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His friends, fans, and many clients and admirers are not aware of the Carnatic Musical lineage that flowed in his genes. With characteristic modesty, a family trait, he never indulged in drum-beating or chest-thumping – showing the world his knowledge of Carnatic Music that was almost as deep as his knowledge of law. Evenin his late seventies, he could sing a raga or a little known classical composition of Saint Thyagaraja Swamigal without missing a note or going off-key.

His great-grandfather Panju Bhagavathar was one of the glowing, albeit neglected, gems among the direct disciples of Saint Thyagaraja Swamigal of Thiruvaiyar who lived on the banks of the River Kaveri in Thanjavur District. Panju Bhagavathar and elder brother Narasimha were unsung pioneers who launched the now internationally popular ‘Thyagaraja Aradhana’ Music Festival that is celebrated annually on the auspicious ‘Bahula Panchami’ in Thiruvaiyar with fervour and festivity.

Panju Bhagavathar was the first musician to collect, archive and publish as a book, six hundred compositions of Saint Thyagaraja in Telugu. That was not all. He was the first person who wrote an authentic biography of his revered guru. Interestingly, his great-grandson Pichai preserved the books as part of the family archives; he produced them for reference or research for scholars before one could say Saint Thyagaraja Swamigal of Thiruvaiyar.

In keeping with the tradition that prevailed in the districts and other parts of south India during that time, Panju Bhagavathar did not claim authorship of the biography. Instead, he put elder brother Narasimha Bhagavathar’s name as the writer, an example of self-effacement and absence of ego. What a far cry from the culture of today, when persons who can hardly write a few sentences claim to have written books that are ‘launched’ with pomp and circumstance. Times have indeed changed, and changed for the worse.

Narasimha Bhagavathar was not a musician and never performed in public. However, he was a talented exponent of the fine art of Harikatha Kalakshepam, which enjoyed much support and patronage in the decades long gone by. Happily, after remaining neglected for a long period, this captivating art form has shown a healthy revival and enjoys much popularity today not only in India but also in countries such as the United States of America.

It will be interesting to narrate in brief the life and career of Saint Thyagaraja Swamigal and his contribution to Classical Carnatic Music that thrives gloriously in many parts of the world, including India.

As it often happens especially in India, the life of this musical genius has been mythologised and he has been elevated to an iconic status. Here, it is interesting to note that a book on Indian Music published by an association in Poona (Pune) during the early 19th century contains an index of all musicians of worth in the country. The entry for the musical saint reads ‘Thyagaiah -----Thiruvaiyar’. There is no mention of anything else. The mythification of his life seems to have commenced after the book was printed.

Saint Thyagaraja Swamigal was born in Thiruvarur in Thanjavur district on May 4, 1767, or, according to some sources, in 1759. He was named Thyagaraja after the presiding deity Lord Thyagaraja of Thiruvarur. He was born the third son of Ramabramham who was a Harikatha Kalakshepam exponent of merit. His mother was Seethamma, the daughter of a famed musician Veena Kalahasthaiah.

Soon after Thyagaraja’s birth, the Ramabramham family shifted to Thiruvaiyar. The Thanjavur King provided them a house in the village. Thyagaraja lived and died here, in Thiruvaiyar. Precocious, the boy mastered Sanskrit and Telugu and also attained in-depth knowledge of the Hindu epic Valmiki Ramayanam. Besides, he studied other Hindu epics and religious lore in his early teens. His mother had a collection of the compositions of the Kannada music maestro Purandaradasa, which she taught her son. (Purandaradasa hailed from Karnataka and is believed to be the founding father of the school of Classical South Indian Music, named ‘Carnatic Music’.)

The boy revealed an inborn flair and genius for music and his artistic father took him to the court musician Sonti Venkataramanayya to teach his teenage son. Hearing the boy sing, the famous musician noticed the spark of genius in the young boy and taught him all that he knew. Soon he began to compose music in praise of Rama who was his ‘be-all and end-all’. Thyagaraja’s first composition was ‘Girirajasutha thanaya…’.

In 1784, he married Parvathi who passed away in 1789. A year later, he married her sister Kamala and had a daughter Seethalakshmi. The daughter married but had no children. The musical savant passed away on January 6, 1847.

During his lifetime, Thyagaraja composed thousands of compositions in over two hundred ragas, but only a fraction of that body of work has survived. He also composed musical operas but those are not as popular as his song compositions.

With no descendents, his legacy was carried to glory by his disciples, one of whom was Panju Bhagavathar. Thyagaraja’s life as expounded by several scholars and musicologists is expectedly an interesting mix of fact, fiction, and mythification. It is impossible to separate or analyse the stories without causing disrespect to his followers and devotees.


To be continued......

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