Among the Trinity of South Indian Classical Music, Thyagaraja occupies the pride of place as the number one followed by Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri.
Kakarla Thyagabrahmam (or Tyagaraju as family and friends called him) was born on May 4, 1767 (Under the Pushya star in the month of Chaitra) in Tiruvarur in the present Tamil Nadu to Telugu Brahmin parents. His father Kakarla Ramabrahman and mother Sitammaa were ardent Sri Rama bakthas. His maternal grandfather Giriraja, a native of village Kakaria in the present day Karnool District in Andhra Pradesh, was a poet-composer in the Tanjavur King’s court.
Under the tutelage of Sonthi Ramanayya, an acclaimed music scholar of that time, Thyagaraja, as he came to be universally known, commenced learning music from a very early age. Right from start, he laid lesser stress on the technicalities of classical music, for music to him was a medium that he used to worship Lord Rama and experience God’s presence. When barely thirteen Tyagaraja inscribed the first ever song he composed “Namo namo aghavayya…” set to raga Desika Thodi on the wall of his house.
There is an interesting story of Ramanayya asking his sishya (student) to sing in the presence of the great musician and composer Shadkaala Godinda Marar from Kerala who was visiting his house. Thyagaraja was only too happy to oblige and instantly he composed “Endoro Mahaanubhavulu…” (“What a great soul…”) in raga Sri and sang it admiring Marar for his erudition in music and his unstinting bhakthi. Highly pleased at this, Ramanayya informed the King of his disciple’s genius. The King invited Thyagaraja to sing in his court and become a part of the Royal Court following the footsteps of his grandfather. Thyagaraja promptly rejected the invitation as he was far from enamoured to pursue the vocation as a Court singer. The story goes on to say how Thyagaraja instantly composed a gem of a kriti starting with the words “Nidhi chala sukhama…Ramuni sannidhi sukhama” (“Does wealth bring happiness? … Does being in Rama’s proximity bring happiness?”). Infuriated at this irreverence, Thyagaraja’s brother Japyesa threw the idols of Lord Rama that Thyagaraja worshipped into river Cauvery. Greatly grieved at the loss, Thyagaraja soulfully sang “Endu daagi naado…?” (“Where has he gone and hidden..?.”). As an ascetic singing bard, he undertook a pilgrimage to many temples spread across South India. While worshipping, he soulfully sang to the Gods and Goddess consecrated in those temples. At the end of three months, Rama’s idol that had remained deep in the lap of the river resurfaced.
Another story tells us of what happened when Thyagaraja went into his prayer room after reciting Lord Rama’s name 960 million times. He heard a knock on the door. To his amazement the bhakta saw Rama, Sita and Hanumaan enter and bless him. Wonderstruck at this divine revelation, Thyagaraja sang “Baalakanagamaya”. All lovers of music of the present day are familiar with the anupallavi in kriti “Ela nee dayaraadhu” and “Bhavanuta”.
One day when Thyagaraja reached the temple at Thirupathi the temple was closed. Standing with folded hands in front of the closed doors, he sang “Teratiyagaraadaa” and to everyone’s amazement the doors opened on their own and the screen kept in front of the Lord’s idol fell apart. Utterly humbled at the miracle, Thyagaraja sang “Venkatesha ninu sevimpa…”
The disciples who followed him wherever he wandered wrote down Thyagaraja’s compositions on palm leaves when he sang them sitting in prayer at temples.
Apart from kritis, there are two Telugu Musical Plays to Thyagaraja’s credit. “Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam is a five-act
play with 138 verses arranged in 45 kritis set to 28 ragas. The other is a one-act play “Nauka Charitam” with 43 verses arranged in 21 kritis set to 13 ragas.Valmiki’s epic Ramayana contains 24,000 Sanskrit verses. Interestingly, during a life committed to worshipping Lord Rama, Thyagaraja is believed to have composed an equal number of 24,000 Telugu kritis eulogizing Lord Rama. But today only just about 700 are available.
This bard’s Pancharatna Keerthanas or Five Musical Gems are the most famous. They are rendered in sarva laghu swaras and are set to aadi thala. Their pallavis and anupallavis are absolute musical gems in terms of rhythm, music and bhava, and are mathematically precise.
“Jagadananda karaka” in raga Nata composed in lucid poetic Sanskrit is the first. Thyagaraja composed it with six charanams in mellifluous Sanskrit repeating Lord Rama’s name ninety times. However, when his disciples entreated their guru to slightly expand the song, he happily acceded by adding two charanams with eighteen more names of Lord Rama. Thus the Jagadananda karaka version that we have has Lord Rama’s name repeated 108 times with the signature Thyagaraja mudra sung twice (instead of once that we find in all his compositions). And it is literally and poetically a musical diamond garland that the bhakta crafted and offered at Lord Rama’s feet for making the entire world happy.
“Duduku gala” in raga Gowli is the second. In it Thyagaraja shoulders the blame for all the misdeeds of men and seeks Lord Rama’s divine help in redeeming them from their unpardonable conditions.
“Sadhinchene” in raga Aarabhi is the third. In its breathtaking lullaby, Thyagaraja affectionately taunts Lord Krishna for being playfully clever in doing what he chooses to do.
“Kanakana ruchira” in raga Varaali is the fourth. In it Thyagaraja describes the divine beauty of Lord Rama.
“Endoru mahanu bhavulu” in raga Sri is the fifth. Thyagaraja is believed to have composed and sung this song of unparalleled rhythmic beauty in the presence of Shadkala Govinda Marar praising him for his divine music and
Some of the many of Thyagaraja’s popular and famous compositions are “Saamaja vara gamana” in raga Hindolam, “Aadamodi galadhe” in raga Charukeshi, “Raju vedale” in raga Thodi, “Ninne name naanura” in raga Pantuvaraali
and “Nagu momu kanaleni” in raga Abheri.
When he was just 18, Thyagaraja married Parvathi. After five years Parvathi passed away. Thyagaraja then took Parvathi’s sister Kamalamba as his wife and the couple had a daughter whom they named Seetalakshmi. In 1810 to attend Seetalakshmi’s wedding, one of Thyagaraja’s disciples named Walajapettai Venkataramana Bhagavathar trekked all the way to Thiruvaiyaar with a picture of Lord Rama as his gift. Moved by this gesture, Thyagaraja sang “Nannu paalimpa”.
Thyagaraja’s life was synonymous with bhakti weaved in music. Music to him was meditation to experience the pristine Omkara resonance and through numerous songs he reemphasized this belief – “Is there a more sacred path to bhakti than music?”, “Worship the gods with the sound of seven notes”, “The knowledge of music leads the mind to God and to eternal bliss”.
Thyagaraja died on January 6, 1847 (on the fifth day of Pushya Bahula Panchami). By way of perpetuating the memory of this great soul, every year a month long (January-February) music festival popularly known as Thyagaraja Aaradhana is held in Tiruvaiyaru. Musicians from far and near go on a musical pilgrimage and pay their tribute to the Saint Composer by singing Pancharatna Keerthanas and other kritis at the hallowed venue at Tiruvaiyaru.
1. Dr.T.M.Sarvothaman Nedungadi’s lecture delivered at All India Radio, Calicut (On October 10, 2012)
2. Musicologist Dr.V.Raghavan’s paper on Shyama Shastri
3. Compositions of Shyama Shastri by T.K.Govinda Rao
4. Edited by S.R.A. Das