic worth of these great gems of art. Nor do memorial celebrations always achieve the object. As in matters like food and dress, habit has its role in music also. Performances confining the musical fare to particular composers, laying due emphasis on aspects of word and song that mark them out among the gorup as a whole, may go a long way in the proper integration of musical culture.