Dancing Ganesa, Thiruvaiyaru Pushya Mandapam, as depicted in Sri Ganapathini

Surreal is the word that first comes to mind when you go through the text and music of Tyagaraja’s second opera, ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu,’ (the triumph of Prahlada’s devotion). The storyline is unconventional for it deals with Prahlada’s life prior to the climax of Narasimha bursting forth from the pillar. Hiranyakasipu is completely absent though he is a looming miasma so to speak right through the work. The bulk of the opera has to do with Prahlada seeking a vision of Vishnu, who appears and disappears before finally granting him assurance of succour. Strangely enough, Prahlada sings right through about Rama, who technically speaking was at least two incarnations away.

It all makes sense however when you read Tyagaraja in place of Prahlalda in the work. Rama was to Tyagaraja the Supreme Being, just as Krishna was to Jayadeva. He was therefore not just the seventh avatara but the Lord who manifested as Narasimha and pervaded all the incarnations. Tyagaraja undergoes all the mood swings that manifest through Prahlada as the opera progresses . All worldly troubles are viewed by Tyagaraja as obstacles placed in his path of true devotion and that is Prahlada’s opinion too. In many ways, it is the triumph of Tyagaraja’s devotion, expressed as Prahlada’s.

The storyline is almost certainly Tyagaraja’s own for there are no prior creations that match it. But it is clearly influenced by Marathi theatre and more importantly, the local Melattur Bhagavata Mela tradition. “Is it possible for a female impersonator to know of the true traits of a chaste woman?” asks Tyagaraja in his ‘Rama Niyeda’ (listed as being set in Dilipakam but now sung in that raga’s mela Kharaharapriya). He was probably referring to the Bhagavata Mela performances that took place in six villages of Thanjavur district and of which the one at Melattur was best known.

All the plays had an entirely male ensemble, the roles of women being enacted by men. The most famous inhabitant of Melattur was Venkatarama Sastry, who as per Dr. S. Seetha’s Tanjore As A Seat Of Music was a senior contemporary of Tyagaraja. Melattur has kept its Bhagavata Mela going and central to its festival is Venkatarama Sastry’s ‘Prahlada Charitram’.

Tyagaraja has no women characters in his ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu.’ The structure follows that of the Bhagavata Mela though it does not include the sheer variety of song forms as displayed in Venkatarama Sastry’s work. The latter incidentally, was itself inspired by the Kuchipudi tradition, said to have been brought to Thanjavur by Narayana Teertha. Sonti Venkatasubbayya, the father of Tyagaraja’s guru Venkataramanayya, was a disciple of Narayana Teertha and so in a way, Tyagaraja too belonged to the same tradition. It is therefore no surprise that the composer pays homage to Narayana Teertha in the opening verses of ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu’. He also offers his respects to a whole host of others — Tulisdas, Purandara Dasa, Bhadrachala Ramadas and many bhakti poets of the Marathi tradition (see Tyagaraja and the Maratha Influence).

Several of the opera’s songs have made it to the concert platform as individual pieces. Sri Ganapathini (Saurashtram), Vasudevayani (Kalyani), Vandanamu Raghunandana (Sahana), Naradamuni (Pantuvarali), Ennaga Manasukurani (Nilambari), Eti Janmamidi (Varali), Enati Nomu (Bhairavi), Dayarani (Mohanam), Nannu Vidachi (Ritigaula), Emani Vegintune (Huseni) and Ra Ra Ma Intidaka (Asaveri) are some of them. Even the ubiquitous concert closer — Ni Nama Rupamulaku (better known as Pavamana, in Saurashtram) is from the ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayamu.’ Among the prose sections is an extensive and tongue-twisting choornika, which describes Vishnu in all his glory and is probably inspired by Vedanta Desika’s Raghuvira Gadyam.

The dialogues are a researcher’s delight for they shed much light on Tyagaraja’s times. The performance was staged with illumination from flaring torches, on a stage, with actors wearing charming costumes performing to the accompaniment of drums and other musical instruments. The decorations in Tyagaraja’s time for a holy event were similar to ours — with bunches of grape, jackfruit and plantains. A gem for etymologists is the word ‘Kimkapu’ in a dialogue in this opera. Meaning intricately woven silk, it is of Persian origin and gave rise to kincob in English.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated June 2, 2017

This article is part of a series to commemorate 250 years of Tyagaraja. The earlier instalments can be read here