Remembering Thyagaraja

Music fest

Remembering Thyagaraja

Thyagaraja Aradhana, a five-day Carnatic music festival in Tamil Nadu, dedicated to saint Thyagaraja and his outstanding compositions, has a global presence now, writes Chitra Ramaswamy 

Nidhi Chala Sukhama Ramuni Sannidhi Seva Sukhama: “Does wealth bring happiness or doing seva at the altar of Rama?” was Thyagaraja’s spontaneous musical rejoinder on being asked to pursue a musical career in the court of the king of Thanjavur, with all the accompanying gifts and riches. Such was the spirit of devotion Thyagaraja had towards Rama, his favourite deity, in whose praise he had composed thousands of songs.

Come the fifth day after full moon in the Telugu month of Pushya, or January every year, the banks of Cauvery at Thiruvaiyaru reverberate with divine music. It is a veritable Kumbh Mela of Carnatic music with a galaxy of musicians converging upon the nondescript panchayat town in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur District to celebrate Thyagaraja Music Festival, formally known as Thyagaraja Aradhana. The annual event, held under the auspices of Sri Thyagabrahma Mahotsava Sabha, is held in memory of Thyagaraja, one of India’s greatest saint-composers who attained samadhi here on this day in 1847. His mortal remains were interred on the banks of Cauvery and a brindavana was erected over the spot.

The 167th edition of the five-day music festival begins on 17th January in Thiruvaiyaru or Panchanatha Kshethram, meaning ‘five rivers around the city’. The sounds of the sapta swaras herald the dawn as musicians take centre stage in the area overlooking River Cauvery and Thyagaraja’s samadhi. The atmosphere is emotionally and spiritually charged. Mellifluous music fills the air as musicians render compositions of Thyagaraja well into the night.

On the last day of celebrations, a procession of musicians and devotees sing the Unchavruthi Bhajan as they move from Thyagaraja Illam on Thirumanjana Veedhi or street until they arrive at his samadhi. Aspiring artistes anoint Thyagaraja’s shrine with honey and sing his krithis, seeking his blessings for a rich musical journey. The musical extravaganza reaches its acme and culminates in the recital of the Pancharatna Kritis or the ‘five gems’ of Thyagaraja that encompass all the musical and mathematical marvels of Carnatic music.

A global phenomenon

It is no exaggeration to say that Thyagaraja Aradhana has become a global phenomenon and has come to represent the ‘state of the art’ in Carnatic Music. Besides the grand mega festival held at Thiruvaiyaru, smaller groups of musicians and music lovers have their own aradhana around the same time all over India and abroad. Most prominent among the overseas celebrations is the Cleveland Thyagaraja Aradhana held in Ohio. 

However, the history of the celebrations is chequered with rivalries and judicial interventions. Initially, remembering Thyagaraja took a ritualistic form, independently in the homes of his disciples with poor feeding being an integral feature. The last of Thyagaraja’s surviving disciples, the Umayalpuram brothers — Krishna Bhagavatar and Sundara Bhagavatar — would visit the saint’s samadhi on Pushya Bahula Panchami every year, offer puja and return home to perform aradhana. 

The year 1907 witnessed a new phase in the celebrations. Harikatha and musical concerts were held on a grand scale. Soon groupism surfaced, and with it, parallel aradhana festivals emerged. Women musicians and nadaswaram vidwans were barred from performing during the festival that lasted eight to 10 days. Much of this changed when Bangalore Nagaratnamma emerged on the scene in the early 1920s.

A renowned scholar, poet, musician, danseuse and multi-linguist, Nagaratnamma trained in music under Walajapet Krishnaswamy Bhagavatar, a direct disciple of Thyagaraja. Following a dream visitation, in which she was urged to build a temple, she procured the land around Thyagaraja’s samadhi and built a memorial to him. She also brought rival factions under a single umbrella and helped establish the Thyagabrahma Mahotsava Sabha. Gender equality and artiste camaraderie became the hallmark of the festival. Since 1941, the aradhana, as we know it today, began to be conducted. The same year, chorus rendition of the Pancharatna Kritis was adopted as an annual feature of the festival.

Thyagaraja was born Kakarla Thyagabrahmam, youngest of three sons to parents Rama Brahmam and Sitamma. Thyagaraja was so named after Lord Thyagaraja, the presiding deity of the temple at Thiruvarur, to where his ancestors had migrated. While his father and grandfather earned their livelihood giving discourses on the Ramayana in the courts of the kings, young Thyagaraja would actively participate in his father’s religious activities that included the daily puja to Lord Rama. On one such occasion, he sought his father’s permission to recite a shloka. Thus was born Thyagaraja, the composer, with the piece Namo Namo Raghavaaya Anisam... in Raga Suddha Todi. He was only eight or nine years old!

Dedication to music

Realising his son’s exceptional abilities, Rama Brahmam brought him to Thiruvaiyaru for training under Sonti Venkataramayya. Sporting a Tulsi mala and tanpura in hand, Thyagaraja would go to River Cauvery every day to bathe, meditate and wake up his Rama with Melu Kovaiya Mum in the morning Raga Bhoopalam. When Thyagaraja refused to sing in praise of kings in their courts, his brother flung the idol of Rama, Thyagaraja’s most prized possession, into a swelling Cauvery. This only intensified Thyagaraja’s quest for Rama. He undertook pilgrimages to various temples in south India, composing innumerable songs on the Lord. It took all of 80 years for Thyagaraja to get a darshan of his beloved Rama — it was in December 1846. 

Thyagaraja’s ecstasy on seeing Rama resulted in yet another outpouring of his heart in the form of the Kriti Kanukontini. His life goal was fulfilled. Thyagaraja took sanyasa from this day and attained siddhi 15 days later, leaving behind a rich legacy of music to be cherished for generations to come.

Thyagaraja’s contributions to the evolution of Carnatic music are beyond comparison. His keerthanas, composed in a staggering range of ragas, reflect a variety of emotions, making for rich poetic imagery that encompass melody in sync with superb rhythmic patterns. He also composed a couple of operas: Nauka Charithram, based on the life of Lord Krishna and Prahallada; Bhakti Vijayam on Prahallada and his supreme devotion to Lord Narayana. He combined intense bhakti or devotion, with the elaborate art and science of music to take Carnatic music to new heights of artistic excellence. Thyagaraja’s compositions, chiefly in Telugu, and some in Sanskrit, embody the essence of Vedas, Upanishads, Ramayana and Mahabharata, adding to the wealthy literature of Carnatic music.

Some people believe Thyagaraja to be an incarnation of Maharishi Valmiki. The belief stems from the fact that Valmiki’s Ramayana entails 24,000 shlokas, the same number of songs composed by Thyagaraja in praise of Rama! Unfortunately, only 700 of these compositions survive on records today.

Thyagaraja created some of his most scintillating compositions in a single-room house, Thyagaraja Illam in Thirumanjana Veedhi. The house was built especially for his father Rama Brahmam by King Thulajendra, the then Maratha ruler of Thanjavur. A few years ago, Sri Thyagabrahma Mahotsava Sabha purchased the dilapidated house, demolished it and built the present Thyagaraja Illam. This house has a meditation centre, a library of books and CDs, and a sanctum sanctorum adorned with a brass idol of Thyagaraja. The pillars and walls of the hall are bedecked with sculpted musical instruments and photographs of the doyens of Carnatic music. A well at the rear end of the house, appropriately covered by a grilled structure, is the only reminder of the times of Thyagaraja.

Every kirtana is a beautiful temple in which the great composer has installed the God of his heart for worship by those who sing and those who hear, said C Rajagopalachari, independent India’s first Governor General. Thyagaraja Aradhana stands testimony to these beautiful words.

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