Song of Surrender

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Inaugural speech at Tyagaraja Vidwat Samajam

By V Ramnarayan

Ladies and gentlemen,

Madurai Sri R Rajaram gave the welcome address today. Madurai Sri TN Seshagopalan is presiding over the function and we are soon to be treated to a vocal concert by Madurai Sri GS Mani. Of course Madurai Shanmukhavadivu Subbulakshmi was one of the musicians to make an important contribution to the early fund-raising efforts of the Tyagaraja Vidwat Samajam. In the midst of all these splendid representatives of Madurai, I apologise to you all for not being from Madurai.

Speaking of MS Subbulakshmi, today is the day of the martyrdom of Mahatma Gandhi, who once said he’d rather listen to MS speak a verse than anybody else sing it.

“Who am I, a mere prime minister before the queen of song?” said Jawaharlal Nehru of the same MS.

When  great men feel inadequate before a musician, it is hardly surprising that I ask myself today: “Who am I, a mere journalist before the many stalwarts of music gathered here?”

Yet I realise that I stand here today because I represent Sruti magazine, which has served our performing arts for 30 years, earning the respect of artists and rasikas alike. 

I am happy that in this period, we have provided extensive coverage to most of our greats in the fields of music and dance, though I just realised we have not brought out a comprehensive issue on the saint composer Tyagaraja. We should soon rectify that lapse.

Like the founder of Sruti, N Pattabhi Raman, I too belong to the category of rasikas devoted to Carnatic music, whose bhakti is to the music itself, who like to think of our music as art music, who have the highest respect for the practitioners and composers of this music, without deifying them.  This does not prevent us from respecting the sentiments of those to whom the devotional aspects of the music are paramount.

I came to my job as Sruti editor as probably an intelligent rasika with kelvi gnanam and good taste, and it has been my constant endeavour to improve my understanding of what makes our music, our musicians, our vaggeyakaras great. It has been a fascinating journey of discovery. Today, I shall try to briefly touch upon some of the insights I have gained of the genius of Tyagaraja through reading some experts on the subject.

This is what Dr S Radhakrishnan says in his preface to The Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja by Sri C Ramanujachari:

 “The name Tyagaraja means the prince of renouncers, of those who give up worldly desires. Tyaga or renunciation is the way to mental peace and freedom. In one of his songs Tera tiyagarada? Tyagaraja says, “O Supreme Being, Tirupati Venkataramana, could you not remove the screen of pride and envy, which is taking a firm stand within me, keeping me out of the reach of dharma and the like.”

“Tyagaraja was a person of great humility. He expresses the truths of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita in simple and appealing language. He addresses the Supreme as Rama. The kingdom of God acquired through devotion is the greatest of all treasures: Rama bhakti samrajyamu.

 “If we have faith in the Divine, there is no need to worry: ma kelara vicharamu.

“The secular must be invaded by the spiritual; only then is life dignified. Self-realisation is through self-giving.”

In the Introductory Thesis of the same book, Dr V Raghavan says Tyagaraja is probably the greatest of the great music-makers of south India.

He attributes his success to his powerful genius that comprehended the varied excellences of the early masters as well as his own brilliant contemporaries. 

He compares Tyagaraja with Purandaradasa and Kshetrayya for sheer volume of output; he calls him a second Bhadrachala Ramadasa in his anguished appeals to Rama; he finds him as lyrical as Kshetrayya; in devotion, religious fervour and reformatory zeal, he considers him an equal of Purandaradasa again, and so on and so forth.

“From plain Divyanama sankirtana, full of words, epithets and long and difficult compounds, he soars to artistic creations in which, into a few words, an eddying flood of music is thrown.”

Dr Raghavan speaks of the poetic excellence and spiritual value of Tyagaraja’s compositions. He describes his creativity as the consummation of fragrant gold as in the works of Jayadeva, Purandaradasa and Kshetrayya. However, while praising his sangita, he also speaks of his sahitya as “a treasure of thought the contemplation of which would make one forget everything about his music.”

An article in Issue 41 of Sruti by N.S. Srinivasan, a producer at AIR-Hyderabad and a flautist trained by Mali, titled Tyagaraja As Composer: More Human Than Divine argues that Tyagaraja’s music is a product of great musical intelligence and acumen, not the handiwork of Providence alone.

Srinivasan asks if the bhava which is said to be the lifeblood of Tyagaraja’s kritis is sahitya bhava or sangita bhava.

He maintains that the musical mood conveys the meaning of a song even when the singer mutilates the lyrics, as in the case of classical musicians who do not know Telugu.

They may mispronounce words or split them ridiculously when they sing Tyagaraja’s songs, sometimes unwittingly conveying inappropriate meaning in the process, but the emotional appeal of the music is still intact.

He stresses that not sahitya alone but music also contributes to the bhava of a composition. “It has been rightly said that a song is a fusion (samyuktam) of notes (datu) and words (matu). This fusion is indeed one of the secrets of Tyagaraja’s success.”

Tyagaraja was a Rama bhakta but also a composer par excellence. To call his compositions the products of divine ecstasy is to ascribe his genius to his heart and take away credit from his brilliant mind.

Tyagaraja expressed sorrow and turmoil with great musical beauty. He handled ragas rare and common, even vakra ragas, with ease, intimating the raga in a flash and painting its whole picture in the very first line. His kritis show perfect balance between form and structure. To place too much emphasis on his bhakti alone is an injustice to his musical genius.

According to his biographer William Jackson, Tyagaraja represents an archetype, a symbol in which opposites unite dynamically.

He may be accessible, even popular in his musical outpourings, but he is inwardly a mystic with the power that emanates from self-realisation.

His songs, steeped in the essence of over 200 ragas, including some he created, draw from a reservoir of collective memory and wisdom. In turn, he made a lasting impression on the collective memory of south India.

Sangita Kalanidhi TV Subba Rao as quoted by Jackson, said, “Tyagaraja united the apparently opposite qualities of conservatism and progress, of reverence for antiquity and impatience of restraint, of the prejudices of the heart and the revolt of intellect. He is a classic romanticist and a conservative radical. His life in ethics and aesthetics is the evolution of perfect harmony and attunement from the discordant principles of thought and action. Nothing short of the absolute universality of his mind could have succeeded in saturating his songs with that spirit of sweetness, peace and bliss which lingers in our soul long after the sounds have faded away.”

No wonder Tyagaraja’s anniversary has been commemorated for 166 years—now in several parts of the world. For this we must thank the thousands of humble devotees who have selflessly contributed time and effort, as well as money, to show their reverence to the saint composer through music.

It is easy for musicians, music critics and even sabha secretaries to forget the contribution of the ordinary music lover who not only ensures the success of such events by attending them with fervour, but also plays a role in perpetuating the memory of our forefathers and keeping their art alive.

We must be grateful for organisations like the Tyagaraja Vidwat Samajam for their quiet service to the memory of Tyagaraja for several decades.

We must cherish the Samajam’s milestones such as the 150th Tyagaraja aradhana in 1997—with Sri M Balamuralikrishna and Sri Semmangudi Srinivasier giving the first and 150th concerts arranged that year—and the Platinum Jubilee of the Samajam in 2004—when 75 concerts were held and 75 elderly, senior vidwans were honoured.

Today we also pay homage to the memory of such tireless workers in the cause of the Samajam as Harikatha exponent Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar (whose centenary has just concluded).  Sangita Kalanidhi MS Gopalakrishnan, an erstwhile member of the Board of Trustees of the Samajam, is no more with us, and we must salute his phenomenal contribution to Indian classical music.

In conclusion, my pranams to the two vidwans from Madurai among us today. Sri Seshagopalan’s profile in November 1983 was my first major contribution to Sruti magazine. I have happy memories of interacting with him as he was entering the stellar phase of his brilliant career.

Sri GS Mani with his wonderful voice is a role model for young vocalists. A couple of decades ago, Sruti teamed up with him to offer programmes based on Carnatic music in Tamil films. I look forward to featuring him in Sruti in the near future.

I have great pleasure in inaugurating this edition of the Tyagaraja aradhana at the Samajam.

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