Notes beyond excellence – Music of Thyagaraja


More than a century after he passed away, Thyagaraja’s name bears the torch of Carnatic classicism. He’s enriched it with his vision and devotion. After the samadhi of Thyagaraja, his disciples like Sundara Bhagavatar, Rama Iyengar and Venkatramana Bhagavatar played yeoman’s role in spreading his musical genius. Since then, his compositions have been lapped up by the classical music fraternity and his life and work have been the centre point of many scholarly works.

Lyrical value

 The young musicians of today’s time find in his compositions a point of spiritual realisation. “Thyagaraja occupies an extremely important space in classical music. My guru, the legendary M L Vansathakumari, had told me that no concert was complete without a Thyagaraja kriti. To start with, his compositions were not written in a complicated language. With the use of simple Telugu, he touches you, evoking a strong emotional and spiritual response,” says Carnatic vocalist Sudha Raghunathan.

It was when he was 12, that classical vocalist Sriram Parasuram participated in the Thyagaraja aradhana for the first time. “Thyagaraja is arguably the backbone of Carnatic music as we see today and this aradhana is a point of rededication for me.”

The tradition of singing the pancharatna kritis has been a practice over the last seven decades. Scholars believe that the pancharatna kritis were chosen as it was seen to be suitable for group singing and later, many musicians learnt them specially for the aradhana and a tradition was established.

Carnatic vocalist Rithvik Raja remembers the early days when he began learning the compositions of Thyagaraja and sees that as a point which changed the way he looked at music. “The first Thyagaraja kriti I learnt was Marugelara o raghava. I think at a personal level, it is the importance of lyrics that I value most about the Thyagaraja kritis. Many a time when you learn the compositions, you do not internalise the lyrics completely. But reading the lyrics of Thyagaraja added a lot more value to my musical experience,” he says.

One of the foremost contributions of Thyagaraja to Carnatic classical music was his brilliant use of sangatis. Today, one aspect of Carnatic tradition that provides a lot of room for improvisation is the clever use of sangatis by the musician.

Boon to all

Sudha feels that he vast repertoire of his compositions have enabled every raga to be a point of reference at different stages for a music student, right from a beginner to seasoned musician. “He has used ragas like Todi, Sankarabharanam, Mohanam and Kalyani in different compositions and the complexity of the kritis differ, which enables a music student to learn these ragas in different structural formats, at different points in the course of learning.” While there are popular kritis, which are sung time and again during concerts and strike a chord instantly among the rasikas, there are ones which are rare to come by. “While I do sing the popular kritis of Thyagaraja, I make it a point to include one kriti in a rare raga during my concerts; there are rare ones like Ranjini Vanaspati and difficult ones like Kantamamani. As a musician, you have to put in a lot of effort to scourge for these compositions. Some of them do not have an authentic source of notation. Greats like Dr Balamuralikrishna and GNB have given form to these and we have learnt while listening to them.”

The dance connection

Thyagaraja’s repertoire included not just musical compositions, but also two operatic works – Nauka Charitram and Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam. “A few years  back, I happened to see Nauka Charitram presented by Radha (sister of Kumari Kamala) on Doordarshan and the beauty of its music and poetry struck me instantly and I wanted to do it in my own way,” says Bharatanatyam danseuse Jayanthi Subramaniam. The story revolves around a boat ride undertaken by Krishna and the gopis on Yamuna and the leelas he plays during the course of the boat ride. “In the end, it is about total surrender. When you surrender, he takes care.”

Philosophy in music

In the 80 years of his life, Thyagaraja left behind a treasure trove of music, which seems to be limitless to this day. Every new reading of his work throws a new light on his philosophy and life. “It is not just music. You get the basic tenets of Vedanta and different ideas of the Ramayana in his works. He was a poet, innovator, musician and philosopher, all rolled into one and continues to evoke awe and inspiration among the performers and rasikas alike,” says Sriram. “Listening to his compositions, there is a point when you realise that there is no meaning in mastering all the 64 art forms. At the end it is all about unconditional surrender. He struck a wonderful balance between mastery and bhakti, which is a great lesson for performing artistes.” The absolute values enshrined in his works, which hold relevance irrespective of time and age, bear the torch of not only his creative genius, but also of our civilization and history.

(This story was published in 2013 on the occasion of the Thyagaraja Aradhana in The Times of India)

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