A 19th century boat, Tranquebar

Tyagaraja is credited with two operas – Nauka Charitramu and Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu. Sitarama Vijayamu, a third, is believed lost. Of the two surviving works, the Nauka Charitramu is the best known and rather ironically, least performed. And when it does make it to stage, it is invariably as a complete work. The second opera on the other hand is hardly staged but many of its songs are popular concert pieces. Both works display a considerable degree of Marathi influence though the Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu is inspired most probably by the Bhagavata Melas that took place in Melattur and five other villages of the Thanjavur kingdom.

The Nauka Charitramu has been the subject of study by several scholars. The most exhaustive one is by Dr Y Bhagavathi, published as a book by the Sarvani Sangeetha Sabha Trust in 1995. It is from a perusal of this work that we get clear proof of the opera being inspired by Marathi creations that pre date it. The first reference to such a possibility came from Dr S Seetha’s Tanjore As A Seat Of Music wherein she notes the existence of a lavani titled Nauka, which she states could have served a reference to Tyagaraja. Dr V Raghavan opined that Bengali Bhakti movement works such as Nauka Vilasa or Nauka Vihara may have been known to Tyagaraja. But this appears far-fetched. Dr Bhagavathi quotes from five Marathi works, all of them in manuscript form in the Thanjavur Saraswathi Mahal Library and predating Tyagaraja. The storyline is more or less identical to what Tyagaraja depicts.

The Gopis of Brndavana set out to find Krishna and on locating him, walk down to the Yamuna where they see a silvery boat. They decide to go on a joy ride in it but wonder if it is safe to take along the child Krishna. He however convinces them to include him and they set off. Rasakrida is performed on the boat and even the celestials assemble to see it. The Gopis become arrogant and Krishna decides to teach them a lesson. A violent storm rocks the boat and water rushes in through a hole. The Gopis are terrified and Krishna advises them to take off all their clothes to plug the leak. The water washes away all their garments and devoid of any covering they finally seek refuge in the Lord. The storm ceases, the boat drifts ashore and they get back their clothes. They worship Krishna and take him to his home.

Nauka Charitramu depicts a different Tyagaraja; not the puritan we see in his other songs. He delights in the romantic setting of the opera, describing with a painter’s eye the raiment, jewels and cosmetics of the Gopis, the beauty of the river Yamuna, and of course Krishna. And then there is the detailed manner in which he describes the physical movements of the Gopis. There is a description of the way betel leaf is prepared in which you can see the Tanjorean in Tyagaraja.

This is an opera with verses, dialogues and songs. Some ragas repeat through the opera. The verses of obeisance include a prayer to a Ramakrishnananda of whom nothing is known. He was probably Tyagaraja’s spiritual preceptor. Also, while Krishna may be the hero of the opera, it is dedicated to Rama, Tyagaraja’s tutelary deity. There are numerous references to episodes from the Bhagavatam, reinforcing the fact of Tyagaraja being a regular reader of Potana’s Bhagavatam. Krishna keeps changing form through the work. In the beginning he is a child running down the street to buy fruit. The Gopis have to lift him physically to place him in the boat. But thereafter he becomes an adult, performing rasa leela and counselling them on how to row. At the end of the work he is back to being a child that needs to be escorted home.

The Yamuna of the opera is clearly inspired by the Cauvery. The boat was a matter of great significance in Tyagaraja’s lifetime. It must also be remembered that one of his last songs – Paritapamu (Manohari) depicts Rama in a golden boat. It was an era when Sarabhoji revived the shipbuilding industry of Thanjavur. Vessels were made at Saluvanayakan aka Sarabhendraraja Pattinam. These were seafaring ships. Their launches were festive occasions that the king, in the company of all his women would attend, an imagery that is invoked in the Nauka Charitramu. In his Thanjai Ma Mannar Sarabhoji, Prof N Ethiraj also writes of Tiruvaiyyaru being a place where the king built riverboats. These were floated off when the Cauvery was full and travelled via the distributary Mullaiyaru to Karaikal, the closest seaport, being used to transport passengers and goods. Thus newly built boats were not an unusual sight in Thiruvaiyyaru.

This is part of a series to celebrate 250 years of Tyagaraja. The other articles can be read here:


Tyagaraja 250, a compilation