Worthy disciple of a great guru

Lineage: Venkataramana Baghavathar (left) with Saint Tyagaraja.

Lineage: Venkataramana Baghavathar (left) with Saint Tyagaraja.   | Photo Credit: Photo: S. James


Venkataramana Bhagavatar was a disciple of Tyagaraja for 26 years and the tutelage ended only when Bhagavatar moved to Wallajahpet.

In his book on Tyagaraja under the Great Composers series, Prof. P. Sambamurthy states that Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was born on April 19, 1824. If so, this week marks 175 years of his birth. Information on him is scanty, as it is on most of Tyagaraja’s disciples. Latter day biographers clearly did not consider the bard’s disciples worthy of detailed documentation, which was perhaps to the good considering the number of myths and apocryphal stories that go to make up the life of Tyagaraja.

Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was the son of Wallajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar (1781-1874), one of the senior disciples of Tyagaraja. The family was of Saurashtra Brahmin stock and resided at Ayyampet. Venkataramana Bhagavatar, according to Prof. Sambamurthy, was a disciple of Tyagaraja for 26 years and the tutelage ended only when Bhagavatar moved to Wallajahpet “to improve his business” which going by the suffix to his name was perhaps in reciting the puranas. Venkataramana Bhagavatar married rather late in life, he was 41 according to Sambamurthy, and Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was born thereafter.

Father and son

Venkataramana Bhagavatar deified Tyagaraja and perhaps regretted the economic necessities that made him migrate. He therefore taught his son music and when the latter was 16, he was sent to Tyagaraja to learn further. The introduction happened perhaps when Tyagaraja visited Walajahpet during his pilgrimage tour of 1839. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar learnt the violin while studying music under Tyagaraja’s guidance. This is the only instance of a father and son being disciples of the bard.

Rather uniquely, father and son were to write the earliest biographies of Tyagaraja as well. And rather refreshingly, there are hardly any myths. While Venkataramana Bhagavatar was to write of a second brother of Tyagaraja’s called Panchapakesayyah who died despite Tyagaraja’s earnest prayers to God to save him, latter day biographers have waxed eloquent on how Tyagaraja revived a dead man! The manuscript of Venkataramana Bhagavatar ends with Tyagaraja’s marriage to Kamalamba, sister of his short-lived first wife, Parvati.

Krishnaswami Bhagavatar’s biography traces the entire life of the composer including his visit to Madras. Significantly, neither father nor son mentions the famed tale behind the composition “Nidhi chala sukhama,” though both independently state that Tyagaraja was above material considerations. In addition Krishnaswami Bhagavatar wrote that ruler Serfoji invited Tyagaraja to the court many times only to have him refuse.

In his account of Tyagaraja’s pilgrimage, Krishnaswami Bhagavatar does not include the story on Rama and Lakshmana warding off dacoits which reportedly had the bard composing “Mundu venuka” in gratitude. The oft-repeated story of Tyagaraja’s puja idols being thrown into the river by brother Japyesa is also absent. The division of property between the brothers is however recorded. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was also witness to Tyagaraja’s passing and he wrote of the composer’s last moments. Father and son compiled Tyagaraja kritis and their manuscripts are today stored at the Saurashtra Sabha in Madurai.

Chief source

In later years Krishnaswami Bhagavatar settled in Walajahpet like his father and was referred to as Walajahnagar Kuppayyar. He appears to have lived long, for he was still alive when A.M. Chinnaswami Mudaliar began his monumental task of writing Carnatic music in staff or European notation in the 1880s. Bhagavatar was Mudaliar’s chief source for Tyagaraja kritis of which he transcribed around 800 into staff notation. Mudaliar had this to say about him: “Krishnaswami Bhagavatar is one of the most intelligent and trusted among the last pupils of the great master.” The Saurashtra Sabha manuscripts, according to Sambamurthy, include a sheet of proofs of Mudaliar’s Oriental Music in Staff Notation, with handwritten corrections by Krishnaswami Bhagavatar.

This was the time when Chinnaswami Mudaliar and Subbarama Dikshitar were getting to know each other, forming a friendship that would culminate in the latter writing his monumental Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini. In his letter to Mudaliar dated June 12, 1894, Dikshitar wrote that he “would be very glad to see the Wallajahpet Baghavathar as his abilities are really very great and undisputed.” Almost certainly they did not meet, for Subbarama Dikshitar while writing his book had to rely on secondary sources for a biography of Tyagaraja which would not have been the case had he met Krishnaswami Bhagavatar. He even complained that getting information on Tyagaraja’s life was difficult!

Prof. Sambamurthy writes that Krishnaswami Bhagavatar composed swarajatis and kritis. These are not in circulation today. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar’s son was K.K. Ramaswami Bhagavatar who, like his father and grandfather before him, also wrote a biography of Tyagaraja. By then, Tyagaraja’s life story had become vastly embellished with tales of every kind. Ramaswami Bhagavatar’s work followed this trend. Titled Tyagabrahmopanishad, it was published in 1935 with financial assistance from Bangalore Nagarathnamma whose guru ‘Fiddle’ Munuswamappa was a disciple of Krishnaswami Bhagavatar.

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