Thanjavur Maratha statuette of a woman playing the violin – from Auroville collection

The story behind Muttuswami Dikshitar’s nottusvara sahityams is well known. The way the composer took western music tunes and set Sanskrit lyrics for them is a fascinating study. Two stalwarts of the Diskhitar lineage – Vadivelu and Baluswami Dikshitar are accredited with transforming the violin into a Carnatic instrument and it is likely that the nottusvaras must have helped. But what of Tyagaraja?

It is extremely unlikely that he could have been oblivious to the instruments used in western music or to tunes of that genre. By the time the composer was in his thirties, this was an art form to which patronage was being extended from the highest quarter. According to Dr S Seetha’s Tanjore as a Seat of Music, as early as 1775, when Tyagaraja was just seven, notebooks containing western staff notation and theory of music were being filled in for the benefit of “His Majesty the Raja of Tanjore”. That was when Tulaja II was the ruler. Under his son Sarabhoji, this was to rise to greater heights. He set up the Tanjore Palace Band and to quote from Seetha again, “collected western musical instruments like violin, clarinet, dulcimer, piano, German flute, tambourine and harpsichord.” The king composed music for the band and also entered into extensive correspondence with foreigners on theory as well as practical aspects. The Darbar Bakshi, Varahappa Dikshita Pandita, became an expert of sorts on western music, going to the extent of giving full-fledged violin performances in that style, for the benefit of audiences in Madras. He was also proficient on the piano. Not surprisingly, he was appointed the superintendent of all the palace musicians.

Tyagaraja of course had little to do with the court. But considering that the ruler and his entourage spent much of the summer months in Thiruvaiyyaru, it is quite likely that the composer had the opportunity to listen to some of the new music that was performed. And he could not have remained uninfluenced. At least three pieces of Tyagaraja, demonstrate the impact of western music. The first and the most popular is Vara Lila Gana Lola, set to Shankarabharanam rather on the lines of Dikshitar’s nottusvarams. This being the same as the C Major scale in western music, it is perhaps not surprising that the composer took to this raga when he wanted to set a piece in the new idiom. It still remains a popular song, especially for students of the keyboard. The second, Sarasa Netra is also in Shankarabharanam. The third, Ramincuvarevarura is in Suposhini, a raga in which Tyagaraja was the first to compose. It is a janya of Harikamboji, which too is in a way a creation of the composer, for while it did have an existence in Tamil panns, it acquired its present structure and form entirely due to Tyagaraja’s songs in it. The song has a martial gait, conjuring up visions of an army on the move. The chitta swarams, which add much to the beauty of this small song, are however probably not Tyagaraja’s. All three songs have flat notes dominating, with minimum of gamakas or graces, a strong characteristic of orchestral western music.

The fiddle as the violin was known in the 19th century could also not have been unknown to Tyagaraja. At least one of his disciples – Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar – became proficient in it, though it is not clear if he trained on it while learning from the composer. Krishnaswami Bhagavatar’s familiarity with the instrument would come in useful in the closing years of the 19th century. That was when AM Chinnaswami Mudaliar, retired Budget Manager of the Madras Secretariat embarked on notating Carnatic music in staff or western notation. Tyagaraja’s songs were the first to be so written. It was left to Krishnaswami Bhagavatar to check if the notations were correct and some of the proofs so corrected have survived intact in the Walajahpet manuscripts now with the Saurashtra Sabha. The Lalgudi school, a celebrated lineage that traces itself to Tyagaraja however does not appear to have trained on the violin under him. Lalgudi Rama Iyer, who laid the foundation for music in the family, learnt vocal music from Tyagaraja. It was his son Valadi Radhakrishna Iyer who became a violinist, beginning an association that is now in the fourth generation in the family.

Strangely enough, for a corpus of work where the lyrical beauty is as much as the musical, Tyagaraja’s songs became the favourites of the instrumentalists. The ample scope for sangatis was a principal reason. And among the lot it was perhaps the violin that made the most of it. Later, when cinema came about, the first songs were based on Tyagaraja’s tunes, with lyrics by Papanasam Sivan. And they had western style orchestration!

This article appeared in The Hindu as one of a 24 part tribute to the composer in his 250th year. The earlier episodes can be read here

The original article in The Hindu can be read here