Biography of Sri Thyagaraja Swamy


"On whose art no human hand can improve"
The life and work of Tyagaraja, the bard of Tiruvayyaru, is a miracle of miracles. For no musician, with exception of Purandaradasa, revolutionized and gave direction to Indian music as he did. So creative a musician and saint was he that he has come to be known as Sri Tyaga Brahmam, which is a reference not only to his creativity but carries with it a part of his father's name, Ramabrahmam.
The bulwark of a great culture, the Vijayanagara Empire, with all its glory, fell at the end of the 16th century. The invasion from the North brought in its wake new, though not always commendable, trends in living. Quite a few Hindu families had to flee to Southern areas which were still peaceful. Many found shelter under the benign rule of the Nayakas and the Maratha kings of Tamilnadu.
Particularly, a number of Telugu families went South and formed nuclei of art and culture and Tyagaraja's ancestors belonged to one such stock, as he describes himself as descending from the Kakarla family (Kakarla is a village in the Kurnool District of Andhra).
Tiruvarur in the Tanjavur district of South India is a small hamlet; it is small in size, but has great sanctity hallowed by the memory of the three composers, the Trimoorty, of Karnatak music. In this village lived one Girija Kavi, a poet-composer attached to the Court of Tanjavur. His daughter and wife of Kakarla Ramabrahmam, Seetamma (Santamma?), gave birth to a son on Sarvajit, Chaitra, 27th Soma, Sukla saptami, Pushya (4th May, 1767). According to another tradition the year of his birth was 1759. The boy was named Tyagaraja, after Lord Tyagaraja, the presiding deity of Tiruvarur. In one of his songs, Tyagaraja sings, "Seetamma mayamma, Sri Ramudu ma tandri" - Seeta is my mother and Sri Rama my father - perhaps with a double meaning.
Ramabrahmam shifted to Tiruvayyaru, leaving Tiruvarur. The king of Tanjavur had gifted a house to him in this village and here Tyagaraja not only spent the major part of his life but also attained samadhi. Tiruvayyaru, on the bank of the Kaveri and known as Panchanada kshetra, was the abode of saints, poets and musicians; and of this place Tyagayya sings, "...the Panchanada kshetra in the beautiful Chola country, nestling on the banks of the Kaveri over which blows the gentle zephyr where holy brahmins chant the vedas...a town to be coveted even by Lord Siva".
Tyagabrahmam married, at the age of eighteen, a girl called Parvati who died without leaving any children. He then married her sister, Kanakamba. A daughter, Seetalakshmi, was born to them and she was given in marriage to Kuppuswami. They begot a boy who was named Tyagaraja (Panchapakesa?) who died issueless; thus came to an end the direct lineage of the composer.
Born and bred in a highly cultured family, Tyagaraja was a profound scholar and poet. He studied Sanskrit, astrology and was, of course, well versed in his mother tongue, Telugu. Besides, he was a highly trained musician, having been the disciple of Sonthi Venkataramanayya, one of the foremost singers of the day. His genius is evident in every song of his; but his immortal Pancha ratna kritis (the five gems) reveal the mastery he had over musical technique. Apart from thousands of songs of kriti type, he composed utsava sampradaya keertanas and divya nama sankeertanas which are sung in devotional congregations He has also created two operas: Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauka charitram. While there are a number of songs in Sanskrit, the majority of them, including the operas, are in Telugu.
One can speak of Tyagabrahmam's music only in superlatives and even these adjectives are pitifully inadequate to convey the exquisite beauty of his art. There is no hitch, there is no unwanted phrase, there is no laboured juxtaposition of word, music and feeling. To him music was so creative that he could not be bound in mere traditional grammar. He saw the potentiality in new melodies and from them gave forms to ragas like Kharaharapriya, Harikambhoji and Devagandhari; at least he must have breathed life into such simple tunes to make them into ragas, if not produced them de novo.
The rhythms used by him are also simple and are generally confined to talas such as Adi, Triputa, and Roopaka. Complex temporal and melodic patterns would not have expressed the lyricism of his mystic adoration. A beautiful elaboration introduced by him was the sangati as a built-in part of his kriti. These melodic variations convey so many shades of the main mood that all the finer nuances of text and music find expanded expression. It need not be offered as an excuse, but it is a fact that he was also as much capable of technical musicality as any learned grammarian. Tyagaraja's "five gems" in ragas Nata, Gaula, Arabhi, Varali and Sri, his songs in slower tempos and his famous kriti, Mariyada kadayya in Bhairavam wherein he, effortlessly, brings in a shade of Yaman Kalyan - all these and many more show a mastery of design and structure very much beyond the ordinary.
Tyagaraja's literary genius was as great as his musical genius. His command over Telugu and Sanskrit lent not only an erudite dignity to his songs but gave a rare felicity and homeliness to his diction. He drives home great truths with unerring aim but with extreme simplicity of simile. "What does it matter whether the fool, who does not, gain punya (religious merit) when opportunity presents itself, lives or is dead?...Of what avail is it whether blind eyes, however large, are open or closed?". Again, "The fault or goodness is not yours, Lord! It is mine. (Why blame Thee?). If one's daughter is unable to bear the labour-pains, why blame the son-in-law?".
Spiritually he was one of the rare souls who gave up everything except bhakti and cared for nothing else beyond the Grace of God. The early influences on his life make this trend more pronounced.
The Bhagavata of Bammera Potana, the mystic poet of Andhra, was for him a book of daily parayana (recitation). Indeed there is a close parallel between the thoughts and lives of these two. The devaranamas of Purandaradasa were fed to him as if they were his mother's milk. Such early environments led to a positive direction by initiation into yoga. It is supposed that he was given the Rama Taraka Mantra by one sanyasi, Sri Ramakrishnananda. Tyagaraja's father's fellow scholar and a yogi, Sri Upanishad Brahmendra of Kanchipuram, also exerted a great influence on him. So also the works and per- sonality of Narayana Teertha, the author of Krishnaleela Tarangini, had considerable effect on the musician.

The only things that mattered to Tyagayya were music and bhakti - they were synonymous. "Is there a sacred path than music and bhakti?". "O Mind, salute the gods of the seven notes". "The knowledge of music, O Mind, leads to bliss of Union with the Lord". Music was to him the meditation on the Primordial Sound: "I bow to Sankara, the embodiment of Nada, with my body and mind. To Him, the essence of blissful Samaveda, the best of the vedas, I bow. To Him who delights in the seven swaras born of His five faces I bow".
Tyagaraja was a great bhakta; the only meaningful act for him was complete surrender to Him whom he called Rama. In the song Ika gavalasina, he sings, "What more do you want, O Mind ! Why are you not happy? When the Lord of the Universe has rested in your heart - what more do you want, O Mind?"
There was not a moment of his life which was not filled with Rama. His songs sing of Him who was a friend, a master, a father,- anything he could conceive of. Hearing of Rama's name was to Tyagaraja like "obtaining a large kingdom". And how could he desist from singing His praises - "Is there any bliss greater than this: to dance, to sing and to pray for His presence." "Did not the Lord incarnate wish to wear the garland of ragas woven by Tyagaraja?"
The worship of His feet (padasevana) was a privilege; but to worship his sandals, (padua) was indeed a fortune. "Rama, clear my doubt. Are Your holy feet worshipped by Narada, great or Your sandals? The sages who worshipped Your feet became equal to You; but Bharata worshipped Your sandals and got Your very self". Day in and day out His worship became a matter of daily living to Tyagaraja. He sang songs to wake the Lord, to bathe Him, to feed Him, to please Him and to put Him to bed - "You are tired after wandering in the forest and conquering Ravana; rest in the lotus of Tyagaraja's heart". Of course, being close to Rama he could chide Him. "If you present Yourself before me, what wealth will You lose? Why this intractability?"
The word Rama (RA-MA) was to him a Numen that transcended all names. It would be more than absurd to attribute any sectarian leanings to Tyagaraja. He sings, "As what did they define You? How did they worship You? - as Siva, as Madhava, as Brahma born of Lotus or as Parabrahma, the Trans-Godhead? I prostrate myself before those who know the secret of MA as the life of Siva-mantra and RA as the life of Narayana-mantra".
This complete surrender naturally made him live a life of detachment, though he was a house holder. The first and foremost result was that he refused to earn a livelihood. He had a house to live in and that was enough shelter. For food, every morning he would go round the village asking for alms - unchavritti, as it is called; and he would not gather even alms more than his daily need.
A life which steadfastly was uncompromising was not at all to the liking of his elder brother, Japesa, to put it mildly. Japesa fondly hoped that the great art and learning of his younger brother could be put to pecuniary uses, which the saint would not agree to. In desperation, the brother not only partitioned the ancestral house but went to the extent of throwing the Rama idol which Tyagayya worshipped into the river. The sorrow of the devotee cannot even be imagined. Many a song he sang begging the Lord to come back to him. In a dream he is told where to find the idol and his life becomes full.
Honours and wealth could have been his, if only he had asked for them; but he would not ask. He spurned an invitation of the King and sang, "Is wealth (nidhi) the source of happiness or is the proximity (sannidhi) of Rama?"
Tyagabrahma undertook an extensive pilgrimage of the sacred places of South India. Wherever he went he sang of the deity of the place. There is the famous incident of his visit to the Venkateswara temple at Tirupati. He goes into the temple to have darsan (vision) of the Lord; but the entrance of the sanctum sanctorum is covered with a curtain which prevents him from seeing the idol. The priests refuse to part the curtain. In great sorrow he sings, "Will you not remove the curtain?" ...and characteristically adds, "the curtain of vanity and jealousy in my mind". The curtain miraculously slides aside by itself and he is face to face with Him.
So much sincerity and surrender drew the ire of people around him and he could not stand their hypocrisy either. He speaks out bluntly about their pretences. "One who does not think of devotion to God, however learned, will be a slave of the senses and not be free from coveting others' women and wealth". There is a vast difference between seeing the Lord and going to the temple. "O Siva, is it possible for me to have your darsan? I have seen the spires, the pillars, the idols, the temple dancers, the rows of lights and made the due circumambulations. My mind has turned towards things external. But it is no child's play to instal Your glorious Form in the lotus of my heart!" Again, "Of what use is the possession of scholarship, in purana, agama, shastra, veda and the doing of japa to a deceitful mind? It is like dressing a corpse with a lace turban and precious jewels. Oh, give me the alms of highest (satvika) devotion".
Tyagabrahmam took sanyasa towards the end of his life and attained samadhi on Pusya Bahula Panchami in Prabhava (6th January, 1847). There is a poignancy about his absorption into the Godhead. He says in one of the most moving songs, "Unerringly I saw Sri Rama installed on the hill...Thrilled with ecstasy, with tears of joy, I tried to speak. He promised to bless me in five days." And so it happened.