The making of the Tyagaraja Aradhana

The famous festival has been as much a celebration of the composer-saint as a marker of social change in the echelons of Carnatic music

January 20, 2022 08:39 pm | Updated January 23, 2022 08:45 pm IST

Musicians rendering Pancharatna kritis at the 172nd Tyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyaru

Musicians rendering Pancharatna kritis at the 172nd Tyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyaru

Owing to the spread of the Omicron variant, the Tyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru has been reduced to just one day this year, instead of the usual five days. Has this ever happened before, asked someone. I could only reflect on how the Aradhana as we know of it is by itself a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, those who knew Tyagaraja in his lifetime would hardly recognise it.

But firstly, we need to know that Tyagaraja is not the only music-related personality who has such an aradhana. Narayana Tirtha’s is far older and, like Tyagaraja’s, happens at multiple locations. Sadasiva Brahmendral too has an Aradhana, at Nerur. In the bhajana tradition, an aradhana is done for Bodhendra Swamigal each year at Govindapuram. These observances are common to all those who took to a life of renunciation. Since Tyagaraja too had become a sanyasi in the last days of his life, it qualified him for this annual observance. Of course, his stature as arguably the greatest Carnatic composer elevated the event over that of all others, giving it an exalted status.

Chennai: 09/01/2012: The Hindu: Editorial Feature: Tyagaraja Biography

Chennai: 09/01/2012: The Hindu: Editorial Feature: Tyagaraja Biography

Yet, for the first 60 years after his passing, there was no aradhana of any kind. His grandson conducted the event till he passed away in 1855 and with Tyagaraja’s lineage becoming extinct, it eventually stopped. His disciples observed the day in a quiet manner in their respective towns and homes. Certainly, nobody visited Thiruvaiyaru or bothered to build a samadhi until 1903. That year, the last two direct disciples of Tyagaraja, Umayalpuram Krishna and Sundara Bhagavatar, made the journey to Thiruvaiyaru, identified with great difficulty what they thought was Tyagaraja’s samadhi (it was one among many identical markers in a vast burial spot for sanyasis), and had it renovated.

From the next year, their disciples Thillaisthanam Narasimha and Panju Bhagavatar conducted an aradhana for the composer in Thiruvaiyaru. That the duo later split and formed the periya and chinna katchis, two warring factions among musicians who competed to make the aradhana bigger and better is well documented.

Then in the 1920s came Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who built the temple for Tyagaraja, installed an idol of him, and fought her own battle for equality of women in the worship. She lies buried opposite Tyagaraja.

The Tyagaraja Aradhana may have remained obscure like those of the other composers who became sanyasis, but it was destined for bigger things. The early 1900s, when the Thillaisthanam brothers first sought to kindle interest in the festival, was the heyday of harikatha. It was Narasimha Bhagavatar’s evocative narration of Tyagaraja’s life story, replete with all the myths we associate with it, that first drew attention. The Hindu’s serialised publication of M.S. Ramaswami Aiyar’s biography of Tyagaraja took the tale further afield.

By th e 1930s, when there was a huge regeneration of interest in the lives of bhakti poets, cultural markers as they were for a nation searching for its past, Tyagaraja often became the subject of plays and films. There was a huge emotional connect — here was a composer who had suffered at the hands of everyone, brother, king, dacoits, fellow musicians. The Aradhana grew with all of this. By the early 1940s, it was a high point in the Carnatic calendar. The press of the day reported on it in great detail, including details of the arrival and departure of musicians, much like today’s celebs who make it to the Page 3s.

Thus, when in 1940 it became necessary for a formal body to conduct the celebrations, just about every bigwig of South India was on it — maharajahs, diwans, business barons, ICS officers, lawyers. And also musicians. Tyagaraja would have smiled.

What had till then been a somewhat informal offering of music to Tyagaraja became a highly organised festival with a concert schedule in place. From 1941, All India Radio, Trichy, began broadcasting sections of the concerts, and suddenly it became necessary for the artistes to be auditioned and accredited by AIR. Devotion to Tyagaraja became somewhat less important. Then in 1949, the Pancharatna kritis were sung in chorus. The Tyagaraja Aradhana as we know it today had cystallised.

Musicians performing at the unchavritti in Thiruvaiyaru

Musicians performing at the unchavritti in Thiruvaiyaru

It has since been covered by Doordarshan, featured in films, conducted in other towns and countries, all as an extension of the same concept. It is interesting that the debate on whether this is indeed the Aradhana that is suitable for Tyagaraja has continued unabated from 1940 onwards. What is sad is that there was no debate at all when it was decided to demolish Tyagaraja’s house and build what is unarguably the ugliest memorial to the composer.

What makes the Aradhana special is often what is left unstated — Nagarathnamma’s fight to conduct a shraddha for Tyagaraja, hitherto allowed only to men. The end, in 1941, of segregating artistes on the basis of caste while serving food. Alamelu Jayarama Iyer demanding and getting prime slots for women artistes, hitherto denied by the male cabal. The unchavritti consisting only of male singers quietly broken into one year by Brinda, Muktha and M.S. Subbulakshmi. The exclusion of nagaswaram and thavil artistes from the aradhana stage, even though their money was always welcome to conduct it, until T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai raised a loud protest and demanded that every nagaswaram artiste on the committee resign.

The story of the Tyagaraja Aradhana is as much one of social evolution — a journey towards equality achieved through music. And that makes it worth celebrating.

The Chennai-based author, a historian, writes on music and culture.

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