Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar- a life sketch
Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775 – 1835), one of the trinity of Carnatic Music, was a complete musician, a scholar and a sadhaka the one who attained his goal. The genius of Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar was that he was a remarkable synthesis of a versatile composer adept in several distinctive forms of music; of a towering scholar in Sanskrit which adorned his music with grace, dignity and tranquility; and of a Sadhaka steeped in devotion and good tradition. Each of his compositions is unique, brilliantly crafted and well chiseled work of intricate art. The most fascinating aspect of Dikshitar’s songs is the grandeur and majesty of his music; the intellectually sublime lyrics and the overall tranquil joy.
There is hardly a composer comparable to Dikshitar, in versatility, in enriching his work with such poetic imagery, technical sophistication; and above all in permeating his compositions with soulful repose.
Muthuswami Dikshitar was the son of Ramaswami Dikshitar (1735 – 1812), a well-known scholar –composer- musician of his time.
Ramaswami Dikshitar is described as the son of Bhagirathyamma and Vekateshvara Dikshita, a Dravida Brahmin belonging to Auttara Kashyapa Gotra, Apastamba Sutra. Ramasvami Dikshita was born in the Saka-samvathsara 1657 (1735 AD) at Kanchipuram. When he was of about seven years of age, his parents moved from Kanchipuram to Govindapuram, near Tanjavuru. In order to pursue his interest in music, Ramasvami Dikshita is said to have stayed as an Ante-vasin, a resident student, for a period of about two years, with the famous composer-musician of those times Veerabhadrayya of Tanjavuru; and , learnt Kritis composed by him in Rakthi and Desi Ragas. He also learnt to sing, with ease and understanding, the Svaras, Alapana, Pallavi and the Svara-kalpana. Thereafter, he studied further under Venkata-Vaidyanatha Dikshita (maternal-grandson of the Great Venkatamakhin). Here, for one year he learnt Veena; and followed it up with the study of Venkatamakhin’s Chaturdandi Prakashika with its raga, upanga, Bhashanga ragas, Gitas and Tala-lakshanas. And, much later, at the instruction of his guru Yogi Chidambaranatha, Ramasvami Dikshita shifted his family from Govindapuram to Thiruvavur in the Tanjavuru district. He settled down in Tiruvavuru having gained reputation as a much leaned scholar, composer and musician.
Ramasvami Dikshitar had to his credit a large number of tana varnas, pada varnas, darus, ragamalikas and kirtanas. His ragamalika in 108 ragas and taalas (Ashtottara Shatha Raga Taala Malika) was an outstanding composition not merely for its sheer size but also for its melodic charm and rhythmic patterns; and for use of some uncommon ragas and taalas. Ramaswami Dikshitar also gained fame through his improvisations of the popular melody, the Raga Hamsadwani.
It was at Thiruvavur that Ramaswami Dikshitar, just past forty years of age; was blessed with a son in the manmatha year, palguna month and Krithika nakshatra (March 25th, 1775), just as the annual Vasantotsava was being celebrated in the temple of Sri Tyagaraja Swamy and Sri Nilothpalambika. He named the baby boy as Muthuswami after his protecting deity Karthikeya. After Muthuswamy, two sons – Chinnaswamy (formally- Venkata-vaidyanatha Sharma, named after his Guru) (1778‑1823), and Baluswamy (1786‑1858) – and a daughter – Balambika – were born to Ramaswamy Dikshitar and Subbammal
Apart from the traditional education in Veda and Vedangas, the boy Muthuswami received training in the lakshya and lakshana aspects of Karnataka Samgita. The lakshana geethas and prabandhas of Venkatamakhin formed an important input of his training. He gained proficiency, in Veena and in vocal music as well. He also gained training in Vyakarana (through a text named Kaumudi), Kavya, Nataka, and Alamkara aspects of poetics. By about sixteen, Mutthuswamy had gained familiarity with Jyothisha, Ayurveda and Tantra.
Muthuswami was a studious lad rather absorbed in himself . Concerned with his detached attitude; his parents got him married at an early age. That didn’t seem to change the boy’s attitude; and therefore he was married the second time.
At the invitation of Muddukrishna Mudaliyar, Zamindar and an art connoisseur, Ramaswami Dikshitar moved his family to Manali, a Zamindari near Madras.Muddukrishna Mudaliyar wasa Dubash (interpreter)closely connected with the East India Company. He was succeeded by his son Venkatakrishna Mudaliar, who continued the patronage to the Dikshitar family. Venkatakrishna Mudaliar (sometimes referred to as Chinnaswami) was also a Dubash of the East India Company and in that capacity used to visit, quite often, Fort St George, the official seat of East India Company in South India. He would often take Muthuswami and his brothers to Fort St. George, to listen to ‘airs’- Western Music played by Irish men in the British band. It was here that Muthuswami Dikshitar gained familiarity with Western music.
It is said that at the suggestion of Col. Browne who was in the service of the East India Company, Dikshitar composed the text in Sanskrit and Telugu for well known Western tunes. He also composed songs in Sanskrit and Telugu based on Western notes. The collection of these compositions numbering about forty later came to be known as “Nottuswara Sahithya”. Another significant fallout of the Dikshitar family association with the court at the Fort St. George was that Baluswami, the younger brother of Muthuswami became fascinated by an instrument called fiddle whose well tuned sounds seemed to approximate human voice. Baluswami learnt the Fiddle from an Irish musician and soon became quite an adept in playing Carnatic music over fiddle; and the family wondered why it could not replace traditional veena as the accompanying instrument. They tried it out and it worked very well. Since thenViolin has become an indispensable accompaniment for a Carnatic music concert.
When Muthuswami was about 25 years of age, he accompanied his family guru Yogi Chidambaranatha to Varanasi in obedience to the guru’s wish. Muthuswami’s wives too followed their husband. Muthuswami spent seven fruitful years in Kashi. Those were his most wonderful and educative years and left a lasting influence on his life and works. A whole new world opened to Muthuswami at Kashi. During this period, Dikshitar acquired a wealth of knowledge under yogi’s tutelage. The yogi taught him Advaita siddhantha, Tantra and initiated him into Sri Vidya upasana. During these years, Dikshitar visited several holy places in the Himalayan region such as Badrinath, Kedarnath and Pashupathinath; and worshipped the deities in those shrines.
During his stay at Varanasi, Muthuswamy Dikshitar had splendid opportunities to listen to Hindustani music in its pristine forms. He seemed to be impressed greatly by the ancient Drupad form of singing and of playing the string instruments; particularly by its elaboration of raga (alap), the tempo and the structure of the lyrics. This had a profound influence on his creative genius; and apparently on his portrayal of ragas in general and in transforming the Hindustani ragas into their Carnatic form, in particular.
[ It is said that while in Varanasi , Sri Dikshitar stayed with his Guru Sri Chidambaranatha yogi in a house situated in one of the lanes near Hanuman Ghat. Attached to the house is the temple of Sri Chakra Lingeshwara worshipped by Sri Dikshitar and his Guru. The temple had fallen into ruins for many years. In the year 1936, when Kanchi Kamakoti Maha Periyava Sri Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswathi Swamigal visited Varanasi , he identified this temple and arranged for its restoration. Thereafter. Sri T M Arunachala Sastrigal of Tanjore and his descendants devoted themselves for the worship and maintenance of the temple.
The remarkable feature of the Sri Chakra Lingeshwara is that the Linga is embedded with Sri Yantra.
Next to the Linga is the image of Sri Ardhanarishwara worshipped by Sri Dikshitar.
The image panel on the temple wall includes a portrait of Sri Dikshitar.
[ Source : I gratefully acknowledge the webpage of Dr Meera Rajaram Pranesh at
At the end of the seven years, Yogi Chidambaranatha advised Muthuswami to return to South and to commence his music and spiritual career with the worship of Karthikeya on the hills of Tiruthani. Soon after that, the Yogi attained his Samadhi. Dikshitar performed the final rites of his departed guru and left Varanasi.
Yogi Sri Chidambaranatha’s Samadhi is located within the temple near Hanuman Ghat on the banks of the Ganga.
The family at Manali, in the meanwhile, had fallen on bad days. The life there was becoming increasingly difficult and Ramaswami Dikshitar too was in poor health. The family therefore decided to return to Thiruvarur. After making arrangements for the family’s return to Thiruvarur, Muthuswami headed straight to Tiruthani as ordained by his Guru. It is said, immediately after being blessed by the Lord there Dikshitar started composing kritis. The first kriti he composed was Srinathadi Guruguho jayathi in raga Mayamalava gaula. His first group of kritis called guruguha vibhakti krithis were also composed in Tiruthani. It was here that Dikshitar became a proper Vak-geya Kara, the composer who sets his lyrics tomusic. The mudra, his signature to his creations was Guruguha, which approximates to” the Guru dwelling in the cave of my heart”. Dikshitar was then around 33 years of age.
[ Manasollasa (also called Abhjilashitarta Chintamani) ascribed to the Kalyana Chalukya King Someshwara III (1127-1139 AD) is an encyclopedic work, written in Sanskrit, covering a wide range of subjects. Its Chapter Three: Prakirnaka: deals with topics such as: Guna–Dosha (merits and de-merits) of Vak-geya-kara (composers who set songs to music). The text grades the composers (Vak-geya-kara) into three classes. According to its classification, the lowest is the lyricist; the second is one who sets to tune the songs written by others; and, the highest is one who is the Dhatu Mathu Kriyakari – who writes the lyrics (Mathu), sets them to music (Dhatu) and ably presents (Kriyakari) his compositions.
Sri Dikshitar was indeed a Vak-geya-kara of the highest order.]
On his way back home to Thiruvarur, Dikshitar stayed for sometime with a Yogi , Ramachandra Saraswathi, popularly known as Upanishad Brahmendra who lived and taught in Kancipuram.
[Incidentally, he was also an early teacher of Tyagaraja the great composer musician.]
During his stay in Kanchipuram Dikshitar set to music “Rama Ashtapadhi” a collection of stanzas composed by Upanishad Brahmendra. Dikshitar returned to Thiruvarur in the year 1809. The Ashtapadi , sadly , is no longer available.
The years at Thiruvarur were very productive.Here Dikshitar composed sixteen kritis on the various attributes of Ganesha, eleven kritis of Navavarana group on Kamalamba and a set of kritis on Thygaraja and Nilothpalambika the presiding deities of the town. The Nilothpalambika set of krithis enlivened ragas like Narayanagowla that were fading away.
Three years after Muthuswami returned to Thiruvarur (1814), his father Ramaswami Dikshitar, at the age of eighty-two, passed away in Saka – Dhatu-Nama- samvathsara 1739 (1817 AD) in Magha –masa on the auspicious Shiva-rathri night. Further, it was becoming increasingly difficult to carry on life at Thiruvarur. The Dikshitar brothers therefore decided to move to Tanjavur in search of a living. Tanjavur, in those days, was relatively peaceful, secure and a center for culture and learning; while most of the Southern regions was under the threat of the Sultan.
[ It is said that at Thanjavur Dikshitar-brothers met Sri Shyama Sastry, another of the trinity, and the four together composed a varnam (I am not clear which one it was.)]
At Thanjavur the Dikshitar-brothers began to accept students interested in learning music , in order to make a living. They were then approached by one Mahadeva Annavi (Subbarayan) a Veena player and a dance-master (Nattuvanar) to teach his sons. His four sons who became disciples of Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar and propagated his musical compositions – Chinnaiah Pillai (1802-1856); Ponnayya Pillai (1804-1864); Sivanandam Pillai(1808-1863) and the legendary Vadivelu Pillai (1810-1845) – gained great fame as Thanjavur Quartet. Of these Chinnaiah and Shivanandam were Bharatha_natyam masters and composers of some popular Tana Varnams, Pada Varnams, and Thillanas etc.
Chinnaiah , the eldest of the four, was a great teacher of dance; and, he later moved to the Mysore court of Sri Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (1794-1868) who was great patron of art and literature ; and , who was himself a poet and an author of many works . Some Chinnaiah’s compositions are dedicated to Wodeyar. He also wrote a Telugu work called Abhinaya Lakshanamu, a version of the reworked Sanskrit text Abhinayadarpana of Nandikeshvara .
Ponnaiah was a composer of great merit. Several of his kritis including ‘Ambaneelambari’ (Neelambari), ‘Satileni’ (Poorvikalyani) and Tillanas as also other Nritta compositions (Jatisvarams and Tillanas) are attributed to him are popular among musicians even to this day.
During their stay at Serfoji’s Durbar in Tanjavur, they brought into use western musical instruments such as violin and clarinet as an accompaniments for Carnatic music and performance of dance. Sivanandam , in particular, is credited with introducing the Clarinet to Carnatic music.
Vadivelu, the youngest, was a virtual genius , praised by Dikshitar as eka-sandhi-grahi , one who grasps immediately after just one hearing. Vadivelu contributed significantly to dance also. The great Tyagaraja too admired Vadivelu’s musical skills. He popularized violin among the Carnatic musicians. Vadivelu was a favorite of Swathi Thirunal Maharaja who appointed him his Court Musician. It is said that in 1834, Swati Thirunal Maharaja gifted him a rare Violin made of ivory (which is now said to be placed in the Quartet’s ancestral home at 1818, West Main Street, Behind Brihadeswara Temple). Both these geniuses sadly died at their young age – Swati Thirunal at 34; and, Vadivelu at 35.
The brothers propagated the famed Pandanallur style of Bharata Natyam. The renowned nattuvanar Sri Meenakshisundaram Pillai descended from the Thanjavur Quartet.
Dikshitar during his stay in Thanjavur composed a number of Samasti Charana Kirtanas.
[A kriti generally follows a certain structure: Pallavi the opening passage of two lines is followed by Anupallavi. Raga is introduced with the cyclical rendition and improvisation of Pallavi and Anupallavi. The body of the kriti is its Charanas. Each Charana usually has four lines. The final Charana contains the Mudra or the signature of the composer. However, certain kritis of Dikshitar have only two segments Pallavi and Anupallavi where the latter acts as the Charana. Such kritis are called Samasti Charana Kritis. They perhaps represent a stage in the evolution of the kriti format. E.g.Anandamritakarshini (Amritavarshini); Hari Yuavatheem Haimavathim (Hemavathi) etc.]
Dikshitar brothers stayed in Thanjavur for about three years (about 1817 -1820).
Baluswamy who was proficient in Veena, Swarbat,Sitar and Mridangam, along with his brother Chinnaswami joined the court of Venkateshwara Eddappa I [1761 – 1839] the Raja of Ettayapuram (Tirunelveli district) , as Asthana Vidwan of Ettayapuram Samsthanam.
Soon after that, Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar too left Tanjavur; and he went on a virtual pilgrimage visiting a number of temples and composing kritis in honor of the deities he visited. In a way of speaking, his life was a long pilgrimage.
Years later, Muthuswami Dikshitar also settled down in Ettayapuram at the request of the king. A few years later Dikshitar’s both wives passed away. Some sources mention that Dikshitar had a daughter and she lived in Tiruchirapalli; but not much is known about her.
Dikshitar comes through as a very astute scholar devotee, a sadhaka. He was a viraktha, unattached to possessions, to places or to emotions. He was voluntarily poor and accepted his poverty with equanimity. He did not seek favor or patronage from anyone. He was an intense devotee but undemonstrative; you never find despondency, helplessness or begging for divine grace or intervention. There is certain composure, measured grace, dignity and a mellow joy in his works as in his life. He was solely devoted to Sri Vidya Upasana and to his music which was his medium of self-expression. His works exude serene contemplation and soulful joy.
It was on Naraka Chaturdasi the fourteenth day of the lunar calendar in the month of Ashwija, the day preceding Deepavali (October 18th, 1835), Muthuswami Dikshitar performed Parva Mandala puja to Devi and sang Ehi Annapurne (punnagavarali). This was Dikshitar’s last composition. Thereafter he asked his disciples to sing Meenakshi mey mudam dehi (purvi Kalyani) .When they sang the Anupallavi he asked them to repeat the phrases Meena lochani pasha mochini. As they were singing, Muthuswami Dikshitar uttered “Shive pahi, Shive pahi Shive pahi” and breathed his last , like a true yogi.
Muthuswami Dikshitar had been yearning for Videha Mukthi. He beseeches the Divine Mother repeatedly and addresses her as one who grants Videha mukthi (Mamaka videha mukthi sadanam– Ranganayakam-Nayaki); the bestower of videha mukthi (vikalebara kaivalya danaya-Guruguhaya-Sama); and at times he feels he is nearing videha mukthi (Videha kaivalyam yami-Tyagaraje-Saranga).
Videha mukthi is a concept of the later Advaita schools. It believes, one can attain liberation (moksha) from attachments while still encased in a body. Such an attained one is Jivan Muktha. The body continues to function till its Prarabdha Karma is exhausted; thereafter the mortal coils fall away. Videha mukthi is shedding off the body by a Jivan muktha, the one who has already attained liberation.
In the Sri Vidya tradition, a jivan muktha is a devotee, a bhaktha as well as a jnani the wise one. Here, the wisdom consists in realizing his identity (sva svarupa prapti) with the Mother goddess. It is this wisdom that liberates him (jivan Mukthi). This liberating wisdom is granted to him by the Mother out of pure love, when he completely surrenders to her in full faith and devotion.
Jivanmukthi, emancipation while yet alive, is also a concept of the Tantra Sisddantha which believes that it is possible for a person to transact with the world without getting involved in it. In other words, one lives on actively and cheerfully, amidst distractions and confusions of the world without letting his self reflect them. His moorings in the phenomenal world have withered away, his instinct of self-preservation and insecurity has been minimized. He is alive only to essential thing in life that is the source of life. The real world continues to exist for him. But he does not rest in the world but rests in himself (Svarupa pratishta). Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar, either way, was a jivan Muktha.
The king and Baluswami Dikshitar performed the last rites of the departed genius. The Samadhi of Muthuswami Dikshitar is at Ettayapuram but appears to be in rather poor condition. In a petition submitted to Shri. Abdul Kalam then president of India, the petitioners submitted “It is the fervent desire of all music lovers as well as all lovers of Indian culture across the world that this Samadhi be declared as a heritage site and treated as a National Monument, ideally with a beautiful museum. We are extremely concerned that there has been a move made to demolish this important cultural and artistic memorial.”
Muthuswami Dikshitar was a many splendored genius. He redefined the paradigm of Carnatic music. Each of his compositions exemplifies the essence of raga bhava and captures the depth and soulfulness of the melody. His vision of some of the ragas and their structure is sublime. He achieved what the revered Venkatamakhi, at one time, thought was not possible; he gave form and substance to all the 72 Melakartha ragas. Besides, he breathed life into several ancient ragas that were fading away from memory. His compositions are crisp and well chiselled. His Sanskrit is delightfully captivating. His synthesis of Carnatic and Hindustani Music systems is creative and original. His kritis replete with soothing, graceful Sanskrit lyrics, many with winsome Samashti Charanams, comparable to the Dhrupad stanzas occupy an exclusive niche in the world of Indian Music. The technical sophistication, intellectual brilliance and the majesty of his music is unsurpassed. Sri Muthuswami Dikshitar is a crest jewel of Indian music and spirituality.
Continued in Part Two:
Sri Dikshitar and Western Music
Map: courtesy of http://www.carnatica.net/special/md-kshetra-ii.htm
I gratefully acknowledge Shri S Rajam’s paintings of Shri Dikshitar’s life-events
All other pictures are from Internet