SRI TYAGARAJA (1767 – 1847) – PART III – Music

22 Feb

 (For my friend Shri Kannan Rangachar)

Continued from  Part II –  Life


Many- splendored genius

19.1. Sri Tyagaraja was a many-splendored genius. He was a musician, poet, philosopher and Saint combined in one. In him music, poetry and spirituality reside in sublime harmony; and, find spontaneous expression in every note of his music (Samgita) and every phrase of his poetry (Sahitya).

There are some who regard him as a divinity, a saint; and venerate his kritis as sacred literature. There are also those who are in awe of the inspiring music, the lucid poetic expressions and philosophical insights that abound in his Kritis. The ardent devotees of Sri Rama revere his poetry as an outpouring of Rama-Bhakthi. For them, Sri Tyagaraja’s music is a means to attain God’s Grace, Moksha – Sadhana.  And, to most other music lovers, Tyagaraja and Karnataka Samgita are the two names of the same entity that is pure and enjoyable.

19.2. For successive generations of musicians and music lovers in South India, Sri Tyagaraja’s Kritis-kirtanas have been the treasure house of education, enlightenment and enjoyment. Here, they get to admire the sparkling expressions that shine forth in a simple language they can relate to; the effortless ease with which words (Matu) and Music (Dhatua) blend into each other; and, the graceful   movements of his smooth flowing music that makes singing a great pleasure (gana-anukula), a tranquil delight (sukhanubhava).

19.3. It is said; music bestows bliss instantaneously; but, poetry on contemplation. But, for Tyagaraja composing the song and singing (Samgita and Sahitya) followed each other and flowed out at once.



20.1. The farther in time we go from him, it is his saintliness that seems to sparkle and take over. But, what is lost sight is the human aspect of Tyagaraja. Perhaps, not many, now, look at him as a person; an individual who lived amidst his fellow beings enduring the pains of a common householder. He did suffer from poverty; frustrations; sense of insecurity; pain caused by cruel jibes mocking at his indifference towards things that matter in life; his Unchavritti seeking alms while singing along the streets, which normally would dent ones’ self-esteem. He was utterly helplessness against envy and hatred of neighbours and relatives. But, at the same time; he also did enjoy moments of bliss, joy and fulfilment, derived through his Rama-bhakthi in which he was firmly rooted. That indeed was the essence of his life encased in tough shell.  All such varied phases of his life-experiences gained explicit form in his poetry and music.

20.2. Perhaps one cannot truly appreciate the intrinsic merit of his songs without taking into account Tyagaraja the person; the persons who moulded his  life; the events that influenced his outlook and also the ways of his living and feeling; the values in life that he held very high ; and, his intense devotion  (Bhakthi) and dedication towards his Supreme Ideal (paramartha-Sadhana).

21.1. He gave vent to his sorrows, disappointments, frustrations, agony, disgust or mock-anger, hurt and pain, and above all his joy in adoring Sri Rama, by sublimating those emotions into soulful songs that gushed forth spontaneously. For instance; in his Nadupai palikeru (Madhyamavati) he complains of the local gossip blaming him for the partition of his family home; his Vararagalayajnulu (Cencukambhoji) speaks of his disappointment with his fellow musicians; in his Nayeda vanchana and Etula gadapudavo he refers to confrontation with his cousins (daayadi). And, there are many other songs through which he pours out bitterness and sorrow. He preferred to compose his pains and pleasures into songs, addressing them to his Sri Rama instead of complaining to mortals. He even points out, in mild sarcasm, the deception that the Lord indulges in (Sadinchane). There are of course, countless songs that gushed out in pure ecstasy and delight calling out to Sri Rama.

22.2. Perhaps, he did not wait to search for words or for a Raga to suit the mood or the song. Each followed the other naturally. He improvised his songs and music on the spot to express his emotions with ease. Sri Tyagaraja is, thus, truly matchless for his creative genius.

Shishya parampara

23.1. Sri Tyagaraja, today, is recognized more by his music than by his life-events or by his poetry. He himself was aware of the high quality of his music and songs that made him famous even in distant lands (Dura Deshana). [In his song Dasharathi, he says: How can I ever forget you O Rama / you have made me known in far-off lands..!]. And, after his departure, his fame multiplied and spread far and wide beyond the shores of India.

23.2. In that regard, Sri Tyagaraja   was fortunate to have had around him a line of devoted disciples (Shishya parampara) who were eager to learn. It is said; Sri Tyagaraja, as a teacher, was a strict disciplinarian. He ensured that his students learnt and practiced the right and authentic style of singing his Kritis, without flawing its text (Patantara) or the grammar and diction of the Raga. He would not tolerate deviations from the poetry and music that he created with great earnestness.

24.1. His disciples, even as they left Tanjavuru in search of patronage, elsewhere, carried with them the Kritis, the music and the tradition of their Master, at the heart of which was Rama Bhakthi, with reverence and gratitude. They, in turn, were followed by their descendents and pupils (Shishya parampara) who made their life-mission to preserve and carry forward their precious inheritance. That has helped in maintaining the continuity of Sri Tyagaraja-musical –tradition (Sampradaya) over the generations in its pristine form, in keeping it alive and in spreading it far and wide.

 Tyagaraja linage


24.2. The music of Sri Tyagaraja has come down to us in three main Schools (Sampradayas); the Tillaisthalam (Rama Iyengar); the Umayalpuram (brothers Krishna and Sundara Bhagavatar-s); and, the Walajapet (Venkatramana Bhagavatar and his son Krishnasawmi Bhagavatar) Sampradaya-s. Among the other important disciples of Sri Tyagaraja  were:  Tiruvattiyur Veena Kuppa Ayyar who wrote down many songs of his teacher (he was also a composer of varnams and kritis); Tanjavuru Rama Rao who served as the manager of Tyagaraja’s household and kept notes of his life-events; and, Manambuchavadi Venkatasubbaier (composer of Kritis and Ragamalikas).

We have to be grateful to all these and other savants who served their teacher and his music; and, also enriched our lives.

24.3. As Sri Tyagaraja, today, is recognized by many, more as a musician let’s talk of his music before coming to other aspects of his works.


Music culture

25.1. The period of Sri Tyagaraja that stretched from the late 18th to mid 19th century, was perhaps the brightest epoch in the history of Karnataka Music. It is hailed as the golden age which witnessed a virtual explosion of new formats of musical forms and compositions of sparkling beauty and charm; as the invigorating phase that ushered in innovation and elaboration of fresh Ragas following the 72 melakarta scheme that was beginning to take root; and as the turning point (parva kala) that gave a new sense of direction, vigour and identity to the music of South India. And above all, it was the period that was adorned by extraordinarily brilliant music composers, musicologists and singers. The wealth of the musical genius of Karnataka music flowered and flourished during this period when every branch of music and music related art-forms got enriched.


25.2. Until the time of Sri Tyagaraja, the music- scene of South India was dominated by a song-format known as Prabandha which played an important role in the development of music as also of dance-drama. Prabandha, essentially, is a tightly structured (Nibaddha Samgita) musical composition that is governed by a set of rules. Venkatamakhin (son of Govindacharya a Kannada speaking scholar and musicologist who migrated from Mysore to Tanjavuru) in his landmark work Chaturdandi Prakasika (ca. 1635) made a systematic classification of Mela or Melakarta Ragas (parent scales) based on combination of varying Swaras (notes). Chaturdandi Prakasika, as the name denotes, gathered various music-forms under a fourfold system (Chaturdandi) comprising Gita, Prabandha, Thaya and Alapa. Here, Prabandha denotes a composition having specific characteristics; and, that which is well composed – ‘prabandhayeti Prabandha’. However, the definition was narrowed down to include only those compositions which are made up of Six Angas (birudu, pada, tenaka, pāta and tāla) and Four Dhatus (Udgrāha, Melāpaka, Dhruva and Abhoga).

The structure of a Prabandha, by its very nature, had to adhere to a prescribed format. In general, the emphasis appeared to be more on the text than on the musical content. The faithfulness to the form was, at times, carried to its limits. And, the Prabandha form, in due course, grew rather rigid.

And, Prabandha, naturally, had to give place to improvised, easier and innovative (manodharma samgita) forms of music having distinctive features of their own. Yet; it is the basic elements of Prabandha that provide guidelines even to the modern composers of classical music.

prabandha (1)


[Most of the medieval Prabandha-s eventually disappeared because of the stiffness of their musical construction. Yet; it should also be mentioned that Prabandha helped the Karnataka music, enormously, in ensuring continuity of its ancient tradition.]

Nama Siddhanta


25.3. By about the same time, there arose in the Tanjavuru Cauvery delta the doctrine of Nama Siddhanta founded on immense faith in the power of  chanting Lord’s name.  Nama Siddhanta averred that Nama-kirtana is the most effective and the easiest path leading to liberation, in the present age.  This movement ushered in   a tradition of singing devotional hymns and songs in chorus. The Bhajana Sampradaya popularised by Sri Bodhendra, Ayyaval , Sadguruswami and others gave birth to series of free-flowing, sweet sounding soulful songs of devotion and melody that could be sung by all in a group with ease and delight. This new form of unstructured innovative songs gushed out in the form of hundreds of Bhajans, Divyanamas Kirtanas, Utsava sampraddya kirtanas and Namdvalis. The Groups also enacted dance dramas adorned with splendid poetry and tuneful songs of various forms. All these were regarded as a mellow and sweet worship form of the Lord, Madhura-Bhakthi.

Sri Tyagaraja and Nama Siddhanta


26.1. Sri Tyagaraja in his younger days was surrounded by an environment that was charged with the fervour of Nama Siddhanta. He, naturally, was nurtured on the Bhajana Sampradaya, which was at its height in the Cauvery delta at that time.  He took part in the Bhajana-s conducted by groups at homes or in special halls (Bhajana mandira) , where they celebrated with great enthusiasm the festivals such as the wedding of Sri Rama and Seetha (Seetha Kalyanam); as also of Rukmini (Rukmini Kalyanam).

26.2. Sri Tyagaraja was a follower of the Nama Siddhanta tradition and of the larger path of devotion (Bhakthi-marga). A significant number of his songs are about the greatness of the Lord’s name and the doctrine relating to its recitation. They seem to have been composed, especially, for singing during the Bhajana and Kirtana sessions. Among these, a set of about twenty-four songs, based on Shodasha Upachara (sixteen modes of worship offered to the deity), grouped under Utsava-sampradaya–kirtanas are simpler in structure but rich in melody and literary quality. In addition, he composed about seventy-eight songs (Divya-nama-samkirtanam) for congregational singing as also for his daily worship of Sri Rama, his Ista-daiva.

Utsava Sampradaya Kirtanas have three or more charanas and are mostly set to slow tempo. These types of kritis are ideal for devotional congregation and chorus singing on account of the multiple charanas having identical dhatus. Some examples are ‘Rama Rama Rama Sri lali Sri Rama’ (Sahana) with as many as sixteen charanas; ‘Dina janavana’ (Bhupalam); ‘Karuna jalade’ (Nadanamakriya); ‘Bhaja Ramam’ (Huseni); ‘Ramabhirama’ (Darbar).  The other well-known Utsava Sampradaya kritis include ‘Hecharika ga rara’ (Yadukula Kamboji) and ‘Nagumomu’ (Madhyamavati).

Geya Nataka

27.1. He is also said to have composed three musical dramas (Geya Nataka). Of these, only two namely: Prahlada Bhakthi Vijayam and Nauka Charitam are available. But, the third – Sitarama Vijayam- is sadly lost.

27.2. The main theme of his Prahlada Bhakthi Vijayam is not the mere story of Prahlada; but, it is about several aspects of Bhakthi. The unwavering devotion of Prahlada towards his God Sri Hari made a deep imprint in the heart of Sri Tyagaraja. And, he sought to immortalize his admiration of the boy’s Bhakthi through his songs and music.  Here, the treatment of Prahlada’s Bhakthi is again characterized by Sri Tyagaraja’s own attitude. In the play, Prahlada addresses his songs to Sri Rama pleading for help, kindness and Love.  Here, Rama is none other than Para Brahman, the Supreme Reality. Sri Tyagaraja’s mentor, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra Yogin had earlier taught him that RA-MA* is indeed the essence of both the Ashtakshari Narayana–mantra and the Panchakshari Shiva–mantra.  Musically, Prahlada Bhakthi Vijayam is richly filled with Kirtanas, many of which in rare (Apoorva) Ragas such as ‘Parasu’ and ‘Naga-gandhari’ are popular even to this day.

[*That was by taking RA from Om namo naRAyanaya and MA from Om naMAh shivaya.]

Prahlada Bhakthi Vijayam is richly filled with soulful prayers of Prahlada to Lord Hari. There are also songs sung by the sage Narada and devas in praise of  Narasimha as he appears  with Lakshmi. The opera has forty five kirtanas set in twenty eight ragas, one hundred twenty nine verses, a churnika, a dandaka and one hundred thirty two prose narrations, in Telugu and eleven shlokas in Sanskrit. There are  also mangala– songs at the end of three chapters or scenes. Songs from this opera are set in all tempos – Vilamba, Madhya and Druta kala-s. Many songs from Prahlada Bhakthi Vijayam are regularly sung in concerts; for instance: Vasudevayani ‘(Kalyani); ‘Eti janma’ (Varali) ;‘Rara-mayintidaka’ (Asaveri);  ‘Naradamuni’ (Pantuvarali);Sri Ganapathy ni’ (Saurashtram); and the Mangalam – ‘Ni nam-arupamulaku’ (Saurashtram).

27.3. And, the story of Nauka Charitam, spun around the Gopis beseeching Krishna for help, is mostly a product of Sri Tyagaraja’s imagination, improvising on an incident briefly mentioned in Srimad Bhagavatam. Its theme extols the virtue of selfless absolute surrender to the Lord with Love and devotion. Interestingly, many of the songs in the play are composed to folk tunes.

The ‘Nauka Charitram’ comprises twenty one Darus (songs with a pallavi, followed by an optional Anu-pallavi and several charanas) set in thirteen ragas and forty seven padyas (poetic verses set to different meters) , besides fifty- one vachanas (prose passages that set the sequence and provide narration). The songs are mostly set in Madhyama kala; only some are in Druta, while Vilamba kala was not used at all. Some songs from ‘Nauka Charitram’ are often sung in the concerts; e.g.   ‘Sringarichukani’ (Surati) and   ‘Odanu Jaripe’ (Saranga)

Thyagaraja sadguru


28.1. One of Sri Tyagaraja’s significant contribution to Karnataka music is the perfection of a composition-form called Kriti (sometimes  called Kirtana though there are subtle differences between the two), which was, at that time, evolving out of the older Prabandha and its immediate predecessor Pada. Amazingly, Sri Tyagaraja as also Sri Dikshitar and Shyama Shastry, independent of each other, all contributed to the development of Kriti form, although they do not seem to have met or corresponded.

[Prior to the time of Sri Tyagaraja (say, 17th century) composers of great reputation such as Muthu Tandavar and Margadarsi Sesha Ayyangar had experimented with the Kriti format. And, it was the celebrated Trinity of Karnataka Samgita that, later, perfected it. ]

28.2. A Kriti is explained as that which is constructed (yat krtam tat kritih). It is primarily a pre-composed music (kalpitha Samgita), which aims to delineate the true nature of a Raga in all its vibrant colours.  The performer is not expected to deviate from the structure laid down by the composer. And yet; a Kriti provides ample scope to the performer to draw out her/his creative (Mano- dharma), innovative expressions in Raga and Laya. A Kriti can also be sung with or without Niraval. Because, it is said, a Kriti should essentially be beautiful by itself; and, should sound sweet even without elaborations.

28.3. In Karnataka Samgita, a Kriti comprising pallavi, anu-pallavi and charanas, set to appropriate Taala is the most advanced form of musical composition.

Sri Tyagaraja’s kritis use very well the three Angas:  Pallavi to introduce and briefly outlines theme of the song; the charanam to elaborate upon on it in detail; and, the anupallavi, a little more expansive than Pallavi, to bridge the Pallavi with the charanam. Thus, developing the theme of the Kriti, progressively – in stages.  Some scholars, employing the textual analogy, have described Sri Tyagaraja’s Pallavi as Sutra; Anu-pallavi as Vritti; and Charanas as Bhashya. 

[  In the traditional texts , the term Sutra denotes a collection  highly condensed pellets of references ; Vritti attempts to slightly expand on the Sutra to bring some clarity; and Bhashya is a detailed , commentary  on the subjects dealt with by  the Sutra and the Vritti. ; and it  is primarily based on the Sutra.]

28.4. Sri Tyagaraja also tried out variations in their arrangement of the Pallavi, Anu-pallavi and Charanas. Some of his Kritis commence with Anu-pallavi; for instance:  ‘Soumitri bhagyame’ (Kharaharapriya) starts with the anupallavi ‘Chitra ratna maya’’; ‘Ela ni daya radu‘ (Atana) starts with ‘Balakanakamaya chela’; and, ‘Mokshamu galada’ (Saramati) starts with ‘Saakshat karanee’.

 Some of Sri Tyagaraja kritis have a Pallavi and Anu-pallavi of equal rhythmic length ; and  a Charana that has the combined length of the Pallavi and Anu-pallavi ;  for e.g. ‘Enta nerchina’ (Suddha Dhanyasi); ‘Chakkani raja margamulu’ (Kharaharapriya).

 The other variation on the standard format is where the Pallavi is half the length  of the Anu-pallavi;  for e.g. ‘Marugelara’ (Jayantasri); ‘Raju vedala’ (Todi).

There are also kritis where the Charana is four times the size of the Anu-pallavi;  for e.g. ‘Ragaratna malikache’ (Ritigaula); ‘Tulasidalamula’ (Mayamalavagaula).

An additional variation is introduced in some Kritis where the  tempo of the charanam is faster than that of the rest of the Kriti ; for e.g. ‘Enduko ni manasu’ (Kalyani; ‘Emi dova’ (Saranga) ; and,  ‘Enduko bhaga teliyadu’ (Mohanam).  

There are Kritis with single Charana,  as also many with multiple Charanas, starting with Anu-pallavi; and some  with  swara sahitya  built into Charanas,  as in the case of his  Pancharatnas.

28.5 . Sri Tyagaraja in his song Sogasuga mridanga talamu (in Raga Sri Ranjani) provides an outline of how a Kriti should be, in its form and in its content. In this song, he says that a  Kriti should be couched in words ( nija vākkulatō ) conveying the pure spirit of the Upanishads ( nigama siro-arthamu) ; should have correctness of musical notes (swara śhuddhamutō)  of the ragas in which they are set; should have pleasant (sokkajeya ) rhythm that is enjoyable (Sogasuga mridanga talamu ); should be marked by beauties of alliterations and successive increases and decreases of notes and syllables , as also pauses (Yati Visrama) ; it’s  literary expressions should nurture  cultivation of true devotion (Sadbhakti ) and dispassion (virati ); and, it  should be adorned with  grace and simplicity embodying  all the nine (nava) rasas or aesthetic moods.

28.6. In number of his other songs; he explains how Music is indeed the expression of the primordial Nada; how music originates in mind and body; and, how music should be presented. According to him, enjoying music is Sukhanubhava – a tranquil delight.

Some of the well known Kritis of that genre are : Nada loludai (Kalyana Vasantham), Nadopasanache (Begada), Nada Tanum (Chittaranjani), Nada Sudha Rasam (Arabhi), Swara Raga Sudha (Sankarabharanam), Vidulaku Mrokkeda (Mayalawagowla), Raga sudha rasa (Andolika), Samaja Varagamana (Hindolam), Mokshamu Galada (Saramati) and Vararagalaya (Chenchukambhoji).


Continued in Part IV- Music continued

Sources and references

Manaku Teliyana Tyagaraju:

Tyāgarāja and the Renewal of Tradition: Translations and Reflections by William Joseph Jackson

The Power of the Sacred Name: Indian Spirituality Inspired by Mantras by V. Raghavan

Spiritual Heritage of Sri Tyagaraja by Dr. V Raghavan and C. Ramanujachariar

History of Indian Music by Prof. P. Sambamoorthy

A Tribute to Tyagaraja by V.N. Muthukumar and M.V. Ramana

The Musical Works of Thyagaraja by Prabhakar Chitrapu Prabhakar

I acknowledge with thanks the images and other information from his site

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Posted by on February 22, 2015 in Tyagaraja


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