Tyagaraja is the most prolific and most revered composer in Carnatic music. I shall concentrate only on the literary aspects of his compositions in this series. However, readers are welcome to discuss the musical aspects as well if they are so inclined.
Poetry and Language: The songs composed by Tyagaraja are called krutis. These have a prosodic structure different from that of the padams. In general, they are in three stanzas, pallavi (refrain), anupallavi and caraNam. Many songs have more than one caraNam. Musically, the anupallavi has the same musical notation as the last line of the caraNam. The krutis may be classified roughly as follows; singing the glory of Rama, supplicatory, illustrating facets of Ramayana story, naama sankeertana, utsava saampradaaya, tribute to holy sites, philosophical/social commentary, etc. He also wrote two musical dramas, viz., prahlaada bhakti vijayamu and noukaa caritramu. The latter deals with Krishna teaching the proud gopikas the value of total surrender to the divine - the songs in this drama are quite unlike other Tyagaraja krutis.
Tyagaraja wrote mostly in Telugu and a few in Sanskrit. Due to their short format, Tyagaraja krutis are cryptic. They are not lyrical in this aspect - there is more hidden and hinted at than what is told. Even the krutis in which he narrates the Ramayana story are like this, as this week's selection illustrates. Even if one understands the literal meaning of a kruti, the connotations often escape the reader - that's why it is a great pleasure to listen to the expositions given by knowledgeable scholars. I have wonderful memories of listening to the harikathas of Sri Mulukutla Sadasiva Sastry gaaru (of Tenali) in which he'd explain these beautiful nuances.
Inspiration, God and Philosophy: Rama was everything to Tyagaraja. In his mind, Rama was Vishnu, the all-pervading Supreme Being, in all his avatars. We often find references across eons, exploits of various avataars (like Narasimha, Krishna, etc.) attributed to Rama without discrimination. Tyagaraja was a scholar, well-learned in vaidika sanaatana dharma as well as in the various schools of Indian philosophy. Several krutis document his thoughts on some of these aspects. However, it becomes clear that later in life, he believed completely in the path of devotion.
In this series, I hope to give you a taste of the literary genius of Tyagaraja. This week's selection is a kruti which recounts a little known episode of Ramayana. This is in the raagam Kambhoji (aka kambodhi)
maa jaanaki ceTTa baTTagaa maharaaju vaitivi //maa jaanaki
raaja raaja varaa, raajeeva+aksha, vinu, raavaNa+ari yani raajilu
keertiyu //maa jaanaki
kaana kaegi, yaaj~na meeraka maayaakaara municci, Sikhi cemtanae yumDi,
daanavuni vemTane cani, yaSoeka tarumoola numDi,
vaani maaTalaku koepagimci kamTa vadhiyimcakanae yumDi,
Sreenaayaka, yaSamu neekae kalgajaeya laedaa, tyaagaraaja paripaala
A rendition in English
Only on marrying our Sita have you become the Great King (1)
Oh King of Kings (2), Oh lotus-eyed one, listen, even the glory you got
as the slayer of Ravana //Only on marrying
Going to the forest (3), abiding by your order gave the illusory form
(4), and stayed with the Fire God (5),
She went with the Demon king and suffered under the Asoka tree (6),
Getting angry at his words, she refrained though she could have
decimated him with just a glance (7),
Oh husband of Sree (8), just so that only you got the glory, oh
Tyagaraaja's savior (9)! //Only on marrying
1 & 2. Tyagaraja opens the song with the accusation that Rama became a great King only because he was Sita's husband. Immediately in the next line, he addresses Rama as the King of Kings! It appears that tyagaraja is rubbing it in for Rama, or may be he is just placating Rama after the rudeness of the first line. This is a wonderful example of Tyagaraja's humor - Rama is so near and dear to him that he can take any liberties:-) This humorous technic called nindaa-stuti, that is, praise which sounds like denigration, practiced by many poets.
The real subject of the song is Sita's virtues. Tyagaraja goes behind the scenes to emphasize to us what a role she played in the happenings.
3. She need not have gone to the forest, but unless she went, Ravana's end (thereby the purpose of Rama's birth) could not be achieved.
4 & 5. There is a little known story from "Adhyatma Ramayana" which tells that it was not real Sita whom Ravana took to Lanka. As per this story, Rama had a premonition of the future and instructs Sita on invoking Agni (Fire God). As Ravana was abducting Sita, Sita invokes Agni so that real Sita stays with Agni while only an illusary form went with Ravana. The real Sita came out to re-join Rama after the fire-test. Tyagaraja refers to this story in this line.
6. Ravana holds Sita prisoner in his orchard of Asoka trees.
7. Sita is the primordial mother herself. So, when she got angry at Ravana's impudent behavior, she could have decimated him with just a glance. However, Tyagaraja implies, she refrained from doing so just because she wanted to give all the glory to Rama, her husband. Obviously, this is not the illusary Sita mentioned in the earlier line.
8. One more reference to Rama's marital status, rubbing it in.:-)
9. This is Tyagaraja's copyright mark, called mudra. All his krutis bear this signature in the last stanza.
Concluding remarks: I like this kruti (apart from the music) as a great example of Tyagaraja's gentle sense of humor. In many krutis he takes this familiar tone with Rama as if Rama was his personal friend. This humor is mixed well with the undoubted devotion of a true devotee. It is also a good example of Tyagaraja's deep knowledge and insight into the story of Ramayana. I heard that he was well-versed in many versions of Ramayana, Adhyatma Ramayana being his personal favorite. Therefore, he brings out these little known facets from Adhyatma Ramayana in many krutis.