Tyagaraja (1767-1847) is the most celebrated of South Indian musician- saints. This book explores some of the growth processes, the transmission patterns and the cultural creativity involved in South Indian bhakti traditions, using examples of Tyagaraja's life story, songs and social significance as case studies.
Opening with a translation of Tyagaraja's masterpiece, Nauka Caritram, the author delves into its links with earlier bhakti literary traditions.
This book examines how biographical narratives of Tyagaraja's life grew in detail and episodes over a one hundred year period, as the stories were retold by later generations.
Interviews with leading South Indian musicians and musicologists reveal their interpretations of Tyagaraja's continuing significance.
Essays on Smarta Brahmanas and their role in the renewal of traditions in India, and on the great dancer Bangalore Nagaratnammal, who was instrumental in making the Tyagaraja Festival in Tiruvaiyaru a consolidated effort and an all-India annual event, further probe the issues of renewal.
The author also relates Gregory Bateson's cybernetic thinking to the study of traditions.
William J. Jackson was born in 1943 in Rock Island, Illinois, USA.
He received his B.A. from Lyndon (Vermont) State College in 1975, and his M.T.S. (1975), his M.A. (1979) and his Ph.D. (1984) from Harvard University.
He is the author of Tyagaraja, Life and Lyrics (Oxford University Press, 1991) and many articles which have appeared in leading journals. He is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis.
This book is a series of reflections. It has a modular structure, rather than a strictly linear one, hence to read the sections together and in sequence is not absolutely necessary.
The term "tradition" in the title refers to the overlapping of religion (Hindu bhakti or devotion) and culture (stories and songs of Tyagaraja) which has been learned, carried on, passed down to new generations. Tradition is reformulated in new songs which keep alive the old religious disciplines and musical and lyrical arts. Both aspects of tradition require sampradaya rigorously learned conventions) and manodharma (imaginative new inventions).
Renewing implies a required effort, disciplined sustained action over a period of time, in the face of decay, disruption and entropy. Certain traditions of the past are valued resources, and are selected, preserved, reintroduced, brought up to date through new interpretations. The persistence of the sacred is often taken for granted as a constant over long periods of history, but I wish to explore the creative energy of the culturally active-the efforts of artists and performers, the striving of translators and thinkers to "Make it new," as Ezra Pound said.
The South Indian poet-musician-saint Tyagaraja offers an especially rich focal point for studying the dynamics of Hindu devotional and musical traditions for a number of reasons. First, he lived recently enough (d. 1847) to have generated manuscripts and other forms used to transmit information-accessible historical documents exist which can be studied to observe in very specific instances how literary traditions develop over the decades.
Secondly, through his songs and life-story he made an impact on millions, and he is still an important force in many lives. Lines of his students and their disciples are still well represented in the music and devotion realm of South Indian culture-his legacy of legends and songs is a living tradition, thriving today, observable in lives and performances. Inquiry with representatives of his tradition is possible.
Third, he was an orthodox Hindu in continuity with many earlier generations of brahmanas, but he was also a creative poet and composer (vaggeyakara), an innovator facing the unique challenges of his own historical era. Hence, we can observe in his works how traditions such as devotion to Lord Rama are preserved and renewed in fresh cultural expressions, and we can also relate his life and works to comparable historical precedents-earlier saints' life-stories and their songs.
Modern "Hinduism" as a pan-Indian self-conscious identity developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The rise and spread of Tyagaraja's songs and stories as popular expressions of devotion among South Indians coincides with this time period. It was neither with complete self-awareness nor by mere chance that newly self-conscious Hindus inspired by the mission of asserting their own identity and worldview upheld and promoted the life and lyrics of Tyagaraja as exemplary in their struggle for national independence. They could point to him as an exponent of central Hindu values, a representative of what was ancient (there-fore stable and real), viable and valuable in the Hindu lifeway with which they could face the future. They chose him from a tangled plethora of possibilities, an embarrassing abundance of richness and rot, in a choice exercising both memory and "forgettery." Carrying a tradition forward in time is always a combination of underlining and erasing. Modern Hindu leaders and intellectuals intuited that Tyagaraja because of his accomplishments (he was called "the Beethoven of South India") and his holy dedicated life, could stand for the center of an ongoing Hindu faith, and could voice its essential values, experiences and orientation. His devotion to Rama and music showed admirable steadiness amid a world of political clamor and change. Like him, modernizing South Indians could also hold to the sacred despite Westernization and its temptations. Hence, to examine Tyagaraja's life and works affords the opportunity to understand better the recent self-conceptions and hopes of many Hindus responding to modernity's challenges during the last century.
This book opens with considerations of literary texts and the growth of hagiographic traditions (chapters 1, 2, 3 and 4). Tyagaraja's Nauka Caritram is a verse narrative with twenty-one songs in which the child Krsna and his milkmaid companions embark on a fateful ride in a boat. My translation of this masterpiece is an attempt to convey faithfully the meanings and charms of the original Telugu. My essay on the work explores its origins and imagery, its context-the bhakti literature tradition-and compares the theme with counterparts in other cultures.
Reading different versions of Tyagaraja's lifestory the historian of religion naturally asks questions about the accumulation and elaboration of certain archetypal kinds of episodes over a period of time, as the singer's image in the folkmind developed from a respected contemporary to a venerated saint of days long gone. Hence, in chapters 2, 3 and 4 I present translations of the key tellings, and make some observations about the relationships among them, and about the tellers and their times. The translations of Tyagaraja's life-from Telugu and Sanskrit in this book are my own, as are the translations of Tyagaraja's Telugu lyrics. The life-stories in Tamil have been translated by Sulochana Govardhan and T. Sankaran Tyagarajas 108 names were translated by T.S. Parthasarathy. These documents represent the hagiographical aspect of the growth of tradition in the textual case of Tyagaraja's life.
In part two of the book our attention shifts and centers on persons, and how individuals carry traditions forward in time (chapters 5, 6 and 7). Here I present an overview of Tyagaraja's disciples' work of spreading his fame and music, as well as a study in which the focus on tradition is tightened to scrutinize more closely one person devoted to Tyagaraja, to see how she honored him and his work in this century, promulgating his songs and expanding the celebration of his musical contributions. Bangalore Nagaratnammal, a woman of the courtezan and dancer (devadasi) community, illustrates how dedicated individuals can play an important part in the continuation of traditions. (Vasudha Narayanan translated Banni Bai's story of Nagaratnammal's life from Tamil.) I have also arrayed a spectrum of representative perspectives on Tyagaraja's place in tradition, based on audio interviews with knowledgeable South Indians and statements culled from published reports and studies.
Finally, I present a series of reflections on the processes of traditions, and the modes and metaphors of understanding traditions. In the last section of this book (chapters 8, 9 and 10) Tyagaraja, as a smarta brahmana, serves as an exemplary starting point to explore the role of certain key members of this community of religious specialists-the smarta brahmanas--in the renewal of tradition at various points in India's past. It is an inquiry into the traits and background of this group of carriers or "rememberers" of tradition. I also offer a series of reflections and questions about tradition, and I survey metaphors used by scholars in trying to understand how the processes of tradition work. Some reflections refer back to examples in the earlier chapters, but others are a springboard to consider larger issues and processes of traditions as well. Thus I have prepared materials which offer food for thought regarding the passing along of tradita, inviting further theoretical consideration on the reader's part, and I hope as well that I have arrived at some useful conclusions from the entire study. I wish to argue that some metaphors and tools have been overused, to the point of being worn dull. Others, such as Gregory Bateson's provocative suggestions on mind and nature, culture and evolution, offer promising new insights into the processes of understanding the functions and modi operandi of religious traditions.
I would characterize "religious traditions" as processes in which a lifeway is transmitted from one generation to another, a religious orientation which supports the life of a community by means of organizing perceptions of reality and by inculcating appropriate responses through the education of the whole person (via initiations, practices such as songs of praise, rituals and stories, work and play) and by replenishing and channelling energies and reaffirming values to preserve human life in the cosmos, for the ultimate purpose of the individual harmonizing with ultimate reality which is transcendent (not fully known by mind, senses, words). Traditions are observable in the repeated patterns which give order to behavior over the generations. It goes without saying, since scholars such as A.K. Coomaraswamy have said it already, that in a traditional world such as India religion and the arts are not separate as they often are in the modern world. The unity of art and spirituality in Indian culture is well illustrated by Tyagaraja's works.
My overall strategy in this book has been to assemble important Tyagaraja-related materials which illustrate processes of cultural evolution in tradition and to discuss their religious significance and historical context. These materials reflect key issues in Tyagaraja's works and life story, and serve to illumine his part in the renewal of Hindu tradition in South Indian society. (These materials are enhanced and complemented by, but do not depend on my translations of his songs and study of his cultural background in my Tyagaraja-Life and Lyrics published by Oxford University Press.) Throughout the book I have noted comparisons or wider contextualizations when they seemed relevant or valuable to the understanding of the topics as exempla of a global history of human religious life. Sometimes these are part of a "thick description" in the text, sometimes they are in footnotes at the end of the chapter. Similarly, acknowledgements have been distributed to the different parts of the book where they are most pertinent. I am especially grateful to T.S. Parthasarathy, my mentor in India on the subject of Tyagaraja, and to Dr. N. Ramanathan of the University of Madras and Y.R. Swami, both of whom read through an earlier draft and made helpful suggestions. I also wish to thank Shanmukha (Bombay), the Journal of the Indian Council of Historical Re- search (New Delhi) and South Asia Review (Toronto), journals which published portions of earlier versions of some of the chapters found here.
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