I was asked to write this article for The Hindu’s special on the Tamraparni Pushkaram.
In his Kantimati Annai Nee Gati (Kanada), Papanasam Sivan sings of the presiding Goddess of Tirunelveli as residing on the northern banks of the Tamraparni, dignified with streets where sweet Tamil is sung. Yes, this southern river, the only one that originates in Tamil Nadu and enters the sea in the same State, has its musical glory, though perhaps not on the same scale as the Cauvery.
The region has its share of Divya Desams, Padal Petra Sthalams and shrines sung on by Arunagirinathar. Our State has repeatedly changed its district boundaries and so going by the ancient definition of Pandi Nadu, at least 12 Divya Desams fall in and around the river. No less than four Azhwars – Periyazhwar, Nammazhwar, Madhurakavi and Andal were born in this region. Two Padal Petra Sthalams – Kutralam and Nellai are here. Papanasam (Podiyamalai), Valliyur and Kazhugumalai are some of the famed Murugan shrines that have Tiruppugazh by Arunagirinathar.
Of these, Kazhugumalai, which is a magnificent rock-cut temple, was under the control of the Rajahs of Ettayapuram. The estate reached its zenith in the 19th century when it extended its patronage to several musicians. The ruler Venkateswara Ettappa noticed the violin-playing skills of Baluswami Dikshitar, the younger brother of Muthuswami Dikshitar, and invited him to become a palace artiste. That led to Muthuswami Dikshitar coming to Ettayapuram as well, where he eventually passed away. At least one song attributed to Dikshitar – Subrahmanyena samrakshitoham (Shuddha Dhanyasi), is on this shrine. Another song, Shri Vatukanatha (Devakriya), was probably composed here, for this is the only temple linked to Dikshitar where there is a shrine to this deity. The iconography as depicted in the song is however markedly different to what is seen in the sanctum. The Rajahs of Ettayapuram and composers of their estate were to leave behind several songs on this temple. There are several other songs on temples of the Tirunelveli region attributed to Dikshitar but curiously, very few appear to have made it to the listing by his grand-nephew, Subbarama Dikshitar in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini. He also composed Kantimati, in Kalyani on the Goddess at Nellai. A neighbour of Subbarama Dikshitar’s was Subrahmanya Bharathi, our national poet. Bharati’s house in Ettayapuram is preserved as a museum. Happily, those living in Subbarama Dikshitar’s house are aware of their heritage.
Harikesavanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, the first musician in Carnatic music to earn a doctorate, was from this region too. He was a composer, singer, gottuvadyam exponent, Harikatha performer and musicologist. It was he who began the work on resuscitating Swati Tirunal’s compositions, a project that reached great heights under his successor, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. The Divya Desam of Sri Varamangai or Nanguneri has a unique musical heritage – a set of songs dedicated to the deities of the temple here. Composed by two brothers –Srinivasa and Azhagappa Iyengar of the 19th and early 20th century, these songs are now known as Nanguneri Jeer kritis, chiefly because a descendant of the composers became the pontiff of the Mutt here. Numbering around 100, these songs are all in Sanskrit and were set to music by the composers themselves. In documenting music, the contributions of a Tamraparni scholar – VS Gomathisankara Iyer, are unparalleled. He was from Vasudevanallur.
When it came to patronage extended to Carnatic muscians, Tirunelveli was second to none. Beginning with Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan, artistes flocked to this region to perform. Among the centres of patronage, Kallidaikurichi, with its unique heritage of money-lending Brahmins, was foremost. Tales abound of competitions among families in music patronage. But that is a story for another time.