The opening in Tyagaraja’s ‘Dasharati’ (Todi) casts a spell on us even before the syllable ‘sha’ has been intoned. I am not going to even try to unravel that. Or try to investigate the elliptical flight-path in the anupallavi of ‘Etijanmamidi’ (Varali) that glides and lands on the tara sthayi shadja. I am not going to attempt that because spells need to be experienced, spell-bound, not dissected. We can only bow down in awe to Tyagaraja’s musical span and insight. But it is this eternal admiration that compels me to question some of his aesthetic choices and social commentary.
Tyagaraja works are gifts that we offer with ease to everyone very rarely pausing to reflect on the creator. By crowning Tyagaraja as super-human, god-like we rarely investigate this brilliant aesthetician and complex personality with our eyes wide open. His every art object was a moment in his life; we can be sure that every line of music narrates to us his own creative flight, artistic-ego, inward-movement, celebration, politics, social reflections and possibly even escapism. In the journey of any true artist these different threads constantly overlap and intertwine. And it is in this undivided inter-connectivity that the unpredictable beauty we call Art makes her appearance. And in Tyagaraja's life she seems to have remained wedded to him until the very last moment.
Among the three late 18th century Carnatic catalysts — Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri — it will be safe to say that the priest to Bangaru Kamakshi was the traditionalist or should I say in Tamil brahminical cliche, ‘madi-accharam’ composer. This is especially true with regard to his raga choices and treatment. Except in the case of Chintamani and Kalgada, all the ragas he chose were of the older organic order. Though there are Syama Sastri kirtanas rendered today in Janaranjani and Kiravani, their authenticity is questionable. There was no attempt on his part to intellectually juggle, shake and stir swaras to create a synthetic bundle and then call it a raga. In the case of Dikshitar, it seems like loyalty to his sampradaya and a need to legitimise his tradition overwhelmed him. And consequently, he brought into musical form many of the fabricated structures (raganga ragas) of his predecessor Muddu Venkatamakhin that contravened the basic spirit of the raga idea.
This is not about whether we find these artificial ragas appealing, this is an aesthetic question about its ideation, structuring and interpretation and subsequent impact on musical thought. On that score they fail and have over the years caused a downward spiral in the raga-ness of Carnatic music. And it is important for us to be unemotional and recognise that Muthuswami Dikshitar had an early role in triggering such a thought flow. But I will say with great trepidation and absolutely no disrespect that Tyagaraja’s impact has been deleterious. This is much to do with the larger than life presence Tyagaraja has had over the Carnatic psyche.
Before I proceed to substantiate my point, I need to say a few words about the critique of the brilliant scholar K. V. Ramachandran of the so-called newer ragas that make their appearance for the first time in Tyagaraja kirtanas. His basic argument is that due to the dishonesty of Tacchur Singaracharyulu and his brother Chinna Singaracharyulu, who from the late 19th century until early 20th century published numerous books with details and notations of Tyagaraja kirtanas, we have today undesirable fancy ragas attributed to many of his compositions.
Ramachandran asserts that the brothers manufactured scales and concocted new names. Later when they stumbled upon Sangraha Chudamani, a treatise of unknown origin, authored by the mysterious Govinda, they retrofitted ragas found in that flawed document on to Tyagaraja kirtanas. They also changed the lakshanas of older ragas by deleting or altering the nature of their swaras, thereby propagating the false theory of an individualistic Tyagaraja school vis-à-vis the Dikshitar school. Though this theory raises valid questions it cannot be accepted in toto.
If we were to look at the three main schools that have carried forward Tyagaraja kirtanas — Umayalpuram, Walajahpet and Thillaistanam — we would find artificial first time scale-raga Tyagaraja kirtanas in all three streams. For example, in the Umayalpuram patantharam we find kirtanas in ragas such as Chandrajyoti and Simhavahini, in the Walajahpet collection — Gowrikalyani, Amritavahini — and in the Thillaistanam group, ragas such as Bindumalini and Siddhasena. There are other nouveau scale-structure kirtanas that are common to all three patantharams. Such ragas are also mentioned in the 19th century publication, Sangita Sarvarta Sara Sangrahamu by Vina Ramanuja. There are many nuances to this discussion regarding raga attributions, descriptions in lakshana granthas and patantharams but they are beyond the scope of this piece.
While I am certain that there are cases where the Tacchur brothers and other musicians manipulated and/or mutilated ragas, it would be highly unlikely that all such scales were post facto force fits. It is important to note that there are new ‘Tyagaraja scale-kirtanas’ that are not mentioned in Sangraha Chudamani but found in some other 18-19th century treatises and some that have no textual reference. It is therefore fair to assume that Tyagaraja himself was indulgent and did frame a considerable number of these non-raga ragas. In playing the swara permutation and combination game, he did alter raga abstraction.
This is exactly why ragas like Kokilavarali, and Chenchu Khambodi do not have the life of a raga. This trend set by Tyagaraja was followed by many later composers like Muthiah Bhagavathar. While we are willing to critique 20th century composers, we forget that it was Tyagaraja who showed the way and therefore we also need to question him philosophically. It is on the same grounds of raga-essentiality that it is very difficult to justify Tyagaraja composing kirtanas in simulated linear sampurna swara arrangements such as Pavani, Rishabhapriya, Kokilapriya and Bhavapriya.
Though Tyagaraja could not have foreseen its after effects, the impact of these acts of aesthetic extravagance are being felt a century and half later. Ragas today are being treated as packs of swaras, and these raga-pretenders are being generously dealt out, and ancient ragas are being reduced to swara skeletons.
Semantics of compositions
From matters musical let us move into Tyagaraja’s social realm. If we take the position, that the semantics of compositions are immaterial to aesthetic immersion in Carnatic music, then I would not raise the following issue. But since most people in the Carnatic universe still harp on sahitya bhava and its importance in the aesthetic experience, it is imperative that we look into the meanings in some of Tyagaraja’s compositions.
Unlike Syama Sastri, whose conversations with the Goddess were inter-personal or Dikshitar who surrendered as a pandita, Tyagaraja was a social commentator. He saw his life as a part of the smarta network. To his credit, by and large, he has stayed away from what we would find today disturbing, but there are compositions in which misogyny is quite obvious. We could cleanse the meanings, justify them or you could accuse me of imposing post-modern values on to him. But if we, in the 21st century continue to seek cultural validation through his words, we should question them.
In compositions like ‘Menu Joochi Mosa Bokave,’ ‘Dudukugala,’ ‘Enta muddo’ and ‘Entha nerchina,’ he follows the classical norm of objectifying women, implying the sexual vulnerability of men. She is always the vice, the seductress who will enslave the man, therefore he needs to be ever watchful. Women and their own self-worth, rarely of any consequence. In ‘Dudukugala,’ it is interesting that the woman is placed below the sudra! And in the same composition, you also find the following casteist reference — “ Despite being born a Brahmin (“Modati Kulam,” first caste), I was behaving like a sudra. Much like Tulsidas, Tyagaraja’s position on women and caste was undoubtedly shaped by his times, his social mores but one wishes that a mind as creative as his had gone beyond or risen above those.
We will never know the person Tyagaraja. From Harikatha accounts and early 20th century biographies we get a hagiographical description of Carnatic music’s foremost star. The two biographies written by his disciples — Walajahpet Venkatramana Bhagavathar and Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavathar — are realistic. But we cannot ignore the relationship between the subject and the biographers and in this case Guru-Sishya. So what does he say about himself ?
Beyond his devotion to Rama, Tyagaraja seems like the archetypical artist. Self-deprecating, seeking validation and the company of his intellectual equals, perspicacious and at times insecure. But there is one thing he always seems certain about — his own musical genius.
Carnatic vocalist, author, public speaker and writer on human choices, dilemmas and concerns