One of the greatest composers of Carnatic music lived during a time of extraordinary upheaval. A look at events that shaped his life and his music on the occasion of his 175th death anniversary….

Muttuswami Dikshitar is one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music. For years scholars have studied his compositions for their rich lyrics and melody. What is extraordinary is the rich tapestry that Dikshitar's life was, influenced repeatedly by happenings in one of the most turbulent and changing periods of South Indian history. Details of his life were recorded for the first time in the magnum opus Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini, published in 1904 by his grand-nephew, Subbarama Dikshitar.

Diskhitar's ancestors were from Virinchipuram in the North Arcot District. His father Ramaswami Dikshitar was seven when the family migrated South owing to “a rebellion among the cavalry”. This being in 1742, must refer to the murder of the Nawab of the Carnatic, Subedar Ali, at Vellore on October 6, by the commandant of the fort, Murtaza Ali. This resulted in a rebellion that saw the escape of Murtaza Ali and the anointing of Subedar Ali's young son Mohammad Saiyyad Khan as the new Nawab. The entire area was thrown into a turmoil and Ramaswami Dikshitar and his parents moved to the relative peace of Govindapuram near Mayavaram. There, his musical tutelage began. When he became a proficient musician, he performed at the Thanjavur court where he was richly honoured. He later became a musician in the service of the temple at Thiruvarur. It was here that his wife Subbammal gave birth to four children, the eldest Muttuswami (1775), followed by the twins Chinnaswami and Balambal and finally Balaswami (1786).

By this time, the French, the Nawabs of the Carnatic and the English had all cast covetous eyes on Thanjavur, a small but fertile kingdom. By the 1770s, the revenue from the entire area was being claimed as his own by Paul Benfield, Military Engineer of Fort St. George as compensation for loans he had made to the Nawabs. The area had also been invaded by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. In 1787, the penultimate Rajah of Thanjavur, Tulaja II died, having nominated his cousin Amar Singh as regent during the minority of the heir apparent, Sarabhoji. Amar Singh disputed the succession of Sarabhoji on the grounds that he was an adopted son and proceeded to claim the throne for himself. Ramaswami Dikshitar was a great favourite of Amar Singh's. The two had met when the regent had visited Thiruvarur and heard the former sing at the temple. He had lavished presents on Dikshitar who composed a song in 20 ragas on him. By 1790 however, the regent's claim to the throne was shaky. Frederick Schwartz, the missionary, had decided to champion the cause of his ward Sarabhoji and his words carried weight at Fort St. George.

It was around this time that Manali Muttukrishna Mudali came on a pilgrimage to Thiruvarur. He had been the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company and dubash to Governors Saunders and Pigot, the latter holding the dubious distinction of being the only Governor of Madras to be murdered while in office. Both Governors had battened on business ventures of their own while furthering the cause of the Company and Muttukrishna Mudali had been their trusted agent. He had therefore become fabulously rich. He invited the Dikshitars to Madras and this perhaps makes Ramaswami Dikshitar the first well-known musician from upcountry to move to the new metropolis.

New notes

As is well known, it was in Madras that the Dikshitar family first saw the violin in the Fort St. George orchestra. They appreciated its immense potential and adapted it to Carnatic music. The youngest Dikshitar child, Balaswami was trained on it by a violinist from the Fort. Muttukrishna Mudali died in 1792 and his son Venkatakrishna succeeded to the estates and also extended his patronage to the Dikshitar. A grateful Ramaswami Dikshitar created compositions with Venkatakrishna as his signature. He also created the longest song in Carnatic music, set in 108 ragas and talas in praise of Venkatakrishna Mudali. It was also in Madras that the Dikshitar family made the acquaintance of Chidambaranatha Yogi, the preceptor who took young Muttuswami with him to Kasi for five years. The family also acquired from a visitor the valued Chaturdandi Prakasika of Venkatamakhin, a musical treatise that was to form the basis of all of Dikshitar's compositions.

In 1799 or thereabouts, following Muttuswami Dikshitar's return from Kasi, the family moved back to Thiruvarur. Tipu was dead and Sarabhoji had willingly ceded Thanjavur to the English in exchange for a pension. A new peace had descended on the area and the Dikshitar family was perhaps homesick. At Thiruvarur, Ramaswami Dikshitar died in 1817. His musically-inclined sons could not manage property. Under the new dispensation of the British, the ability to pay taxes was paramount. Thomas Munro had introduced the Ryotwari system and the Dikshitars, unable to cultivate and therefore pay the tax, probably forfeited their lands. In the old days, the Rajahs would have exempted so talented a personality as Dikshitar from taxes but to the British he was just an ordinary individual, inept in the ways of the world. An invitation came from Thanjavur to teach music to the four talented boys who would one day make a mark as the Thanjavur Quartet. It is significant to point out here that the orthodox Dikshitar did not consider caste to be of any importance. Most of his disciples came from nattuvanar, Devadasi and nagaswaram backgrounds.

In Thanjavur, Sarabhoji, freed from the cares of kingship, was experimenting with Western instruments and perhaps seeing this, Dikshitar taught the violin to Vadivelu of the Quartet. Roads had become safer for travel thanks to the pax Britannica. He could visit temples in a number of villages and towns in the vicinity and compose songs on them. His observant eye would not have failed to see the general decline in the support of temples following the British takeover. Like the British, he too was a keen observer and his songs brim with details of the shrines he visited. Thanks to his Bhaktavatsalam, it is possible know the complete topography of the temple at Tirukannamangai. Thanks to his Ucchishta Ganapatau it is possible to know the startling iconography of this Ganesha idol at Thiruvarur, now demurely shrouded with a cloth.

Soon the younger brothers, Chinnaswami and Balaswami decided to leave for Madurai in search of patronage. The city and its environs had become part of the British Empire and the last of the rebellious polygars, Kattabommu, had been put to death in 1799. A key role in his capture was played by the polygar of the Ettayapuram Estate who was dignified subsequently by the title of Raja. It was his descendant Raja Venkateswara Eddappa who became the patron of Balaswami Dikshitar, the other brother Chinnaswami having died in the interim. As the principal ruling powers declined, Ettayapuram, like neighbouring Ramnad and Sivaganga, had become a centre for the arts. Here Dikshitar met his younger brother and ended his travels, for, it was in that town that he passed away on October 21, 1835 — exactly 175 years ago.

Today the distances he travelled are as awe-inspiring as his compositions.

The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com