Tyagaraja: The Poet Saint

Sound and music have a hoary past in Indian civilization. The concept of "Nada Brahman" (sound divine, pure vibration) is embedded in aspects of yoga and meditation, and "Nada Yoga" is a disciplinary approach, a metaphysical system, an esoteric practice that proposes that all life is cosmic sound, and that inhering to the sound generated internally can lead one to mystic consciousness. The Sama Veda, the third of the four Vedas, provides the major foundation for Indian classical music, which is considered a divine art.

Modern Indian film music has foundations in Indian classical music, and despite some cacophony, some of it imported from the West, has infiltrated new music-making in India, much of the music still continues to be true to its traditions, without any artificial, self-conscious, or cultural barriers to Western or international music. In these times of globalization, while quite a few of India's urban, anglicized young seem to have only the latest of modern Western music on their iPods, Indian music thrives.

Modern Indian television, despite its many imitative and crude replication of Western programming, provides a new and fresh opportunity for Indian classical music to thrive. Competitions on television, with the attendant publicity and rewards, have unearthed some wonderful talent across the nation, and child prodigies are a dime a dozen, crooning or strumming their way into adult and connoisseur hearts. Thus, it is only India that has withstood the power and the influence of Western classical music, without any conscious attempt at dissuading Indians from learning or appreciating that music. Indian origin children in the West have begun to learn Western classical music, and some Indian classical musicians have trained themselves in the Western tradition: for example, L. Subramaniam, the well-known Carnatic violin maestro, has adapted quite a bit of Western violin bowing and fingering techniques, and has showcased that in some new music. Still, India is the bastion of its own music, with two powerful classical traditions: the Northern or Hindustani tradition, and the Southern or Carnatic tradition.

While both Hindustani and Carnatic classical music hark back to Vedic traditions, North Indian classical music has also been heavily influenced by Persian traditions. There is also a more secular strain in Hindustani music, and the lyrics and songs reflect that in the choice of ideas, allusions, and human contexts; whereas, Carnatic music is completely sacred and devotional in character. It is here that I want to introduce to my readers the Saint-poet Tyagaraja, one of the Sacred Trinity of Carnatic music, and a modern Western scholar, Prof. William J. Jackson, who has devoted his life to adumbrating Tyagaraja's life and music.

Tyagaraja (1767-1847), born Kakarla Tyagabrahmam, is the most well-known and celebrated of South India's classical music composers. The other two in the trinity are Muthuswami Dikshitar (1775-1835), and Syama Shastri (1762-1827). These are the modern composers, who have drawn from the millennia-old Hindu tradition of music and chanting, and they all acknowledge the older musicians—Purandara Dasa (1484-1564), Bhadrachala Ramadasu (1620-1680), and others—who inspired and shaped their music.

There is very little written about these saints and singers, except short hagiographies, in the tradition of puranas and punya-kathas. As Jackson notes in his book, Tyagaraja and the Renewal of Tradition: Translations and Reflections, the earlier biographies of Tyagaraja were brief. For example, Jackson translates Venkataramana Bhagvatar's biography of Tyagaraja in two and a half pages, and Krishnaswami Bhagvatar's biography of the saint-musician in four and a half pages! Even the later biographies, which Jackson has dutifully translated, are rather cryptic, and they include material that cannot be corroborated or verified, especially those incidents in Saint Tyagaraja's life that have magical and miraculous aspects.

Jackson is a sympathetic reader of these biographies and provides the necessary context for understanding these narratives. Maybe, because of Jackson's straightforward rendering of these matters, his work has not found much purchase in Western academe where caste, sex, conflict, oppression, and such other issues, long on theory and short on facts, get a lot of traction in religion studies. In this book, Jackson brings to light and translates the less familiar of Tyagaraja's work, the "Nauka Charitram" ("Boat-ride Reverie"), where Tyagaraja, whose Ishta Devata was Sri Rama, uses the child Krishna as the central image—an image more popular in North Indian music and art renderings. In Tyagaraja and the Renewal of Tradition, Jackson brings to light how Tyagaraja's work and popularity grew, describes the beauty and skill of his music, and tells us tales about who was responsible for strengthening the tradition of the singing and remembering of Tyagaraja's music. This includes the fascinating story of Bangalore Nagarathnamma, whose life has been commemorated in another fine book by V. Sriram, titled, The Devadasi and the Saint: The Life and Times of Bangalore Nagarathnamma.

But Jackson's classic work on Tyagaraja is his Tyagaraja: Life and Lyrics, in which he provides a rich variety of contexts—political, historical, regional, caste, etc.—to understand Tyagaraja's life and work. The second half of the book is dedicated to translating some of the great kritis (songs) composed by Tyagaraja. Much of the tumult in Tyagaraja's lifetime can only be discovered in others' work. There is nothing in his music from which we can understand the intrusions and the depravations inflicted on the land and on the lives of people (by the British, by the Maratha kings, and by Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan) in Tiruvaiyaru, where Tyagaraja's parents and he lived, and the nearby capital city of Tanjavur. Of this, and of his music, Jackson provides much needed depth and insight, without the now commonplace criticism of Brahmins and Brahmin culture evident in other scholars' work. (See, for example, Yoshitaka Terada's work.)

Bill Jackson acknowledges the support and encouragement of his spiritual guide, Sri Satya Sai Baba, in his quest to understand and write about one of the most complex of Indian art forms: Carnatic classical music, and its most talented and gifted doyen, Saint Tyagaraja. To write about Tyagaraja, Bill Jackson had to learn a variety of South Indian languages as well as Sanskrit, learn about classical music, and tease out meanings from the patchwork mix of the simplistic renderings of South Indian history, politics, and culture. From those many years spent in India learning the language and the music, from great teachers like T. S. Parthasarathy, Jackson has been able to weave together the tale of Tyagaraja like no other scholar has been able to. His dedication to the saint-musician has been such that he has even tried his hand at writing a historical novel about Tyagaraja, The Singer by the River, which can be a great introduction to the life of the saint for children and young adults, especially.

Tyagaraja's music is indeed divine, and he not only wrote lovingly about his chosen deity, Sri Rama, but wrote more than a dozen songs on the nature and beauty of spiritual music. It is claimed that Tyagaraja was so prolific that he composed 24,000 songs, as many songs as there are verses in the Ramayana. He did not write down the songs he composed but his students did, as much as they could remember, as he spontaneously burst forth in beautiful song. He was a trained musician, and his songs are intricate and subtle, balanced and faultless. It is to William Jackson's credit that he has brought to light, for the international reader, the life and music of this man divine.

First published on Patheos, http://www.patheos.com/Hindu/Tyagaraja-Ramesh-Rao-02-18-2014

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