Khaas Baat : A Publication for Indian Americans in Florida
Music & Dance



January and February are the months when the great poet-musician-composer Thyagaraja is honored and eulogized through numerous music festivals in India and around the world. This great stalwart of Karnatic (South Indian Classical) music who was born May 4, 1767 and died Jan. 6, 1847, is paid homage through these music festivals called ‘Thyagaraja Aradhana.’ The word Aradhana literally means ‘to worship’, thus vocalists and instrumentalists come together to render the compositions of this master composer and to procure blessings of the Almighty and their musical ancestors. Chief among them is the Thyagaraja Aradhana held at the birth place of this musical colossus in the town of Thiruvaiyaru in the Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. In this weeklong musical marathon, thousands of musicians, music lovers and devotees come together at the Thyagaraja Samadhi – final resting place – to sing in unison the ‘pancharatna kritis’ or five gems of compositions composed by this artist of the 18th century. The amazing orchestra of vocalists young and old, accomplished and amateur – accompanied by a host of musical instruments such as veena, flute, violin, nadaswara and percussion instrumentalists on mridanga (cylindrical south Indian drum), ghatam (earthen pot) and so on is an amazing listening experience as well as a sight for sore eyes. The bhakti bhav (deep devotion), love and musical/technical prowess of the composer as well as these five outstanding compositions move the heart, soul and mind.

As Tampa gets ready to celebrate this auspicious day of music on Saturday Feb. 5, at the Hindu Temple of Florida (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), let us take a brief look at the life and times of this much revered and celebrated composer. Though Sri Purandara Dasa (16th century) is considered the ‘father’ of Karnatic music, Sri Thyagaraja along with Muthu Swami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri forms the ‘Trinity’ of music composers credited with being the most influential in the growth and development of the Karnatic Classical Music tradition. Sri Thyagaraja hailed from a ‘Telugu’ speaking Bhrahmin (priest caste) family whose ancestors are believed to have migrated from the glorious ‘Vijayanagara’ empire located in the present-day border region of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka states. His parents were Ramabrahmam and Seethamma. His maternal grandfather Giriraja Kavi of Thiruvaiyur (also the birth place of Thyagaraja) was poet-composer in the court of the king of Tanjavur.

At the age of 18, Thyagaraja was married to his bride Parvathamma who died when the former was 23 years old. Soon after, Thyagaraja remarried Kamalamba with whom he had a daughter named Seethalakshmi. In the following years, Seethalakshmi’s son died without offspring, thus there is no direct descendent of this musical genius. But his musical progeny is vast, with countless followers who have embraced and continue to practice and propagate Thyagaraja’s profound contributions to generations of melody makers. Thyagaraja’s life from the beginning was steeped in piety, ritualism and a deep devotion to his God – especially Lord Shree Rama – who was the epicenter of the majority of his compositions. At a very tender age, Thyagaraja commenced his musical tutelage under the scholarly Sonti Vekataramanaiah. Even though he achieved great mastery over the technicalities, aesthetics and theoretical aspects of music, this young musician always felt that music was his one path to reach the Supreme Being. He believed in Nadoposana – worship through music – which was considered as ‘Gaanamarga’ – a musical path leading to God. His performances and compositions always praised the Lord and his deeds, they were always an expression of Thygaraja’s love for Lord Shree Rama and his feeling of bliss and marvel at the beauty of divinity, which he so sincerely embraced and welcomed into each and every part of his life. The intrinsic bhakti as also the artistic and melodic excellence of Thyagaraja’s compositions resonate in their delineation. More than 800 of them survive to this day. Most of these compositions called ‘kritis’ were written in the composer’s native tongue Telugu, but some of them were composed in Sanskrit as well.

The illustrious musician-composer Saint Thyagaraja was better known for his exquisite stand-alone musical compositions, but he also created two musical plays or operas in Telugu. The first play ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam’ consists of five acts, forty five kritis or compositions set to 28 different raagas or melodies with 138 verses. The second dramatic treatise, though equally scholarly and beautiful, is shorter with one act and 21 kritis in 13 raagas (43 verses). The stories in these plays are fictional in nature, yet extol the beauty and good deeds of the Lord. Thyagaraja, who was initiated into chanting shlokas and mantras (holy scriptures and hymns) as a young boy by in his father – especially the ‘Rama Taraka Mantra’, was barely in his teens when he wrote the composition ‘Namo Namo Raghavaya Anisham” and set it to raaga Desika Todi.

Saint Thyagaraja’s works are luminous examples of literary expression, musical essence and adoration of the Almighty. The most popular and well- known compositions are the Pancharatna kritis – the five gems among compositions. All five are set to Aadi taala – a rhythmic cycle of eight beats. They are Jagadaanandakaaraka (raaga Naata), Dudukugala Nanne (raaga Gowla), Saadhinchane (raaga Aarabhi), Kanakanaruchira (raaga Varaali) and Endaro Mahaanubhavulu (raaga Shree).

The first composition Jagadaanandakaraka in raaga Naata is the only one of the five composed in the Sanskrit language. Thyagaraja sings the praise of Lord Rama, the cause for eternal bliss. In Dudukugala Nanne (raaga Gowla), the composer enumerates all the transgressions and misdeeds he has committed in his life and asks for the Lord’s forgiveness.

Saadhinchane, the third pancharatna kriti in Aarabhi describes the many leelas (deeds) and mischief of the Lord manifested on earth. Thyagaraja laments that in spite of his steadfast devotion the Almighty has not yet fully embraced him.

The fourth composition Kanakanaruchira is set to raaga Varaali. This complex yet attractive composition is the least performed piece among the five. There is an interesting anecdote that goes along with this song. The pervading superstition is that if a student is taught this composition, a rift develops between the teacher and the student, thus it is rarely taught or sung or played.

In the last of the five compositions Endaro Mahaanubhavulu (raaga Shree), Thyagaraja has eulogized the greatness of true devotees of the Lord. He prostrates before and prays to all great souls – saints, sages and devotees who have lived through the ages. Shri Thyagaraja led a life of simplicity, purity, sacrifice and devotion. The fame and popularity of his musical compositions live on.

Lavanya Dinesh is an accomplished performer and teacher of Hindustani classical vocal music. She has worked as a music critic and feature writer for The Times of India and Deccan Herald. She can be reached at lavanya@lavanyadinesh.com

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