On being accurate and faithful

Some time ago, I came across a lengthy discourse of a Tyagaraja song in a music magazine. The author had taken great pains to dig up a hundred references from Hindu scripture and mythology to develop and explain the "inner meaning" of a rather short Tyagaraja song. The song itself was quite plain and consistent with recurring themes in his work. But the author claimed Tyagaraja had embedded so much into it. The exegesis was buttressed by various anecdotal references and quotes and was cross-referenced with other Tyagaraja songs. The song was greatly developed into a major work of theology, culminating predictably with words from the learned but overquoted erstwhile pontiff of Kanchipuram. I trust the article was received as a masterly exercise, even among the cognoscenti, and considered a great step forward.

But, this was most ironic. Finding such vast hidden meaning and supreme truths where they may not have been put in the first place, is a disservice to music and to the composer. Extensive embellishment and reinterpretation ensure that such work is never faithful to the original. It serves no more than as a  a display of the author's grand scholarship. I shall refrain from citing the article as my scope is poetics and not polemics. But, there are many sound reasons why such a practice is simply not right. 

The chief reason is historical accuracy. Tyagaraja has left a clear record of himself, his thought and his theory of music in his songs. His message on philosophy and religion is simple and very consistent across hundreds of songs composed over many decades. He clearly did not wrap his thought in riddles and song after song shows he was simple and direct. He is a votary of "music worship" and finds music everywhere, as it is the prime mover of the universe. This concept, he superposes over conventional Hindu beliefs of his time and age and reserves Rama as his chosen deity. His motives lay in musical detail and its advancement, and his emotional outpourings in his lyrics were the vehicle of such advancement. In true lyrical tradition, his sentiments were most personal. That is, there is no proof that he developed great theological theses through his songs as this author ventured to show. Apart from music, Tyagaraja was certainly learned in the classical scholarship of his day. But, it is historically inaccurate and unfaithful to find a thesis under every syllable.

Another difficulty with such reinterpretation is whether it is clearly understood by an author or performer and the audience as such, or is it simply taken to be a legitimate depiction? Often, with the lack of rigor even in formal circles, the lines are blurred. Reinterpretation and meditative development of notions in the songs certainly have their place. But, that place, cannot be that of faithful and unburnished sources. 

A third difficulty is lack of rigor. Hindu theology and philosophy did not develop from one fount. It also did not develop by sword, vote or fiat, that there could be a widely accepted canon. Thus, there are innumerable scriptures and differing schools. With dialectics being the currency, contradiction is the trade. The whole is overwhelming.  What constitutes an individual's belief system, in the end, is very narrow and very specific to their lineage and training. It is determined by their antecedents, social factors and so on, as there is no required canon outside the Vedas. All the other major scriptures such as the Upanishads, Itihasas, Shastras etc, differ in choice and interpretation much too greatly among different sects and among different schools.  The Vedas however, only comprise a fraction of modern belief systems. Claiming to interpret and better understand Tyagaraja, if we start summoning up every source we find in the modern day, such as the Gita, obscure Upanishads, reflective works by later authors and so on, we are being unfaithful. Tyagaraja's belief system can be easily reconstructed from his own words and we must not swerve from it, in order to do justice to him.

Another point not easily raised is the predominant culture of his region. Then, as now, great men of religion and learning are deified, which could be a product of an ubiquitous strain of pantheism. Without resorting to any debate on atheism and belief or whether Tyagaraja's work was the product of  driven genius or Divine grace, we can say one thing for our immediate purposes.  It becomes hard to see the forest for the trees and little documentation has survived, excepting through one of his disciplic successions. Comparatively, even his staunchest votaries did not accord Mozart deification. There is also a paper trail of his life and times. There are however temples to Tyagaraja and prayers offered to him. We can accord Tyagaraja genius or divine grace or a measure of each. Whatever we do, to fully understand and portray his work, we need to somehow strike a balance in order to remain rigorous and yet faithful and give a true picture.

Since the web started making information available easily, incidental scholarship has risen exponentially. Many a master of trivia has arisen as have one-point scholars. The web boards are full of intelligent posts. This is good because the veil of esoterism is shredded and the specialist must give some ground. But, it is also bad because public discourse can be swayed by  the most superficial of sources and this compounds the previous problem. Add to this the lack of a widespread canon in that music, culture and religion, no widely held standards, and a lack of rigor in research and superabundance of anecdotal development in performance and training. So, when someone is more loyal than the king, it causes the myth to grow around the composer that his work is soon lost for its veneer. To write this song for example, I suppose it would be quite easy to do a bunch of web searches and cut and paste as much as possible. Or, to quote from every book I can find, on Moksha, Nadopasana, Shiva and nada and so on. 

Tyagaraja touched upon Prana and the fire within the body here. These notions come from the deepest reaches of Hindu conceptualization and there is a large system explaining the role of Prana. There is more subtlety to it, than the commonly understood life breath or life force. There are numerous fires in nature, including in the human body, that energize their subjects. The interplay between these forces is theorized differently in different schools. Even within a school, the contemporary picture could well be different from that of Tyagaraja's time. But, Tyagaraja does not go any further in his allusion for us to evoke the system. Without more specific clues from the composer, it would be unwise to hazard a guess of great detail. When Tyagaraja refers in passing to chakras and sounds generated in the body, it is tempting to cast the whole in the modern elaborate understanding of the Kundalini system and interpret him it this light. But, the Kundalini system as is commonly understood today, is largely a post-Tyagaraja rediscovery and popularization. He also lived at a time when mass printing had not yet come to India and many treatises were rare. Nor is it a frequent theme in his work for us to be certain. How accurate will it be, to extrude him, through the pinhole of the Kundalini system as it is put forth now?

For a song extolling Lord Rama's beauty and might, I could cite the Tamil poet Kambar, who wrote a Ramayana in Tamil centuries prior to Tyagaraja. This was probably the first translation of the Ramayana into another language. This book was known though not widely read back then in his home district, and thence derive a sentiment expressed by Tyagaraja. But, these questions arise. Is this what Tyagaraja meant? Was Tyagaraja unmistakably influenced by Kambar and was it where he found the germ? Will it be accurate or will it be historical fiction? Will the result be an exposition of Tyagaraja's message, or a superposition of my message on Tyagaraja? We can start unraveling any such obtrusive exercises by taking recourse to history. While Tyagaraja did live in the hinterland of this Ramayana, in a region known for scholarship in many languages, at his time, even though a Maratha king ruled his region, Telugu was the main court language and almost all learning was restricted to Sanskrit. Tyagaraja did not compose anything in Tamil and it is not known how widely read the Tamil Ramayana was, before print was widely available and before there was a resurgence of Tamil among the ruling. Then again, Tyagaraja does mention others who influenced or interested him, such as Bhadrachala Ramadas. For comparison, even in the Trinity, the polyglot Dikshitar, a Tamil speaker, composed mainly in Sanskrit. All these observations can be made from common knowledge, even before we reach for the historical record. Though it is quite possible Tyagaraja was influenced by the former, conclusively associating the two poets would be conjectural, unless we have a definitive record. But, due to their vivid imagery of Rama, it will be nice to place them side by side. So, such a tie in, might find a place in a speech for a general audience, but not in a formal lecture and in an idyllic reflection, but not in a true rendition.

The long and short of it is that accuracy is the reason for the approach I take in this work. I take extraordinary pains to be faithful and yet rigorous to give a true picture. The true picture itself can be most enjoyable. In this, I sometimes feel I am in the unenviable minority of one.  I do think expositions are also of value and can be enjoyable. But, what is faithful and what is not, must remain distinct. That is why, regular readers may find that I develop a certain topic unexpectedly in a song and remain silent about something they expect, in another song. When I do include comparative studies of Indian or western sources with Tyagaraja's songs, I keep them distinct and place them side by side. I do not use the one to explain the other and do not confabulate. As much detail as needed, but no more. For the reasons noted above, I think this is the right approach. I start with tabula rasa and let the song and the composer lead me.