Begun by Alathur Venkatesa Iyer in Tiruchi, the Tyagaraja aradhana festival, reaches its 165th season this year. S. Thiagarajan, son of late Alathur Subbu Iyer, traces the history of this on-going tradition.

It is over 65 years since the legendary musician Alathur Venkatesa Iyer, established the Sri Sathguru Sangeetha Sabha to conduct an aradhana for saint Tyagaraja in Tiruchi on the pushya bahula panchami of each year. On the occasion of the 165 Tyagaraja aradhana festival, S. Thiagarajan, the son of late Alathur Subbu Iyer and the present secretary of the sabha, traces the history behind this on-going tradition.

The very first time that the iconic Alathur Brothers - S. Srinivasa Iyer and V. Sivasubramania Iyer - performed together was in front of an audience of great musicians gathered at Tiruvaiyaru for the Tyagaraja aradhana, organised by Malaikottai Govindaswamy Pillai from the Periya Katchi (bigger faction led by Narasimha Bhagavatar). As young as 13 and nine years of age respectively, the Alathur Brothers sang in front of that august gathering upon the suggestion of Pudukottai Dakshinamurthy Pillai, the renowned mrindangam and ganjira artist.

Astounding the gathering with their very first concert, the Alathur Brothers went on to create their own brand in the world of Carnatic music, under the able guidance of Alathur Venkatesa Iyer. It was quite some time before the various aaradhanas (which were being conducted by three factions) in Tiruvaiyaru were united under the name Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha in 1940, where Venkatesa Iyer was an office-bearer until 1945.

Leaving the aradhana committee, Venkatesa Iyer established the Sri Sathguru Sangeetha Sabha that began holding music concerts at the 100-pillared mandapam in Malaikottai, Tiruchi, each year. By the time Venkatesa Iyer passed away in the late 1950s, his son Alathur Subbu Iyer had become an office-bearer at the Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha along with Musiri S. Subramania Iyer. Though he (Subbu Iyer) performed regularly at the Sathguru Sangeetha Sabha in Tiruchi, the sabha's activities were taken care of by Cheran Mahadevi L.N. Somayajulu, and Duraiswamy Pillai.

Alathur Subbu Iyer passed away in the year 1965. During his stint at the sabha in Tiruvaiyaru, Subbu Iyer was greatly assisted by his friend Vasudevan and son, Thiagarajan. It was here that Thiagarajan learnt the nuances of organising the aradhana festival, which later aided him when he took over as the secretary of the Sathguru Sangeetha Sabha in 1988.

The annadhanam scheme

Having been an office-bearer at the Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha himself, Thiagarajan took over the sabha set up by his grandfather, after the death of Duraiswamy Pillai. The practice of doing annadhanam was incorporated into the festival by Thiagarajan, initially for the sake of the visiting vidwans. Today, after the setting up of the Sri Sathguru Tyaga Brahma Aradhana Trust (1998), the annadhanam continues to be an integral part of the festival.

Spread over four days, the aradhana festival in Tiruchi has been witnessing performances of several renowned musicians, who were either on their way to the aradhana festival in Tiruvaiyaru or were on their way back. It has been a platform that supports several local artists as well. Since 2002, the sabha has been honouring deserving musicians and Anayampatti S. Ganesan, the jalatarangam vidwan, is the artist being honoured this year.

In an effort to create a space for greater public participation in the activities during the aradhana festival, Thiagarajan purchased a piece of land in Srirangam at the end 2010, where the trust has erected a temple dedicated to saint Tyagaraja. The temple, which was completed early last year, is unique as it is the only other temple, apart from Tiruvaiyaru, where Tyagaraja is the presiding deity. The festival draws to a close in front of this temple (since 2011) with the rendition of the Pancharatna kritis.