Galaxy of Composers




Many are the eminent composers who have enriched Carnatic music after the Trinity and among them Dr. L Muthiah Bhagavatar is one of the most distinguished. Be it the quality or number of compositions, his contribution is outstanding and unique.  

Biographical details:

He was born to Lingam Iyer and Anandam on the second day of the Tamil month Kartikai in the year Iswara (November 15, 1877). As fate would have it, he lost his father even as a child of six, and thereafter settled down at Harikesanallur where he came under the tutelage of his maternal uncle M Lakshmana Suri. Thus began a long and powerful bond with music. Soon after, Muthiah Bhagavatar went to Tiruvarur and became the disciple of Sambasiva Iyer, who was in the direct sishya parampara of the master-composer Tyagaraja. Sambasiva Iyer and his son T S Sabesa Iyer not only taught him different types of Gitams, Varnams and Keertanas but also the Prabandhams of Venkatamakhi.

After completing his studies, Muthiah Bhagavatar returned to Harikesanallur in 1893, and lived there for three years. It is said that he used to wake up before dawn and to the accompaniment of tambura, do akara-sadhakam, covering a range of 2 1/2 octaves from the anumandra Shadja to tara sthayi Madhyama. Endowed with a rich and sonorous voice, Muthiah Bhagavatar soon established himself as a musician to reckon with. Tanam singing was his forte and in that he remained unparalleled. The year 1897 was a landmark in his musical life when he performed for the Maharaja of Travancore, Mulam Tirunal. The Maharaja was so impressed with Muthiah Bhagavatar's singing that he immediately made him an Asthana vidwan of the Travancore court. By then, his status as a front ranking musician became established.

The Man:

It is believed that a person needs yogam (luck) and yogyatai (merit) to be successful in life. Muthiah Bhagavatar had an abundance of both. He loved good things in life and lived like a king. He loved to dress up grandly and combined with his regal personality, it lent him distinction. Even on normal days, his dresses would have gold lace. He would not wear a veshti (dhoti) more than once and even his kumkum (vermilion mark) would be a combination of argaja and other scented substances. He would spray a liberal quantity of the finest attar (a kind of perfume) on his dresses. His vettalai petti (box for betel leaves) was like a small suitcase containing the finest spices, and his cardamom and clove came from Burma. The wood for his cipla was made of special sandalwood from Mysore and when it lost its timbre, he would burn it as firewood. Once, when the Maharaja of Mysore wanted to present him with a gift, Bhagavatar asked for two elephant cubs! Even his walking stick was said to have been engraved in gold and silver, and he was one of the few musicians who moved around in a Daimler car.

But the man was not only majestic but also magnanimous. Vocalist T N Seshagopalan revealed to this writer, "After relishing the rasam at a wedding, Muthiah Bhagavatar gave a ring and his angavastram to the boy who served him. He whole-heartedly praised the musical skills of others, including youngsters. He also introduced many vidwans to the Travancore and Mysore samasthanams. His large-heartedness extended to even those who wronged him. When others grabbed the credit for work done by him he would remark, "Let them also earn some name and fame. What more do I need at this stage?''."

Mysore Vasudevachar in his Kannada work “Na Kanda Kalavidharu” is full of praise for the large-heartedness of Muthiah Bhagavatar. He says that no one would return empty-handed from Muthiah Bhagavatar’s house, but would acquire some valuable piece of information.

The Harikatha exponent:

Around 1904, Muthiah Bhagavatar began to give Harikatha performances. He was not only learned in the Purana-s, but also had a flair for Tamil and Sanskrit. This coupled with his own charismatic personality peppered with a natural wit and sense of humour, and a wonderful power of exposition earned him acclaim as a leading Harikatha exponent. His three best known kalakshepams were 'Valli Parinayam', 'Sulochana Sati' and 'Tyagaraja Charitram'. Bhagavatar had an interesting style of presentation, interspersing his stories with classical keertanas and other folk items such as the kavadi chindu. His exposition of 'Valli Parinayam' was not only his first attempt at Harikatha but was new to the field as well. To fill up the gaps in a musical and meaningful manner, Bhagavatar himself composed what are known as 'Nirupakam-s' as also several keertanas. Among such compositions is the popular keertana in Shanmukhapriya, 'Vallinayaka neeve', which is not only one of the most popular pieces in this raga, but also one of the finest. Songs like 'Nive itu' (Kharaharapriya), 'Teliyakane' (Huseni), and 'Enalu tirugutunu' ( Mandari) also belong to this category. The success of this attempt encouraged him to incorporate these features in his other kalakshepams too. Thus we have the famous song in Kapi, 'Kalilo Harismaranamu', which emphasises the importance of Rama bhakti. This was composed for use in the Purva Pitika or the introductory part of the kalakshepam on the epic 'Ramayana'.

By Karthik Krishnaswami


To be continued


Posted on October 22, 2002


Read about other Carnatic composers