There is an apocryphal story that Madurai Mani Iyer steadfastly refused to sing Tyagaraja's Kalyani raga composition Nidhi chaala sukhama. The bard is said to have composed it after rejecting an offer from the Tanjavur king to become a court musician. “How can I sing that song when I am accepting money for my performances?” Mani Iyer would ask.
Swaminatha Athreyan, a vedic scholar and an authority on Tyagaraja, however, rejects the story, terming it a “stale construction”.
“Though there is a story behind every composition of Tyagaraja, I don't believe this one. Tyagaraja was not the kind of person who would make wounding remarks in response to some suggestion,” says 95-year old Athreyan, the author of Sri Tyagaraja Anubhavangal, a collection of 12 short stories, in which he re-tells specific incidents that gave birth to different compositions.
A close friend of Tamil writers T. Janakiraman and Karichan Kunchu, Athreyan has written a total of 28 such stories over the years, but could trace only 12 of them and has published them in this book.
Writer Ku.Pa. Rajagopalan encouraged him to write and his stories were published in serious literary journals such as Manikodi, Kanaiyazhi. Another important work of his is the Tulasi Ramayanam in Tamil.
The stories in Sri Tyagaraja Anubhavangal are not his own construction, Athreyan observes. “They were narrated to me by Umayalpuram Swaminatha Bhagavatar during my student days in Kumbakonam. I used to wash his clothes out of respect. I also got to listen to many stories while I heard some conversations Swaminatha Bhagavatar had with Yagnaswami Shastri, and also from Embar Vijayaraghavachariar.”
Swaminatha Bhagavatar was a disciple of Umayalpuram Sundara Bhagavatar, who learnt directly from Tyagaraja.
“Tyagaraja had a very sensitive mind. All his compositions were born out of personal experiences, in a spontaneous outpouring. Unlike Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri, who composed to enrich Carnatic music and give shape to ragas, Tyagaraja was not driven by any such motives. His compositions are purely an outcome of sukhanubava,” explains Athreyan, singing a line or two from each composition that he speaks about.
In one of his stories, the author also expresses concern about some musicians not paying enough attention to the words, pronunciation and context of every song.
And the fictionalised versions of the real-life incidents offer some insights into Tyagaraja, a saint-composer, ardent devotee of Rama and also a man given to human emotions.
The story behind the Hindola raga composition Manasuloni is a case in point. According to Athreyan, Tyagaraja was disturbed by how his kriti Paluku kanda chakkera in Navarasa Kannada was interpreted by a group of dancers.
“He suddenly plunged into sadness, after seeing how the crowd there started celebrating the erotic postures. Spontaneously, the pallavi of Manasuloni was born. But it took quite some time for him to complete the composition,” Athreyan said.
The fact that Arunachala Kavirayar's Rama Nataka keertanas made a tremendous impact on Tyagaraja is exemplified by his Yadukula Kambhodhi song Etavuna nerchitivo.
He composed the song after spending a whole night watching Rama Natakam at an open field. When he was asked to come to the dais, he turned emotional and hugged the blacksmith who performed the role of Rama and wiped off the sweat on his body with his towel.
Several such lesser-known incidents have been captured in Athreyan's stories, in a language, that conjures up the era in which Tyagaraja lived.
Athreyan, who has listened to two generations of great musicians, is full of praise for today's younger generation of musicians. “I have no doubt that they can be placed on a par with the great musicians of yesteryear.”