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Celebrating Tyagaraja

The ‘secret’ behind Tyagaraja’s fame

The answer lies in his music. It was his art that figuratively took him places

May 04, 2017 05:00 pm | Updated 05:04 pm IST

Tiruvaiyaru on the banks of the Cauvery

Tiruvaiyaru on the banks of the Cauvery

When I began this series on Tyagaraja a year ago, I had written that while the sun has set on the British Empire, Tyagaraja’s sangita samrajyam keeps expanding by the day. Chances are that any point in time, someone somewhere in this world is singing a Tyagaraja kriti. That is, indeed, a unique phenomenon.

Tyagaraja had become well-known even during his lifetime. In his ‘Dasarati’ (Thodi), the composer addresses Rama as the aigrette among music lovers and states that He ensured that Tyagaraja became famous in far away lands. That this did happen is quite a miracle, for the 19th century was not an era when spread of information was easy within the Madras Presidency.

That he was well known is evident from the way people came with unfailing regularity to meet Tyagaraja. He had played host to Serfoji’s son-in-law, Mesji Rao Sahib Mohite, Muthuswami Dikshitar (if Subbarama Dikshitar’s belated stirring of memory in his Pratabhyasapustakamu is to be believed); Gopalakrishna Bharati (as evinced in U. Ve. Swaminatha Iyer’s memoirs); Shatkala Govinda Marar, who came as an emissary from Swati Tirunal; whoever it was that brought the Srimukham from Upanishad Brahmam, inviting him to travel to Madras and Kanchi; Sulochana Mudaliar, the builder of the first bridge across the Tamirabarani at Tirunelveli (as described in M.S. Ramaswami Iyer’s English biography of Tyagaraja)… the list is long and impressive.

If it was indeed Rama that made Tyagaraja famous, He must have had a full time task of it for the composer was not exactly a cooperative man when it came to public relations. His was an inward-looking nature with complete aversion to worldly recognition of any kind.

Home truths

There were also his acid observations on the rich and famous. You need not go beyond ‘Emi Jesite Nemi’ (Thodi) for an idea of his views. The first line in ‘Dudukugala’ (Gowla) tells us that the sons of the rich and powerful were above the law in the composer’s lifetime. He could not have endeared himself to those in power with such immortal home truths. And at a time when it was de rigueur to sing in praise of patrons, Tyagaraja set his face against it. How then was he tolerated, let alone exalted by the community, which must have been full of mere mortals? Even Rama was not spared of his sarcasm.

The answer lies in Tyagaraja’s music. It was his art that figuratively took him places. The magic of his songs brought several disciples to him and all of these became the evangelists who spread his message far and wide.


Even during his lifetime, Veenai Kuppayyar was performing in Madras while Venkataramana Bhagavatar had set up base at Walajahpet, a town strategically placed between the Tamil, Telugu and Kannada speaking parts of Madras Presidency.

Neykarapatti Subbayyar was propagating his songs in the Salem/Coimbatore area. Lalgudi Ramayyar was performing his songs in Mysore, while Susarla Dakshinamurthy Sastri was doing the same in Andhra. Kannayya Bhagavatar was making Swati Tirunal aware of Tyagaraja’s genius in Travancore.

Closer home, in the neighbouring village of Thiruneithanam, Rama Iyengar was teaching disciples while under Tyagaraja and his cousin Manambucchavadi Venkatasubbayyar, the talented duo of Krishna and Sundaram was being trained. These two would create the long and enduring Umayalpuram School of performers that would make Tyagaraja the rage on the concert platform.

Venkatasubbayyar would independently train three great performers, who in the second half of the 19th century performed all over South India, making Tyagaraja’s songs popular in every princely state. These were Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, Patnam Subramania Iyer and the flautist Sarabha Sastrigal.

Many of these great names would take to composing and leave behind among their creations, songs in praise of Tyagaraja. These pieces would give the composer a saintly halo and practically deify him.

His songs played a vital role too. There was the variety of ragas — Tyagaraja is still one of the very few composers from whose oeuvre entire concerts — vocal or instrumental — can be fashioned. The song structure afforded space for sangatis, which built up over generations have made mega pieces of some compositions. And at a time when Telugu was spoken practically everywhere in the Presidency, audiences could understand his lyrics and smile, laugh or weep with them.

Harikatha too found in him an ideal subject though he did become a victim of this art, given the number of myths about him that storytellers created. His tunes were lifted and used in drama and from there on to early cinema.

Tyagaraja stuck to his core competency – devotion to Rama, expressed through exemplary music. The fame, which was purely incidental, followed. Sankara in his Dakhinamurthi Ashtakam compares true knowledge to light from a lamp placed in a vessel with multiple perforations. Tyagaraja was like that.

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