Thyagaraja and Gopalakrishna Bharathi-Two mavericks- II

September 24, 2015, Chennai

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Gopalakrishna Bharathi Gopalakrishna Bharathi (GKB), a contemporary of Thyagaraja, was also born in a traditional Brahmin family and encountered opposition in his own community for his views.

He composed songs in Thamizh at a time when Telugu and Sanskrit were the preferred languages for musical compositions. He was catholic in his attitude towards religion and worship. In his kriti “SabhApatikku vERu deyvam” (AbhOgi), he delightfully featured the attainment of godhead by the three untouchables (ariya pulaiyar mUvar padham aDaindAr enRu purANam aRindhu sollak kETTOm). To feature the “low caste” devotees in a devotional song at a time when devotion (Bhakthi) was considered the exclusive privilege of the ‘upper caste” folks (caturmaRaiyOrgaL) required a revolutionary and audacious yet admirable approach.

GKB lived a celibate life. He was ostracized by the entrenched Brahmin community for performing a religious discourse extolling the virtues of Thiruneelakanta nAyanAr (a potter by profession), one of the 63 consecrated devotees of Lord Shiva. GKB was a bleeding-heart social liberal sympathizing with the plight of the low caste folks. There was nothing he could do to reform the society except to use his musical genius to take up the subject of the downtrodden and glorify it by blending it with devotion. He was an ardent devotee of Lord Nataraja at Chidambaram and wrote many songs on Lord Nataraja. He composed operas on NandanAr, Thiruneelakanta nAyanAr, and iyaRpagai nAyanAr, three of the supreme devotees of Lord Shiva. The upper caste folks, while holding the reign of temple services, denied temple entry privileges to the “untouchables”. GKB resented that approach and reflected that situation in his musical opera NandanAr carittirak keerththanai.

SEkkizhAr in his Periya PurANam described the plight of NandanAr being deprived of the privilege (by virtue of his having been born into a low caste) of getting into the temple to worship his favorite deity Lord Shiva. GKB took it one step further and made NandanAr a farmhand in the employ of a Brahmin landlord to highlight the discrimination practiced by the upper caste folks against the “casteless” people.  GKB injected his personal agenda, perhaps, in bringing a Brahmin into the picture to impose additional external restraints and ridicule on the farmhand. GKB even went so far as to let the Brahmin landlord beg NandanAr's pardon at the end by asking NandanAr to teach the way to salvation. This angered the Brahmins at that time. GKB was not popular during his time. Even during the recent times some musicians like K V Narayanaswamy used to sing "InanAyp piRandEnE" instead of "pulayanAyp piRandEnE" feeling uncomfortable about the phrase that GKB used. But then NandanAr got glorified in that self-deprecating m
ode. That is the message GKB conveyed.

While Brahmins shunned the slums in those days, GKB described the unhygienic conditions of the slum inhabited by NandanAr to drive home the point of the wretched conditions that prevailed there. He followed SEkkizhAr for the rest of the story but introduced the objection of the landlord as the principal reason for NandanAr’s inability (rather than NandanAr’s own agony as portrayed by SEkkizhAr) to go to Chidambaram. GKB introduced an additional divine miracle by making the myrmidons (பூதகணங்கள்) of the Lord complete the farm labor overnight  on 200+ acres (as required by the landlord) making them ready for harvest  to enable NandanAr to visit Chidambaram.  He also made the landlord beg NandanAr to be his guru, after the landlord realized the greatness of NandanAr (நந்தா  நீயெனக்கு  குருவுபதேசம்  நவிலிடவேணும்)

நந்தா The story of NandanAr was well-known to everybody during the time of GKB but the upper class society turned a blind eye to the concept that the Lord’s grace is spread evenly among all people—whether of “low” or “high” class. GKB had the courage to bring out the glory of NandanAr in his musical opera and in doing so tried to undo the injustice of prohibiting “untouchables” from entering the temple premises. Like Thyagaraja GKB wrote in simple and colloquial style in order that the songs be intelligible to the common man.
  NandanAr & VEdhiyar

His songs reflected the social trends that prevailed in his time. The dialog-type text (in Socratic style) that preceded some songs indicated the agony of NandanAr and by extension that of the slum dwellers of GKB’s time.  It took another hundred years for his efforts to bear fruit when the temple corridors were thrown open to all. GKB’s NandanAr kritis are now sung in concert platforms with all earnestness.

Two great music composers, two great reformers!