Song of Surrender

Saturday, 4 January 2014

The Singer, the River and the Storyteller

By Samudri

William J. Jackson, author of  The Singer by the River  (available as an e-book on, spoke to Sruti

When and how did you write The Singer by the River?

Over the years it grew in three stages. First, when I was in south India for 18 months (September 1980 to March 1982) researching Tyagaraja’s life for my Harvard PhD—I was fascinated by the stories—the folk memories of Tyagaraja’s episodes­­—gathered by Prof. P. Sambamoorthy. I collected them and wrote them out in the form of a long narrative. That was the first phase.

Then when I was a new professor at Indiana Univ.-Purdue Univ. at Indianapolis, I gathered more historical and geographical background.  Flora and fauna, invasions and rulers, agricultural aspects of Thanjavur, things like that. I incorporated those kinds of things I learned during that stage—from 1985-90.

Then the next stage was an interest in the character of Jalpesa. As I learned about the archetype of the trickster, I began to see how in the folk mind and the traditional storytellers Jalpesa served an important purpose in the story of Tyagaraja’s life.  He harassed the saint, stole his sacred images, divided the house, and in other ways was a contrary figure. Adding more dimensions and episodes about Jalpesa gave some contrasts and further dynamics to the novel. Jalpesa could play the fool and the foil to Tyagaraja’s heroism, and besides being a small time troublemaker, he could challenge Tipu Sultan, and try to fulfill his own ambitions—he could have adventures in the wide world while his brother stayed in the village and composed masterpieces. I worked on this during the last five years.

What made you want to write the story anyway?

Well, in my childhood I liked to read the lives of the European saints, and the biographies of famous people like Benjamin Franklin. Later in my life, while I was studying in graduate school at Harvard, my friend Ram Ramachandran gave me the Raghavan and Ramanujachari book, The Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja, and reading the pious life of Tyagaraja, it was a rediscovery of that kind of literature about saints I’d loved in my childhood.

Also, the Kaveri river played a part—experiencing the way the Kaveri flows through Tiruvaiyaru was inspiring. I waded into the water when I visited the village with T. Sankaran, and the little fish nibbled at my calves, tickling me. (I grew up in Rock Island, Illinois, between the Mississippi and the Rock Rivers.) The village life meant seeing how the sun rose, how the temple with its incense pit attracted people, how Tyagaraja’s home looked, how the rooms were laid out—a long narrow space, with some typical features of Tanjavur homes. I made visits to Tanjavur, Tiruvaiyaru, Sri Rangam, Kanchi, Tirupati; and also to the building at Parry’s Corner in Madras where Tyagaraja was said to have stopped on his pilgrimage and sung some songs.

South India must have made quite an impression on you. When did you first come here?

It really did make a powerful impression. The first time was for six months in 1970-71 when I was 27 years old. Those months in Andhra Pradesh, Bangalore and Kadugodi, and in Madras—that was a turning point in my life—opened up new possibilities of what life could be like. The traditions were inspiring—the bhajan singing, the works of art, the wisdom of India, and the ideals of karma yoga, besides tropical flowers and birds, temples. At the age of 27 they made deep impressions that gave me a better sense of what life is all about. Then again in 1980-82 I spent eighteen months in South India, and that was a longer, deeper period of learning. I thank my lucky stars I was so fortunate. For a year and a half I experienced daily life in Madras, with trips to such cities as Bangalore and Madurai. I included some of those impressions of the south in my novel Gypsy Escapades, published by Rupa. I kept going back to the south over the years, and have seen so many changes in recent decades.

Can you tell us what is factual and what is fictional in your novel?

For the most factual accounts, readers can take a look at the translation I made from two of Tagaraja’s disciples, Venkataramana Bhagavatar and his son, Krishnaswami Bhagavatar—their accounts are in my book Tyagaraja - Life and Lyrics, published by Oxford University Press. They give a bare bones account of what those close to him carefully wrote. I tried to use the oral traditions too—the various Harikatha portrayals, the Sanskrit account, the folk memories collected by Sambamoorthy. I tried to stay close to the different traditional tellings of his life, adding the atmospheres and backgrounds of everyday life in the 1700s and 1800s.

The most inventive parts were in the adventures of Jalpesa, his brother. I wanted him to be a trickster figure, free as a lark to make mischief in the family, the village, the capital and in Tipu Sultan’s court, and even in America. I gave him the fun and freedom he demanded to play a bigger part in his historical time. I hope readers find him humorous and also like a Vidushaka, the clown who serves several purposes in classical Sanskrit plays. For example, he can make a mockery of the British and Europeans in Tanjavur. It was a lot of fun to watch the character of Jalpesa come to life and cavort around in his own unique ways. By the end of the novel, he has played his part well, and is appreciated.

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