The story of Tyagaraja’s favourite sishya

The idol of Saint Tyagaraja.  

As classical music instruction has gone virtual, one is reminded of saint-poet Tyagaraja’s favourite sishya, Aakumadugu Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbayya (1797-1862), who defined the essence of gurukulavasam. The son of Tyagaraja’s paternal aunt, he followed his master like a shadow, helping him in every way, including writing the sahitya of his compositions on palm leaves.

Venkata’s mother, Bagirathi, was also musically talented while his father, Sivaramakrishnayya, was a priest.

His devotion to Tyagaraja can be compared to Raja Raja Varma, the unsung younger brother of the celebrated Raja Ravi Varma. Raja was always at his cheta’s (brother) service, helping even in his painting work. Raja also kept a diary, which became the authentic source of Ravi Varma’s life.

If Tyagaraja is known for his Rama bhakti, Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbayya is remembered for his guru bhakti. He spent every moment singing the glory of his guru, his life and work.

Tyagaraja’s family hailed from Kakarla but moved to Tiruvarur. His father, Rama Brahmam, poet and harikatha exponent, sent Tyagaraja to Guru Sonti Venkataramanayya for a 16-year gurukulavasam.

Tyagaraja was named after Tiruvarur Tyagaraja Swami. An amazing coincidence is that Tyagaraja seems to have plotted to make Tiruvarur, one of the Sapta Vidanga kshetrams, the birthplace of the music Trinity. The Tiruvarur temple itself is a great centre of art and culture, which promoted nagaswaram, music and dance.

The large houses of the Trinity are a stone’s throw from each other and close to the temple known for the sacred Pushkarani, Kamalalayam. I remember performing a concert for the ‘Theppam’ (float festival) at the Kamalalayam tank. The ambience heightened the joy of singing — sounds of rippling water, cool breeze and the huge float moving in circles around the central mandapam of the water tank.

The prefix ‘Manambuchavadi’ in Venkatasubbayya’s name was an old suburb in Thanjavur. It was originally known as ‘mahar nombu chavadi’.

Multiple talents

Venkata was adept at playing the violin and composing too. His Hamsadhwani varnam ‘Jalajaksha’ is still rendered by musicians. The mudra for his kritis was ‘Venkatesa’. The same mudra was used by his disciple, the inimitable Patnam Subramania Iyer, who was also known as ‘Begada’ Subramania Iyer because of his expertise in singing the raga. This has led to some confusion over which one of the two composed ‘Danyudevvado’ in Malayamarutham. In the same raga, Venkata composed the plaintive ‘Janmamendhuku,’ a lesser-known kriti.

In the raga Devagandhari, Venkata composed an elaborate kriti on Tyagaraja — ‘Swamiki sari everana vathsu,’ asking if there was anyone to equal Tyagaraja in his music. He goes on to say that Tyagaraja completely dedicated himself to music, without the diversions of wealth or other men’s wives (‘para dhana Kanthaamanulaku’); he composed divine music to attain moksha at the feet of his beloved Rama. The fond sishya composed several kritis in Abhogi, Pravala Jyothi and Kuthukalam. He also composed a ‘navaratna malika’.

But more than all this, Venkatasubbayya propagated his guru’s kritis and core musical values to disciples like Patnam Subramania Iyer, Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer (both excellent composers), Panchapakesan (grandson of Tyagaraja), flautist Sarabha Sastri, ‘fiddle’ Venkoba Rao and Lavani Venkata Rao (who composed a 72 melakarta kriti in Marathi, a forerunner to Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer’s 72 melaraga malika). Other disciples were Sivaramakrishnaiyer, Dharma Dikshithar, Susarla Dakshinamurthy and Veenai Dharmayya.

Bridge between ages

Venkatasubbayya seems to have been a bridge between the old and the new composers. Patnam Subramania Iyer taught Mysore Vasudevachar. The latter was so enamoured by the music that when Iyer visited Mysore at the behest of the Maharaja, a great art patron, the young Vasudeva accompanied him back to Tiruvaiyaru and trained under Patnam Subramanya Iyer in the gurukulavasam. Like his guru, Vasudevachar gained immense recognition for his composing skills. Patnam Subramania Iyer also taught the legendary Tiger Varadachari, M.S. Ramaswamy, and others.

Sarabha Sastri, also a composer, trained Tirupayanam Panchapakesa Iyer, who went on to become a formidable harikatha exponent and flautist.

Tyagaraja’s musical legacy lived on through his disciples. Patnam Subramanya Iyer trained Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar, who trained Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar; hailed as the Pitamaha, who set the modern concert pattern, which is still in practice after more than seven decades.

Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbayya’s biggest guru dakshina to Tyagaraja was preparing this line-up of great musicians and composers, who have enriched Carnatic music with their expertise.

The writer is a senior Carnatic vocalist and musicologist.

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 2:43:19 AM |

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