Understanding Tyagaraja

Print edition : July 31, 1999

An interesting controversy in the columns of Sruti, a magazine devoted to classical music and dance, focusses on the real musical achievement of the great composer Tyagaraja, freed from obfuscating mythology.

AMONG the inherent contradictions of musical creation, the dislocation between the inspiration and musical realisation of a work often poses a challenge to any confident historical perspective. Two examples from Germany illustrate this. Beethoven's Third ("Eroica") Symphony was first dedicated to Napoleon. The dedication was withdrawn after the composer became bitterly disillusioned with Bonaparte's betrayal of Revolutionary ideals. The music, however, remained unchanged. A composer's intentions can als o be more questionable. The operas of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), which were conceived partly to establish the supremacy of German art and carried strong anti-Semitic undertones, were taken up by the Nazis as cultural propaganda. The stain of German supr emacism and anti-Semitism remains, but in distancing oneself from Wagner's political purposes, it is impossible to ignore his enormous contribution to the literature of Western classical music. His many technical advances in the nature and treatment of t he orchestra as well as the unprecedented scale on which he was able to develop his motives provided future composers with bearings to explore then undreamed-of territories.

The music of Tyagaraja (1767-1847) represents a great historical turning point in the evolution of Carnatic music and the relationship between his bhakti and his music has led to much confusion. For the introduction of sangati-s (variations) into the kri ti form as well as many other personal contributions, he is regarded as having advanced the kriti form to an unsurpassed coherence. Although it is remarkable that Tyagaraja and the other members of the Trinity never seem to have met in their lifetimes (b oth Syama Sastri and Muttuswami Dikshitar lived in Tiruvarur), it is also instructive that all three felt, independently, the historical necessity of developing the kriti form. A clear appreciation of Tyagaraja's achievements, however, has been prevented by a haze of mythological stories surrounding his life.

The tenacity of these illusions was recently illustrated when a young reader of the Chennai-based Sruti magazine, in a letter entitled "Naive Beliefs" (see Sruti, December 1994), asked why we try to deify Tyagaraja instead of appreciating h is achievement as a man. A mob of angry opinions crowded the letters' page of the following issue, "shocked into disbelief" at the letter's "iconoclastic and rationalistic" message. A heated exchange continued in the following issues, revealing the unwil lingness of many Carnatic music listeners to separate Tyagaraja's musical accomplishment from his devotion to Rama.

For the past five years, N. Pattabhi Raman, the editor-in-chief of Sruti, has been speaking about this subject at conferences and festivals. To Pattabhi Raman, the separation between "art music" and "bhakti music" is vital to the understanding of Tyagaraja's work. He defines one of the main characteristics of art music as raga exploration, and shows how Tyagaraja and his contemporaries shifted the emphasis from the text to the music.

"Until the advent of the trinity," Pattabhi Raman writes (see Sruti, October 1996), "the dominant song-form was the prabandha. In this song-form, the emphasis was, by and large, on the text rather than the musical content (Geya prabandha s were important exceptions). But Tyagaraja and the other two... emphasised the musical content. They were really musical explorers.... I cite the fact that Tyagaraja has composed more than 30 kritis in Todi - and bequeathed to us different images of the raga within the same scalar framework." This new strength the kriti form found in the music of the Trinity helped to lead music away from its devotional past (centred on the religious poetry being set to music) and bring about the establishment of m odern concert music through the development of the kriti-suite format.

A 20th century portrait of the great composer Tyagaraja.-

HOW did Tyagaraja come to be deified? William J. Jackson, in his book Tyagaraja, Life and Lyrics (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 1991), suggests that the years following Tyagaraja's death were a period of great uncertainty for the Brahmins of the Cauvery river valley. The encroachment of their territories by the Muslim kings and the British Empire led the Hindu population to look to the near past for people representing their threatened ideals. Tyagaraja was a perfect candidate for Hindu saintho od: having devoted his life to praise of Rama and music, he became a sanyasi shortly before he died. A rapid transformation of his life story into mythology began almost immediately after his death. The first biographies were written by two of his discip les, a father and son. Already we see some of the many myths appearing that form our present picture of the man - the recitation of the Rama nama 96 crore times, the revival of a drowned man with the song Na Jivadhara ('staff of my life') and so o n.

Part of the mythology surrounding Tyagaraja is the belief that his music flowed from his lips through divine inspiration and without effort. The renowned master of the chitravina, Chitravina N. Ravikiran, argues that this view of the composer is incomple te. "Tyagaraja was a brilliant person and composer, his compositions were extremely down to earth and very communicative. He had a wonderful expression." This emotional directness has led many people to believe that composition was facile for him, as Rav ikiran further explains: "He had tremendous scholarship, many of the compositions he composed are not merely inspired works, but were also extremely deep, scholarly works."

Ravikiran's other concern is that people tend to overlook Tyagaraja's human side. He points out the several songs where Tyagaraja gives vent to numerous personal frustrations, such as Nadupai palikeru in Madhyamavati where Tyagaraja complains of t he local gossip that he has caused the partition of his family home. A surprising (though understandable) bitterness reveals itself in Vararagalayajnulu in Cencukambhoji where Tyagaraja describes some of his fellow musicians. The poem begins with:

They chatter and blabber pretending they're topnotch experts in melody and cadence...

Chitravina N. Ravikiran.-R.RAGU

(Tyagaraja, Life and Lyrics, William J. Jackson, OUP, Delhi, 1991)

"Maybe Tyagaraja might not have found the inclination to go and gossip with his neighbours about all the things happening to him," Ravikiran says. "He just preferred to compose these things as poetry and address them to God."

Pattabhi Raman also feels that a deeper understanding of Tyagaraja as a human being will allow many of the intended moods of his compositions to be understood. He is also concerned when people criticise elaborate alapanas and swaraprastaras and claim tha t such musical devices detract from the bhakti nature of the music. "Simply because Tyagaraja was a great bhakta, his music is not bhakti music. The fact that Wordsworth wrote about flowers does not make him a botanist. If Tyagaraja was a bhakti composer , he would only have written bhajans. I would go so far as to say that if Tyagaraja had not written music, we would not be talking about him today, and he would be remembered as a minor saint."

Ravikiran explains: "There are sides of Tyagaraja that people overlook, or choose to overlook, or start trying to justify. Once you start trying to justify something, then you are really doing injustice. Because that shows insecurity in being able to app reciate him for what he was. So you try to build a wall around him, of stories. They don't need it - Tyagaraja, Dikshitar, Shakespeare..."

Uday Krishnakumar is a student of music at the University of California, Berkeley.

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