Thyagayyar or Thyagaraja of Tanjore (early 19th century), more is known. He was revered by his contemporaries as a perfectly sincere and selfless man; he was an ascetic in the original sense of the word, one who ‘prepared’ his heart for the reception of truth. In Mudaliar Chinnaswami’s Oriental Music sixty of his songs (kritis) are printed in staff notation, accompanied by adequate indications of scale, time, and tempo. There is also a list of eight hundred more, and this is probably not exhaustive. They are all in Telugu, the most musical language of the South, as Bengali is to the North. They exhibit considerable sense of balance, as may be seen from the structure of the songs. They refrain from abusing the ear with excessive compass and eschew cheap contrasts, both of which are to be found in the compositions of less able musicians. He signs his songs; that is to say he ends them with words such as “This is the last counsel of Thyagaraja” or “You who are the treasure of Thyagaraja’s heart.”

This is common practice in the mediaeval songs of Germany and may be compared with Dufay’s signature “Karissime Dufay vous en prye,” and with Palestrina’s incorporation of the titles of the 119th Psalm into his Lamentations. Two of the syllables of Thyagaraja’s name (ga-ra) would have admitted the same treatment: but there is no instance of his adopting it. It was also a practice of his time to set the syllables of the song to the notes, which they name as in the example quoted by Day ad the Indian form of “Ut queant laxis” is (These are called Swarakshara or note syllables).

But the practice does not appear to have attractions for Thyagaraja; he resists them. Neither does he seem to be particularly in love with Swaras. Swara, in the South, Sargam in the North means a rapid passage in which the notes are sung to the sol-fa names instead of the words as an amazing feat of skill. It takes the place of our cadenza and like that, was occasionally added by another hand. Swaras occur in only four of his sixty songs.


There is a pretty story about Thyagaraja’s meeting with ‘Shatkala’ Govinda Marar, a fine musician of Travancore. Shatkala means six-time and time are here used in the sense of ‘diminutions’ i.e. that a piece that had been in crotchets was now sung in quavers; and the point is that he could diminish six times over, i.e. begin with his theme in semibreves and end with it in semi-demi-semi-quavers. He used to sing to a Tambura with seven strings – the ordinary Tambura has only four, and this instrument seems to have been a sort of bow of Ulysses to inferior singers; in token of which apparently, it was adorned with a flag. They met at Thyagaraja’s house at Thiruvayaru in 1843, where the greet man was sitting with his disciples. Marar after listening to the disciples expressed a wish to hear Thyagaraja himself. “Who is the man, asked Thyagaraja in Telugu “that can ask me to sing?” Apparently the audience was to hear him only when he sang of his own record. One of his disciples pointed to Marar, sitting with a flagged Tampura in his hand, and was told that Marar could sing a little. A Pallavi was then sung around, and when it came to Govinda Marar’s turn, the other instruments had to be laid aside, and his Tampura only used, so high was the pitch of the music. He sang it in Shatkala, and Thyagaraja recognized the caliber of Marar. Immediately, Thyagaraja improvised on the spot a song in the Sri Ragam, which is the Ragam sung at the close of performance of which the burden was, “There are many great men in the world, and I respect them all.” This contrast well with the many stories there are of professional jealousy which are too unlovely to repeat here.

By Fox Strangways
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