I drove to my violin class on Friday morning, navigating the small lakes that had appeared on the roads overnight during the heavy rains. It was a wonderful class. Every one is, but I felt particular joy in this last one, that grey day, as I rehearsed some older pieces with my guru, and he taught me a new one. Both pieces were composed by Thyagaraja, a South Indian composer and musician, who lived during the 1800s. He has an almost saint-like status amongst Carnatic musicians, not just for his incredibly melodious and innovative compositions (which number over 600 – not including two operas, composed of hundreds more songs) but for the sincere and heartfelt devotion that pervades every aspect of his music. He was a completely dedicated devotee of Lord Rama, and his music was always intended as an offering to him, and never a way of displaying musical ability. This devotion is very tangible in his music and I never cease to be amazed at how he has the ability to express philosophical concepts and themes in such creative ways. Through his choice of rhythm, melody and lyrics, he creates songs of such beauty. I have been learning two recently – one ‘Brocheva’, pleads with Lord Rama to take his devotee’s hand and carry him across the ocean of material suffering. As these words arrive in the song, the melody rises rhythmically, exactly like waves gathering speed, before they crash on the shore and break, the notes falling at this moment as he puts his signature ‘Thyagaraja’ at the end of the song. The other ‘Bhavanutha’, is in a more cheerful raga and in it, he humbly asks Lord Rama to relax in his heart, as he feels he has tired him with all his prayers and demands. My teacher translated this relaxing to also mean dancing in his heart, and he showed me how the dancing rhythm of the song expressed this. There is an interesting story behind this song:
Thyagaraja had some visitors, but there was no food to serve them. As usual he prayed to Lord Rama. Soon there appeared at his doorstep, a man and his wife accompanied by their servant. The couple said that they were carrying some foodstuffs with them but wanted a place to cook since they were travelling. Thyagaraja graciously invited them. Soon the Lady and the Servant had cooked enough food for the whole party and took leave of Thyagaraja. Later he realised that Lord Rama had himself come to his house accompanied by Sita and Hanuman. In a burst of gratitude, he composed Bhavanutha.
Below are two translations of the songs I’ve been learning. Reading the lyrics is never as good as hearing the song itself though – and I imagine, being able to understand the lyrics in their original language (Telugu) is even better.
O Chief of Raghus! There is no one else to bestow affection on me and protect me other than you, Lord of the Universe! Most exalted among men! Who else would have donated Lanka to Vibheeshana to the delight and appreciation of Indra and others? Who else would have followed Visvaamitra from Ayodhya and protected the sacrifice he was performing from being desecrated by Maaricha and others? Who else could have killed the indomitable Vaali with just a simple arrow and croned Sugriva as the king of Kishkinda? Please hold the hand of innocent Tyagaraja to enable him cross this ocean of worldly problems.
O Rama! Adored by Brahma! Do come and sport in my heart and be rid of your exhaustion. One who helps to cross the ocean of Samsara! O Worshipped by Brahma, one who is born from the Lotus! Loved by Anjaneya! At your sudden, unexpected arrival, I felt embarrassed. I could not receive you in the royal style befitting you and make offerings to match. But you set me at rest by cheerfully accepting whatever I could extend, and what is more, assured me that you would take care of me and proclaim to the world that I belong to you. Aren’t you the Lord protecting Tyagaraja?
To this day, thousands of musicians throng the sanctum sanctorum of Thyagaraja at Tiruvaiyaru on the banks of the river Kaveri to offer their musical tributes to the great composer; organising huge concerts in which hundreds sing and play his compositions together, as one giant orchestra.
He is believed to have reached the abode of Lord Rama in the year 1847. Since then, the ‘Thyagaraja Aradhana (festival)’ has been commemorated every year.