A Journey Into the World of Dikshitar

Sumana Chandrasekhar

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Dance, Harikatha, Folk Music


[Editor's Notes: 1) The following article was among several entries we received for the Carnatica Global Essay Contest. 2) Views and opinions expressed in these articles are entirely those of the respective authors]

[This article has been revised by the author and a list of references added - Editor]

“The aim and final reason of all music should be nothing but the glory of God and the refreshment of spirit.” I often wonder if the German instrumentalist Johann Bach was actually referring to Karnatic music. For these words of Bach capture in essence an ideal called Karnatic music. As a student of Karnatic music I have marvelled at the loftiness of its purpose and sublimity of its content. The system, the kritis, the composers – everything in it fascinates me. However it is the life and works of Dixitar that have imperceptibly overpowered me. My first rendezvous with the world of Dixitar came when as an eight year old, I learnt “Shakti Sahita Ganapatim”. The lilting waltz rhythm set me swaying to his tune. And since then, with every new Dixitar kriti that I learnt, my admiration for him increased manifold. The musical genius and the personality of Dixitar grip me in away as no other composer does. This essay is in fact my insightful quest into the personality & music of Dixitar.

Before I go on to explain in my own humble way beauty of his world, it is necessary that we take a glimpse of the times and the life of this great composer. Dixitar’s time, the 18th century saw the consolidation of British rule in India. "The other European powers, the French and the Dutch had been effectively vanquished" and the British came to control almost the whole of North India. Territorial conquests continued but at the regional level, particularly in South India, there prevailed a general atmosphere of peace and harmony. The 17th and 18th century also saw the Nayak and Maratha rulers of Tanjore give special patronage to culture and art. It was into this culturally flourishing age that the legendary Muttuswami Dixitar was born.

The youngest of the musical trinity, Muttuswami, Dixitar was born at Tiruvarur, in 1775 into a pious Brahmin family. His mother was Subbalakshmi and his father was Ramaswami. Dixitar, a versatile genius himself. Ramaswami Dixitar, with his strong 'Vaidik background led a life of piety and music' (*Dr. Raghavan). However the couple had no children. They went to the holy shrine of Vaidyeswarankoil and performed austerities before Lord Muttukumaraswami. One their return to Tiruvarur they were blessed with a child. The child was named Muttuswami 'after the deity whose blessing he was believed to be and whose auspicious birth star, Krittika, he shared' (*C. Balachandran and S. Bharadwaj)

Muttuswami Dixitar "inherited a long and illustrious tradition of learning and scholarship, that revolved around the Sanskrit language and drew largely upon the Hindu scriptures, philosophy and mythology" (*C. Balachandran and S. Bharadwaj). The family then moved to Manali on the request of Muddukrishna Mudaliar, a zamindar famed for his patronage to music. In the company of the Mudaliars, Muttuswami and his brother Baluswami made frequent visits to Fort St. George where they were introduced to the European musical traditions of the English military band. While Baluswami learnt the violin and 'pioneered its use' in Karnatic Music, the western music zephyr unleashed in young Dixitar the springs of creativity. He composed Sanskrit sahityas for 37 western airs. The ‘Quick March’ became ‘Sakalasurn Vinuta’. ‘Castilian Maid’ became ‘Varasivabalam’ and so on.

After a few years , Dixitar became the disciple of Chidambaranatha Yogi and went with him to Varanasi where he received 'metaphysical training from his Guru'. His musically sensitive and receptive mind drew immensely upon the Hindustani musical traditions, the impact of which is explicit in his compositions in Dwijavanti, Brindavana Saranga and others. Returning from Varanasi,Dixitar first visited Tiruttani, the abode of his patron deity Kumara. While he sat in "deep and solitary contemplation, an old man appeared before him, put sugarcandy into his mouth and disappeared into the garbhagudi" (*C. Balachandran and S. Bharadwaj). It is this spiritual inspiration that sparked of Dixitar’s musical genius and made him a prolific composer. His first composition “Srinathadi guruguho jayati” in Mayamalavagowla flowed out bearing the ankita Guruguha, meaning that Dixitar had chosen Kumara as his Guru. He used this ankita in all his kritis thereafter.

'Like the itinerant Nayanmars and Alwars', Dixitar set out on his pilgrimages. He visited shrines at Kanchi, Tiruvannamalai, Chidambaram, Kumbhakonam, Tiruvarur, Vaidyeswarankoil and other places and composed kritis in praise of the numerous deities. So exhaustive was his pilgrimage that he left no temple in his vicinity unvisited and no deity unpraised. His stay in Tanjore brought him into contact with two other composers of the time – Sri Tyagaraja and Sri Shyama Shastri and the three of them were later to ber hailed as the beacon lights of Karnatic music. It was also here that he met his illustrious disciples – the Tanjore quartet, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, Shivanandam and Vadivelu. On his way to Ettayapuram in search of his brother, Dixitar halted at the drought -ridden village of Sattur. Greatly moved by the plight of its people, Dixitar prayed to Mother Goddess seeking her grace. Torrential rains poured in the region as Dixita sang ‘Anandaamritaakarshini’in Amritavarshini. This event etched in golden letters as the ‘Amritavarshini Miracle’ stands as a testimony to the power of the musician and his music.

At Ettayapuram, Dixitar was received with great honour by the king and he stayed here for several years along with his brother. In 1834, on, the Naraka Chaturdasi day of Dipavali, singing ‘Meenalochani Pashamochani’, Dixitar cast away his mortal coils and reached the feet of the Goddess. As in life, so in death. His glorious life met a glorious end. What strikes me most in the life of this illustrious composer, is his "voluntary adoption of poverty, as an ideal of life" (*Dr. Raghavan) Unlike his father, Dixitar never courted patrons or praise. In Tiruvarur, his disciple Kamalam, moved by his poverty , offered to sell her jewels to help him. Dixitar refused .With the unflinching faith of a child, he placed himself at the feet of the Divine Mother, shunning all human help and sympathy. “Hiranmayim lakshmim ashrayami, hinamanavasayam tyajami”, he declares boldly in one of his kritis. From what followed we know that the Mother did not for sake him. The Tanjore official cancelled his visit to Tiruvarur and the provisions bought for him were sent to Dixitar. Unperturbed by any 'pecuniary' or other upheavals, Dixitar rose above all trivial considerations, 'roasting all conflicts in the fire of vairagya'.

Like the Lord Tyagaraja, Dixitar too was a Tyagaraja –King of Renunciation. Dixitar’s life as a musician is rather unique and so is his style. In style, diction and presentation, we find a juxtaposition of the seemingly opposite classical and the revolutionary. The choice of Sanskrit for his compositions is classical. His own father and the other Sanskrit composers did have their impact on him. His religious upbringing, his purely classical frame of mind deeply soaked in the Vedanta naturally prompted him to use the Devabhasha. It also gave him the 'felicity of expression, dignity of diction' and elevated his kritis to a higher plane. Dixitar chose to follow in his compositions, the mela paddhati of Venkatamakhin to whose shishya parampara he belonged. If Harikamboji is the territony of Tyagaraja. Mayamalavagowla is Dixitar’s forte (*Dr. Srivatsa) This is clearly brought out in his 47 and odd compositions in this raga & its derivatives including rare ragas like Saalanga Nata, Paadi and Mangala Kaishiki which would have been last to posterity but for his compositions. Raga, bhava, taala and sahitya form the 4 pillars on which the citadel of Karnatic music stands. Dixitar’s music is rich in all these dimensions. (*C Balachandran and S Bharadwaj).

Each kriti portrays the raga at its best. With the crystalline raga delineation there is also a wide raga repertoire in him. He sings an unfamiliar raga like Aardhradesi or a Hindustani raga like Dwijavanti with the same ease as that of Bhairavi or Shankarabharana. The credit of breathing life into several musical scales and elevating them to the position of ragas goes to him. This speaks volumes about the genius that Dixitar was. Looking at the tala aspect, the influence of Purandaradasa is unmistakable. Like his predecessor, he composed in the Suladi Sapta talas and also in other unconventional talas. Bhava in Dixitar is very different from that of his contemporary Tyagaraja. His kritis were not meant to give vent to his 'rajasic emotions'. On the contrary, they express an unswerving faith and devotion in the Almighty.

As Dr. Raghavan says, Rather than emotional outbursts, they exude serene contemplation embodying the satwic quality of Shanta at its highest. Sahitya is another specialized area of Dixitar. The tightly woven sahitya abounds in Vedantic, mythological, astrological, yogic , tantric and iconogrophical details and every kriti is a vast treasure house of knowledge. The kritis take after the veena style where each note is embellished with gamakas. The use of raga mudra, madhyamakala sahitya and samshthi charana are his special contributions to Karnatic music. The group kritis is another realm where Dixitar excels. His group compositions include those on Tyagarajaswami, Kamalamba, Nilotpalamba, Abhayamba Ganapati and the Navagrahas. These kritis show, in the choice of raga, tala, and diction, a perfect blend of his musical skills and sharp intellect.

The complexities in Dixitar’s kritis have lent weight to the comparision of his style to the Narikelapaka. But what joys exist when the shell is broken and the springs of elixir come cascading down! Only an ardent pursuer shall know. As I journey into the soul of this great composer, a whole new world unfurls before me. Dixitar represents a revolutionary mind revolving around the classical ethos and within the classical frame work, his creativity known no limits. Ultimately I see his kritis and his music as the hallmarks of the Advaita philosophy that recognizes the One Omnipotent spirit pervading the entire universe. He is perhaps the only composer to have composed in praise of almost all deities of the Hindu pantheon. But underlying this apparent diversity is the Realised Soul of a Yogi. To me, he is the Royal Falcon soaring high above the mundane, radiating the bliss of equipoise and unqualified tranquility. To understand, said Raphael, “is to equal”.

As Joseph Machlis says :When we completely understand a great work of music, we grasp the “moment of truth” that gave it birth. We become, if not the equal of the master who created it, at least worthy to sit in his company. We receive his message, we fathom his intention”. To receive the Master’s message is all I desire.


1. Muttuswami Dixitar's Navagraha Kritis - Nagalakshmi Suryanarayan - Sangeeta Sudha issues - Feb, Oct, Dec 03 & Feb, Apr 04

2. Muttuswami Dixitar's tribute to the Panchabhutas - Ravi and Sridhar - Ananya Abhivyakti issues - Feb, Mar 04

3. Dr. Raghavan's works on Dixitar

4. Geography as melody in Dixitar's Indian Musical works - C. Balachandran and Surinder Bharadwaj

5. Dixitar's Sangita in Karnataka - Dr. V. V. Srivatsa - Sangeeta Sudha - June 04

6. The Enjoyment of Music - Joseph Machlis

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