History & Culture

Wandering minstrels

RAMESWARAM: Ramanatham Bhajeham   | Photo Credit: L_Balachandar

An interesting fact emerges as we study the great composers and their lives. They were the original travellers. They were not your modern holiday enthusiasts looking to laze on beaches or view wildlife. They were more like today's bussing pilgrims. Except that they either walked, went in palanquins, bullock carts, or on horseback. The early bards like the four Saivite saints and the twelve Vaishnavite saints were driven by passion and devotion. But that did not exclude them from enjoying the beauty of the places they visited. Their own songs tell us of a landscape replete with flora and fauna of exotic variety.

We need not look further than the boy-saint Sambandar's songs to partake of his sensitivity to the countryside which housed his beloved Siva's abodes. He describes rivers, roaring sea-waves, chirping birds, dancing peacocks, humming bees and lotus ponds. These ancient composers not only performed miracles along the banks of the river Cauvery, but also immortalised the myths and legends associated with each place. “Paadal Petra Sthalam” – (places of worship sanctified by song) became and continue to be the signifier for places which are featured in the anthology of saint-composers.

Later composers too followed the path of the saints. Thanjavur became the hub from where roads went winding through paddy fields to near and distant places of worship. They inspired a remarkable outpouring of melody and poetry. And what nurtured this luscious path was the Cauvery. She is the mother of all inspiration… to kings, saints, poets, and composers.

Singing in Tamizh

Perhaps the greatest gift to our culture is the fact that history repeated itself in a beautiful way in each century and poets and composers wandered through temple towns and told their story in new ragas and in new languages. Some of the finest composers of the old Thanjavur kingdom sang, like the saints, in Tamizh. But their language was simpler and accessible to the common man.

Take the case of Arunachala Kavi who re-told the story of Rama. Or Goplakrishna Bharati who visited a select list of sacred spots and brought them to life in an inimitable way. Today, we can follow his trail. Visit Tirupungur, or Anandatandavapuram and Chidambaram and bask in the atmosphere of these sylvan locations. Located near Mayiladuthurai, Anandatandavapuram is the place where Goplakrishnabharati spent years of his life, composing songs. I had the distinct privilege of presenting my dance performance, ‘Nandanar Charitram' in this village which celebrates the poet's birthday without fail. It is one of the last of the gramams (villages) which has beautiful but fading old houses with typical features such as pillared verandahs, pyol (thinnai), etc. Only a handful of aged people still live there, maintaining the homes with the help of their children and grand-children who live in far-away places. They come to these ancestral homes every year to celebrate their poet, and soak in the aura of devotion his songs create. Truly this is living heritage!

Tyagaraja was also a traveller. When he sings of “heaven-on-earth” (Bhooloka Vaikuntam), in ‘O Rangasayee,' he brings to life a vivid picture of Srirangam, the island shrine. The bubbling Cauvery and the swaying palms recur in many of Tyagaraja's lyrics, making us re-visit his favourite landscape. The poet and devotee in Tyagaraja blend beauty and mythology in his songs, using the places he visited as a pretty backdrop.

Methodic traveller

Undoubtedly the most methodic traveller was Muthuswami Dikshitar. One can produce a guide for the modern pilgrim with his songs. Whether he describes the intricate data of the nine planets or the five elements, he contextualises his songs in each sacred shrine. From Kalahasti to Kutralam one can travel with him and marvel at the wealth of detail a scholar like him could weave into language and melody.

A committed tourist of his time, Dikshitar was energised by the beauty and spiritual aura of each place he visited. He wrote his songs, sang them and left an indelible impression which lifts us into an orbit of deep wonder. For example, no music enthusiast, would visit Mannargudi and admire the icon of Rajagopala in the temple without being haunted by Dikshitar's Saveri raga kriti. One is awestruck by the magnificent pillared corridors of Rameswaram temple, but not without humming Dikshitar's ‘Ramanatham Bhajeham' in Pantuvarali.

The interested rasika is moved by the innumerable associations of places with our great pilgrim composers. Our new generation of musicians would do well to visit them and drink deep in the flow of Bhakti, nurtured by sacred rivers and magnificent temples. Our music, like all our arts has mystical and magical connections with sacred spaces. Being aware of such fine layers in our culture is the best tribute we can pay to our great musical pilgrims – the great composers.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 7:03:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/Wandering-minstrels/article15577840.ece

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