It is an inexplicable feeling, a cornucopia of awe, wonder and reverence as I stand in front of the small enclosure housing the musical instrument — the ‘Tambura’ — of Saint Thyagaraja, the celebrated composer of Carnatic music inside the Venkatesha Perumal Temple in Madurai.
How did so many qualities of head and heart come together in one individual, making him a poet, a philosopher, a mystic, a musician, a composer, a teacher, a saint and much more? His music reverberates not just in the concert halls, but in the heart and mind of every listener and aficionado of Carnatic music.
The Tambura itself reflects the personality of its owner — simple and unornamented. No ivory tuning knobs, no inlay of gold and precious stones on the stem. Just like Thyagaraja — unostentatious, Spartan, self-deprecating and attuned to higher values of life! This Tambura is seen along with a beautiful Thanjavur style portrait of the saint. How this Tambura came to be here is another story in itself.
One of the prime disciples of Saint Thyagaraja, Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar, the man who assiduously and authentically wrote down most of the compositions of Thyagaraja as they were composed and sung by the saint, thus passing on this invaluable legacy to future generations, the man who gave to posterity the true life history of the saint, preserved whatever meagre possessions of the saint that were left after his passing and handed them over to the Madurai Saurashtra Sabha, the organisation of the Saurashtra community to which Bhagavathar belonged.
Bhagavathar, too, was an eminent composer in his own right. Along with Thyagaraja’s Tambura, Venkataramana Bhagavathar’s Tambura and his portrait are kept in a small glass-encased cubicle. As the priest solicitously takes out Thyagaraja’s Tambura and allows me to reverentially touch my forehead to it, I am transported to Thyagaraja’s times more than two centuries ago. I imagine him sitting on the banks of River Cauvery in Tiruvvaiyaru, plaintively singing ragam ‘Mukhari’ and composing his ‘Muripemu galige’ and asking Lord Rama if he prefers this place on the banks of the River Cauvery where a gentle zephyr wafts the fragrance of devotion and music which even the gods are envious of.
The majestic Ragam Shankarabharanam struts in front of my mind’s eye, with Thyagaraja singing ‘Manasu Swadina’, asserting that for one who has control over his senses, no external aids are necessary for worship. Thyagaraja’s holy wooden sandals, the ‘Padukas’, are also housed in the adjoining building along with numerous palm leaf manuscripts.
One cannot avoid feeling that these invaluable legacies could be better managed. I recall Vienna, the epicentre of musical activity of Mozart, Beethoven, Johan Strauss, Haydn and others with museums dedicated to these geniuses, showcasing their written musical scores, manuscripts, paintings, letters, musical instruments, even the key to Beethoven’s coffin!
As I come out, I recall Aldous Huxley’s words: “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music”. True, Thyagaraja’s music is beyond word and expression!