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Saint Thyagaraja - A Great Composer And A Trend-Setter
What more can a mere mortal like me have to say that has not already been said by eminent musicians and musicologist on the great Saint of Thiruvarur?

Enough has been written and spoken about his premier role in promoting the bhakti cult in south India (particularly Rama bhakti), his role in promoting "Naadopasana" as a sure means of attaining Godhead, his path-breaking innovations in Carnatic music ( he was the first composer in the post-Purandharadasa era to compose krithis in hundreds of new ragas ( 212 ragas, to be precise), in contrast to Purandharadasa, who handled only about two dozen ragas to compose his songs.

Yet, since this forum has many new fans to Carnatic music, who would like to get some information on the great saint, I will make a humble attempt to give a brief write-up on what are my perceptions about the great saint.

I will leave it to other eminent friends in the forum to write more on his teachings on Naadopasana. I will only touch briefly on his life and contributions to Carnatic music here.

Sri Thyagaraja was born in Tiruvaiyaru, near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, on May 4, 1767. His parents were Smarta Telugu Brahmins, who had moved to Tamil Country during the Vijayanagar period (early 1600s).

Thyagaraja's father Rama Brahmam taught him to worship Rama daily and initiated him in Rama taraka mantra. Even as a boy, Thyagaraja composed his first song on Rama ``Namo Namo Raghavaya’’ when he was only 13 years old. Sri Thyagaraja continued to recite the Rama nama every day and had many darsans of Sri Rama, which inspired him to write songs on his beloved Lord Sri Rama.

At 18 years of age, Thyagaraja married Parvati, who died when he was only 23. He then married Kamalamba (sister of Parvati). They had a daughter named Sitamahalakshmi, through whom he had a grandson, who died without progeny. Thus, we do not have any descendant of Saint Thyagaraja. But, his tradition is kept alive by his musical disciples and their followers.

The core of Thyagaraja's existence centred around Rama Bhakti, the devotion to Lord Rama. And, Thyagaraja's prescription to attain a union with the Lord was through the use of music (Nadopasana).

In his life span of 80 years (1767-1847), he composed nearly 800 songs, most of them devoted to Rama Bhakti.

Thyagaraja's chief contribution to Carnatic music was as a trend setter for introducing the concept of sangati in Carnatic music. Sangati is the exposition of a set of variations on a theme, which unfolds gradually the melodic potential of the raga on which the composition is based.

Majority of his compositions reveal this sangati structure and are set in madhyama kala and are ideally suited to the current Carnatic concert paddhathi. These madhyama kala compositions create in both the singer and the listener total '' saukya sangeetam" and "sukbanubhava", touching the soul with the bhava and making us contemplate Lord Almighty through such soulful renderings.

Thyagaraja also experimented on (along with the other two trinity composers- Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Syama Sastri) the krithi format of Carnatic music (pallavi/anupallavi/charanam), formulated by the 16th century composers like Muthu Thandavar and Margadarshi Sesha Iyengar, and perfected this format for posterity, which has become the basic structure of Carnatic concerts to this day.

Post- Venkatamahi, who laid down the structure of 72 melakarta ragas with the publication of his famous book Chathurdhandi Prakasika in 1660, the Carnatic music scene witnessed the virtual explosion of hundreds of new ragas, unheard of till then. Govindacharya, an eminent and path-breaking composer, published his famous work "Sangraha Chudamani", laying down the" sampoorna melakarta" scheme and structuring 294 janya ragas, unheard till then.

These developments in the late 17th century enabled Thyagaraja and the other two of the trinity- composers to experiment and compose in hundreds of new ragas, while earlier pre-trinity composers like Purandharadasa had only about 25 ragas in which to compose their songs.

Indeed the hallmark of Thyagaraja's compositions is the use of hundreds of new ragas .He used 212 ragas to compose his 700 odd songs- 121 of these krithis have only one song in them.

He also composed songs in 66 new ragas. In fact, he made it one of the main aims of his musical career to compose in new ragas. The evidence of his enthusiasm for new ragas can be seen from the fact that, among the last few krithis he composed before his death, three are in new ragas (`Paramathmudu’ in Vagadeeswari, `Daya juchutakidi velara’ in Ganavaridhi and `Paritapamu ganiyadina’ in Manohari).

Eminent musician and musicologist, Dr.S. Ramanathan, in one his lecdems sang this Ganavaridhi krithi to illustrate how Thyagaraja adapted and perfected the path laid out by Venkatamahi.

Thyagaraja's chief contribution to Carnatic music was the huge repertoire of hundreds of krithis in hundreds of ragas, many of them even minor ragas, which were found earlier only in text books.

This huge repertoire of hundreds of krithis in numerous ragas enabled post-trinity Carnatic musicians to adopt these krithis in various ragas for concerts. Even his minor raga krithis have become hugely popular in concerts and some of them are being sung elaborately with alapana, neraval and swarams.

Minor ragas such as nalikanti (manavyala), suddha seemanthini (janaki ramana), jayantasena (vinata sutavahana) and kapi narayani (sarasa sama dana) have become quite popular with modern day musicians.

To sum up, Thyagaraja's creativity and manodharma became the fountain-head from which numerous concert musicians drew inspiration to bring to the limelight these hundreds of minor ragas to the concert platform.

Also, it is said that Thyagaraja was not only a great composer, but also an eminent singer, who could sing his compositions brilliantly. Prof. Sambamurthy narrated an episode of Thyagaraja, where he visited Madras on his way to Thirupati and stayed with a renowned patron of music, Kovur Sundara Mudaliar.

During his stay there, it is said that for six successive evenings he sang one of his compositions
only in the raga Devagandhari, thus testifying to his great prowess, creativity and manodharma, not only as a composer, but also as an eminent musician.