Themes in the works of Tyagaraja

The various themes in Tyagaraja's songs are developed in this website using label or tag references. Almost each tag identifies a distinct theme and cover the entire spectrum. The Tag Cloud in the sidebar guides the reader through these themes. Some of the main themes are enumerated below with the relevant links and a brief explanation. They will be very useful to those new to Indian music and culture. This page serves as both a glossary and a cross-reference. Rather than write a separate biography of Tyagaraja here, this website presumes the reader as being already inquisitive about him, Indian music and culture, and its context. So, Tyagaraja's life and times are developed purely in the commentary to the songs. This also corresponds with our objective of discovering the man through his lyrics. This is also why we don't call our treatment of Tyagaraja's work as a comprehensive musicological study. Since we do a good amount of deduction and synthesis and many more things and do cross into music theory and sometimes stay with simply criticism or even appreciation, in other words, something a bit unique, that description does not fit our bill.
  1. On the "Brahman" or the Supreme Self (Godhead): The conceptualization and pursuit of the Brahman is an important aspect of Hindu philosophy. For the new reader, here is another subtlety. Most people in the West would have heard that Hindus worship millions of Gods. That is not true. The millions referenced are actually manifestations of Brahman, the Supreme Self. Hindus are in this way, monotheists. Generally, this recondite notion is known even among the Hindus, to only those with a knowledge of theology and philosophy. In daily worship, for ease of visualization and comprehension, a form an individual finds affinity for, such as Lord Rama or Lord Ganesha is adopted. This is akin to the different Catholic conceptualizations of Mary, as Our Lady of Healing, Our Lady of Good Help, Our Lady of the Waters and so on.
  2. On Ganesha, the deity who removes obstacles. Similar tags are available for all other deities including Lord Rama, Tyagaraja's principal deity.
  3. The Five Gems: The pinnacle of Carnatic music.
  4. Hindu chronology and mythology: This topic is gently introduced and slowly developed to a high degree.
  5. An example of a pre-Tyagaraja song: A very poetic Sanskrit song, predating Tyagaraja by 150 years prior, one of our studies in contrast.
  6. On Lord Krishna: Several songs including the operatic Nowka Charitra cycle are dedicated to Him.
  7. Nadopasana or "Music worship": The reader can compare this notion with Pythagorean thought. This notion has existed from the earliest antiquity in India and there was contact between ancient Greece and India. There may have been exchange of ideas in either direction.
  8. On "OM" the primordial syllable in Hinduism: Om is said to the generator of energy or force for the universe and is considered to have a sentient existence by itself.
  9. On the nature and elements of Music: Music celebrated- this is different from "Music Worship"
  10. On Lord Rama, the chosen deity of Tyagaraja: The vast majority of the songs are to the Prince of Ayodhya.
  11. On Sama Veda, the Veda or Knowledge of music: The Vedas are the oldest and holiest scriptures in Hinduism. They are also the oldest extant scriptures in the world. The Sama Veda, whose verses are sung and not chanted, is considered the origin of all classical music.
  12. Sanskrit language songs: While the bulk of its songs are in Telugu, Sanskrit the classical language is second by volume, in the common concert repertoire. Tamil and Kannada have also been used to compose in good number. Tyagaraja, though learned in Sanskrit as all Indian theologians and philosophers of his time needed to be, was at his lyrical best in his mother tongue Telugu. We can easily tell the difference in subtlety, grace, turn of phrase and power. His Sanskrit songs are more studied and in general contain lesser lyrical felicity and emotional fervor. The difference in the "degree of lyricism" if you will, is what we note from these songs. See this trail also, for an 'etude' in the "poetry form" from the best theorist of the Trinity.
  13. On Narada: Narada is a divine figure who is Muse, Orpheus and Apollo all combined. He is also considered the author of the first texts on the theory of music. Tyagaraja often prays to him. See some historical notes and a comparative study here.
  14. Utsava Sampradaya or songs for temple worship: These are most enjoyable and often, lyrically and musically simple songs, which were composed for singing during the various services and ceremonies of the day at a temple. The western reader may compare these with the Missae of the great Masters.
  15. Vedanta philosophy: Vedanta is the most important system of philosophy in modern Hinduism.This is one of the most important themes underlying Tyagaraja's songs, as many sentiments he expresses follow directly from Vedantic traditions. These assertions tell us about his motivations, his world view and so on; i.e. they answer most of the "why's" of his compositional style such as, "Why did the choose a certain style or compose a certain song? Why did he live under a vow of poverty? Why did he consider the music itself to be worship, and not as an aid to worship, as in the West?"  This topic, is gently developed through his songs in this site. But, for the sake of fullness, the treatment here transcends Tyagaraja's message and develops the topic extensively.   
Last, but not the least, this book does not embody a triumphalist or affirmative account that originates from a Tyagaraja votary's perspective or from emic immersion or even a musicological appraisal that evaluates the composer's body of work as a whole. It is not a paean to Tyagaraja, not by any means. Instead, our approach aims to be a thoroughly independent enquiry that seeks to derive the meaning of his body of work, as it builds up his work song by song. This incremental development is clearly reflected in the commentaries, and is the reason why we prefer our work/book be read in the sequence we have laid out or through the thematic developments on this page. Since almost all treatments of Tyagaraja proceed from a votary's perspective, we hope our approach is a refreshing departure. 

Our work has two points of genesis. The first was our longstanding desire to treat Tyagaraja as a lyric poet, in which guise he has not been recognized adequately for over 200 years, and present him in English verse, so that he is accessible to more modern readers and listeners than before.The second was the contrast between how Tyagaraja is venerated, studied and performed in the Carnatic world and how equivalent figures of the western classical traditions such as Mozart and Beethoven are treated in that world. These differences illustrate the larger cultural differences prevalent across the world, though anyone from anywhere might be moved by good music coming from anywhere else.