Statue of Sarabhoji at Thanjavur palace
Statue of Sarabhoji at Thanjavur palace

During his long life, Tyagaraja saw the reigns of four kings – Tulaja II (1763-1787), the regency of Amarasimha (1787-1798) which saw the rise of Ramaswami Dikshitar as a favourite of the court, Sarabhoji II (1798-1832) and Sivaji II (1832-1855). The last two were kings in name, Sarabhoji having willed away the kingdom to the British in exchange for a pension and Sivaji his son, continuing under the same arrangement. It was during the latter’s reign that Tyagaraja passed away.

Legend has been rather cruel to Sarabhoji when it concerns Tyagaraja. Prof Sambamoorthy fashioned what could pass off as a cinema script of the supposed incident concerning Nidhi chala sukhama. The king, on coming to hear of Tyagaraja’s performance before Sonti Venkataramanayya (see The Hindu, Sept 1, 2016), which made the palace musicians forget their courtly duties, wanted Tyagaraja to sing in his praise. The officials who carried the invite also informed Tyagaraja that by acceding he could gain ten velis (26 ha) of land and “a bullion of gold”, whatever that meant. The composer was enraged, and replied with his song in Kalyani. On coming to know of the rebuff, Sarabhoji, who according to Sambamoorthy was already smarting under an inferiority complex owing to his having to sign away his kingdom, sent two trusted lieutenants to fetch Tyagaraja by force. Almost immediately thereafter, he was struck down by a severe stomach ache, realised his folly, repented and sought Tyagaraja’s pardon. Thereafter, Sarabhoji made it a point to visit Thiruvaiyyaru each Ekadasi, stay at the Kalyan Mahal pavilion by the Cauvery with his entourage and attend the bhajan that Tyagaraja performed. Unfortunately this story lacks credibility especially if you consider that almost every saint in Indian tradition was tormented by a king who repented after a severe bout of stomach ache.

To be fair to Sarabhoji, no song of Tyagaraja mentions actual persecution by a king. But he does give plenty of hints that he was not like other composers. His Durmargachara adhamulanu (Ranjani), pretty much damns those who flatter the depraved as great people. It also states that Tyagaraja could never bring himself to sell the Goddess of speech in the courts of the lowly.

The truth, as always, lies somewhere in the middle and is not all that dramatic. Tyagaraja’s biography, written immediately after his passing by his disciple Wallajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar (as translated by William Jackson) states – “The king, when he himself had heard the music of Tyagaraja, wanted to honour him, and tried to do so several times. But Tyagaraja would not agree to go to court. Even attempts at persuasion by his brothers could not move him.” From this we get to know that Sarabhoji had heard Tyagaraja sing, though the exact occasion or location is not known. But given the composer’s aversion to leave Thiruvaiyyaru and that Sarabhoji made it a practice to retire each summer to the Kalyan Mahal pavilion that he had built on the banks of the Cauvery in Tyagaraja’s home town, it is likely that this is where he heard the great composer.

Tyagaraja himself was no stranger to royal favour, his house and ancestral land were after all gifts bestowed on his father by King Tulaja. But his refusal to accede to Sarabhoji’s invitation was unusual for the time, as was his decision to never to sing in praise of a mortal. In his day, most composers expected court patronage and eulogising the ruler’s looks, deportment, intelligence and valour was de-rigueur. At the same time, it is clear that Tyagaraja did not shun the company of the rich or have them thrown out when they called on him. The same biography by Krishnaswami Bhagavatar quoted above has it that Moti Rao, Sarabhoji’s son in law, used to come and spend time at Tyagaraja’s home to listen to his music. This must most likely be Mesji Rao Sahib Mohite, the husband of Sarabhoji’s eldest daughter Sulochana Bai.

Later, when Tyagaraja had occasion to visit Madras, he chose not to stay at his disciple Veena Kuppaiyyar’s residence but at the palatial home of the latter’s patron, Kovur Sundaresa Mudali. And when he visited Kovur, the native village of his host, he chose to sing of it in five songs, the Kovur Pancharatnam. These exaggerate the greatness of what was and is essentially a non-descript suburb of Madras to such as extent that you almost get the impression that Tyagaraja felt obliged to please the man who hosted him and also probably bore the expense of his journey from Thiruvaiyyaru to Tirupati and back.

Going by all this, we come to a prosaic conclusion – the king invited Tyagaraja, the latter refused, whatever be the reason, and there were no hard feelings thereafter between them. Any further speculation is futile.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated March 3, 2017 as part of the Tyagaraja 250 series Click here to know more.

You can also read the earlier parts of this yearlong series to commemorate Tyagaraja’s 250th year from this link below:

Tyagaraja 250, a compilation