The Personal and Interpersonal In Sri Tyagaraja’s Compositions


A closer look into the great composer’s conversations with Lord Rama reveals that Ramabhakti was the mainstay of his life. He praised his lord, he often spoke to, pleaded, urged and complained to Him. The impact of this devotion is felt a century and half later. 

By Santhi Pasumarthi 

Tyagaraja’s Jayanthi was on Vaishakha Shukla Saptami (fell on May 2, this year). In this article, Vidwan T. M Krishna, as part of a series to celebrate the composer’s 250th Jayanthi, wrote of ‘aesthetic extravagance’ in his compositions and tried to delve into the personality of Sri. Tyagaraja through his lyrics.

In that attempt, he made a statement that “while Sri Syama Sastri’s conversations with Kamakshi Devi were interpersonal, Tyagaraja was a social commentator”. While the eco-system that often gives space to Sri T.M Krishna for his own social commentary might readily accept this opinion, this gives us an opportunity to have a closer look at interpersonal nature of Sri Tyagaraja’s Krithis vis-à-vis Rama.

The interpersonal

Ramabhakti was the mainstay of Tyagaraja’s life and apart from praising his lord, he often spoke to, pleaded, urged and complained to him. To give some numbers, a search the word ‘రామ’(Rama) in this page, that had 464 Tyagaraja krithis (not a full list), gives 136 matches. This does not even include songs from his operas, Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauka Charitram. Of these, around 120 are seen as directly addressing Rama (sambodhana). And these do not include many other names by which he is addressed — Raghuvara, Sitapathe, Sitanayaka. When people accused him of dividing the family property, he complained to his Rama saying ‘Naadupai balkeru janulu’. When his disciple gifted him a depiction of Rama during his daughter’s wedding, he poured out his joy by singing ‘Nanupalimpa nadachi vacchitivo’. He questioned him saying ‘Ela nee daya raadu’ and ‘Ela daya raade raamayya’. He literally used every trick under his sleeve. In krithi ‘Nagumomu ganaleni’, he asked if Garuda is stopping him to come down. In Krithi ‘heccharika gaa raara’, he makes the parrot perched on Meenakshi Devi’s shoulder sing her brother Rama’s praise (‘ninu chooda vacchu bhagini karambu chiluka manasu ranjilla nee mahimalu‘). In ‘Ninuvina naa madendu nilvade’, he pines and yearns for Rama like a beloved.

Most of his krithis are conversations with Rama about his agony, his failure to keep his mind steady in Rama-dhyana, his heights of ecstasy. This is a standout feature of his compositions — a song for every emotional swing of his, addressed to his friend-philosoper-guide-father-lord. Many a time, it is as if he builds a mental fortress — only him and Rama in conversation. At times, he opens up and lets us in and join his worship — like in kithis ‘chutamu rare’ and ‘pathiki harati re’.

The swa-gatam

Tyagaraja not only extensively conversed with his Rama, but also with his own mind. Again, a search of the word ‘మనసా’(manasA -meaning O mind) on the same page gives 34 matches just in the Pallavi and adds up to much more when we consider the word appearing in Anupallavi and Charanam. Krithis like ‘rAmuni maravakave O mansA’ (O mind, don’t forget Rama), ‘sAdhinchene O mansA’ (O mind, I have achieved!). He even pleads with his own mind in the krithi ‘manavi AlakincharAdaTe’. These krithis were his ‘swa-gatams’ (spoken to his own self) and sometimes make us wonder if they are meant to be sung at concerts.

Can there be anything more personal than this?

His Krithis like ‘bhajana seyave O manasA’ and ‘rama namam bhajare mAnasa’ remind us of ‘mAnasa sanchara re’ of Sadashiva Brahmendra and ‘sumiran karle mere manA’, of Guru Nanak. There are many such tropes often used by great bhaktas. Like Vidwan T.M Krishna says, he saw himself as a part of the bigger Bhagavata Sampradaya/Parampara (probably refered to as the Smarta network in the article). He clearly mentions in the Krithi ‘Seetamma Maayamma’, that he considers Parama-Bhagavatas like Shiva, Vasishta etc. as his relations, and Hanuman, Lakshmana and Garuda, as brothers.

The so-called social commentary we see in his Krithis, almost always, had a personal connection, mostly with events in his life or around him. In the Krithi ‘yagnadulu sukhamanu’, he criticises indulgence in ritual Yagnas and in the krithi ‘chakkani rajamargamu’, talks about staying away from ‘toddy’, but says so to his own mind. Even in the krithis Sri T.M Krishna referred to in the article with references to caste and role of women — ‘menu juchi’ and ‘dudukugala’, Tyagagarja was talking to himself. Does it do any good to impose today’s sensibilities to his times when the elements of patriarchy and objectification of women were definitely higher and scrutinise his personality through those? He never seems to have tried to project himself as egalitarian. We do come across such ideas in Annamacharya Krithis like ‘Brahmamokkate’. We do not know if Tyagaraja was referring to trespassing scriptural injunctions laid down for his Kulam in that phrase ‘modati kulamu…’.

Is looking at Krithis in isolation without understanding their context being fair to the composer?

While T.M Krishna rightly looks at the lyrics to understand the composers’ minds, there are instances where artists view music and lyrics as two disconnected entities. He himself once sang ‘Devi Brova Samayamide’ the only krithi in Chintamani Raga, in slow tempo, at a concert in Boston, couple of years ago.  The pallavi — ‘Devi Brova Samayamide ativegame vacchi Naa vetalu teerchi karuninchave’ (‘O Devi, this is the time to protect me. Please come very fast, remove my troubles and shower your mercy.’)  Madhyamakala, the tempo generally chosen, helps in conveying the hurry and desperation of the composer and greatly enhances the bhava. But in this case, one was left wondering if Devi was being put to sleep, instead of being urged to come soon. To be fair, artists don’t make a promise to deliver the composer’s vision. But in this case, he succeeded in creating a mood contrary to what the lyrics suggest.

In the name of creativity

T.M Krishna laments, ‘one wishes that a mind as creative as his had gone beyond and risen above’. Tyagaraja was, already, sort of a radical for his times, in terms of his musical creation and in the way he lived. And it is surprising that Sri Krishna says this in this age, when the word ‘creativity’ is used as a license to stray away from tradition, etiquette and righteousness, to be eccentric and much more.

All this talk about creative people having to rise above certain things reminds of a recent in a concert in USA, where an artist sang a 30-second alapana in Kapi and followed it with the phrase ‘Jagadoddharana’. The poor audience clapped. The artist said, to the surprise (and shock) of many, that he doesn’t know if this is linguistic mania or musical mania and he wishes it is the latter. So, he was prejudiced enough. Many in the audience were probably left wondering if being so creative, the artist should have risen above such statements.

The Vaggeyakara

Sri Tyagaraja is celebrated for his great lyrics, their spiritual quality and for his musical genius. But Vaggeyakara is the one term that best defines him. While music alone is enough for the ‘aesthetic immersion’, Tyagaraja’s alchemy-esque hold over music and lyric takes the experience to a different level. After the great Jayadeva, there were unsung dance gurus, like Siddhendra Yogi, who excelled in this. Sri Annamacharya, hailed as the Padakavita Pitamaha, was an extraordinary poet, but we do not know much about his music. Hence, Tyagaraja is perched in a special place, right near the top, in not just Carnatic music, but the whole of Indian music, similar to Kalidasa’s, in Sanskrit poetry.

In the Krithi ‘Maa kulamuna kihaparamosagina neeku’ from Nauka Charitram, the Gopis praise Krishna, saying he gave them Iham and Param (everything related to this world and beyond). A group of artists was once heard say that Tyagaraja, too, gave the same to their musical fraternity.

The way he himself wanted to be identified is probably mentioned in krithis like ‘Bantureeti koluviyyavayya Rama’, where he says he wants a medallion bearing the words ‘Rama Bhaktudu’ (rAmabhaktudane mudrabillayu).










  • Ramesh Rao

    This is a beautiful observation/commentary/critique… And, yes, the likes of TM Krishna are too full of themselves and their new-fangled fame to know either humility or modesty, or the even more requisite characteristic: sagacity and wisdom.

    • Kashipathi Alse


      • Kashipathi Alse

        Raman Effect (by product of JNU and post modernism Any Christian missionary hidden agenda.

    • Kashipathi Alse

      I agree N Raman effect on TMK