Steeped in Tyagaraja

Swaminatha Athreyan with his wife.

Swaminatha Athreyan with his wife.  

LAST MONTH, on my return from Tirupoonthuruthi, where I had gone to attend the Narayana Tirthar Aradhana, I made a stop-over at Thanjavur, specially to worship Bangaru Kamakshi, and visit the octogenarian Tamil writer of the Manikodi era, Swaminatha Athreyan. His short stories based on the life of saint Tyagaraja had appeared originally in the weekly, Swadesamitran five decades ago, but fortunately a collection of them has been made available now. At the Bangaru Kamakshi Amman temple, the priest directed me to the nearby Baloba Lane where the writer is living and sent a man to show us his house.

It was almost quarter past twelve and I wondered whether at all it was proper for me to disturb him when he must be resting after lunch. However, when the gentleman who accompanied us gently tapped the door, there was immediate response. Athreyan greeted him and asked us to come in. I entered with trepidation though. His wife Vijayalakshmi Athreyan, though unwell, got up and gracefully showed us the seats. I had gone with my friend and his wife.

"What brings you here, my friend?" asked the frail-looking Athreyan in a mild, soft voice, taking my hands into his.

"I read your book, `Tyagaraja Anubhavangal' and it was quite fascinating. Your style is appealing and it has a kind of ethereal quality. Your language is very simple, yet it moves one to tears. You seem to have woven the stories around incidents that really happened in his life." I looked at his thin face anxiously, for reaction.

"I wrote them long back, 50 years ago. I heard the life of the saint through his sishyas' direct disciples Umayalpuram Swaminatha Bhagavatar and Embar Srirangachariar. They narrated the events that took place in the saint's life and the context in which he composed certain kritis." The conversation then turned to Tyagaraja's compositions. He began to sing, to illustrate a point, how Tyagaraja could have sung "Rama Nee Samanam Evaru." He sang this pallavi-line alone nearly 20 times, in different sangatis. Even at this age, his voice was not shaky. It had melody and an old-world charm.

I wanted to know whether he knew Telugu and he said yes. "Tyagaraja," said Athreyan, "wrote the kritis purely for the expression of his intense bhakti towards Lord Rama. In the songs of Syama Sastri and Dikshitar, it is their poetic skill that dominates."

Some food for thought. Athreyan is a scholar, a great devotee. He is pious. And above all, had studied Carnatic music seriously. Even the Paramacharya of Kanchi had discussed the various aspects of kritis of the Trinity with him on several occasions. I, therefore, left it at that. "Do you know there is one `Ramashtapathi,' like Jayadeva's?" he asked.

I pleaded ignorance. He slowly walked to the room behind and took out a copy of the book. "This was written 300 years ago by one Rama Kavi, in Sanskrit. I corrected the old text where there were misprints. See, it is full of beautiful poems with raga and tala for each song." On the one side, the Sanskrit poem appeared and on the other page the English translation. He mentioned in a passing reference that his translation of Bhagavad Gita for Gita Press, Ghorakpur, in Tamil, has sold more than three lakh copies.

It was time to take leave and we departed after taking his blessings.

Back in Chennai, I came to know that Athreyan had authored several books, though he did not mention anything about them. That showed his humility.

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