Why I Think Thyagaraja Was The Greatest

Why I Think Thyagaraja Was The Greatest

by V.S. Ravi - Friday, January 6, 2023 03:00 AM IST
Why I Think Thyagaraja Was The GreatestThyagaraja (Wikimedia Commons)
  • A meditation on the works of Thyagaraja on the date of the saint-composer's punyatithi—6 January.

Thyagaraja is generally regarded amongst the greatest composers of Carnatic music.

Like the great Telugu poet Potana, he spurned patronage and lived in penury. Though born and brought up in present-day Tamil Nadu, he mastered the Telugu language and secured for it a preeminent place in the world of music through his wonderful compositions. Couched in  a simple and lyrical style, they contain not only profound Vedantic truths, but also elementary rational precepts.

Thyagaraja was born in Thiruvarur in Tanjore District on 4 May 1767, in a Telugu Brahmin sect called Mulakanadu Trilinga. His family belonged to Kakarla Vamsha, and Bharadwaja Gothram. He was the third son of his parents. Panchanada and Panchapakesha were his elder brothers.

He was named Tyagabrahmam Thyagaraja after Tyagaraja, the presiding deity of the temple at Thiruvarur, the place of his birth. (There is a school of thought that contests this and proposes Tiruvaiyaru as his birthplace. The debate is still unsettled).

Ramabrahmam, and Seethamma were the parents of Thyagaraja and his two brothers. His father was an erudite scholar and musician who was honoured in the Tanjore Royal court.Thyagaraja married Parvathamma and when she died five years later, he married her sister Kamalamma- this was not unusual in those days.

Ramabrahmam shifted his residence to Thiruvaiyar, nearer to Tanjore. Thiruvaiyar means 'the confluence of five sacred rivers'. This place abounded in natural beauty. It had a salubrious climate.

Thyagaraja's father taught him Telugu and Sanskrit and initiated him in the scriptures. Seethamma sang devotional songs for him and introduced him to Jayadeva, Purandara Dasa and Ramadasa. Ramabrahmam was well versed in the Ramayana by virtue of which Thyagaraja became a devotee of Rama.

After gaining proficiency in Telugu and Sanskrit, he started to sing and play the Veena under a distinguished Asthana Vidwan in the Tanjore Court. 

Though initially a grihastha (a family man) , Thyagaraja became an ascetic, renounced all worldly things and led a frugal life.

It is said that he chanted Rama Nama (name) 1,25,000 times everyday and completed 96 crores before he was thirty eight.

Legend has it that the great sage Narada himself appeared before Thyagaraja and presented him a sacred treatise called Swararnava which is supposed to be the record of a dialogue between Shiva and Parvati on the glory and mysteries of music. 

Like Pothana who spent his whole life writing the Bhagavatam Purana about Lord Krishna, Thyagaraja spurned all temporal honours and rewards and lived only for worshiping Rama. 

Here I would like to narrate a charming legend relating to Thyagaraja and Lord Rama. It may be mentioned that most of the kritis (songs) composed by him were based on some incident in Rama's life. In almost every song he begged Rama to give him darshana or come to his house to bless him. 

It would appear that Lord Rama was so pleased with Thyagaraja's devotion that one day he came in disguise (Hanuman and Sita who accompanied him were also in disguise) to Thyagaraja's house. But Thyagaraja who seemed to have vague intimations of their true identity compelled them to have dinner with him and his wife.

As they sat down, Hanuman prepared himself to serve the various items of food to Rama, and Sita, as was his usual practice. However, Thyagaraja brushed him aside insisting that he himself would serve the food. Hanuman was taken aback. Rama calmed Hanuman down and advised Hanuman to permit Thyagaraja to serve him saying that he was as great a devotee as Hanuman himself.

No one knows how many songs (kritis) Thyagaraja actually composed .      

About 700 songs remain of the 24,000 songs said to have been composed by him; however, scholars are skeptical about numbers like these, as there is no hard evidence to support such claims. 

In addition to the above 700 compositions (kritis), Thyagaraja composed two musical plays in Telugu, the Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam  and the Nauka Chartram

The songs composed by Thyagaraja are of such captivating melody that musicians as well as the general public thronged to hear them, when he was singing, while walking in the streets of Thiruvaiyar 

I would like to dispel a certain myth. Some rasikas (lovers of Carnatic music) in Chennai insist on referring to Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Shastry as "the Trinity'' of Carnatic music. This is a highly misleading expression. Without belittling their contributions I would have to say that Thyagaraja stands head and shoulders above the other two.

Addressing Shakespeare, Matthew Arnold said:

Others abide our question. Thou art free We ask and ask: Thou smilest and art still Out-topping knowledge ...

In these lines, Arnold, has emphatically stated that while all other poets “abide our question” i.e. await our verdict, Shakespeare alone is “free” i.e., he is beyond all questions, analysis, scrutiny and judgment.

What is true of Shakespeare in this poetic context would apply equally to Thyagaraja in the musical context.

Whereas Dikshitar and Syama Sastry (who no doubt are great composers) stand like two majestic peaks in the Himalayas, Thyagaraja stands alone like Everest.

Of late, a new trend that has been noticed in Carnatic Music: the deliberate and gradual increase in the number of kritis in Tamil sung in concerts in Tamil Nadu. They are no doubt enjoyable to listen to, but it deprives rasikas (music lovers) of the present generation of the pleasures of listening to the great kritis of Thyagaraja! 

Just imagine the next  generation of rasikas being totally ignorant about "Etahvunara" in Raga Kalyani, or "Shiva Shiva Shiva yana rada" in Pantuvarali or "Entha Nerchina" in Sudha Dhanyasi. We can only pity them.

Carnatic Music is scientific. There are 72 Melakarta (parent Ragams). These 72 Ragams have all the 7 swaras SRGMPDN in the Aarohana and Avarohana

This system is created using the permutation and combination of swaras and swarasthanas. Arohana, is the ascending scale of notes in a Raga. An Avarohana, is the descending scale of notes in a Raga . 

The two fundamental conditions that must be satisfied for the systematic development of a Ragam are the arrangement of the  swaras in the natural order of Arohanam and Avarohanam of the Raga so as to satisfy the sound principles of harmony and continuity.

Every song in Carnatic music has a pallavi, an anupallavi and a charanam.

The pallavi has multiple connotations. It is the first part of any formal composition. 

The anupallavi is usually sung at a higher pitch and adds more beauty to the music. Usually the anupallavi is shorter than the charanam

Charanam is the end section of a composition which is sung after the anupallavi.

The term ‘Pancharatna’ in Sanskrit means "five gems". The Pancharatnas, which were composed by Thyagaraja are known as the five gems of Carnatic music. 

In these five songs, Thyagaraja has shown how to systematically and scientifically develop a Raga. A detailed analysis of the Pancharatnas is beyond the scope of this discussion. I am therefore giving only a very short gist of what the songs are about.

The first Pancharatna, Jagadaanandakaaraka, is in the Ragam Nata. It is composed in lucid and poetic Sanskrit. It praises Lord Rama as the source of all joy in the universe.  

Originally there were only six charanams for the song. It is said that when the disciples examined the song, it contained ninety names of Lord Rama in mellifluous Sanskrit. The disciples requested Thyagaraja to slightly expand the song by adding two charanas containing eighteen more names of Lord Rama. 

The saint acceded to the request of the disciples and that is the reason why the song Jagadaanandakaaraka contains three mudras with the name of Thyagaraja while the other four songs contain only one mudra

(A mudra is a term woven into compositions in Indian classical music, particularly Carnatic music, that indicates the identity of the composer). 

The next is Duduku gala in the Ragam Gowla . It is composed in Telugu. In this song, Thyagaraja takes the blame upon himself for all the misdeeds of men and ruminates over who would come and save him from this deplorable situation.

The third is Saadhinchene in the Raga Aarabhi. It is composed in Telugu. In this song, Thyagaraja lovingly criticises Lord Krishna for his cleverness in getting what he wants to be done. 

The fourth song, Kana Kana Ruchiraa is in the Raga Varaali. It is composed in Telugu. In this song, Thyagaraja describes the infinite beauty of Lord Rama. He says the more he sees Rama, the more overwhelmed he is.

The fifth Pancharatna is Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu in Sri Ragam. It is composed in Telugu. It is said that a great musician from Kerala visited Thyagaraja and sang before him. Thyagaraja was so pleased with his performance that he composed Endaro Mahanubhavulu, regarded by many as the greatest song in Carnatic music, and sang it. No other song can equal it in meaning, rhyme, tempo and melody. 

Another version is that Thyagaraja once visited a royal court where great musicians were showing off their special talent. When it came to Thyagaraja's turn, he rose from his seat and sang this great song spontaneously. This song begins with Thyagaraja's humble declaration that there were so many great musicians there and that he offered his pranaams to all of them! 

When he finished singing the song, all the musicians realised that Thyagaraja was far superior to them and was in fact the greatest of musicians.

Every Carnatic musician is expected to learn this great song for which Thyagaraja himself wrote the swaram, as in the case of the other four Pancharatna songs also.

Though I would like to discuss several compositions, constraints  of space would permit me to quote only four other great songs  of Thyagaraja.

But before that I would like to refer to another unique talent that Thyagaraja alone possessed .

Even a great composer like Muthuswami Dikshitar wrote a full Pallavi to merely describe the Goddess Raja Rajeshwari e.g.:

"Panchasat peeta rupini, mampahi Sri Raja Rajeshwari”.

So also, Syama Sastry commenced a famous kriti with the words, "palinchu Kamakshi Pavani papasamsani”, describing the Goddess Kamakshi.

Thus in their kritis a  major portion of the song commencing with the pallavi dwells on a description of the Goddess or God as the case may be..

On the other hand, Thyagaraja narrates the facts contained in some episode or in a few events in a great epic like Ramayana in the first sentence itself. The overall effect is a blend of story, poetry and music, from the very beginning of the kriti.

Some examples are:

1. "Alakalella nadagakani" in the raga Madhyamavati


alakalalla ladaga gani aa ran muni yetu pongeno


Cheluvu miraganu 

Marichuni mada manachuvela

Alakalalla .....


muni kanu saiga delisi shivadhanuvunu viriche samayamuna Thyagaraja vinutuni momuna ranjillu


I wonder how Vishwamitra – that royal sage – exulted beholding the curls shining in the face of Sri Rama, when subduing the arrogance of Maricha and again when, understanding the eye-signal of the sage, He broke the bow of Lord Shiva!

2.Sangeetha gnanamu Bhakthi vina’ in the Ragam Dhanyasi


Sangeetha gnanamu Bhakthi vinaa,

San margamu kaladhe , Oh Manasa


Bringi natesa sameeraja kadaja

Mathanga  narathathu lupasinche


Nyayaa nyayamu thelusunu, jagamulu,

Maya maya mani thelusunu , Durguna,

Kaya jathi shad ripula jayinche

Karyamu thelusunu, Thyagarajuniki.


Oh mind, the knowledge of music,

Without devotion is not the right path.

Was not this music made a mode of worship,

Of  Bringi, Natesha, Sameeraja, Kadaja, Matanga, Narada and others (Sameeraja is Hanuman, Kadaja is Agasthya)

This Thyagaraja knows what is just and unjust

He knows that this world is an  illusion,

He knows the method of conquering bad emotions like,

Anger, passion, miserliness, desire and competition.

3.Rama katha Sudha rasa Panamu’ in the Raga Madhyamavati


Rama katha sudharasa panam oka rajyamu chesune


bhamamani  janaki saumitri bharatadulato bhumi velayu sita


dharmaddakhila phaladame manasa dhairyananda saukhya niketaname karma bandha jvalanabdhi navam kaliharame tyagarja vinutudagu


O my Mind! To drink the nectarine juice of story of Sri Rama -( praised by this Thyagaraja) - who shines on the Earth along with Janaki, Lakshmana, Bharata and others, is equal to (ruling) a kingdom.

(a) it indeed bestows the fruits of purushartha

(b) it is the veritable abode of courage, bliss and comfort;

(c) it indeed is the boat which enables one to cross the flaming ocean of Worldly Existence – bound by actions;

(d) it indeed is the destroyer of the (evil effects of) kali yuga.

4.NagumOmu’ in the Ragam Abheri

Thyagaraja lost his statuette of Lord Rama. He was grief stricken and composed this song saying, "I am unable to see your smiling face. Have pity on me and come and bless me". The whole song revolves around this emotion. 


nagu momu kana leni najaali telisi

nannu brova rada Sri raghuvara nee (nagu)


naga raja dhara nidu parivarulella

ogi bodhana jese varalu  kare(y)-atulun dudure nee (nagu)


khaga raju neeyanati vini vega chana ledo gagananik iflaku bahu doorambani nado

jagamele paramtma evarito moralidudu

vaga joopaku talanu nannelukora Thyagaraja nuta (nagu)


O Sri Raghuvara! Realising my plight of being unable to behold Your smiling face, can’t You protect me?

O Lord who bore Mandara - king of mountains on His back!

Aren’t all those in Your retinue the ones who render proper  advice to You? Would they remain unconcerned like that?

Didn’t Garuda (king of bird) proceed fast on hearing your command?

Or, did he say that it is too much distance from Vaikunta (literally sky) to the earth?

O Supreme Lord  who rules  the universe! With whom else shall I complain?

Don’t cite (literally show) pretexts; I can’t bear it; please govern  me.

O Lord praised by this Thyagaraja! O Sri Raghuvara! Realising my plight of being unable to behold Your smiling face, can’t You protect me?

Thyagaraja had a unique talent for the use of alliteration and rhyme. In ‘Nagu Momo’ he has used words ending with the letter "ga" ten times as indicated above by underlining the word containing the relevant syllable. 


Thyagaraja died on a Pushya Bahula Panchami day, 6 January 1847, at the age of 79. His last composition before his death was ‘Giripai Nelakonna’ (Raga Sahana).

He was buried on the banks of the Kaveri river at Thiruvaiyaru.

Every year hundreds of  great musicians pay their homage to Thyagaraja by singing his Pancharathna Kritis in chorus, on the banks of the Cauvery.  

The ‘Aradhana' as it is referred to is held every year on Pushya Bagula Panchami day, when the saint attained his ‘Samadhi’. 

The singing which starts at 9 am goes on for an hour. The nadhaswaram recital and the flute recital precede the chorus of Pancharathna Kritis.

Thyagaraja's name is a household word in southern India. His compositions have no equal in Carnatic music or in any other musical system in the world. Each of his compositions is a masterpiece not only in music and poetry but also in philosophic content. 

I recall DeQuincy's tribute to Shakespeare:

Oh mighty poet! Thy works are not like those of other men, simply and merely great works of art; but are also like the phenomena of nature, like the sun and the sea, the stars and the flowers; like frost and snow, rain and dew, hail-storm and thunder, which are to be studied with entire submission of our faculties.

For Thyagaraja, I would substitute the words "listened to" for "studied” and “musician'' for “poet”. 

V.S.Ravi is a distinguished and highly decorated IPS officer having served both the Government of AP and the Government of India, for 35 years. He retired in 1998. He is a scion of the Alladi family, being a grandson of the Late Sir Alladi Krishnaswamy Iyer, one of the Chief architects of the Constitution . Sri Ravi is one of the foremost authorities on Shakespeare in the country. He has contributed articles on Shakespeare to the Hindu and News Time Now. He passed Physics (Hons) with distinction and he has kept himself in touch with the latest developments in science and technology.
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