Tyagaraja (1767-1847) has dominated Kamatic music for more than a
century and is undoubtedly South India's most celebrated singer-saint.
This volume, exploring Tyagaraja's philosophy of music, provides valuable
insights into his life and work and contextualizes them in a socio-historical
framework. Including 160 of Tyagaraja's greatest lyrics in translation, this
book will appeal to students and scholars of literature, culture
studies, music, and history.
William J. Jackson is Professor Emeritus, Department of Religious Studies,
Indiana University-Purdue Unive Tndianapolis, Indiana.
'Wherever I go in South India I hear the songs of Saint Tyagaraja
being sling,' Mahatma Gandhi noted during one of his tours. 'There is
little doubt that this devotee of Ram has captured the religious
imagination of Madrasis with his sweet song.' Today, Tyagaraja is still
a prominent presence; his works enjoy great popularity and his name
is often mentioned in the company of such earlier singers on the path
of bhakti or loving devotion as Jayadeva, Potana, Purandaradasa,
Bhadracala Ramadas, Cairanya, Tulsidas, Surdas and Mirabai. This
book is an attempt to suggest how and why Tyagaraja rose to a
position of such importance.
Tyagaraja, literally 'the king of renunciation' or 'relinquishment's
ruler,' a namesake of the Hindu deity Siva, is South India's most
celebrated musician-saint and has dominated the Karnataka music
system for well over a century. His masterpieces, ranging from simple
songs to elaborate works which only professional musicians can
perform, are ubiquitous in the south. His songs are especially well-
loved in Tamil Nadu, the seat of classical South Indian music
scholarship and performance, even though the lyrics are in Telugu, the
language of Andhra Pradesh which is to the north of Tamil country.
At weddings, in temples, in concerts, at festivals, over the radio, in the
streets as well as in 'every home south of the Vindhyas,' where his
songs are sung, Tyagaraja's voice lives on. His portrait is often
displayed in places where devotion is offered and music performed.
Usually, he is pictured as a bare-chested white-bearded old man
wearing a red turban and hariddsa clothing, sitting on the floor, either
singing or lost in a trance of loving devotion to Lord Rama. (For an
In this context the term 'Madrasi' refers to the inhabitants of the then Madras
Presidency. which in Gandhi's lime covered much of South India.
introduction to the Hindu tradition of bhaleti see the Afterword to
A.K. Ramanujan's Hymns for the Drowning.) Tyagaraja's life is told by
the older generation to the younger, and it has been written in many
forms and languages-in Tamil, Telugu, Sanskrit, and English; it has
been enacted in plays, full-length films, and in harikalhii perlormances, which are live one-actor dramatic monologues of religious
stories spiced with snatches of songs. His life is remembered as
exemplary, and hearing about it is one way successive generations of
Hindus become attuned to traditional values.
As a historian of religion conducting research in Madras and
Thanjavur District, I grew to appreciate the many meanings to be
found in Tyagaraja's saintly life and began to glimpse what he has
come to represent in the South indian consciousness. I fearing a
variety of versions of his story, one also begins to ask questions about
historical evidence, and to wonder what a comparison with other
musician-saints' lives would reveal. While Indian scholars such as V.
Raghavan, P. Sambarnoorthy, and S.Y. Krishnaswamy have made
valuable studies of Tyagaraja's life, their work has not drawn on
scholarship done in the past twenty years, nor have they considered
Tyagaraja's biography in terms of comparative patterns.
I n the first chapter of this book I have tried to further our
understanding of Tyagaraja's life and show how a study of the
development of stories about him throws light on the' canonization'
process in India, illustrating how a singer-saint's life comes to be
celebrated in archetypal forms.
In the second chapter I have sought to locate Tyagaraja in his time
and geographical region, in his community and cultural continuum.
During Tyagara;a's lifetime, Marutha kings ruled Thanjavur and the
Kaveri delta was convulsed by war, with Muslims and the British
contending for territory. With this background in mind, I seek to
understand Tyagaraja's culturally creative role in this transitional
period and to appreciate his genius by examining his roots and
exploring his works in part as responses to the times.
Historical information about Tyagaraja's region and community is
not easy to gather. The best historians of South India-scholars such
as Nilakanra Sasrri and Burton Stein-do not cover the Maratha rule
01 Thanjavur. Gazetteers, District Manuals, and historical essays by
turn-of-the-century Indian writers such as Lakshmana Pillai offer
parches ot information and interpretations which, taken together, may
from a 'crazy quilt' rather than a unified mosaic. Books, such as The
Maratha Rajas of Tanjore by K.R. Subramanian, Maratha Rule in the
Carnatic by C.K. Srinivasan, The Culture and History 0/ the Tamils by
A. Nilakanta Sastri, and David Ludden's Peasant History in South
India, are useful general sources, but offer little by way of information
about a life such as Tyagaraja's. Hyder Ali, the Muslim general- turned-ruler, and his son Tipu Sultan, who were both active in
South India during Tyagaraja's lifetime, cause further be wilderlent to one reconstructing the era. How did the clashes among
1uslim, Hindu, and European forces affect Tyagaraja, a brahmin
-ho spent his lifetime composing sacred songs? Some historians of
re present century have painted simplistic pictures of Hindu,
Muslim and European forces in complete antagonism to each other.
Other historians have challenged this view, stressing areas of
contact, interplay and co-operation. I have used all sources of
evidence which I could locate from the entire spectrum, and have
.tried to reflect in a balanced way this complex period during which
**Contents and Sample Pages**
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