Dr. V.S. Ramachandran
As a biographer of sorts, I have discovered to my surprise that many eminent people belonging to different fields of activity were eccentric, weird, paradoxical and odd. It appears that as a group, musicians and artists head the list of oddballs.
Some examples of enigmatic behaviors of western musicians/composers are as follows: Vivaldi was known for his egoism, vanity, and obsession with money. Bach was very abusive towards his students to the extent they thought of assassinating him. Mozart was crude, undependable, shorttempered and looked down on those who were not talented. Beethoven was nonchalant, violent, jealous, stubborn, and impatient. Chopin had a lot of idiosyncrasies. Wagner was obsessed with fairies, magicians and was uncontrollably extravagant, incurring a lot of debts. Verdi was secretive and anti-social. Brahms was very shabby, a heavy smoker, cynical and a drunk. Tchaikovsky was always unhappy for no apparent reason. Glen Gould was an iconoclast and an eccentric personality. Eric Satie, was a bachelor with odd characteristics. For instance, he loved a girl because she belched in a cute way! Stravinsky was an egoist and a hypochondriac. Fascinating details about many personalities belonging to different disciplines are to be found in my recent book entitled, “Enigmatic Lives of Celebrities”.
While writing the book on eminent personalities, I was curious to know whether famous Indian composers/musicians exhibited such aberrant behaviors. One of the problems I encountered, more often than not, was that the anecdotes pertaining to Indian composers lack authenticity and are often exaggerated. For instance, some of them are considered as incarnations. Many miracles are attributed to them. I found that Thyagaraja, justifiably was a unique personality, and could be regarded as a genius and a saint. Hence I read with great interest his life story and contributions. I decided to present a few facts about him that are not commonly known. I realized that his compositions are in fact an autobiographical presentation!
Thyagaraja was a great composer, saint and an ardent devotee of Rama. His compositions represent a combination of Vedanta, devotion and literary excellence. On occasions however, he exhibited normal human failings, albeit, of minor nature. But his greatness lay in the realization of his lapses and seeking immediate atonement through his compositions.
Thyagaraja was a strict disciplinarian and would be irritated if his sishyas (students) did not follow his commandments. Once, without his permission, some of his students attended a marriage function. He was very upset and as a punishment, they were not served food for a whole day. Thyagaraja’s wife, feeling sorry for the sishyas told Thyagaraja that he was too stringent and that a good guru should be compassionate towards his students for their minor misdeeds. She asked him whether he had not committed any transgression in his life. Thyagaraja regretted his action, calmed down and composed the song “Shathamu Lekha Soukyamu Ledu”, in the raga Sama. It means that happiness cannot be attained without the tranquility of mind.
His intense love for Rama so clouded his thoughts, that he disregarded other deities, to the point of bigotry. In the song, “Lavanya Rama (Poorna Shadjam)”, he implied that Rama, was better than any other God and that he had nothing to do with other deities. Once, the Goddess of Thiruvayyaru viz., Dharmasamwardhini was taken in a procession. When it was passing through his street, he made sure to shut all the windows and doors to avoid seeing the Goddess. Soon after, he was afflicted with grave illness which he attributed to the wrath of Dharmasamwardhini. As an atonement, he composed his first piece (Shaivaite related) entitled “Karuna Joodavamma” in Thodi. It states, “I am aware that you are the protector of the world. Only you can destroy the sins committed by ignorant people”. Thyagaraja, subsequently composed songs on deities other than Rama, viz., Subrahmanya, Krishna, Hanuman, Tulasi, Siva, Kamakkshi, etc.
In one of his conversations with a music lover, he was made to realize that he was seeking bliss for himself, unmindful of others. He regretted that it was a selfish act. In addition, it was made clear to him that he had scant regard for some men. After realizing this lapse on his part, he composed the song, “Aparadhamula maanimpayaadu kovayya” in Darbar. In this song he confesses that he was arrogant, abusive to others and even gossiped. He was remorseful that while uttering Lord’s name his mind was meandering towards worldly pleasures.
There was a tinge of pride in him when he announced that he reveled in susvara in the song, “Chinthistunnade Yamudu (Mukhari)”. He states, that even those sinners who have taken to singing Thyagaraja’s songs can evade Yama, the God of death. In another piece, “Elavathara metti kontivi (Mukahari), he boldly asserts that Rama favored him with boons, being delighted with hundreds of songs composed by him.
He also exhibits some egoism when he stated that due to Rama, his fame had spread far and near in the composition “Dasarathi nee runamu” in Thodi. Some critics feel that in the song “Sogasuga mridanga talamu” (Sriranjani) he implied that he was only one who was capable of singing the songs in all purity and charming rhythms. In another composition, “Mithri bhagyame bhagyamu” in Karaharipriya, he asserts that Lakshmana was fortunate in listening to the aesthetic and rare ragas of Thyagaraja.
His condemnation of women, at times, was severe and bordered on chauvinism. In the song, “Menujuchi mosa bokave” in Sarasangi, he debunks the features of women. He cautioned that men should not be deluded by them as in the inside of them there is nothing but filthy excreta, blood, and other ugly things. The same theme, in a milder form occurs in the song, “Entha nerchina entha joochina”, in raga Udayaravichandrika. Even the learned and great men are liable to be enslaved by women.
It is pertinent to remember that critics opine that Rama, Thyagaraja’s most favored God, was not without some blemishes, viz., killing of Vaali on the sly, testing devoted Sita’s purity by asking her to walk through fire and sending her to the forest on some flimsy grounds.
In conclusion, I would consider Thyagaraja was one of the greatest souls. It is very hard to discover significant gaffs of Saint Thyagaraja. Save a few songs mentioned above, almost all his compositions reflect his humility, bhakthi, extensive knowledge, originality and humaneness. Thyagaraja’s greatness lies in the fact that he did not mind confessing with regret whenever he thought he went astray from righteousness. That reinforces our conviction, that truly he was one of the greatest personalities of the world.
About the Author
Dr. V.S. Ramachandran, a longtime patron of SICA is an acknowledged world leader in the field of Concrete Science and holds the most prestigious title, “Distinguished Researcher, and was the recipient of President’s award.” at the National Research Council of Canada. His research career extending over fifty years has resulted in innumerable scientific publications, including twenty books and twenty chapters. Some of them have been translated into other languages. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society. He is a recipient of many awards and honors. His varied interests are obvious from his contributions to magazines and newspapers on topics such as short stories, poems, popular science, and music. Dr. Ramachandran has appeared in various international biographical works.