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Articles on Carnatic Music

The Greatness of Sri Tyagaraja
by K. Sundararajan

Sri Thyagaraja and Carnatic music are like flesh and nail, flower and fragrance and child and motherís affection. No other composer has contributed so much to carnatic music. His contributions have had a unique impact on carnatic music, its style, evolution and development. Sri Thyagaraja has found a special place in the hearts of many music lovers, appreciators of fine arts and worshippers of God through music.

What is the greatness of Sri Thyagaraja? What is the reason for his popularity? The answer for this question varies a great deal from person to person. Many considered him a saint and were of the opinion that his compositions that reflected his thoughts were sacred literature. Others were of the view that he was a great bhaktha of Sri Rama as he was fully devoted to Sri Rama refusing to respond to the worldly attractions of beauty, pomp, power and pleasure. Some attributed much importance to the fact that his compositions, full of poetic genius and expressions, philosophical truth and spiritual emotion, represented the true values of literature. The richness of expression and the wealth of poetic imagery were incomparable to any other composer. General maxims that were common in human life and proverbs have also adorned the compositions of Sri Thyagaraja and so some were under the impression that he had followed Purandaradasa. The greatness of Sri Thyagaraja lies in the fact that his songs, like himself had a simplicity about them that added and complemented its rhythmic and melodious qualities. His innumerable compositions paved the way for the development of carnatic music in South India and have educated generations successively and traditionally in music in South India.

The reasons for the dominance of Sri Thyagaraja Kritis in society, concerts, and for its general prevalence are many:

  1. There are extraordinary varieties of musical compositions.
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  2. Divyanama Kirthanas are there.
  3. Kirtanas that exploit the art of music are plenty.
  4. Many ranges are covered to suit beginners and to be appreciated by great vidwans (e.g. Pancharatna Kritis, songs of high order and operas as "Nawka Charitram," which demonstrate both his imagination and poetic artistry.
  5. Moreover his words are simple, many a time casual but appealing and full of emotion.
  6. They are written in Telugu, one of the sweet beautiful South Indian languages. Probably the great poem Subramanya Bharathi could have referred to Sri Thyagaraja and his compositions, saying "Sundara telunginil paaTTisaittu" (making music in beautiful Telugu) and he could have appreciated the greatness of the language in Thyagaraja's kritis (The President of India also referred to this when he inaugurated this year the Sri Thyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyaru).
  7. The music of Sri Thyagaraja is full of "Bhava." The ragas he has chosen aptly convey the inner meaning of the verse's "expression" and the emotional background.

The "ragabhava" was much emphasized by Sri Thyagaraja in his compositions and many songs of the same raga illustrate this. Moreover many unfamiliar ragas came to light through his Kirthanas; they still live in our hearts and will continue to have musical existence for years to come. Many rare Kritis of his were remarkably good for their "lakshana" and there were no references to such elegance in the Science of carnatic music, especially for these artistic musical carvings. No doubt these were inventions of Sri Thyagaraja.

Similarly, the scheme of melakarta of Venkatamakhi came to actual vogue when the saint wrote many Kirtanas deploying this scheme. Many other rules, which provided many materials for deep and advanced research in carnatic music, were handled by him with ease, and abundance of information. A study of his melakarta scheme will speak volumes of his intellectual eminence.

Sri Thyagaraja's pieces which reflect different kinds of "rasa" are matchless for their excellence and richness of imagination, and they picturise the composer's deep sense of observation. His sweet songs are to say about the saddest thought and a melancholy note may pass on a sweet memory. As colour can have different shades, the emotions that he has portrayed are in a variety of shades. All of his Kritis have depicted Rama's different kinds of emotions. The greatness of his music lies in the melody of his song, suggestive of the meaning of the Sahitya, because of the natural combination of "raga" and "rasa" in the Sahitya.

Another aspect of Thyagaraja's works is his skill in portraying ragas. Swaras were things of beauty to him. The incorporation of "Sangathis" in his Kirtanas contributed much to the evolution of carnatic music, induced a new life and created a new era in South Indian Classical Music.

His devotion to "Rama bhakthi" is well known and even a child can say much about that. His Kirtanas covered a great deal of "bhakthi bhava." Rama bhakti was a kingdom to him and had created in him a spirit to follow Sri Rama's true life through his Kirtanas.

The "Kovur Pancharatna Kritis" of Sri Thyagaraja clearly indicate that he was also devoted to Siva. This bhakthi illustrated that he was not a sectarian. It is interesting to note that the Tamil language had an influence on him and vice versa. He must have imbibed the spirit of the Azhvars and Nayanmars, the saint-composers of Tamil Nadu, who showed and dominated the bhakthi movement. Sri Thyagaraja had reference to "Azhvar" in his five gems on Sri Ranganatha of Srirangam. In another Kriti of thodi raga, he refers to Parvathi the goddess as "one who gave milk to a child," probably referring to the well-known episode concerning Thirugnanasambandar. Songs like "Sambho Mahadeva" and "Siva Siva Siva yana raada" of Sri Thyagaraja make us think that the saint might have referred to Thiruvilayadal Puranam and suggests to us his knowledge of Tamil literature. As a corollary Sri Thyagaraja had influenced the Tamil scholars and writers. Tamil composer Gopalakrishna Bharathi's meeting with him and his later works should be mentioned here. Actually most of the songs of Gopalakrishna Bharathi have received the blessings of Sri Thyagaraja.

Likewise, Papanasam Sivan, the "Tamil Thyagaraja" as he was referred to by his friends, showed his master's influence in many ways. Many of his songs were copybook fashion of Sri Thyagaraja's Kritis. The greatness, the qualities and the specialties of Sri Thyagaraja's songs were summed up by Bharathi aptly when he said, "Thyagayyar was blessed by God. He is an ocean of rasas. He is the soul for carnatic music which is alive today."

In conclusion, all these aspects of Sri Thyagaraja made him so popular that his Kirthanas appealed to the rich and poor, young and old, the learned and laymen alike. His simplicity, genius, his mastery in the art, his deep sense of involvement, and his sincerity of approach had elevated him and his music to a glorious height which other composers could not reach.

His music is a treasure and an undivided property. It belongs to all musicians and music lovers. His compositions are monuments to music. All must work for the preservation of this unique form of music to cherish the memory of the great saint and exponent of carnatic music. Singing the Pancharatna kritis in chorus by one and all will definitely be a sort of mental solace and gratification to ourselves, that we are thankful to Sri Thyagaraja for having enriched us with his inspired music as a mentor of emotional, artistic carnatic music.

Long live Saint Thyagaraja's fame and his music.


Prof. K. Sundararajan is a retired forensic scientist of the Government of Tamil Nadu. He is also past president of the Rotary Club of Nanganallur and current secretary of NSTSS, Nanganallur, Chennai. This article is reproduced with the permission of the author and NSTSS. Reference: Sri Thyagaraja's Life History.



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updated on 03/20/2009