24 March 1775: Muthuswami Dikshitar, poet and composer, was born

One of the Musical Trinity of Carnatic music, the legendary composer and poet Muthuswami Dikshitar was born on 24 March 1775. Tyagaraja and Syama Sastri are the other members of the Trinity.

Carnatic music was transmitted orally for hundreds of years. So students had to rely on a great guru to learn music. The written notation of the music was introduced in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Muthuswami Dikshitar was born in the Thiruvarur district of present-day Tamil Nadu to a Tamil Brahmin family, the eldest son of Ramaswami (himself a composer) and Subbamma. Muthuswami had three siblings — two brothers and a sister.

As was the custom in Brahmin families in those days, Dikshitar learnt Sanskrit and studied important Hindu texts as a child. His father taught him the basics of music. 

When he was a teenager, Dikshitar went on a pilgrimage. He visited several places in North India, including the holy city of Banaras. At Varanasi (Banaras), Muthuswami’s guru Chidambaranatha Yogi presented him with a veena.

Dikshitar later visited several temples in the South in places like Kanchi, Chidambaram, and Tirupathi. He mastered the veena and its influence is noticeable in his compositions, especially in the gamkas. He also started using the violin. Dikshitar’s brother and disciples went on to make the violin an important part of Carnatic music.

Dikshitar’s compositions, which are mainly in Sanskrit, are known for being contemplative, and are frequently used in Carnatic concerts. For instance, one of his compositions (though the English translation is very inadequate in conveying its flavour, subtext and rhythm) reads: “Oh Kamakshi, who adorns golden dress, who is brimming with nectar of compassion, and is the beloved of Kameshvara, kindly protect me. She, the cause of the brilliance of the sun and moon, is Mahatripurasundari, and the bestower of good fortune. . . . She whose locks are black, she gives eternal joy and sports in Creation, Sustenance and Dissolution. She is Bala, Parameshvari, and is invoked by Panchadashakshara.”

Dikshitar taught music to four dance masters who were based in Tanjavur. The four — Sivanandam, Ponnayya, Chinnayya and Vadivelu — later became the ‘Tanjore Quartet’, composers of music for Bharatanatyam. Dikshitar was also acquainted with Western music, and some of his songs reflect an influence of the British bands he heard at Fort St. George.  

Muttuswami Dikshitar died on 21 October 21 1835.

In an article on the master composer in The Hindu in December 2007, Lakshmi Devnath wrote: “A variety of ragas — explored and unexplored; familiar and rare; difficult and easy — provide the melodic wrap for Dikshitar’s compositions. The uninitiated rasika is helpfully provided the name of the raga but sometimes he misses the clue. For, the raga name is often smoothly woven into a phrase that is complete in meaning. ‘Prabalahamsaprakasatmanah’ alludes to the all-powerful Lord. Hidden in it is the raga name, Balahamsa. The gait of the compositions is varied and graceful, dictated as they are by apt beats.”

Also on this day:

1950 — Prahlad Kakar, Indian ad film director, was born

1979 — Emraan Hashmi, Hindi film actor, was born  

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