The first in a series of 12 articles on Tyagaraja

To read the introduction – click here

In 2007 noted writer Bill Bryson came out with ‘Shakespeare, The World As A Stage,’ a book that dealt with how despite millions of words written on the Bard of Avon relatively nothing is known of his actual life. Tyagaraja, our own bard, is in august company in this respect. Miracles, unverified anecdotes and hearsay generally make up his biography. The hard facts that survive are few.

Take as simple a matter as to his date of birth. All sources agreed on the year of his death being 1847. But from there on everyone differed as to how long Tyagaraja had actually lived. Thus we have Capt. C.R. Day giving him 20 years, the Rev H.A. Popley 50, Subbarama Dikshitar 77, Narasimha Bhagavatar 88, C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar 89, C Tirumalayya Naidu 75 and T. Lakshmana Pillai 80.

The first English biography of Tyagaraja, by M.S. Ramaswami Aiyar, serialised in The Hindu and later published as a book in 1927 dwelt at length on this controversy and gave out his year of birth as 1759. This was however proven wrong when Prof. P. Sambamoorthy chanced upon the composer’s horoscope in the manuscript that also had Tyagaraja’s first biography, written even during his lifetime by Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar, an early disciple. Thanjavur Rama Rao, a disciple of Tyagaraja’s who predeceased him, cast the horoscope, according to which Tyagaraja was born on May 4, 1767.

Where did his musical genes come from? For long it was believed that Tyagaraja’s maternal grandfather was Girirajakavi, a court composer during the early years of the Maratha rule in Thanjavur. This was chiefly based on the claim that the composer’s song ‘Giriraja suta tanaya’ (Bangala) though ostensibly a prayer to Ganesa was also a reference to himself (son of the daughter of Giriraja). Subsequent research by scholars such as Dr. S. Seetha showed that Tyagaraja’s paternal (and not maternal) grandfather was Giriraja Brahmam, a person different from Giriraja Kavi. The paternal side appears to have had its leanings more towards spirituality than music. Father Rama Brahmam was an expert in discoursing on the Ramayana, under the patronage of King Tulaja II. For music, we need to look towards Tyagaraja’s mother.

What was her name by the way? While there is strong internal evidence by way of his songs and also some slokas that are appended to his biography by Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar that her name was Sita, there are some other sources that give it as Shantha.

For that matter, Tyagaraja’s place of birth too has been a subject of controversy. While all biographies have it as Tiruvarur scholar B.M. Sundaram has refuted this claiming that Tyagaraja was born in Tiruvaiyaru. Be that as it may, it appears that it was from Sita/Shantha’s father Kalahasti Ayya that Tyagaraja acquired much of his musical skills. It is said in Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s biography that Tyagaraja brought away manuscripts on music from Kalahasti Ayya and perused them. There is however no dispute on who actually taught Tyagaraja music – all his biographers accredit this to Sonti Venkataramanayya.

How many brothers did Tyagaraja have? Today we acknowledge Japyesa but there were two brothers – Panchanada and Panchapakesa Brahmam as per Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s biography. Jalpesa being a synonym for Panchanadesvara or Panchapakesa, the presiding deity of Tiruvaiyaru, this name could have been used for either brother. Tyagaraja was married twice. His first wife Parvati died early and he then wed her sister Kamala. She bore him a daughter, Sitamahalakshmi.

Which was Tyagaraja’s first song? As per Venkataramana Bhagavatar this was ‘Namo namo Raghavaya’ (Desika Todi), composed even before he learnt music from Sonti Venkataramanayya. In his ‘Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini,’ published in 1904, Subbarama Dikshitar has it that ‘Ela ni daya raadu’ (Atana) was his first song. By 1908, this had changed to ‘Giriraja suta tanaya’ – it is rather convenient and appropriate to have a song on Ganesa as the first, is it not?

How many songs did Tyagaraja compose? 24,000 is the most frequent answer given. What we do have are around 700. There are two operas – ‘Nauka Charitramu’ and ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu.’ A third, ‘Sita Rama Vijayamu,’ is believed to be lost.

This then is the Tyagaraja that we know of as a person.

Source: What do we know of Tyagaraja?

The intro to this series can be read here:

Tyagaraja 250!

The second part of this series can be read here

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