The padukas of Tyagaraja, as preserved at the Saurashtra Sabha, Madurai

Owing to the spread of the Omicron variant, the Thyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyyaru has been reduced to just one day this year. As per the press announcements, the usually five-day celebration of Tyagaraja will be restricted to just a few hours on the anniversary of his passing. Has this ever happened before asked someone. I could only reflect on how the Aradhana as we know of it is by itself a relatively recent phenomenon. Indeed, those who knew Tyagaraja in his lifetime would hardly recognise it. 

But firstly, we need to know that Tyagaraja is not the only music-related personality who has such an Aradhana. Narayana Teertha’s is far older and like Tyagaraja’s happens at multiple locations. Sadasiva Brahmendra too has an Aradhana, at Nerur. In the bhajana tradition, an Aradhana is done for Bodhendra Swamigal each year, at Govindapuram. Such an observance is common to all those who took to a life of renunciation. Tyagaraga too, having become a sanyasi in the last days of his life, qualified as such for a memorial after his passing and thereafter for the annual observance. Of course, his stature as arguably the greatest Carnatic composer elevated his event over that of all others and gives it its exalted status. 

And yet, for the first 60 years after his passing, there was no Aradhana of any kind. His grandson conducted the event till his passing in 1855 and with Tyagaraja’s lineage falling extinct, the observance too lapsed. It was customary for the various surviving disciples of Tyagaraja to observe the day of his passing as a quiet private rite at their respective towns and in their homes. Certainly, nobody came to Thiruvaiyyaru or bothered with his samadhi until 1903. That year, the last two direct disciples, Umayalpuram Krishna and Sundara Bhagavatars made the journey to Thiruvaiyyaru, identified what they thought was Tyagaraja’s samadhi with great difficulty (it was one among many identical markers in a vast burial spot for sanyasis) and had it renovated. From the next year, their disciples Thillaisthanam Narasimha and Panju Bhagavatars opted to conduct an Aradhana for the composer in Thiruvaiyyaru itself. That the duo later split and formed respectively the Periya and Chinna Katchis –two warring factions among musicians that competed to make the Aradhana bigger and bigger is well documented. And then in the 1920s came Bangalore Nagarathnamma who built the temple for Tyagaraja, installed an idol for him and fought her own battle for equality – of women with the men in the worship. She lies buried opposite Tyagaraja. 

The Tyagaraja Aradhana may have remained on the same scale as those of other music composers who became sanyasis but it was meant for bigger things. The early 1900s, when the Thillaisthanam brothers first sought to excite interest in the festival was the heyday of Harikatha. It was Narasimha Bhagavatar’s evocative narrative of Tyagaraja’s life story, replete with all the myths that we associate with it, that first drew people. The Hindu, with its serialisation of MS Ramaswami Aiyar’s biography of Tyagaraja took the tale further afield. By the 1930s, when there was a huge regeneration of interest in the lives of bhakti poets, cultural markers as it were for a nation that was searching for its past, Tyagaraja was the subject of plays and films. There was a huge emotional connect – here was a composer who had suffered at the hands of everyone – brother, king, dacoits, fellow musicians. The Aradhana grew with all of this. By the early 1940s, this event was a high point in the Carnatic music calendar. The press of the day reported on it in great detail. Musicians’ arrivals and departures were commented on as if it was page 3 material. Thus, when in 1940 it became necessary for a formal body to conduct the celebrations, just about every bigwig of South India was on it. There were Maharajahs, Diwans, business barons, ICS officers, lawyers, and then below them, musicians. Tyagaraja would have smiled. 

From that year, what had till then been a somewhat informal offering of music to Tyagaraja became a highly organised festival – there were scheduled concerts following a strict timetable. From 1941, the All India Radio Trichy began broadcasting sections of the concerts – suddenly it became necessary for the artistes featured to be auditioned and accredited by the AIR. Devotion to Tyagaraja became somewhat less important. And then in 1949, the Pancharatnam were sung in chorus. The Aradhana as we know of it had cystallised. Thereafter we have had coverage by Doordarshan, the featuring of the event in film, the taking of the Aradhana to other towns and countries but it is all an extension of the same concept. It is interesting that the debate on whether this is indeed the Aradhana that is suitable for Tyagaraja has continued unabated right from 1940 onwards. What is sad is that there was no debate when it was decided to demolish Tyagaraja’s house, to build what is unarguably the ugliest memorial to the composer. 

What makes the Aradhana special is often what is left unstated – the fight of Nagarathnamma to conduct a shraddha for Tyagaraja, hitherto allowed only to men. The segregation of feeding of artistes based on caste until 1941 when that was given a quiet burial. The preventing of women being given prime performing slots by a powerful cabal of male artistes until Alamelu Jayarama Iyer raised her voice. The unwritten convention that the unnchavrtti procession had to comprise only men – that was until one year when Brinda, Muktha and MS Subbulakshmi silently joined in and began to sing. The keeping out of nagaswaram and tavil artistes from performing on the Aradhana stage even though their money was always welcome to conduct the Aradhana – until TN Rajarathinam Pillai loudly protested and demanded that every nagaswaram artiste on the committee resign. 

The story of the Tyagaraja Aradhana is one of social evolution – a journey towards equality achieved through music. That makes it worth celebrating. 

This article appeared in a slightly edited form in The Hindu dated January 21, 2022