I wrote this as an article for the Max Mueller Bhawan-Goethe Institut a few years ago as part of their celebrations in 2006 of the 300th year of the Tranquebar Mission of Ziegenbalg.
Much has been written about the influence of the British on Carnatic Music, the classical music of south India. But there are interesting links with Germany as well which make for interesting study and reading.
The Missionary Link
The earliest links with classical music come from the Danish Tranquebar Mission which had a series of German missionaries coming to India in order to spread the message of Christianity. One among these was Christian Friedrich Schwartz (1726-1798), who set out from England on 21st January 1750 and arrived at Cuddalore in India in June of the same year. He began his work of proselytizing immediately and was actively involved in it in the southern districts of Madras Presidency. In 1760 he came to Tanjavur, then the capital of the tiny but highly cultured kingdom of the same name, ruled by the Marathas. Schwartz became a close friend of the reigning prince, Tulaja II (r 1763-1787). He undertook a peace keeping mission on behalf of the ruler to Hyder Ali (1717-1782), then the de facto ruler of Mysore, who was threatening Madras city and the southern kingdom of Tanjavur with an invasion. Though the mission was not successful and Ali did invade Tanjavur in 1781 Schwartz was treated with the greatest of respect by the aggressor and this further enhanced his reputation in the eyes of the natives of Tanjavur.
Tulaja being singularly unfortunate in his children expiring during his lifetime, became worried about the future of his own kingdom. On advice from scholars he began to look for a suitable boy to adopt and in 1786 identified the ten year old Sarabhoji who was the son of a nobleman of Satara in Maharashtra. The adoption was formalized and Sarabhoji moved to Tanjavur in January 1787 and a formal communication regarding the adoption was conveyed to the English in Fort St George on 26th January 1787. Tulaja, whose health was rapidly failing entrusted the education of Sarabhoji to Schwartz and at the latter’s suggestion made his own half brother Amarasimha the regent of Tanjavur who was to rule over the kingdom during Sarabhoji’s minority. The king died a few days later.
Schwartz became poet, guide, philosopher and friend to Sarabhoji. Among the many subjects he taught the avid prince was an appreciation of Western Classical Music. This led to many new influences in the field of Carnatic music as we shall see later. In order that Sarabhoji did not feel lonely, Schwartz brought in Vedanayagam (1772-1864), then a boy of 12, to be the prince’s companion. Vedanayagam came from a devout Christian family of Tirunelveli. In course of time he became a great scholar and was referred to as Sastriar.
When Sarabhoji turned major, the regent did his best to prevent him from ascending the throne. However, Schwartz was tireless in his efforts to ensure that such an injustice was not perpetrated and by means of memorials to Sir John Shore, then Governor General of India, managed to ensure that the succession was ensured. However he did not live to see it come to fruition for his passed away on 13th February 1798. Sarabhoji ascended the throne in June 1798 and within a year voluntarily gave up his kingdom to the British for a pension of 40000 pounds per annum.
Sarabhoji erected a memorial to Schwartz at the St Peter’s Church in Tanjavur. Sculpted in white marble by John Blacksman, it shows a frieze of Sarabhoji comforting the dying Schwartz. A poem composed by Sarabhoji in praise of Schwartz is also inscribed on the monument and it states
Firm was Thou, and Wise
Honest, Pure, Humble, Free from Disguise,
Father of Orphans, the Widow’s support
Comfort in Sorrow of every Sort
To the Benighted Dispenser of Light
Doing, and Pointing to that which is Right
Blessing to Princes, to People, to Me,
May I, my Father, be worthy of thee
Wishes and Prayeth thy
Free in 1799 to lead a life dedicated to the arts among other pastimes, Sarabhoji indulged in his love for music to the fullest. He ensured the installation of a full western music orchestra in the palace and the records show the arrival of such instruments as the violin, the clarinet, the dulcimer, the piano, the German flute, the tambourine and the harpsichord. The Tanjavur Band was formed and played western music for the king. Interestingly, even his predecessor and father, Tulaja appears to have been interested in western classical music for there are notebooks explaining the tunes, notations and songs even as early as 1775 in the palace archives. Sarabhoji himself composed music for the Band and made western music popular in his kingdom. The Carnatic musicians took to the violin thanks to his efforts, though the first to adopt it into Carnatic music were the Dikshitar brothers (Muthuswami (1776-1835), Chinnaswami(1778-1823) and Baluswami (1786-1859)) who learnt it in Madras under the guidance of an English bandmaster in Fort St George. The first Tanjavur musicians to take to the violin were the four brothers known as the Tanjavur Quartet (Chinniah (1802-1856), Ponniah (b1804), Sivanandam (b1808) and Vadivelu (1810-1845)) all of whom were patronized by Sarabhoji and for teaching whom Muthuswami Dikshitar stayed in Tanjavur for four years in the early 1800. The brothers and in particular Vadivelu became so proficient on the violin that he was presented with an instrument made completely out of ivory by the Travancore ruler and composer Swati Tirunal. This is a precious heirloom in the possession of Vadivelu’s descendants who live in Tanjavur.
The clarinet became an integral part of the Devadasi (courtesan)’s dance ensemble. It has today become a concert instrument and AKC Natarajan is one of the foremost performers on it in the Carnatic style. Thus Schwartz, through Sarabhoji made a lasting contribution to Carnatic music.
Vedanayagam Sastry was in the meantime not idling. He had taken to composing songs in the Carnatic style to be sung in churches. He hoped through music, to attract fresh converts to Christianity and continue Schwartz’s efforts in evangelization. Sastry used several popular forms of folk music to set his songs and these include styles such as kanni, shlokam, taalaattu, kummi, antaadi and chindu. He composed an opera in the style of the kuravanji titled the Bethlehem Kuravanji in 1800. This is based entirely on the Kuttrala Kuravanji, a popular opera composed by Trikoota Rasappa Kavirayar. Turning to classical forms, he used the Tiruppugazh verses of Arunagirinatha (14th century) as a model and composed several songs. Besides this he used the songs of his contemporary Carnatic composer Tyagaraja (1767-1847) and wrote Christian lyrics for the same tunes. Some of the ragas used by Vedanayagam Sastry are Shankarabharanam, Mohanam, Ananda Bhairavi, Kamboji, Kalyani, Neelambari, Surykantam, Chakravakam, Yadukulakamboji, Senjurutti, Senavati, Saindhavi, Jingala and Dwijavanti. He used talas (cycle of beats) such as Adi, Tisra Ekam, Rupakam and Chapu. In all his compositions, like Tyagaraja, he included his name as a signature.
Sastry and Sarabhoji fell out with each other on the former’s efforts at converting the lay public to Christianity. But later they became close once again especially when Sastry was attacked during religious strife in 1829 and Sarabhoji gave him protection. The death of the king in 1833 drew a tribute from Sastry in the form of an elegy. Sastry’s songs began to be performed by his descendants during church services and this has continued for over eight generations in the family till the present day.