Venkataramana Bhagavathar


Illustrious disciple of saint-poet

He would memorise Tyagaraja's kritis, and after returning home, put down the sahitya and the notations. Venkataramana Bhagavathar has composed slokas and songs in praise of deities and his guru. SUGANTHY KRISHNAMACHARI flips through the pages of his life history.

KUPPAYYA BHAGAVATAR, a Sourashtra Brahmin who lived in Ariyalur, near Tiruchi, was a scholar who knew Sanskrit, Telugu and astronomy. He wanted to choose a bride for his son Nannusami Bhagavathar from a family of scholars. He therefore moved to Ayyampettai, in Thanjavur district, where there was a significant population of Sourashtra Brahmins. His grandson, Venkataramana, born on February 18, 1781, under the star Moolam, proved to be a child who would make any grandparent proud.

Venkataramana paid as much attention to his physique as he did to his studies. He became a hatha yogi. He was well versed in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil. Right from his childhood, he evinced keen interest in music, and trained under his father. Venkataramana was a regular worshipper at the Prasanna Rajagopalaswami temple in Ayyampettai.

But this Krishna bhakta left for Tiruvaiyaru to learn music from the great Rama bhakta, Tyagaraja. He would memorise Tyagaraja's kritis, and after returning home, would put down the sahitya and the notations.

Venkataramana was so caught up in music that marriage was the last thing on his mind. In fact, he even felt it might come in the way of his learning more kritis from guru Tyagaraja. His father sought the help of Tyagaraja and it was only when Tyagaraja advised him to marry, did Venkataramana relent, at the age of 41.

The marriage was solemnised in Ayyampettai, and Venkataramana and his wife Muthulakshmi set up their family in Ramachandrapuram in Ayyampettai. They had three children — two sons and a daughter. Venkataramana named his first son Krishnaswamy, after his favourite deity Krishna, and his second son Ramaswamy after his guru's favourite deity. His daughter was Tulasiammal.

The Raja of Karvettinagaram wanted to learn music from Venkataramana Bhagavatar, but found it difficult to travel frequently from Ayyampettai to Karvettinagaram. So in 1834, he moved to Walajapet. Narayanaswami Chettiar, tahsildar Lakshmana Naidu and Kambili Munuswami Chettiar, all residents of Walajapet, bought a house for him in Raoji Street. In course of time, the street came to be known as Venkataramana Bhagavatar Veedhi. When Tyagaraja visited Walajapet, he was taken out on a ceremonial procession to Bhagavatar's house. One of Bhagavatar's disciples, Sadasiva Rao, composed a song, "Tyagarajaswami Vedalina" in Todi, and sang it in the presence of Tyagaraja. When Tyagaraja left Walajapet, Venkataramana Bhagavatar asked him to accept his son Krishnaswami as a disciple. Tyagaraja acceded to the request.

When Venkataramana Bhagavathar moved to Walajapet, he gifted a Narasimha idol to one of his disciples, Venkatasuri, who spontaneously composed the song "Sri Naraharidarisana Karesi." Venkatasuri also composed an opera, "Rama Natakam."

After Venkataramana Bhagavatar died on February 15, 1874, his son Krishnaswami is said to have written down the notations of 800 Tyagaraja kritis. Madurai Mani Iyer said in an interview that he had heard many rare Tyagaraja kritis from Nagaswami Bhagavatar, who also belonged to the Walajapet school.

Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar composed Pancharatna slokas in praise of Lord Kodandarama, the presiding deity of the temple in Ramachandrapuram. He also composed Ashvamalika stotras in praise of Prasanna Rajagopal, the deity he had worshipped since childhood. He composed the Tyagaraja mangalashtakam in praise of Tyagaraja and some kritis in rare ragas like Jothiswaroopini, Natana Velavali, Vijayanagari and Nadavinodhini.

Years ago, this writer accompanied her lawyer father to the house of a Sourashtra client in Ayyampettai. His family had lived there for many generations. He said that many Sourashtra families included Venkataramana Bhagavatar's kritis in their daily pujas. To name a few, "Neeve Nannu" (Darbar), "Rama Ravikulasoma" (Kedaragowla), "Bhaja Srirama" (Kambhoji), "Kuchelaparimela" (Sankarabharanam), "Paravasamaayenura" (Nadanamakriya) and "Ramachandra Nannu" (Anandabhairavi).

The Sourashtra gentleman said it was his dream to collect all the kritis of Venkataramana Bhagavatar known to different Sourashtra families, and publish them. But it was not a dream that he realised, for, shortly after our visit, he passed away.

Venkataramana Bhagavatar's manuscripts, his puja vessels, his padukas, the Rama idol that he worshipped, were all taken to Madurai in January 1943, by the efforts of P. S. A. Krishna Iyer. They have been preserved by the Madurai Sourashtra Sabha.