Taking the saint out of Tyagaraja

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A closer look at one of the greats of Carnatic music

Tyagaraja, one of the “Carnatic Trinity” of composers, is revered absolutely by south Indians, and students and teachers of Carnatic music. I can’t remember when I first thought of him as “Saint Tyagaraja” – it was something that was naturally imbibed as I learned Carnatic music and grew up in a Telugu-speaking household.

In Carnatic music, great composers were great people, and great people, in the context of a music which is so inextricably married to the praise of the gods, are people to be worshipped.

It was only in May this year, as I prepared to participate in the congregational ‘Pancharatna Krithis’ segment of Melbourne’s annual Moom Moorthigal and Tyagaraja Festival, now in its 30th year of rendering these iconic Tyagaraja compositions, that something about “Saint Tyagaraja” began to niggle, then burn.

I was practicing the Pancharatna Dudukugala, in the ragam Gowla. It’s a beautiful piece of music. But it is also a tortured one, as Tyagaraja laments and lambasts himself over his own transgressions: “Who is there to save this great sinner?” It quickly started to get me down.

And then, quite suddenly, it started to offend me.

Oh my god! I have been a sinner who has gone astray in research of women, children and wealth at various stages of my life.

Here I was, a woman in 2016, intensely singing the words of a man who saw those of my gender as troublesome distractions from a spiritual path. In other words, whose thinking around women and spirituality was profoundly wrong.

I had learned it from a recording of a woman. Most of the musicians who would be singing it in the Pancharatna segment were women.

I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Take another well-known Tyagaraja composition, Entha Nerchina in raga Suddha Dhanyasi. It’s easy to find an online translation. In any other context, it would be deeply disturbing:

No matter how erudite one is and how much one has observed, and howsoever high and mighty one be, all are slaves of women.

So what? I can hear you ask. Those were the times, weren’t they? As historian Sriram V. points out in an online Pravasi Express interview, Tyagaraja’s brand of misogyny was widespread: “The entire milieu was anti-woman, barring a few exceptions. In classic poetry it was normal to combine the women, the blind and the dull together.”

And yet Tyagaraja has emerged as the only composer whose sexism still reverberates regularly through concert-halls today.

So why don’t we acknowledge it? Why don’t we question and critique it?

Why does Tyagaraja get away with it?

Because it was composed a hundred years ago, because he is “Saint Tyagaraja”.

Why am I not allowed to be offended by him?

Same answer.

Ironically, one group of women were in fact an important part of the musical world of Tyagaraja’s era: the brilliant and erudite devadasis, whom, Sriram V. writes, the composer, as a puritanical Brahmin, “abhorred”. No surprises there.

And the greatest irony of all is that it was a devadasi, the great Bangalore Nagarathnamma, who in 1924-5 built the temple around Tyagaraja’s Samadhi, or burial place, in Tiruvaiyaru. Nagarathnamma also defied the sexism of the orthodox Brahmins who refused to allow women worship there by starting her own women’s Tyagaraja festival in 1927.

But you know what? Tyagaraja would have seen her as a defiler, not a pioneer.

O Mind! Do not be deluded and taken in by the external charm of women. We are aware of the execrable stuff inside concealed by an external attractive cloak of skin and adornment.

The words of a “saint”? I think not.