Harikesanallur L Muthiah Bhagavatar was a multi-faceted personality who strode the Carnatic music world in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Born on 15th November 1877 to Lingam Iyer and Anandambal of Punalveli village, he was however to put the village of Harikesanallur on the musical map for it was there that the family migrated when he was still young. He later learnt music at Tiruvayyaru from Sambasiva Iyer of the Pallavi Doraiswami Iyer lineage. Sambasiva Iyer’s father Sabhapati Sivam was a disciple of Tyagaraja. He was also taught by Sambasiva Iyer’s son TS Sabhesa Iyer. Muthiah Bhagavatar became a fine musician who was richly awarded and feted. He later became an expert in Harikatha and on playing the Gotuvadyam. He ran one of the earliest music schools of South India. Named the Tyagaraja Sangeeta Vidyalaya, it functioned in Madurai for four years, from 1920 onwards. One of its stellar products was Madurai Mani Iyer. In later years, Muthiah Bhagavatar was Principal of the Teachers’ College of Music run by the Music Academy, Madras and the Swati Tirunal Academy in Trivandrum. He was also one of the prime movers in the effort to get music to become part of University curriculum. Muthiah Bhagavatar helped conduct two major music festivals for several years, one at Karur for the Zamindar of Andipatti and the other at his own Harikesanallur. He helped organise music conferences in Tanjavur between 1912 and 1916 and also at the Music Academy, Madras from 1929 to 1945. He presided over the Academy’s Conference of 1930 and received its Sangita Kalanidhi on 1st January 1943. He wrote the first doctoral thesis in Carnatic music and was awarded the D Litt. by the Travancore University in 1942. He composed a Harikatha on the life of Tyagaraja and besides, composed several songs, his corpus being perhaps the largest after Tyagaraja’s. He played an important role in the resuscitation of Swati Tirunal’s kritis and some of the latter’s songs are sung in tunes set by Bhagavatar. He brought the raga Hamsanandi into Carnatic music, inspired by its Hindustani equivalent, Sohoni. He was music director for two Tamil films and had also composed scores for church music. He traveled extensively going as far as Burma (Myanmar) and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In manner and deportment he was regal. In personality he was striking and in lifestyle he was extravagant. He was in short a larger than life personality. When he died in 1945 he left a void difficult to fill.
Muthiah Bhagavatar first came to the notice of the royal family of Mysore when during the Dussehra durbar of 1926, Madurai Ponnusami Pillai played his kriti Valli Nayaka Ni (Shanmukhapriya) on the nagaswaram. The Maharajah, Krishnarajendra Wodeyar IV desired to meet the composer of the kriti and through the efforts of Ponnusami Pillai and Bhagavatar’s good friend Mysore Vaudevachar who was a palace artiste, an invitation was sent for the Dussehra celebrations of 1927. He became a palace artiste and shifted to Mysore. In 1928, Bhagavatar was conferred the title of Gayaka Shikhamani by the Mysore Court and given the task of composing 108 kritis on Chamundamba, the tutelary deity of the royal family.
Bhagavatar was initially diffident as the songs were to be in Kannada but Krishnarajendra Wodeyar, who had by then become a friend, solved it by getting palace scholar Devottama Jois to assist in the matter of lyrics. Bhagavatar began work and by way of prayer, initially composed six kritis, one each on Ganapati (Buddhi Devi in Malahari), Saraswati (Sri Mangalavani in Asaveri), Siva-Mahabaleswara who is the consort of Chamundamba (Mahabaleswara Vibho in Saranga), Narayana who is enshrined on the same hill as Chamundamba (Narayana in Kiravani), Guru (Gurunatha in Pushpalata) and Anjaneya (Sri Anjaneya in Chenjurutti). All these songs request the respective deity to give the composer the talent and skill to compose the 108 kritis on Devi.
The basis for the 108 songs is the Chamundamba Ashottaram, which as the name suggests is a list of 108 names of the Goddess and which are recited everyday at the temple by way of worship even now. Bhagavatar followed the same order, from Sri Chamundambayai Namaha (his first song is Sampatprade Sri Chamundeswari in Kalyani) to Srimat Tripurasundaryai Namaha (the last song is Srimat Tripurasundari in Madhyamavati). The songs are all in the usual pallavi, anupallavi, charanam format with every tenth song and the 108th song having two charanams instead of one. Each tenth song (as also the 108th) incorporates, in its second charanam, the name of the ruler, Krishnarajendra Wodeyar.
Bhagavatar, always a man for unusual and rare ragas uses them in plenty in this suite of kritis. Thus we have ragas such as Vinadhari (Girijadeviya), Harinarayani (Devi Sri), Shuddha Lalitha (Sahasrashirsha), Chakrapradipa (Chakreshi), Vijayanagari (Vijayambike), Urmika (Kalaratrisvarupini), Guharanjani (Navavarana) and Navaratnavilasa (Navaksharamanu). While most of the songs are in conventional talas, one or two are set in talas such as kanda jati jhampa and chatusra jhampa. As the songs progressed, their notation was taken down by Belakavadi Srinivasa Iyengar. To assist Bhagavatar in his composing work and to enhance the pleasure of listening to him sing the songs, the Maharajah ordered two tamburas, each six feet tall and decorated with copious amounts of ivory. These were gifted to Bhagavatar who immediately christened them Rama and Lakshmana.
The set of 108 kritis was completed in 1932 with the last two songs being set in the characteristic mangala ragas Saurashtram and Madhyamavati. In addition, there is a mangalam in Vasantha. On the work being completed, Bhagavatar was gifted Rs 10,000 and a pearl necklace that had a ruby studded pendant bearing the image of Goddess Chamundamba.
Today these songs are jewels by themselves and are frequently sung by artistes during concerts.