Thyagaraja

Introduction

Tyagaraja was one of the greatest saint poets of South India whose devotion and complete surrender to Lord Ram was the source and sustenance of his life. The goal of his life and centre of his existence was to experience the bliss of Ram bhakti in every breath of his and the outpourings of love and anguish resulted in compositions of such richness and diversity that they have endured centuries and still stir mankind to reach the inner depths of spirituality.

Birth and Early life

Tyagaraja was born in a Telugu Brahmin family to parents Kakarla Ramabrahmam and Sitamma on 4th May 1767 in Tiruvarur a part of Thanjavur district until recently in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. He was the third son and had two older brothers. When the powerful Vijayanagar Empire which dominated Andhra was destroyed by the Muslims many Telugu speaking people especially the Brahmin community migrated to the South seeking patronage of the Kings there. Thus Thyagaraja’s ancestors who originally inhabited Kakarla village in the present Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh moved to Thanjavur to seek the patronage of the ruler there. His father Ramabrahmam was patronised by the King of Thanjavur and on receiving a house and land from the King in the Tiruvaiyaru village on the banks of the sacred Kaveri River the family shifted there after Thyagaraja was born. He was of the Bharadvaja Gotra and followed the Smartha tradition.

Thyagaraja’s Entry into Music

Thyagaraja is said to have been attracted to music right from a young age. According to legend, on his way to the temple everyday Thyagaraja had to pass by the house of Sonti Venkataramayya who was the principal musician in the court of Sarabhoji Maharaj, the then ruler of Thanjavur. Everyday he would stop to listen to the music lessons which were being given by the Guru to his pupils. One day he heard the Guru ask the students a tough question. On noticing that none was able to answer the question he shouted the answer loudly from outside. The amazed teacher came outside and on seeing the young boy immediately recognised the genius of the boy. He made the boy his student and began giving him music lessons. But the boy realised that music was not a profession for him but was a vehicle for communing with the Divine. As in most devout families, his father had initiated him into the powerful Ram mantra and chanting continuously he had crossed the one crore mark.  Also it is said that he began to worship Sage Narada to learn the inner secrets and mystery of music and that these steadfast endeavours resulted in him being blessed by Lord Ram and Narada themselves. In later years his teacher is said to have openly praised his disciple as being far better than him in musical knowledge and acumen.

Family Life

Thyagaraja was married to a pious woman and they had a daughter. Every morning he would leave the house with his tanpura and cymbals and singing the praises of the Lord beg for alms. He would support his family in this austere way. When his daughter reached marriageable age having no money and living a life of austerity and penance he is said to have had the belief that the benevolent Lord whom he had surrendered to would surely take care of him and his family. True to his words it is said that the Lord sent to his house a wealthy couple with a son to marry the girl who were willing to take up all the expenses thus relieving him of his responsibility.

His dispassion towards worldly objects

Thyagaraja’s music compositions were outpourings of love for Lord Ram and he never bothered about reaping financial rewards from it. His elder brother encouraged him to use his exceptional talent in the King’s court to gain money and fame but Thyagaraja expressed his anguish in song asking the Lord as to what were the use of riches and fame if one did not have the Lord firmly entrenched in the heart. When he rejected the gifts and offerings of the King his enraged brother threw the idols that Thyagaraja worshipped everyday into the Kaveri River which was in floods. The songs of separation and love that were sung by him during this period of intense grief and separation as the idols for him represented the living presence of the Lord and the songs of joy and ecstasy on retrieving them after the floods have been recorded for posterity and reflect great beauty and poignancy.

Miracles in his life

Thyagaraja’s life abounded in miracles and there were numerous instances where the Lord manifested at the call of his devotee. Once on being invited by a great devotee of Lord Ram on a pilgrimage, he stopped enroute at Tirupathi to have a glimpse (darshan) of the Lord. In most temples a curtain is drawn when the Lord is being washed and decorated.  On seeing the curtain when he reached there, Thyagaraja sang a song of deep yearning and it is said that the compassionate Lord took pity on his devotee and the curtain fell down. The inner meaning in the song is an outpouring to the Lord to remove the curtain of delusion of the mind to gain the vision of the Lord. During his travel he was asked by the host a patron of music Sundaresha Mudaliar to compose a few songs in praise of him. Not wanting to hurt him he went to the temple of Lord Shiva (also known as Sundaresha) and composed songs on the Lord indirectly making his host happy. The host requested Thyagaraja to make use of a palanquin to travel in and unknown to him gave the disciples who travelled in the party gifts of money. A gang of robbers attacked the party and Thyagaraja was surprised as he never had any valuables with him. When informed that the disciples were given money to carry out the Lord’s work Thyagaraja then informed them that there was no cause for worry as the Lord would protect the money as it was for His work. It is said that Lord Ram and Lakshman came in the guise of hunters and protected the party. Thygaraja then expressed his anguish in song that the robbers were far more fortunate than him as they had been given the good fortune of association with the Lord while he had missed the golden opportunity.

Later Years and Passing way

Thyagaraja spent his life singing the glories of Lord Ram and every breath of his was dedicated to the Lord. As he grew older his anguish at being separated from the Lord reached a feverish pitch wherein the Lord himself assured him about the date and time of his passing away.  A day before the final call Thyagaraja formally took up Sanyas and he passed away on 6th Jan 1847 Pushya Bahula Panchami day merging with the Lord. He was then interred at a spot on the bank of the Kaveri River which is now a revered Samadhi place where musicians gather every year and pay homage to him. This commemorative music festival is called ‘Thyagaraja Aradhana’ where his Pancharatna Krithis or five gems that he sang are specifically rendered.

Books and Films on Saint Thyagaraja

A number of movies have been made on his life in Telugu. Enormous efforts have been made by researchers to publish his compositions in books like Adi Sangita Ratnavali, Adi Thyagaraja Hridhayam, Kriti Mani Malai etc in many languages. Prof William Jackson a Doctorate from the US has done an extensive research in his book Thyagaraja- Life and Lyrics.

Thyagaraja’s Contribution to music

Thyagaraja’s contribution to Carnatic music is immense and he included Divyanama Kirtanas and the Uthsava Sampradaya Kirtanas. He created musical plays or operas like Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauka Charitham which had several songs and Padyas(couplets) and brought out his poetic genius. The bulk of his songs were in praise of Lord Ram, some were on other deities while yet others were on morals, ethics, mental control etc. Yet others were on Nadopasana which was the liberation from worldly bondage of birth and death by energizing the inner spiritual forces through music and attaining moksha. The devotional, religious and philosophical fervour expressed in these compositions towards the Lord reveals the depth of his devotion and love and touches a chord with every seeker.  The saint has endeared himself to spiritual seekers and lovers of music through the centuries. His songs are said to have combined the music of Narada, the poetry of Valmiki and the devotion of Prahlad. Though he literally breathed out songs in every breath, thousands of songs composed by him have been destroyed by natural calamities and only a few hundreds have been retained by some of his disciples through centuries.

A Glimpse of His Composition

O Lord Ram, Protect Me, You who are the Indweller in everything,

From The smallest ant to the trinity of Gods,

I have given up ego and pride,

I seek no money or comforts,

You alone are my succour,

Come O Lord and Protect Me.

Conclusion

Saint Thyagaraja was considered to be Sage Valmiki reborn on this earth to spread the love for Lord Ram among mankind. His rich compositions suffused with love for the Lord with the mind entrenched on him alone at all times and under all circumstances is the essence of Bhakti Yoga and his literary genius shone through his musical gems which have thrilled millions of seekers and music aficionados for hundreds of years and will continue to enthral them even in posterity.