By William Jackson
“Saw a shooting star tonight and I thought of you...”
(from “Shooting Star,” by Bob Dylan)
I remember my uncertainties in the darkness after many cramped hours in flight on the plane to Madras in September 1980. I had been to India for several months in 1970, and again briefly in 1977, but this time I had a specific academic task and a long-range goal—to conduct research for my Harvard University Ph.D. thesis. The topic was to be the life and works of Tyagaraja, the great singer-saint who composed hundreds of memorable songs, raising Karnataka music to new heights of artistic achievement and devotional power.
Would I meet the right guides? Would they look kindly upon me and agree to give me the help I would require to enter into the culture? Did I have enough language training to be accepted and get started in this very tradition-conscious region of the earth? I felt at the mercy of a different social world and had no idea how my first large-scale research project would turn out. So far from home with only new acquaintances to call on I tried to stop worrying and to hope for the best.
I need not have worried that night. The few names and addresses I had received from knowledgable Madrasis I’d met in America would start up and propel my 18-month long research project. One of those names was T. Sankaran, given to me by Jon Higgins when I visited Wesleyan University. “Your view of Tyagaraja will be very different from mine,” Jon Higgins had said. “Because you study religion and I’m a musicologist. But Sankaran will help you.” Higgins, who was already well known in Madras, where he was sometimes called “Higgins Bhagavatar” for being able to sing Tyagaraja songs in the traditional manner, took me to Professor T. Viswanathan, also at Wesleyan, and he gave me helpful information about Tyagaraja, and told me to contact his cousin, T. Sankaran, in Madras.
In Madras, after finding a place to stay (thanks to contacts provided by C.V. Narasimhan with whom I spoke both at Harvard and at the United Nations where he was Undersecretary General) my wife Marcia and I went to look up Sankaran. It was a blindingly bright sunny day and we were wandering on the wildly busy streets of Madras still feeling jetlagged. We marvelled at the humid atmosphere, overwhelmed by all the colours and sounds and different rhythms of India. We went into an impressive antique building, into an office with high ceilings and lazily turning ceiling fans and found the office of T. Sankaran, who was the director of Tamil Isai Sangam, a Tamil music academy and sabha, or music lovers’ society.
He was a small man, less than five feet tall, and he had gray hair, but he was very friendly, with a large heart and a youthful spirit. He was dressed in crisp white clothes with a scarf flung over his shoulder which gave him an artistic flair. He asked an assistant to bring us tea, and we relaxed. He talked about his work, his years as a producer with All India Radio, and his family. Sankaran was the grandson of Vina Dhannammal, one of the most highly regarded musicians of her time. He generously took us to a nearby music performance, and provided us with food, assuring us it was safe to eat. It was also delicious.
He asked me: “What do you want?” and patiently listened when I tried to explain my hopes and plans. He was always ready to give suggestions on accomplishing the goals of my project. He took me directly to T.S. Parthasarathy when I told him I wanted to work on translating Tyagaraja’s lyrics. That was the beginning of a series of introductions he gave me which were very helpful in learning about South Indian culture. More than once he asked, “What do you want?“ and then opened doors to the worlds of Karnataka music, giving me ideas and providing personal guidance without ever asking for anything in return.
At a Sampradaya concert (Sampradaya literally means “the faithful transmission of tradition,” and it is the name of a music society in Madras) in an elegant old building in Fort Saint George, Sankaran introduced his cousins, Brinda and Mukta who were singing Kshetrayya padams. Sampradaya was just then forming. Michael Nixon and Ludwig Pesch, with the help of the Max Mueller Bhavan of Madras were the founders of this society dedicated to record and promote the music of South Indian music masters, and to value their experiences of training, performing and teaching. Sankaran spoke warmly of the new organization which was devoted to promoting and preserving the great South Indian musical traditions. “This group prizes the greatness of the past. In the past, singers did not rely on microphones, but filled the rooms with their voices. The only ‘mike’ you’ll find here is that Mike over there!” He pointed to Michael Nixon—a student from South Africa who was studying with the celebrated vina player Savitri Rajan.
After the concert Sankaran showed me a book which was the text of Oriental Music in Staff Notation, by Chinnaswami Mudaliar. He told me: “Jon Higgins was going to try to take the original pages of the rest of this great book published so long ago, with all the music to many of Tyagaraja’s songs, back to America to have them copied, but in the end they were a massive pile and were disintegrating too much and he had to abandon the idea. At least you can take a copy of the introduction.” I thanked him and later found that Harvard had a copy of the rare book.
Sankaran told us he was going to be travelling to Chidambaram for a conference, and invited us to travel with him, and then visit Tyagaraja’s home village, Tiruvaiyaru. We were to meet him at the train leaving Egmore Station at night. “That way we may sleep in comfort and arrive in style, well-rested and ready for the day,” Sankaran said. He would send someone to purchase our tickets, so all we had to do was meet him there. At the depot we looked for information about the trains and asked directions. The Madras train stations are amazing beehives of activity even at night. Red turbanned porters running around seeking to be loaded up with luggage, travellers sleeping on the floor, arrivers getting down and departers searching for their trains. We boarded a train after we were told it was the correct one and searched for Sankaran but could not find him.
When the engine started up and we all lurched someone told us we were on the wrong train and I tried to persuade Marcia to jump with me from the slow-moving sleeper car to the platform, but she sensibly refused. We were stuck on the milk train with no tickets, stopping throughout the night at each village, but at least it was going in the right direction, we hoped. At a main railroad junction some hours south of Madras we met up with Sankaran. “What happened? I waited for you—you missed the train and took this one?!” We tried to explain our mishaps and he laughed. “You may not have slept in comfort or travelled in style or arrived well-rested, but at least you have arrived!”
We got down at Chidambaram and had breakfast, and Sankaran took us for darshan at the great Siva temple of Tillai Nataraja, to see the lingam of ether. He said “Here it will not suffice to remove your shoes. Custom dictates that men must also remove their shirts, only then can we enter and worship to our hearts’ content.” I remember removing my shirt before entering the sanctuary; it felt unusual to enter a holy site that way, but it was memorable. We were two skinny men, one short and one tall, humbly worshipping in the ancient temple where the invisible form of Siva is revealed.
After the conference, where Dr. Seetha and other luminaries of the music world presented papers, Sankaran took us by bus to Tiruvaiyaru. We saw the countryside while riding with farmers and bazaar merchants and other people of the lush green Kaveri delta land. When it rained we rolled down the canvas window shades. Those country buses are cosy and cheerful, even if the shock absorbers seem to be nonexistent. Seated in the very back of the bus, our heads hit the ceiling at each rut in the road. Sankaran didn’t seem to notice as he kept up a steady stream of conversation.
At Thiruvaiyaru we went right through the village to the Tyagaraja Samadhi, a white marble building in a pleasant clearing. Sankaran spoke with the pujari, a Smartha brahman who lived in a hut on the site there with his family. The priest unlocked the Samadhi and Sankaran joyfully sang Tyagaraja songs, including Paramatmudu. “This was Tyagaraja’s ‘swansong,’” he explained afterwards. The priest offered Tyagaraja Sanskrit prayers and flowers and other offerings in the Samadhi, while Sankaran’s Tyagaraja songs in Telugu echoed in the cool marble hall.
When we left, Sankaran said: “It is my opinion that if you heard Tyagaraja sing it would surprise you—the kind of voice he had was probably not like the voices of the most popular singers today.” He also said that according to an oral tradition he had heard, just before dying, Tyagaraja requested a large amount of salt be put in the grave in which his body was to be buried. The request for such a quantity surprised his disciples.
At Tiruvaiyaru we stayed with a friend of Sankaran’s family. She was a kindly widow who lived with her son in a comfortable home in the village. In the morning Sankaran took me to the Kaveri river, and we walked down stone stairs to bathe, with little fish tickling our ankles and calves as they nibbled at our skin. There in the dusk with spindly cheerful Sankaran it seemed easy to imagine Tyagaraja wading into the river at dawn and dusk, repeating the gayatri. Thinking of the saint saying the prayer for light in the twilight, I had pleasant reveries standing in the river renowned for giving people there clarity. Spending time in the village I absorbed the atmosphere and flavour of the villagers’ lives and the local places of note. We visited the old temple there, dedicated to Panchanadiswara, known for the incense pit at its main gate of entrance. Alkondar Paradesi, a holy man who lived around Tyagaraja’s time, was known to go down into the incense pit, which was famous for always having fragrant smoke rising from it. It is said that in one hall of the temple Tyagaraja used to spend afternoons reciting his Rama mantra.
We visited the house where Tyagaraja lived, which is kept as a memorial to him. I was struck by its narrowness—shaped like some linked boxcars. “See, the division of the household really happened—Tyagaraja’s brother got the other half!” At the back of the house was a typical courtyard with a well and a grinding stone. I made a sketch and pictured Tyagaraja and his disciples playing their music there. As I took in the mood of the rooms I had the idea that someday I would like to write a historical novel based loosely on the life of Tyagaraja and his contemporaries in the region that is now known as Tanjavur District.
By spending time in Tiruvaiyaru with Sankaran I familiarized myself with the place and the people, and imagined the life there during Tyagaraja’s time more than a century and a half ago. Later, on return trips when I attended the annual Tyagaraja festival, the place would be familiar to me; at those times parts of it would be decked out for festivities and crowds of people would throng the narrow streets and lanes, of course.
While we were in Tiruvaiyaru Sankaran told the moving story of Bangalore Nagaratnammal. He was very dedicated and devoted to her memory and her ideals and aspirations. He remembered her fondly from his youth, how she faced her family sorrows, became a great artist and devotee, how she travelled in trains with her portable vina to the places where she performed. She was spiritually inspired, dreaming of Tyagaraja, accepting the mission of making his rundown gravesite worthy of the saint’s memory. She was the one who bought the land surrounding the Tyagaraja Samadhi and helped the factionalized followers of Tyagaraja’s music join together to honour him at an annual festival. (Later, he asked another family friend, Sulochana Govardhana, with whom my wife Marcia studied Tamil, to translate some Bangalore Nagaratnammal biographical material so I could use it in my Tyagaraja research.)
Throughout the eighteen months I was living in India Sankaran often appeared, at concerts and conferences, and at the home of “Rosie Auntie,” where C.V. Narasimhan had invited me to listen to many great South Indian musicians, including the renowned singers M.S. Subbulakshmi and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Sankaran was a tireless man, keeping active into his ripe old age. Even though he was older than some of the already retired great musicologists whom I visited he somehow seemed more youthful than they. He was a good old boy.
Sankaran’s Thoughts on Tyagaraja
Sankaran pointed out that during the period of history in which World War II, Indian Independence, and the linguistic division of India occurred, there were many changes and re-adjustments to be made by the people of India. He noted, for example, that one of the chief original planks of the annual Tyagaraja Aradhana festival was mass feeding of brahmans. But wartime rationing caused a cutback of this practice, and with the attainment of national independence and the consequent democratization of society and values, the feeding became “cosmopolitan” – multi-caste. With the raising of linguistic consciousness, the dominance of Telugu lyrics in song and dance performances in Tamil Nadu was resented, and the Dravidian movement increased affection for and pride in the Tamil language. Yet Sankaran also noted that “governments may come and go, but Tyagaraja goes on forever.” He pointed out that Tyagaraja’s “empire” of songs has spread to other countries as well, where his works are performed and his life is celebrated. Thus, Tyagaraja, unlike many other regional composers, has become a state- and nation-transcending figure.
Noting that Tyagaraja is very popular as a composer in our era, Sankaran pointed out the extent to which the saint’s music has “even invaded the dance repertoire. Tyagaraja is a money-spinner” in the music industry of the modern world, because of his sterling reputation and his great popularity and the demand this creates; in every linguistic area, including North Indian ones, promoters attempt to make capital out of Tyagaraja’s appeal. The law of supply and demand holds sway, and articles, books, films, and other media programs are produced by both the learned culture makers and the business-minded entrepreneurs. Sankaran noted that the “Wireless Service” (e.g., All India Radio) serves as a great patron of music, and Tyagaraja’s songs enjoy a wide patronage through radio programs. In this format and others Tyagaraja is the favoured composer of classical South Indian music in the modern age.
Writing in 1983, Sankaran said that provincial attitudes and old limitations which constrict many viewpoints do not hold true when it comes to people’s views of Tyagaraja. Though Tyagaraja was a brahman with Sanskritic learning, even those who agitate to promote their own respective mother tongues do not condemn Tyagaraja. He illustrated his argument by noting that no proponent of the Tamil language had led crusades against Tyagaraja’s Telugu lyrics, though such proponents may clamour for Tamil in all spheres, including music. Non-Hindus, such as Jon Higgins of the United States, and KJ Yesudas, a Christian from Kerala, have been able to sing Tyagaraja’s songs and enjoy popularity. The social restrictions which used to prohibit women (other than those of the traditional professional musician class) to make music and to dance are no longer valid. The dance profession and the nagaswaram-playing profession are presently in the hands of performers who would not defy or neglect Tyagaraja, but honour him. Sankaran noted that in the late 1950s a brahman playing a nagaswaram would have been unthinkable. Today “even sensitive young girls” play that instrument, and dancers may come from the highest castes. With all the changes occurring in the 20th century, Sankaran asserted, the fortunes of Tyagaraja have only risen, and his religious vitality has increased.
Sankaran found it significant that Bangalore Nagaratnammal, whom he knew personally, was a non-brahman woman of the courtesan class, whose mother tongue was Kannada, yet she it was who built a shrine for Tyagaraja, a Telugu brahman of Tamil Nadu. No one else could accomplish what she did, bringing together diverse factions. He saw this as an exemplary transcendence of regional boundaries and personal limits—a necessity in our age of diversity and new challenges. He considered Nagaratnammal’s work in relation to Tyagaraja and his legacy an amazing social mixture and an astounding and admirable bhakti accomplishment.
On the personal level, T. Sankaran said he considered himself a devotee of Tyagaraja, revering him as a guru, receiving from the great composer’s songs religious inspiration. When he sang Tyagaraja’s songs and they echoed in the Tyagaraja Samadhi, Sankaran seemed spiritually at one with the feelings and ideas in the lyrics and melodies, as if he were at home.
It was a privilege to know T. Sankaran and to gain access to the heritage of South Indian music through his family’s auspices. It was a privilege to travel with him and spend time with such a generous man. When I last saw him in Madras in December 1999 he was frail, lying in bed and not responding much when his daughter-in-law and I spoke to him. I was in Madras to interview musicians about improvisation. For a long time I tried to remind him who I was, realizing all the while that he was drifting away, and that in his long life he had encountered and helped many people such as myself.
After a long time he sat bolt upright and exclaimed “Jackson!” It was as if he had come from far far away and knew that we had been waiting for him to return. I knew from his voice that I had gotten as much of his attention as he could summon. Then he said loud and clear: “What do you want?” Everyone in the room laughed. It was the old Sankaran again for a moment, asking one last time what he could do for someone seeking to learn about South Indian culture. For many years whatever a sincere seeker of knowledge about the world of music wanted to find, Sankaran generously helped him or her find it. There are many of us who are very thankful for that willingness to help which we found so far from home.
When I knew him in 1980-82 Sankaran was a fully engaged man-about-town, a mature administrator with a wisdom about life and people. He knew how systems worked and he was able to work with them productively. He was one of those people whose health and attitude make them enviable examples of how vital old age can be. I’ll always smile to think of him laughing as the little fish nibbled our ankles as we stood in the gracefully rippling Kaveri river, or merrily trailing his drying dhoti out the bus window like a child, or singing so soulfully in the cool echoing Samadhi, Tyagaraja’s “swan song,” Paramatmudu:
Paramatma is brightly shining
may this dawn upon you
in all its beauty
Named as Vishnu, named as Shiva,
said to be in people
and heavenly beings
throughout the entire universe
the Supreme Being gloriously glows
may this dawn upon you
in all its beauty
Being in all that’s made of sky,
wind, fire, and water
in beasts and birds
and hills and trees
by the tens of millions,
always in the lifeless and the lively
the Lord whom Tyagaraja adores in this world
that Supreme Being pervades like light!
Have a joyful subtle insight into that
in all its beauty.
The author is Professor Emeritus
Department of Religious Studies
Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis