Today, it is an overcrowded street, the bustle of a marketplace and cries of vendors fill the air. But in the early 19 century, Bunder Street in George Town was a quiet place and home to Kovur Sundaresa Mudaliar, a dubash of the East India Company.
Music hung in the air and it was here that Tyagaraja stayed during a visit in 1836. Though the room where he stayed was demolished and rebuilt, the building has survived.
“Another house on Ramaswami Street in the area — the residence of Veena Kuppaiyer, a disciple of Tyagaraja, where the saint is said to have composed ‘Venugana loluni’ — has now been demolished,” said historian V. Sriram, while delivering a lecture on Tyagaraja at TAG Centre.
Kuppaiyer came under the patronage of Sundaresa Mudaliar. His son was Tiruvottiyur Tyagaiyer, another great musician.
Sriram said that unlike Muttuswami Dikshitar, who travelled to many parts of the country, Tyagaraja, his contemporary, loved to remain in Tiruvaiyaru, enjoying the peaceful atmosphere of the Delta region — which was irrigated by the Cauvery — and its breezy climate. He, however, first moved out of his native town in 1836 to call on Kancheepuram Upanishad Brahmam, a scholar and friend.
“On his way he visited Lalgudi — referred to as Tiruttavaturai in Shaivite literature — to meet his disciple Rama Iyer. He composed five kriti-s there, which are known as Lalgudi Pancharatnam,” said Sriram.
From there, he went to Srirangam, where he spent a whole month of Margazhi. He then visited Chennai and stayed at the houses of Sundaresa Mudaliar and Veena Kuppaiyer. During his stay he also composed five kriti-s on Tiruvottiyur Vadivudai Amman, the consort of Lord Tyagaraja.
“Later, on a request by Sundaresa Mudaliar, he visited Kovur, a sleeply town on the outskirts of Chennai.
“Here he composed his pancharatna kriti-s, known as the Kovur Pancharatnam-s. The songs include the famous Sahana composition, ‘Ee vasudha’. But I always wonder how a small temple with a single street could kindle the muse in Tyagaraja to compose a pancharatna,” Sriram said.
One of the highlights of Sriram’s talk was the portrayal of the many sides of Tyagaraja, including his singularly bitter experiences with women, his knowledge of western instruments and music acquired from the Tanjavur palace and enormous amount of proverbs found in his works.
“In one place, he compared a situation of a father-in-law blaming his son-in-law for his daughter’s labour pain,” Sriram said to much laughter.