Kakarla Tyagabrahmam (4 May 1767 – 6 January 1847), also known as Tyāgayya in Telugu, Tyāgarājar in Tamil, was one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music or Indian classical music. He was a prolific composer and highly influential in the development of the classical music tradition. Tyagaraja composed thousands of devotional compositions, most in praise of Lord Rama, many of which remain popular today. Of special mention are five of his compositions called the Pancharatna Kritis(English: “five gems”), which are often sung in programs in his honour.
Tyāgarāja was born in 1767 at Kurnool District, Andhra Pradesh to Kakarla Ramabrahma and Sitamma in a Telugu Brahmin family. His family belonged to the smarta tradition and Bhardvajasa gotra. Tyagaraja was the third son of his parents, and Panchanada brahmam and Panchapakesha brahmam are his older brothers. He was named Tyagabrahmam/Tyagaraja after Tyagaraja, the presiding deity of the temple at Tiruvarur. Tyagaraja’s paternal grandfather was Giriraja Kavi. Giriraja Kavi was a poet and musician. Giriraja was born in Kakarla village, cumbum taluk in Prakasam district, Andhra Pradesh. He is believed to belong to the Velanadu Telugu sect. Tyagaraja’s maternal grand father was Kalahastayya/Veena kalahastayya. He was a Veena player. Tyagaraja learned playing Veena in his childhood from Kalahastayya. After Kalahastayya’s death Tyagaraja found “Naradeeyam”, a book related to music.
Tyāgarāja began his musical training under Sonti Venkata Ramanayya, a music scholar, at an early age. He regarded music as a way to experience God’s love. His objective while practising music was purely devotional, as opposed to focusing on the technicalities of classical music. He also showed a flair for composing music and, in his teens, composed his first song, “Namo Namo Raghavayya”, in the Desika Todi ragam and inscribed it on the walls of the house. Sonti Venkataramanayya informed the king of Thanjavur of Tyagaraja’s genius. The king sent an invitation, along with many rich gifts, inviting Tyagaraja to attend the royal court. Tyagaraja, however, was not inclined towards a career at the court, and rejected the invitation outright, composing another kriti, Nidhi Chala Sukhama (English: “Does wealth bring happiness?”) on this occasion.
Angered at Tyagaraja’s rejection of the royal offer, his brother threw the statues of Rama Tyagaraja used in his prayers into the nearby Kaveri river. Tyagaraja, unable to bear the separation with his Lord, went on pilgrimages to all the major temples in South India and composed many songs in praise of the deities of those temples.
Tyagaraja, who was totally immersed in his devotion to Rama and led the most spartan way of life without bothering in the least for the comforts of the world, did not take any steps to systematically codify his vast musical output. Rangaramanuja Iyengar, a leading researcher on Carnatic music, in his work Kriti Manimalai, has described the situation prevailing at the time of death of Tyagaraja. It is said that a major portion of his incomparable musical work was lost to the world due to natural and man-made calamities. Usually Tyagaraja used to sing his compositions sitting before deity manifestations of Lord Rama, and his disciples noted down the details of his compositions on palm leaves. After his death, these were in the hands of his disciples, then families descending from the disciples. There was not a definitive edition of Tyagaraja’s songs.
The songs he composed were widespread in their popularity. Musical experts such as Kancheepuram Nayana Pillai, Simizhi Sundaram Iyer and Veenai Dhanammal saw the infinite possibilities for imaginative music inherent in his compositions and they systematically notated the songs available to them. Subsequently, indefatigable researchers like K. V. Srinivasa Iyengar and Rangaramanuja Iyengar made an enormous effort to contact various teachers and families who possessed the palm leaves. K. V. Srinivasa Iyengar brought out Adi Sangita Ratnavali and Adi Tyagaraja Hridhayam (in three volumes). Rangaramanuja Iyengar published Kriti Mani Malai in two volumes.
Furthermore, Musiri Subramania Iyer, the doyen of Bhava Sangitam, had a vast collection of books in his library. T. K. Govinda Rao, his disciple, brought out a volume of the songs of Tyagaraja in English and the Devanagari script. T. S. Parthasarathy, a leading scholar on Tyagaraja, published the text and meaning of Tyagaraja’s songs. There are also many less comprehensive publications in Telugu.
Out of 24,000 songs said to have been composed by him, about 700 songs remain now but scholars are skeptical about numbers like 24,000 since there is no biographical evidence to support such claims. In addition to nearly 700 compositions (kritis), Tyagaraja composed two musical plays in Telugu, the Prahalada Bhakti Vijayam and the Nauka Charitam. Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam is in five acts with 45 kritis set in 28 ragas and 138 verses, in different metres in Telugu. Nauka Charitam is a shorter play in one act with 21 kritis set in 13 ragas and 43 verses. The latter is the most popular of Tyagaraja’s operas, and is a creation of the composer’s own imagination and has no basis in the Bhagavata Purana. Tyagaraja also composed a number of simple devotional pieces appropriate for choral singing.
The 20th-century Indian music critic K.V. Ramachandran wrote: “Tyagaraja is an indefatigable interpreter of the past… but if with one eye he looks backward, with the other he looks forward as well. Like Prajapati, he creates his own media, and adores his Rama not alone with jewel-words newly fashioned, but also with jewel-music newly created. It is this facet of Tyagaraja that distinguishes him from his illustrious contemporaries.” In other words, while Tyagaraja’s contemporaries were primarily concerned with bringing to audiences the music of the past, Tyagaraja also pioneered new musical concepts at the same time..
Tyagaraja Aradhana, the commemorative music festival is held every year at Thiruvaiyaru in the months of January to February in Tyagaraja’s honour. This is a week-long festival of music where various Carnatic musicians from all over the world converge at his resting place. On the Pushya Bahula Panchami, thousands of people and hundreds of Carnatic musicians sing the five Pancharatna Kritis in unison, with the accompaniment of a large bank of accompanists on veenas, violins, flutes, nadasvarams, mridangams and ghatams.
A crater on the planet Mercury is named Tyagaraja.