Music hath charms

Thyagaraja kritis are gems that entreat us to shun envy, avarice and egotism.

Now in my early 80s, I think back on my heritage. Foremost is the love of Carnatic music that my parents instilled in me, not by tutelage, but simply by bringing up their children to listen. I found that listening is also a skill to be learnt, like eloquence in speech, melodious singing or playing a sitar. It is finding joy beyond “the concord of sweet sounds” and stirring words. It is a choice of life-enhancing experience like music and art.

As Walter Pater said, “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music”. We should be alive to the joy of passing moments, even the clouds in the sky at dawn, “simply for those moments only, to burn always with this hard, gem-like flame”. It transcends mere aesthetic delight; it is the ecstasy of a spiritual rh-ythm of the self and the external world. 

For me, some kritis of Thyagaraja resound in ecstatic accord. In more than three decades as a diplomat, I became acquainted with some Western and Asian musical forms, such as Beetho-ven’s 9th Symphony and Mozart’s 40th, the G-minor, or the song of the Japanese cherry blossom (‘Sakura’) which my wife learnt to sing. I exult in poetry and literature that kindles rumination, taking pleasure in trifles, like the telecast of a fleet-footed runner or a chapter of Edw-ard Gibbon’s History of the Roman Empire. I speculate whether benighted humanity is bound for extinction or utopia.

Thyagaraja was born in 1767 in a small town by the Cauvery river. His family was from Andhra. Music, poetry and piety were inherent in their tradition. From early years he composed songs imbued with Rama bhakti. He spurned royal patronage and dedicated himself to the divinity of music.

The idea of music as worship appeals beyond rituals. Thyagaraja’s songs dwell in my mind. Among nearly 700 songs  –which are extant since his death in 1847 at the age of 80 – I cherish some 40, including the Five Gems (Pancha Ratna).

The marvel of Internet yields the text and meanings in English of many, with audio access. How wonderful that Thyagaraja’s music is celebrated in Chicago, London, Singapore and elsewhere. His faith was beyond sectarian schisms. Two songs of his – ‘Giripai’ in Sahana raga and ‘Paritapamu kani’ in Manohari – plead Rama to fulfil the divine promise of recalling him from the toils of mortal existence within 10 days.

Thyagaraja kritis are gems of our classical heritage. They entreat us to shun envy, avarice, egotism. In ‘Anuragamu Leni’ (raga ‘Sarasvati’) and other songs, he asks devotees who worship the divine in many forms to feel the ecstasy of music, in homage to the sacred sapta swaras imbued with the rhythms of mridanga and laya. I exalt him as a saintly Indian who was above divisions of caste or creed, a true inspiration more than 150 years after his demise.

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