We began this series on Tyagaraja on May 4, 2016 – the date on which his 250th year of birth began. And now, two years later, in this concluding feature, we look at what remains of his material and musical possessions.
The Walajahpet family, comprising Venkataramana Bhagvatar and his son Krishnaswami, held Tyagaraja in veneration. They had both learnt music from the composer and Krishnaswami Bhagavatar was present at the time of Tyagaraja’s passing. The duo inherited several of the bard’s meagre possessions. His padukas (sandals), tambura and his copy of the Pothana Bhagavatam passed into their hands and after their time, were deposited with the Saurashtra Sabha, in Krishnan Koil Street, Madurai. The tambura is kept in a cupboard in the Krishnaswami Temple belonging to the Saurashtra community where it shares space with another that was used by Venkataramana Bhagavatar. Each evening, during the hours of evening worship at the temple, this cupboard is opened and offerings of incense and camphor are made to the two instruments. Rather like Tyagaraja when he describes his vision of Rama in Giripai (Sahana), your eyes fill with tears, your hair stands on end and you momentarily lose all speech. Imagine the amount music this tambura must have heard, straight from the composer! And he has honoured the instrument and others of its kind in his songs such as Kaddanu Variki (Todi). Seeing his sandals, preserved at the Saurashtra Sabha evokes a respectful silence and you ponder on the precious burden they must have borne around Thiruvaiyyaru and elsewhere. The Saurashtra Sabha also has a huge collection of palm leaf and paper manuscripts of the Wallajahpet family and these have several songs of the composer, besides his horoscope and the two biographies of Tyagaraja written by Venkataramana and Krishnaswami Bhagavatars. These are ceremoniously worshipped once every year but are alas, not available for any research. But were it not for them, as noted by Lakshmi Devnath, we would not know of several songs of the composer and also his two operas.
Of his house in Thiruvaiyyaru nothing remains as a most misguided committee in charge of celebrating the composer decided to raze it to the ground and build a remarkably ugly memorial instead. In sharp contrast, the house where Tyagaraja was born, located at Pudu Theru (Mayavaram Road),Thiruvarur, is preserved well. Modernisation has been done keeping in mind the traditional aesthetic. Locals give complete credit for this to the Mahaperiyava of Kanchi who was quite clear that the building could not be demolished for creating newer memorials. Of course, the preservation of the building would not have been possible without a series of musicians such as Alathoor Venkatesa Iyer, Lalgudi G Jayaraman and MS Subbulakshmi and patrons such as Nemmaeli G Venkatarama Iyer and Bhikshandarkoil K Rajagopala Pillai.
The Rama idol worshipped by Tyagaraja passed on to his daughter’s son, also a Tyagaraja, and after his time, was taken by Guruvamma, the his wife, to her maternal home on Varahappayyar Lane, Thanjavur. It remains there with her brother’s descendants and is in worship. The house is open to those wishing to offer a musical tribute to the icons that heard the songs as they were created. A Thanjavur style portrait of Rama and the usually attendant divinities is at the Walajahpet Bhajana Mandiram. This is said to have been brought by Venkataramana Bhagavatar as a gift for Tyagaraja’s daughter’s wedding, prompting the composer to sing Nannu Palimpa (Mohanam). But there is no mention of such an incident in the writings of the Walajahpet family.
The Tyagaraja Aradhana took place sporadically in Thiruvaiyyaru and it was only early in the 20th century that the rituals that we now see each year were formalised. The Samadhi as is well known, became a temple thanks to the initiative of Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who is buried opposite. The songs of Tyagaraja were inscribed on marble panels that were mounted on to the walls of the Samadhi and the surrounding pavilion entirely due to the public subscription drive of Sundaram Iyer, a postal clerk. He was assisted in this by the scholar TS Parthasarathy.
Since the coming out of what is arguably the first Carnatic music book to be printed – the Sangita Sarvartha Sara Sangrahamu dating to 1859- the songs of Tyagaraja became available to a wider public. Translations of his songs into other languages began in the late 19th century and have continued ever since. His disciples, led by the Umayalpuram school, which produced the maximum number of performers, popularised his songs. Of course, there are stylistic variations among them but there is still a great homogeneity in what constitutes Tyagaraja’s corpus. Today, he is the cornerstone of our music and is likely to remain so as long as the art form survives.