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.

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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.