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Genius shining in regal style

The death anniversary of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar was observed on June 30. This article by LAKSHMI DEVNATH has T. N. Seshagopalan sharing his views on the brilliant 20th century musician.

``AZHA-KULLA Durai ivar yaaradi?'' (This short handsome gentleman... who may he be?) The charismatic Harikatha performer remarked on seeing a short person in the audience. On spotting a tall handsome person he quickly changed the line to ``Azhagulla durai ivar aaradi!'' (This handsome man, six feet tall!) Indeed! Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar had a remarkable talent for punning, a flair that contributed immensely to his success as a Harikatha exponent. Bhagavatar was first and foremost an ace musician who blossomed into an innovative composer. Over the years, he also mastered the science of music. What was remarkable was that this protean performer took on all these roles with consummate ease and executed them with astonishing precision. The annals of Carnatic music had witnessed only one other similar personality before and that was Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan.

Harikesanallur, a small village in the Tirunelveli district, shot into fame in the early part of the 20th century by her adopted son. The death of his father forced young Muthiah (born November 15, 1877) to shift his residence from Punalveli to Harikesanallur, a village he made famous by affixing its name to his own. Muthiah was sent to Tiruvaiyur by his uncle Lakshmana Suri to learn the sastras. But the atmosphere there was charged with the melodies of Carnatic music and soon Muthiah found himself at the residence of Guru Sambasiva Iyer of the sishya parampara of Tyagaraja. Training and hard work groomed him into an adept and adroit musician. In 1904, Muthiah shifted to Harikatha and made an indelible mark there. T. N. Seshagopalan, disciple of Ramanathapuram Sankara Sivam, who in turn was taught by Muthiah Bhagavathar, says: ``The most common reason cited for this shift is that his voice lost its timbre. But I prefer to look at the positive side. Bhagavatar had five attributes most essential for a Harikatha performer. He had knowledge of the sastras, was well-versed in music, had a captivating stage presence, could keep the audience enraptured and above all had a voice that could reach a large audience, so important in those mike-less days''.

The Harikathas of the Bhagavatar Sati Sulochana, Valli parinayam and Tyagaraja charitram - were popular with the masses. His art acquired an enviable finish when he came into contact with Krsna Bhat, a Marathi Kirtan artiste. Muthiah Bhagavatar apart from incorporating some Marathi musical forms like Saki, Dindi, Ovi and so on into his presentation also composed his own Nirupanams (introductory and situation linking musical passages) for all his stories except Tyagaraja Charitram.

Muthiah Bhagavatar composed almost 400 musical forms, the largest among the post-Trinity composers. Tana varnams, Pada varnams, Daru varnams (his has been the first to come down to us), Ragamaalikais, individual and group kritis (that include Navavarna, Navagraha, 108 songs each in praise of Siva and Chamundeswari apart from `stuti' kirtanas), patriotic songs, Tillanas, folk tunes and so on. The songs were on a number of Gods of the Hindu pantheon, sometimes on his patrons and couched in four languages - Telugu, Tamil, Sanskrit and Kannada. Almost 20 ragams owe their existence today to this great composer. They are to name a few - Vijaysaraswathi, Hamsagamani, Karnaranjani, Budhamanohari, Niroshta and Hamsanandi. Some research scholars are of the opinion that few of these ragams find a place in earlier musical treatises. However there is no doubt that Bhagavatar did indeed give a form to them and was certainly an experimentalist in the true sense of the word.

Seshagopalan continues, ``Muthiah Bhagavatar was an asukavi (a spontaneous composer) of a very high order. I would say that he gave a new form to old ragams and adopted a traditional approach to new ragams. He had a zest for life which, was reflected in his music as well. When somebody asked him if he could compose something that would appeal to the Westerners, he immediately came up with what is now popularly referred to as the Madurai Mani notes. So also, he composed some musical notes to match the movement of Rukmani's Ratham (sings). Again, it was a North Indian ragam called Sohini that got adapted as Hamsanandi. (Bhagavatar was supposed to have been fascinated by Sohini during his short sojourn at Benares). From Durga, Pasupatipriya was born. His compositions are intricate and embellished with intellectual chittaswarams. However the intricacies never marred the melody. He can also be credited with popularising some old ragams like Shanmukhapriya (at one point his kriti Valli nayaka was a rage) and Mohanakalyani. True, there was Swati Tirunal's `Sevey Srikantam' but I would aver that Mohanakalyani owes its popularity today to Bhagavatar's Bhuvaneshwariya and Lalgudi Jayaraman's Tillana in the same ragam.''

Talking about popularity, Seshagopalan continues ``I grant that his compositions have not attained their deserved status. But one certainly needs to attain a certain calibre before he/she can handle it with justification. It is definitely a moot point whether I would have taken so much effort to learn it had I come from another school of music. Again, observe his tillana (sings). Doesn't it remind you of Kathak? I am sure he knew how to dance. His daru varnam in Khamas also clearly reveals his familiarity with Natya. In fact, Rani Sethu Parvati Bai of Travancore has said that he would perform abhinaya, albeit sitting, to the padams of Swati Tirunal. He knew to play the gottuvadyam and the mridangam as well.''

Lakshanam and Lakshyam are the two eyes of classical music and this Lakshya vidwan spared no efforts to master the theory of music as well. His comprehensive Tamil treatise on music titled ``Sangita Kalpa Drumam'' stands testimony to his mastery over the subject. In fact, in those days, no conference in the Music Academy was complete without one of Bhagavatar's lucid exposition on some aspect of musicology.

Muthiah Bhagavatar had several `firsts' to his credit. He opened a music school called the Tyagaraja Sangita Vidyalaya in Madurai in 1920 on the lines of a gurukulam. Madurai Mani Iyer was one of its star disciples. He was also the first musician to be awarded a doctorate in India when the Kerala University awarded him the D. Litt. for his Tamil Treatise in 1943. He was also the first principal of the Swati Tirunal Academy of music started in Trivandrum in 1939. Muthiah Bhagavatar has also authored a Sanskrit poetic work called ``Tyagaraja Vijaya Kavya''.

Seshagopalan says, ``He was also the first to introduce the practice of nagaswara vidwans playing during the puja time at the Thiruvananthapuram temple. In fact there is an anecdote that once some people jealous of the Bhagavatar instigated the Raja who, remarked in a deriding tone about the unsatisfactory calibre of these artistes.'' Muthiah Bhagavatar responded, ``How can you expect T.N. Rajarathnam to come and play every evening for this fee?''

But the Travancore court, under the aegis of its ruler Maharajah Chitra Tirunal and Rani Sethu Parvati Bai, recognising the musical excellence of the Bhagavatar commissioned him to resuscitate the forgotten kritis of Maharaja Swati Tirunal. It is recorded that the Bhagavatar spared no efforts to this end locating even obscure sources in the process. Of course other musicians helped him in no mean measure. In 1943, Muthiah Bhagavatar published two volumes of ``Maharajah Sri Swati Tirunal Kritikal'' containing 101 compositions.

Many honours came in search of Muthiah Bhagavatar. In 1927 Maharajah Krishna Rajendra Wodeyar adorned him with the title Gayaka Sikhamani and in 1930 he was awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi.

Seshagopalan says: ``He had both yogam and yogyatai (luck and merit). During the Dussera processions, Bhagavatar used to dress up grandly, like a king. He had a regal personality too. Even on normal days, his dresses would have gold lace. He would not wear a veshti more than once and even his kumkum would be a combination of argaja and other scented substances. He would spray a liberal quantity of the finest attar (scent) on his dresses. His vethalai petti was like a small suitcase and his cardamom and clove came from Burma. The wood for his cipla was made of special sandalwood from Mysore and when it lost its timbre he would burn it as firewood. Once, when the Mysore Raja wanted to present him a gift he asked for two elephant cubs. Can you imagine anybody asking for such a present?`` Even the Bhagavatar's walking stick was said to have been engraved with gold and silver and he moved around in a Daimler car.

But the man was not only majestic but also magnanimous. Seshagopalan reveals, ``Once after relishing some rasam at a wedding, he gave a ring and his angavastram to the boy who served him. He whole-heartedly praised the musical skills of others including youngsters. He also introduced many vidwans to the Travancore and Mysore samasthanams. His large-heartedness extended to include even those who wronged him. When others grabbed the credit for work done by him he would remark ``Let them also earn some name and fame. What more do I need at this stage?''

Muthiah Bhagavatar certainly lived and died (June 30, 1945) like a king and has left a musical treasury of no mean merit. His compositions have acquired a certain level of popularity and commendable efforts are being made by the Harikesanjali Trust (promoted by his descendants) to propagate his compositions, yet a lot needs to be done.

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