One of the many interesting factors in Tyagaraja’s songs is the way he portrays society as it was in his time. It is all there — the good, the bad and the ugly. Conventionally it has been the practice among commentators to credit all the virtues that Tyagaraja sings of to him and state categorically that all the negative traits he portrayed were those of others. Today it is impossible to decide which of the attributes, be they good or bad, were Tyagaraja’s and which belonged to others. We can at most say that all of them were common societal traits and Tyagaraja, being a product of his times, reflects much of what was happening then.

Take for instance caste and religion. A reading in today’s context will make the composer out to be a man who believed strongly in both aspects. ‘Samayamu Delisi’ (Asaveri) asks if Brahmin worship performed in a Mohammedan quarter could have any effect. In his ‘Dudugugala’ (Gowlai), which song is a long list of human frailties, he laments over his being born in the first among castes and yet taking to the professions of the lower castes. In his time, as today, the teaching of music transcended caste barriers. But Tyagaraja was not comfortable with it. In the same song, he says that he is beyond redemption because, solely with a view to gaining control over them, he taught music without realising what melody and rhythm were, to dancers, philistines, those of lower caste and women.

In his time, women who learnt music were invariably the courtesans and the Thanjavur/Thiruvaiyyaru region had any number of them. Indeed, Tyagaraja’s birthplace — Thiruvarur — was a stronghold of the Devadasi community, which held exalted status in the temple there. But he was no admirer. It is rather ironic that sixty years and more after his death, it was the women of that community, led by Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who ensured that his sepulchre had a roof over its head!

The composer may have been wary of women in general too. In his ‘Menu Joochi’ (Sarasangi), he warns mankind against their wiles and ‘Enta Nerchina’ (Shuddha Dhanyasi) has him wryly remarking that no matter what, all men were slaves to women. In today’s context all of this would make him sexist and a chauvinist. But he was a product of his times.

Criticising immorality

Women committing adultery come in for comment in songs such as ‘Manasu Vishaya’ (Nattakurinji), ‘Nalina Lochana’ (Madhyamavati) and ‘Manasu Nilpa’ (Abhogi).

Lecherous men did not escape either. ‘Enduko Baga Teliyadu’ (Mohanam) and ‘Evaru Teliyanu’ (Punnagavarali) could be prescriptions for anyone from Kovalan of Silappadikaram downwards. The latter song speaks of the influence of mistresses, which make a man speak ill of his family. The former depicts the eventual downfall of such people — ‘run after women like dogs, become a prey to diseases and waste their patrimony to an extent that the world derides them’ (translation from C. Ramanujachari). That men were obsessed with the erotic arts and desired to become adept in them in Tyagaraja’s time also is clear from his ‘Sarijesi Veduka’ (Tivravahini) — the composer notes how an expert in sexual sciences would always be appreciated more than a person immersed in bhakti!

Fake godmen receive their share of criticism. ‘Kanugonu Saukhyamu’ (Nayaki), ‘Nadachi Nadachi’ (Kharaharapriya) and ‘Teliyaleru Rama’ (Dhenuka) are examples. In these he sings of people who put on the religious garb only to deceive the gullible for selfish ends.

Tyagaraja also shows that he could be different from the norm. ‘Yagnadulu’ (Jayamanohari) condemns performance of all sacrifices, including animals, as being devoid of wisdom, and, this is where Tyagaraja was far ahead of his time. Also ahead of his times was the composer’s condemnation of astrology as evinced in his ‘Grahabalamemi’ (Revagupti). Then as now, this was much in demand. Serfoji, the ruler, for all his erudition, was a firm believer. His daily routine was, as were his travels, tightly bound by astrologically divined timing. Not so Tyagaraja.

He also lampooned the habit of embarking on pilgrimages (‘Koti Nadulu’ in Todi) when true devotion to Rama was all that was needed. In Tyagaraja’s time, people were forever setting out on long and arduous journeys to temple towns. Very few made it back, given the unsettled era. The big event was of course Serfoji’s tour to Benares. And when he set out, he first went to Thirunallar to seek Saniswara’s blessing! We can see Tyagaraja shaking his head. To what purpose is the decoration of a dead body with brocade and gold, he asks in another song.

A reading of Tyagaraja sometimes makes him almost contemporary. Part of the credit must go to us people for continuing to be the same as we were in his time.

This article is part of a series to commemorate 250 years of Tyagarsja and appeared in The Hindu dated January 12, 2018. Earlier episodes can be read here