The bard of Tiruvaiyaru

This article originally appeared in the Deccan Herald

Five songs. One collective voice. It’s unlike any other music festival. It’s mid-January and there’s a motley crowd gathering in the town of Tiruvaiyaru, near Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu. There are pandals erected everywhere and the town becomes the focal point. It’s the annual memorial to Tyagaraja, the saint-composer of Carnatic music where Carnatic musicians have gathered to pay homage to him.

Tyagaraja’s “pancharatna” kritis are rendered by Carnatic singers, instrumentalists and percussionists at his shrine. The Tiruvaiyaru festival has spun-off similar festivals in different parts of the world that follow the same pattern. In April, the American edition of Tyagaraja Aradhana takes place in Cleveland. It is a huge success with near live telecast of it back to the heartland by Tamil TV channels bringing the music full circle. Tyagaraja, who lived nearly three centuries ago and never ventured from the Cauvery Delta, today is alive and a global traveler. After the hectic month of December concerts in Chennai where he figures figures front and center, Tiruvaiyaru is all Tyagaraja, as is Cleveland in March/April and Bangalore with its Rama Navami festival. A peripatetic lifestyle for someone who has been dead for nearly 300 years!”

This year, a familiar figure in the Tiruvaiyaru festival will be sorely missed. Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan, a famed violinist and one of the lead organizers of the Tiruvaiyaru aradhana passed away last year – who can forget that smiling countenance and the super-sized dot on his forehead?

I’ve often wondered what makes this festival unique? It’s one singular occasion where the music itself has no variations, petty politics are cast aside, and musicians come together for the explicit purpose of celebrating this great composer’s music. Tyagaraja along with Dikshathar and Shyama Shastry formed the triumvirate of Carnatic music who are often likened to Mozart, Bach and Beethoven of western classical music. Tyagaraja’s music stands out for the simplicity of his lyrics and the sheer emotion that it inspires. Like the Bard of Avon remarked, “if music be the food for love, then play on”. Tyagaraja actually lived this philosophy – his legacy continues to inspire musicians all over the world.

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