The rays of the early morning sun reflected in the gushing waters of Kaveri in Thiruvaiyaru, a historic town in Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. The lush greenery on either side of the river, was inviting and I took a deep breath of the cool, fresh air. I arrived in the town, just in time, for the final day of the week-long Tyagaraja Aradhana. The annual festival is held in the honour of legendary musician-saint Tyagaraja, who once lived in Thanjavur. Right by the memorial of Tyagaraja, on the river bank, the stage was set for Carnatic musicians from across the world to perform and pay their respects to the 19th-century composer.
Locals and visitors sat on the ground, waiting for hours, before the artistes were even scheduled to arrive, just to make sure they had a place to sit and enjoy the show. As the sun rose higher into the sky, I could see why. Hundreds of people thronged the venue to listen to the artistes perform. Artistes themselves, irrespective of their popularity, patiently navigated the sea of selfie-obsessed fans, as they awaited their turn on the stage. Thus began the musical homage to Tyagaraja.
When it comes to paying homage to a musician, none has been celebrated in such a consistent and reverent fashion for more than a century and a half since their passing. The genre of Carnatic music wouldn’t have been the same without the rich legacy of Tyagaraja’s compositions. Different musicians have different takes on the musician-saint, and yet there’s one point to which they all concur–his bhakti (devotion) for Lord Rama.
Be it the musicians who perform or the audience that enjoys the performance, every individual–irrespective of their status in life–feels humbled during the Aradhana, as Tyagaraja’s compositions charge the atmosphere with a kind of spiritual energy.
The musician, it is said, saw music as a way to experience God’s love. A staunchly spiritual man, Tyagaraja sang spontaneously and uninhibitedly to Lord Rama. “Saint Tyagaraja sang from his heart and did not care much to document his compositions,” as Dr R Kausalya, retired principal of Tamil Nadu Government Music College puts it, “for the songs simply poured out of him in moments of pure bhakti.”
Tyagaraja is believed to have sung over 24,000 compositions this way, of which only 700 are known to musicians today. Dr Kausalya says, “The most remarkable thing about Tyagaraja’s work is that there is something for musicians of every kind. There are compositions for beginners, intermediates and the advanced. Furthermore, they are so versatile that they can be adapted into various formats such as bhajans, Harikathas, or even plays!”
Such variety and versatility, it is believed, are the reasons the compositions of Tyagaraja are widely performed. Vocalist and Harikatha exponent Suchitra Balasubramanian says, “His compositions carry complex ideas, and yet, they are simple enough for anyone to understand.” Indeed, Tyagaraja’s music was meant for everyone. He sang from his heart in simple Telugu, and this made his songs powerful and poignant.
“The sheer volume and depth of Tyagaraja’s work is something humankind will continue to regard with awe,” says violinist and singer Ranjani of the famed Ranjani-Gayatri duo. And it rings true. Times hasn’t buried Tyagaraja’s compositions; they resonate with all musicians to this day. Says Ranjani, “Close to two centuries after Tyagaraja’s demise, Carnatic musicians and composers are still following his style. And we musicians connect with our audiences using his compositions and his style.”
So magnetic is the allure of Tyagaraja’s music that year after year, people gather at his memorial to pay homage to his life and legacy. Be it the musicians who perform or the audience that enjoys the performance, every individual–irrespective of their status in life–feels humbled during the Aradhana, as Tyagaraja’s compositions charge the atmosphere with a kind of spiritual energy. Bhakti, it seems, is at the heart of this phenomenon, the bhakti that Rama evoked in Tyagaraja, and the bhakti that Tyagaraja’s ingenuity evokes in the listener.