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Celebrating Tyagaraja

The perfect musician

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The perfect musician

He will always be Sangita Sarvabhauma notwithstanding his greatness as a Rama bhakta

May 04, 2017 05:26 pm | Updated 05:36 pm IST



“Dear son of memory, great heir of fame” – this is how Milton described Shakespeare. How aptly this fits Tyagaraja! How else does one explain, why even after 250 years of his passing away, we still admire and discuss him and his music. Musical experience is highly subjective and any views expressed about music or musicians are also bound to be subjective except those relating to the grammatical aspects like scale, sruti or tala. Even views about an outstanding musical personality like Tyagaraja are no exception to this. This article needs to be read with this caveat in mind.

Tyagaraja was a saint, musician, composer, guru and exemplar of values. While he deserves to be admired for all these qualities, what endears him to me most is his passion for musical perfection. I personally do not believe that all his music just poured out of him by divine will in spite of himself. If he was just a devotee, he would have been content with composing simple, emotionally charged songs. His deep devotion to Rama did not overshadow his natural propensity for perfection in every composition.

The invention of sangati is usually attributed to him and a mere devotee would not have thought of an invention like the sangati. Even if he was not the inventor, he structured his compositions in such a way that they not only facilitated but virtually invited sangatis from the singer.

Sangatis, we know, are the alphabet of creativity in Carnatic music. According to Prof. Sambamurthy, Tyagaraja sang Devagandari for six days in Kovur Sundara Mudaliar’s house and he could not have done it without sangatis. He would not have taken the trouble of creating three schools of disciples if he did not want to perpetuate his music. But for this, his music might have been lost to us as in the case of Purandara Dasa, Annamayya, Ramadas and Arunagirinathar, who apparently allowed their bhakti to override their music.

In fact, there is even a view that, as a considerate teacher, the simpler compositions like the Divyanama and Utsava sampradaya kritis might have been composed by Tyagaraja for the benefit of the less talented sishyas, who may have found it difficult to master the major kritis.

In his kritis, there are several references to what affects the quality of music. In ‘Sogasuga,’ he defines what a good kriti should be like and how it can be made enchanting by aligning it properly with layam.

In ‘Swara raaga sudha,’ he says, ‘What is the pleasure in banging the mridangam without knowing the intricacies of rhythm? ‘In ‘Kaddanuvaariki,’ he lays down these fundamentals of the art of singing: a well-trained voice, perfect sruti, spotless personal character, swara suddhi and faithfulness to tradition.

As if anticipating the modern trend of over-embellishment with sangatis, in ‘Nada sudha rasa,’ he uses the phrase, ‘Sarasa sangathi sandharbhamu’ – that is to say, sangati should not only be beautiful but also be emotionally proper and contextually appropriate. Many modern musicians sing ‘Nagumomu’ with great verve as if it expresses joy, whereas it expresses pathos. Balamurali said, “If Tyagaraja hears ‘Nagumomu’ being sung today, he will experience much more sorrow than by not being able to see Rama’s smiling face”.

The appeal of ragas

Tyagaraja was intensely aware that raga constituted the soul of Carnatic music. According to one Puranic story, the Lord once showed Narada a group of beautiful damsels lying maimed and disfigured. When Narada asked about their identity, the Lord said that these were the raga devatas, who were mutilated by his singing. Tyagaraja was probably aware of this story, for in ‘Sobhillu’ and ‘Sripapriya,’ he says that we should worship the beauty of the seven swaras and that each raga has incarnated as a beautiful damsel dancing with tinkling bells. In ‘Ninnu vina sukhamu gaana,’ he describes Rama as ‘raga rasika’ and in ‘Manamu leda,’ he asks Rama why, in spite of knowing the appeal of music and being the father of the musicians — Lava and Kusa, he is indifferent towards a musician like Tyagaraja. In ‘Gitartamu,’ Tygaraja says that Hanuman resorted to Rama because, he himself being an authority on music, knew that Rama represented the essence of Gita and Sangita.

Most of Tyagaraja’s kritis are in the madhyama kala. It is interesting to remember that when we communicate with one another, we do so mostly in the madhyama kala. If we speak in durita kala, it would be incomprehensible; if we speak in chauka kala, the listener would probably go to sleep. Carnatic music is predominantly a madhyama kala-based system (though there are beautiful kritis in the other two kalas also).


Tyagaraja has himself composed a few chauka kala kritis such as ‘Brindavana lola’ and ‘Endhu dhaginado’. Dikshitar specialised in chauka kala kritis. But Tyagaraja sensed intuitively that madhyama kala music, being more natural and hummable, is listener’s music whereas chauka kala music is musicians’ music.

Tyagaraja was the first to use only four notes in the arohana, as in ragas Vivardini and Navarasa Kannada. He compensated by using six notes in the avarohana.

According to Dr. Muthukumar of Princeton University, this might have inspired composers like Balamurali to experiment with four-note ragas. Tyagaraja’s ‘Lavanya Rama’ in purna shadjam is said to have inspired Tagore to compose his ‘E ki labanye purna pran.’

Out of the more than 200 ragas handled by him, in nearly half there is no kriti other than Tyagaraja’s. Andolika, Nalinakanti and Bahudari, which were considered rare in his days, are today instantly recognisable by most listeners thanks to the ‘draksha rasa’ (surface sweetness) structure of his kritis in these ragas.

To me, therefore, Tyagaraja will always be the sangita sarvabhauma notwithstanding his greatness as a bhakta. He is a perfect example of Beethoven’s statement that “Music is a higher revelation than philosophy.” In the words of Dr. Raghavan, “Tyagaraja achieved within the compass of a handy piece, effective capture of picturisation of a raga, mounting it on a rhythmic setting, mainly in the medium tempo (madhyama kala ) and giving it an exalted poetic medium. In the process of creating the musical vitamin tabloid called kriti, Tyagaraja stands foremost.” Poetic excellence and musical excellence have combined to produce what Dr. Raghavan calls, ‘gold with fragrance.’

In his kriti, ‘Saama gaana sarvabhauma,’ Balamurali brings out the irony that, while Tyagaraja, the musician par excellence, spurned wealth and honours, musicians singing his kritis have acquired wealth and titles! Pasupathy expresses the same idea in a limerick:

“There was a bard of great fame,

Sacrifice-king was his name,

Artists make a living

Using his kritis for singing,

He gets no fee, true to his name,

No royalty to a Raja, what a shame!”

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