4 May 1767: Tyagaraja, Carnatic music composer, was born

“Tyagaraja was a brilliant person and composer, his compositions were extremely down to earth and very communicative. He had a wonderful expression. He had tremendous scholarship, many of the compositions he composed are not merely inspired works, but were also extremely deep, scholarly works."

~ Chitravina N. Ravikiran, noted Carnatic musician, quoted in article “Understanding Tyagaraja” by Uday Krishnakumar, for the Frontline (Sruti) Magazine, July 1999

Saint and composer of the 18th and 19th centuries – Tyagaraja’s name is uttered with great respect in both the devotional and classical music community. One of the greatest figures in Carnatic music, Tyagaraja through his devotional songs not only appeased the gods, he also left behind a legacy that is still followed by the Indian classical musicians.


Tyagaraja, born to a Telugu Brahmin family on the 4th of May 1767, was named after Lord Shiva (Tyagaraja), the main deity in the Tiruvarur temple. He was the third and youngest son to his parents, Kakaria Ramabrahma and Sitamma. It is believed that before his birth his father saw Lord Shiva in his dream, who told him that his wife would be giving birth to a son, who would be proficient in music and literature.

A Musically Spiritual Life

Tyagaraja’s family was illustrious in their own right. His paternal and maternal grandfathers were trained musicians. His maternal grandfather, Kalahastayya, gave him Veena playing lessons at an early age. In addition, Tyagaraja received music training from a scholar, named Sonti Venkata Ramanayya. From very early in life, he realized that music could make him feel the love of God. Mytreyi Raghunathan in an editorial in The Hindu (January 2013) mentions that for Tyagaraja “music and bhakti were synonymous”.

A devotee of Lord Rama, Tyagaraja dedicated most of his songs to Him. Such was his devotion that he composed his first rendition, “Namo Namo Raghuvayya”, while still an adolescent of 13 years.

There is an incident in Tyagaraja’s life that reveals that his musical aims were only towards his lord and not for gaining accolades or money from public performances. On hearing Tyagaraja’s musical abilities, the king of Thanjavur invited him to perform in the royal court. Tyagaraja declined the offer immediately and composed a song to mark the event – “Nidhi Chala Sukhama”, which means “Does abundance of wealth bring happiness?” Declining of such a wonderful opportunity annoyed his brother so much that he flung all his Lord Rama idols into the river. Tyagaraja, miserable due to his separation from the lord, wandered into temples singing in the hope that he’d find Him.

The songs became very popular among other devotees. His disciples started noting down his renditions on palm leaves.

Musical Contribution

Tyagaraja in his lifetime is believed to have composed about 24,000 devotional songs. Many of the songs although are lost due to poor documentation. Until today, about 700 are known. Each of the songs is considered to be “unique, soulful, and shimmering with divine grace. The flow of lyrics, the treatment of each raga, melody, bhakti gave a haunting charm and mesmerized the listeners in a positive way.” (Mytreyi Raghunathan in the editorial in The Hindu, January 2013).

The genius of Tyagaraja was not just in his mesmerizing renditions. His “most famous and scholarly contributions” to Indian classical and Carnatic music is conferred to the “Ghana Raga Pancharatnam”, one of the “Pancharatna Kritis”, which on rough translation means ‘five gems’. One of the five compositions of the ‘Ghana Raga Pancharatnam” – “Jagadananda Karaka”, which is in Sanskrit – mentions 108 names of Lord Rama. The brilliance of the song’s composition is such that “it is thinkable for ordinary mortals of the music world” (Mytreyi Raghunathan in The Hindu editorial, 2013). Tyagaraja composed his songs in Telugu and Sanskrit.

Memorializing Tyagaraja

Down the years, Tyagaraja’s compositions have been used regularly for singing kirtanas while praying. In addition, his life and works have inspired film-makers, who have used his compositions for their movie’s musical score or attempted to make movies on his life.

A yearly event is also organized in his memory during January and February in Thiruvaiyaru, where his songs are collectively sung by Carnatic music personalities and aficionados. This week-long music festival is known as Tyagaraja Aradhana.


Also on this day:

1945 – N. Ram, Indian journalist, was born

2008 – Kishan Maharaj, Indian tabla player, died

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