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Vol. XXVII No. 20, February 1-15, 2018

Tyagaraja 250

SRIRAM’S SEASON
The composer as a product of his time

Thyagaraja

Artist’s impression of Tyagaraja.

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.

Take for instance caste and religion. A reading in today’s context will make the composer 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 this would make him sexist and a chauvinist. But he was a product of his times.

Women committing adultery are commented on 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). 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. To what purpose is the decoration of a dead body with brocade and gold, Tyagaraja 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.

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