Tyagaraja Ramayana - Part I

Sangita Kala Acharya T. S. Parthasarathy

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[Editor's Note: Sangita Kala Acharya Sri. T. S. Parthasarathy, eminent musicologist, researcher and writer is one of the senior most scholars in the field of Music and related arts. He was also the Secretary of the Music Academy, Chennai for many years. He is a source of guidance to all musicians and a respected authority on music theory and history. Carnatica is deeply honored to have his permission to reproduce a selection of his scholarly articles on Music and Dance published over the years in various journals]

There is perhaps no other classic in the vast religious literature of India that has the same hold upon popular imagination as the Ramayana. While the Sanskrit original of Valmiki stands in a class by itself as an ‘epic-pareil’, poets in the other Indian languages appear to have vied with each other in exploring the rich fields of the ‘Adi Kavi’, to return there from laden with a plentiful harvest of the best and noblest thoughts in literature. Several poets in Indian languages like Kambar (Tamil), Kumara Valmiki (Kannada), Krittivasa (Bengali), Ezhuttachan (Malayalam) and Bhanu Bhakt Acharya (Nepali) became Mahakavis by writing their own versions of the Ramayana. There are Buddhist and Jain versions of the epic and a recent survey made by a Sanskrit scholar showed that nearly 300 poets in India have drawn upon the Ramayana theme for writing Kavyas, plays, champus, poems and prose works.

Tyagaraja’s Ramayana Background

Early in life, Tyagaraja came into contact with the literary beauties and philosophical teachings of the Valmiki Ramayana. A copy of his horoscope contains a remark that his father, Rama Brahmam, was an expert in expounding the Ramayana (Ramayana prasanga nipunulu). His proficiency had been recognized by ruler Tuljaji. According to the Walajapet version of Tyagaraja’s life, Rama Brahmam had initiation into the Rama Taraka Mantra from the head of Marudanallur Math and he in turn, gave initiation to Tyagaraja after the latter was invested with the holy thread. The same account also mentions that while yet a boy, Tyagaraja received a further initiation into the ‘Shadaskhari’ (Six-lettered) mantra of Rama from a saint called Ramakrishnananda (whom Tyagaraja salutes by a verse in “Nowka Charitram”). Nevertheless, Tyagaraja had soaked himself in the inspiration of the Ramayana early in his life and was a confirmed devotee of Rama, owing allegiance to no other Godhead, when he embarked on his mission as a music composer.

Tyagaraja has not composed any single work which can be called his Ramayana but dozens of his kritis contain references to incidents in Ramayana from the Bala Kanda to the Yudha Kanda. He is stated to have composed a music drama called ‘Sitarama Vijayam’ based on the Uttara Kanda but no copy of it is traceable now. The other two operas of his viz. ‘Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam’ and ‘Nowka Charitram’ are on non-Ramayana themes. From his kriti ‘E Paniko (Asaveri) it is clear that he decided to sing the praises of Rama on the lines of Valmiki and other poets. In this song he asks Rama ‘are you wondering why I have taken this birth in this world? This should be known to you by now, Valmiki and others have sung your praises, but will that quench my thirst?” Tyagaraja appears to have studied other versions of the epic like the Adhyatma Ramayana; Sangraha Ramayana, etc. He has taken some ideas from them for introduction in his kritis.

Rama the Supreme Lord

It is possible to arrange the kritis of Tyagaraja dealing with incidents from the Ramayana in the order of the Kandas. But before doing so, one should remember that Tyagaraja does not deal with Rama as an incarnation of Vishnu who walked this earth for re-establishing Dhrama; but as the Eternal, Supreme Lord of the universe whose name was current even before the incarnation of Rama. The spiritual initiation he received early in life from Ramakrishnananda led a unitive experience that lodged itself firmly at the very core of his being. In ‘Vadera’ (Pantuvarali) he exclaims: ‘ This Rama of the solar race, the consort of Sita ,is none else than the same Supreme Being whose name Lord Siva whispered into the ears of the mortals for getting them eternal salvation’, His query in the kriti ‘Itara Daivamulu (Surati) ‘Can I get any good out of the other gods? Rama’ might even smack of his slighting the other Gods of the Hindu Pantheon. But Tyagaraja’s faith that Rama was the Para Brahman, above the functional trio. Brahma, Vishnu and Siva, was unshakable and he has affirmed this in many kritis like ‘Enduni’ (Durbar) and ‘Manasa Sri (Isamanohari).

Bala Kanda

Yet in his kritis he deals with the many incidents in the Valmiki and other Ramayanas as they are found and often gives a refreshingly new and original twist to them. Posing the question why he was born in this mortal world, he asks, in the kriti ‘Elavatara’ (Mukhari): Was it for waging battles with the demons or for ruling Ayodhya? Was it for meeting Thy devotees or for saving the poor, suffering mortals of this world? Or was it for the blessing this Tyagaraja who has composed hundreds of songs in Thy praise in a variety of ragas?”

In ‘Srirama Jayarama’ (yadhukulakambhoji) he sings that he is jealous of Kousalya who ‘could imprint a kiss on the shining cheeks of Rama as a child’ and of Dasaratha’ who could call him affectionately as Rama, my son’. But the luckiest of them all was Viswamitra who had the unique privilege of gloating (uppongu) over the fact that the Lord himself walked behind him! In the Puranas, Visawamitra is well known for performing severe penance and then losing all power in the end for some trifling reason. Tyagaraja avers that this time Viswamitra’s penance was rewarding. In Valmiki, Viswamitra specially asks Dasaratha to send him his “heroic eldest son with side-locks on his temples (Kakapaksha dharma suram jyestam),the idea must have caught Tyagaraja’s imagination and in his sparkling kriti ‘Alakalalla”(Madhamavati) he wonders ‘How did the Royal Sage (Viswamitra) rejoice seeing Rama’s locks wave from side to side when he killed Maricha and later broke Siva’s mighty bow at a mere signal from Viswamitra’s eyes?”

The Ahalya incident is cited in several kriti’s as an example of the efficiency of a contact with Ram’s feet. “Sri Ramapadama” (Amrutavarshini) and “Nee pada pankaja” (Begada) interpret the incident in different ways. After the arrival of Rama in Mithila, Tyagaraja in kriti ‘Daya Seyavayya’ (Yadukulakhambhoji) introduces an imaginary scene in which Sita sees Rama walking in the street below her window with Viswamitra and Lakshmana and wonders whether this youngish looking prince can bend the formidable bow of Siva which had defied mighty heroes in the past. This is comparable to a similar imaginary scene in Arunachala Kavi’s ‘Rama Natakam ‘ in which Rama observes Sita in her place and sings the song “Aaro ivar Aro “ (Bhairavi). Tyagaraja marvels at Janaka’s luck in being able to wash Rama’s feet with milk and giving his daughter Sita as Rama’s consort.

Ayodhya Kanda

In Valmiki Ramayana the Ayodhya Kanda opens with King Dasaratha’s preparations to  have Rama crowned as the ‘Yuvaraja’ and their ultimate failure due to the machinations of Kaikeyi  “of what avail is human Ingenuity?” asks Tyagaraja  in the kriti ‘ Manasa Manasamarthyamu’(Vardhini) “The lord rides the chariot called this Universe and gets things done or undone. “Vasistha and others (All adepts in astrology) fixed the date for Rama’s coronation but the Lord cast his magic net on Kaikeyi and foiled the attempt.”

The kriti ‘Chinna Nade’ (Kalanidhi) fits in excellently as Sita’s request to Rama to take her along to the forest. Rama does not yield at first and relents only after a sharp rebuke from her.” Alas! My father has managed to get, as his son-in-law a woman in the garb of a man” (Jamataram prapya striyam purusha vigraham).In the kriti ‘Ramachandra ni daya’ (surati) Tyagaraja refers to this incident and asks Rama,”Are you angry with me because Sita called you a woman that day? (Adadanna rosamo)”.

In the forest, Rama sets up a temporary camp at Chitrakuta where the Kakasura incident takes place. Tyagaraja refers to Kakasura in no less than five kritis as an example of Rama’s unbounded mercy which saves even an offender from punishment.” All the gods trembled at the very mention of Rama’s arrow chasing the Kakasura and advised him to seek refuge in Rama himself” he says in ‘Saranu saranu” (Madyamavati). “The bit of straw that Rama released on the crow became a Brahmastra (‘Srikanta’-Bhavapriya) but in the end took only one of his eyes as a token of punishment. (E Ramuni-Vakulabharanam).

Tyagaraja sums up the Paduka incident in a very attractive kriti’Sandehamu’ (Ramapriva).”Pray clear this doubt Rama!” asks he “Are thy feet in Vaikuntha revered by Nanda and others, superior or Thy sandals which Bharata worshipped at Nandigrama?” Tyagaraja’s conclusion in that the latter are superior because”When the sages meditated on Thy domain. But Thy sandals worshipped by Bharata gave thee to this world”.

Aranya Kanda

Rama later moves into Dandakaranya and spends ten out of his self-imposed banishment there in response to the prayer made by the sages to quell the demons harassing them. Did he suffer the rigours of jungle life? Tyagaraja’s answer is ‘No’ and he gives the credit for it to Sita in the kriti ‘Sariyevvare’ (Sriranjani), a magnificent tribute to her. “Who is your equal in your devotion to your husband? Realizing that Rama would face privations in the jungle, you provided him with royal comforts wherever he moved”.

Some kritis refer to the killing of Khara, Viradha, etc. and then the Surpanaka incident, In ‘Adigi Sukhamu’ (Madhyamavati) full of witty sarcasm, he asks” Who-ever got any good by approaching you? Surpanaka asked for your love and lost her nose instead.”

After Sita’s abduction by Ravana, the brothers Rama and Lakshmana go in search of her and in course of time they encounter Sabari on the banks of the Pampa river. In one of the most moving pieces composed by him ‘Entani ne’ (Mukhari), which defies the translator’s art, Tyagaraja pays his homage to the woman from the hunter clan”whose good fortune surpassed that of many wives of the sages of the forest. She had the unique privilege of feasting her eyes on the divine form of the Lord, offering him the sweet fruits she had collected, worshipping his feet to her heart’s content and attaining freedom from the cycle of births and deaths.

Read Part II >>


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