Thyagaraja and Gopalakrishna Bharathi---Two mavericks

September 24, 2015, Chennai

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A maverick is one who takes a stand different from that of all those in a community and who dares to think in ways which places him at risk of contempt, ridicule, and condemnation by those around him. George Bernard Shaw said, “The reasonable man tries to adapt himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself.

Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man” (emphasis mine). The two Carnatic music composers, Saint Thyagaraja (1767-1847) and Gopalakrishna Bharathi (1810-1896), dared to think differently from the accepted social norms of their time. They faced opposition and isolation from their community. But their sense of truth and conviction in their belief stood them in good stead and today they are hailed not only as great composers but model humanists who demonstrated great human values of integrity, and virtue.

Thyagaraja and Gopalakrishna Bharathi

Shakespeare wrote “… music .. the food of love” (Twelfth Night). For Thyagaraja music was the food of his life and bhakthi was the nutrient in that food. He did not have any longing for material possessions. He went even to the extent of antagonizing the ThanjAvUr king Serabhoji by refusing to accept his gifts in exchange for singing at his court. (nidi cAla sukhamA—KalyANi). Such behavior was unacceptable to his older brother Japyesan who had material aspirations.  Japseyan’s displeasure resulted in physical partitioning of the ancestral house. That was the first discord that Thyagaraja had to live with. But Thyagaraja would not compromise his principles for the sake of appeasing his brother. He was on a mission of his own and he would not march to somebody else’s drums.

Thyagaraja isolated himself from fellow Brahmins of his time since he considered them hypocritical. The land-owning beneficiaries of royalty sported a depraved indolence which made them arrogant as well. He noticed it in his own brother. Thyagaraja’s knowledge of Hindu epics and mythology combined with his musical genius enabled him to take on the role of a reformer. He did it through many of his kritis impregnating his philosophy in them. He was averse to following the Vedic rituals as opposed to personalized devotion. Ritual worship with bell-ringing and offering flowers while the mind was wandering was of no use to him (manasu nilpa—AbhOgi). Likewise, taking holy dips in sacred rivers, and smearing sacred ash on the body while sporting arrogance was not laudable either, according to him. Other people criticized him for not making pilgrimages to various holy cities. He replied that when he had god in his own house and heart there was no need to visit other holy places. He was also a staunch opponent of having belief in astrology (graha balamEmi—rEvagupti) which was the norm among people at that time. He sported the thought that planetary (evil) influences do not matter when one worships the Lord faithfully.

His compositions were also mainly in colloquial Telugu so that the Telugu-knowing commoner could understand the import. He wanted to express great truths in simple words and sang his songs on the streets of ThiruvaiyARu and accepted alms given voluntarily. This activity of the “street-singer” enraged the Brahmins of the town. Thyagaraja was not unmindful of such animosity which he expressed with dismay in his kritis decrying the arrogance, orthodoxy, and hypocrisy of such people despite their erudition, and power (enta nErcina—sudda dhanyAsi). With his exceptional musical gifts and engrossed devotion he could take shelter in his own cocoon, far from the madding crowd. While doing so he wrote kritis to reform the ingrained bigotry and elitism of the people around him. He felt there is a vast difference between seeing the Lord and going to the temple.

Thyagaraja did not preach eloquently but put his philosophy succinctly in plain language through his kritis. He was a reformer in the mould of Kabir (1440-1518), Meera (1498-1547), Tukaram (1608-1650) and others who spearheaded the bhakthi movement before him. He felt it was better to pray at one’s own house rather than run to holy shrines seeking God in various places. He finally visited certain shrines like KAncheepuram, Srirangam, Tiruppati, Kovur and a few other places along the way just to appease his disciples and sang immortal kritis at those places. Even while singing the kriti “tera tIyagarAdA” (gauLipantu) at Tiruppati he was taking a self-deprecatory stand when he sang ‘will you not remove the curtain….of vanity and envy in my mind?”

Let us look at how Gopalakrishna Bharathi put his stamp on social reform through his music compositions in the next segment.

To be contd….

                                         Sethuraman Subramanian