Tanjore and its Carnatic music legacy

Some weeks ago I delivered a short talk on this subject to a few friends in our music group and as it involved some study, I decided to write an article around it.  We enjoy these Sunday afternoons trying out some songs under the watchful eyes and ears of our much beloved and patient teacher Sunitha and at times we go over a little bit of theory and history. With that backdrop, let’s get started and go over the matter presented in that short talk, not to be considered in any way an exhaustive treatise on the subject.

The Carnatic has variously been described as the land to the south of the Vindhyas or the land between the Krishna and Kaveri. While Carnatic music should simply mean as the music of the Carnatic, this blend of Indian classical music has also been defined using the various meanings of Kar and Karna, with the word Kar meaning old, black, or that which pleases the ear. So it could be music of the old, music that pleases the ear or music of the darker skinned people. All debatable, but well, a separate topic for those hard core enthusiasts I suppose.
Indian Classical music has its origins attributed to Vedic times and also celestial beings like Narada, but the form familiar today was originally popularized during the 13th and 14th centuries by Purandaradasa (the pitamaha or grandsire), Bhadrachalam Ramadasa and Kshetrayya in the Kannada rajya while a senior contemporary Annamacharya also composed and sang his songs in praise of the Tirumala Lords. The most luminous of the composers and originators of the Carnatic style of music was Pundarika Vittala. The Haridasa bhakti tradition popularized songs sung in praise the celestial and Purandaradasa codified and consolidated it by evolving several graded steps such as sarali, jantai, thattu varisai, alankara and geetham.

This music flourished with the patronage of the powerful Vijayanagar kings. Patronage as you can imagine was a prerequisite, for music did not fetch any revenues for the singer or composer and thus they had to find support from royal courts to survive. The above named composed many thousand songs, but while some of those lyrics remain, the musical parts of many of them was lost and it is believed that this was mainly due to a stoppage in propagation of their teachings due to an absence of a formal student teacher (Guru Shishya parampara) tradition. Two events were to affect the growth of this musical form in the year 1565, one being the death of Purandaradasa and the second being the battle of Talikota where the Deccan Sultans routed the Rayas of Vijayanagar.
While all this confusion was going on, the township of Thanjavur, at the delta of river Cauvery or Kaveri was under the rule of the benign Tanjore Nayaks. Tanjore or Tanjavur as hoary legends go, derived its name from Tanjan (another of those indigenous kings termed asura or demon in later days by Aryan scribes) who was killed by one Anandavalli Amman and another Neelamegha Perumal. Tanjan's dying request was that the city be named after him and his request was granted. The town was very famous for the Bhrihadeeswara temple built by Raja Raja Chola in1010. In later days it was also the seat of the Tyagaraja Cult which became popular with Saivites after the Chola Murugan cult lost its sheen. The Somascanda (Shiva+Uma+the child Murugan) based Tyagaraja cult had its seat at Thiruvavur. As time went by, a number of Smarta Brahmins from Mulakanadu relocated from Kannada and Deccan to Tanjavur and they were the people who popularized the Carnatic music form in the centuries which followed. The kings of the region, both the Tanjore Nayaks and the Madurai Nayaks were of Telugu origin and the court language was Telugu. Many of the compositions of that period were therefore either in Telugu and Sanskrit. We will now trace its popularization first by the Tanjavur Nayaks and later by the Maratha Bhonsle kings, all fortunately patrons of music, art, and dance, not to forget literature of all kinds. The ambience was also there, with many a temple, royal patronage and the various annual competitions held every year to attract hordes of scholars, composers and musicians from neighboring regions.

Carnatic music had by the 16th Century thus shifted to Tanjore, where under the benign rule of the Nayaks and later the Maratha kings, it flourished as a major art form. As you will see, many of the kings were composers and musicologists themselves. Attracted by employment opportunity and the stability, several Bhagavathars from Kannada and Andhra regions moved to Tanjore and its environs. Interestingly while the Cholas promoted Tamil literature and arts, the Nayaks brought in the Telugu art forms and later it was upto the Marathas to continue to work with these accepted forms and also add in a Marathi touch. Not only that they also went on to codify Dasi dances and introduce western touches to the Carnatic music world.
Tanjavur Nayak period – 1530-1674.
The main contributions during this time came from the three kings, Achyutappa, Raghunatha and Vijayaraghava, all of whom patronized Carnatic music. Even though plagued with skirmishes and wars throughout their reign, they found time for the arts.

Achyutappa (1560 AD-1614 AD) Achyutappa (the son of a betel leaf bearer Sevappa Nayak of Achutaraya) spearheaded the promotion of music by granting asylum to those Brahmin families fleeing from the Kannada regions after the loss of the Vijayanagar kings and by resettling them at Unnathapuri (Achutapuri or Melattur). The composer who really got things going was Givinda Dikshita who oversaw the resettlement of the families on behalf of Achutappa. Govinda Dikshitar it appears, had the Unnathapureeswarar temple renovated and extended, created the various agraharams around it and constructed the pond in front of the temple, named after Govinda Dikshitar as "Ayyan Kulam".It was in Melattur that the great poets Bharatam Kasinathayya and his disciple, Veerabadrayya were born. In fact it could be summarized that the move of Govinda dikshita from Vijayanagara to Tanjore shifted the center of Carnatic music to Tanjore.
Raghunatha (1600 AD-1645 AD) by all records was termed as a gifted scholar in both Sanskrit and Telugu language, and a talented musician with his court crowded with poets and scholars. Raghunatha takes credit for not only writing several books on music and Telugu literature, but also compositions.  Raghunatha created new ragas, talas, and melas like Jayanta sena (ragam), Ramananda (Talam), Sargita vidya and Raghunatha (Mela). Maduravani and Ramabhadramba were famous poets in his court, whereas Sudhindra and Raghavendra were two famous Madhava gurus patronized by him. Govinda Dikshita continued to be a minister in his court as well and Raghunatha’s Sanskrit treatise on music, Sangita Sudha opened the intricacies and secrets of music to the public. The later scholar Venketamakhin however states that the Sangita Sudha was actually authored by Govinda Dikshita.

Raghunatha also composed kavyas and dance-dramas and popularized the 24 fret horizontally held Raghunatha mela veena or the Saraswati veena (a.k.a Tanjore veena) which is staple to Carnatic music today. It was during Raghunatha's reign that a palace library was established and it was in this Saraswati Bhandar is where the manuscripts from Raghunatha's prolific court scholars were collected and preserved. Raghtnatha Nayak specifically mentions in Sangitha Sudha that he undertook the task of simplifying classical music so that there was no variation between the defined and the actual recitals. His aim was that people should recognize the ragas simply by listening to the songs once and that it was his aim to open the secrets of music to all.

Vijayaraghava (1634 AD-1673 AD) Vijayaraghava's stable and somewhat longer reign witnessed a good amount of literary output both in music and Telugu literature. Vijayaraghava’s court was also filled with a number of poets and literary scholars and he is credited with more than thirty books in Telugu and the great Venkatamakhin, Govinda Dikshitar’s son, served his court, so also Chengalvakala Kavi and  Yagnanarayana Dikshita (Venkatamakhin’s brother).Venkatamakhin later authored the Chaturdandi Prakashika, which is probably the most important treatise in the Mela era and one that codified the melekarta scheme. Venkatamakhin also composed many geethams and prabandhas, as well as 24 ashtapadis in praise of Lord Thyagaraja of Tiruvarur. Following Venkatamakhin, his descendant Muddu Venkatamakhin is attributed to have authored the Ragalakshana (early 18th century). A later scholar, Govinda, further refined this scheme in his Sangraha Choodamani and it is his nomenclature that survives till date.

And what is evident in this period is the solid guru shishya parambara and the natural passage of music forms from teacher to student and movements across regions, locales and generations.
The Maratha period 1674-1855

The Maratha rulers of Thanjavur were major contributors to musicology including Shahaji who authored the Ragalakshanamu (1684 – 1712) and Thulaja who authored the Sangita Saramruta (1728 – 1736). The Marathas had differing food habits, different gods, differing language and different dance and music forms, but Venkoji (Ekoji) the Maratha ruler and his successors did not impose any of that. They adapted Telugu, Sanskrit and Tamil, and continued with their patronage and support to existing traditions, but also allowing new art forms to enter the scene. This 200 year span as the Bhonsles of Maharashtra ruled is considered to be Tanjore Carnatic music’s and Tanjore Natyashastra’s golden period. Neighboring regions Kumbhakonam and Mannargudi also benefited under the administration of the Maratha rulers.
How Sambaji (credited with our staple curry Sambhar!!!) and Venkoji a half-brother of Maratha warlord Shivaji landed up in Tanjore and displaced the Tanjore Nayaks is an interesting story for another day, but to start this part, Venkoji was invited to support the last Tanjore Nayak Alagari’s war efforts when the latter was threatened by the Madurai Nayak. Venkoji or Ekoji as he was called chose however to remain and take over the kingdom, partly due to his not being paid promised remuneration, and also because of differences with his brother who had taken over parts of the Mysore kingdom. This was to benefit the people of the region, as we look at that decision today, for all practical purposes.

Even though their reign was dotted with many wars with various other local rulers and later overtures by the English, these rulers provided unstinted support to the musical and dance forms of the region, and remained great lovers and patrons of art and literature. The Saraswati Bhandar became a library of repute and is the Saraswati Mahal of today. Their courts supported many a composer and musician and we see the results from the prodigious output of the famous trilogy of Thyagaraja, Shama Sastry and Dikshitar. But before we get to them, let us start with Venkoji or Ekoji, the first of the rulers.

Venkoji (1674 AD – 1684 AD) was a great follower of Carnatic music and is important because he not only allowed the continual use of Telugu as the court language, but also patronized the cultural and musical traditions of the erstwhile Nayaka kingdom. He promoted the culture of Sadir or court dance in Tanjore courts, while Dasiattam was already prevalent in the temples.
Shahaji (1684 AD-1712 AD) was a scholar both in music and literature. Around thirty works consisting of dramas, Padyas and Kavyas have been ascribed to him. Scholars of Tanjavur bestowed upon him the titles of Abhinavabhoja and Navina bhoja. He donated a village Shahjirajapuram (Thiruvisanellur) and resettled 46 Brahmin pundits there. He wrote the Raga Lakshanamu, a treatise on rare ragas (perhaps done by Muudu Lakshana - grandson of Venkatamakhin) and went on to author over 208 padas and ashtapatis with the mudra Tyagesa and popularized the usage of the name Tyagaraja.

Saraboji 1 (1720 AD-1728 AD) followed, he created the villages or agraharams of Mangamatam (Tiruvenkadu) and Sarabojirajapuram (Tirukkadiyur), endowed many Brahmins and promoted the work of poet Giriraja kavi who invented many ragas (Tyagaraja was his grandson) and worked in his court. He was titled Vidyabhoja.

Tulaja I (1728 AD- 1736 AD) who followed was the one who authored the musical treatise Sangeeta Saramrita. He was also to become the promoter of Sadir and Bharatnatyam styles of dance and wrote a few yakshaganas. Interestingly the Tanjore Veena was named Tulaja Vina during his times. He was well versed in Jyostishya, Ayurveda, law and politics. Ghanasyama Pundit and Manabhatta were composers in his court.
Ekoji 2 (1736 AD - 1737 AD) followed at the age of 40 during a period when Tanjore was beset with a lot of problems over accession, and composed over 86 padas called Ekoji sahityamu. The famous dancer Muddamanga danced in his court.

Pratapasimha (1739 AD-1763 AD), who was more a Marathi writer and an able administrator, was less a musicologist compared to the others, but promoted many composers & poets such as Melattur Veerabhadrayya. Notable in his court was Muddapalani whom I briefly introduced in a previously posted short story. More on her and her work Radhika Santawanamu on another day.
Tulaja 2 (1763 AD – 1787 AD) was the reason for the renaissance in Carnatic music mainly due to his building the framework for the success of the Tanjavur trio of Shyama Sastri, Tyagaraja and Muthuswamy Dikshitar. The reasons are very interesting. His court had eminent musicians such as Sonti Venkataramayya (Tyagaraja’s teacher), Pachimiriyam Adiyappaiah (Syama Sastri’s teacher). His building a temple Bangaram Kamakshi temple made Syama Sastri’s father settle in the region. Similarly Ramabrahmam, Tyagaraja’s father was appointed by Tulaja to take care of the Tulajamaharajapuram and Hariharapuram agraharams. Ramaswami dikshitar was appointed by Tulaja to compose and formalize the songs for the dasis of the Tiruvavur temple. As you can imagine the progenies later grew up in Thiruvavur in this cultural atmosphere and were well trained by the proficient gurus of the court. Tyagaraja incidentally was the grandson of Giriraja Kavi, a Sanskrit poet in the Saraboji I’s Court. Subbaraya Oduvar the father of the Tanjore quartet also served in his court.

Amarasimha (1787 AD-1798 AD) An uncle of Serfoji 2, and stepson of Pratapasimha ruled over the kingdom since the young Serfoji II was a child and still under the care of Rev Schwarz. He was also a good patron of art and literature and it is said that several musicians and poets of repute adorned his court. But he spent much of his time plotting to kill the young boy and the Westerners, especially Rev Schwarz took care to ensure that he did not.
Sarabhoji 2 (1798 AD- 1832 AD) was perhaps the biggest of the patrons of art in Tanjore. His childhood and story of arrival is quite interesting. The doctrine of lapse was being imposed strictly by the British and Tulaja’ children had all died. So he rushed to Satara to adopt a Bhonsle boy and that was the great Serfoji 2. It was to prove to be a wise choice. The young boy was sent to St George School in Madras under care of Rev Schwarz, a Danish missionary. Schwarz helped Serfoji survive in peace when surrounded by Hyder Ali on one side and the British on the other. You will also recall that his uncle was trying his best to get him killed. Eventually he took over Tanjore but soon after, gifted his kingdom to the British in 1798. A food and fun loving person with many wives and 25 odd concubines, he had all the time in the world for art and music and he did well to promote it.

During his time Muthuswamy Dikshitar and his brother Baluswamy came to his court leaving Madras, and the Tanjore quartet also came into prominence. While they excelled in fine tuning the art of Bharatanatyam, they also authored a number of varnams and Kritis. The brothers Chinnayya (1802–1856), Ponnayya (1804–1864), Sivanandam (1808–1863) and Vadivelu (1810–1845) were employed in the Tanjore courts initially, after which they moved to Travancore to work for Swati Tirunal who incidentally was a good friend of Serfoji. Serfoji himself was a composer and writer. As Radhika explains - Serfoji's works can be considered as a milestone in the growth and development of the theory and practice of the Sadir dance. Apart from these works on classical music and dance, the royal composer is said to have authored a Kuravanji nataka as well as a lavani, a Marathi folk musical form. Another great composer, the Christian convert Vedanayagam Sastriyar who wrote over 500 kritis and 133 books served in his court. Scholars like Subba Dixit and many others thrived in his court, but slowly they were starting to consider other locales for nationalistic reasons and monetary benefits to Ettayapuram and Travancore.
Serfoji was not just a great music and art lover, but also an avid reader as evidenced in the thousands of books and scriptures he hoarded and left (over 80,000)in the Sarswati Mahal, most of them with his scribbles on the pages. He also made huge contributions in the field of medicine and technology not to mention yeoman service in the field of dance by defining and promoting Bharatanaytam with the Tanjavur quartet.  The navavidhya Kalanidhi Salai was started by him.

And of course he was well taught in western music, later creating the Tanjavur band as well as ensuring the introduction of the violin, piano, flute, guitar, clarinet and so on to the music scene. Varaha Payyar served in his court, and it was with his support that many a western instrument got added to the chamber music orchestra. A number of English notes or Nottuswaras (see my previous article on M Dikshitar and his nottuswaras) were also composed during his period.
Thus we see that the Nayaks and the Bhonsle’s preserved and promoted Carnatic music in Tanjore, till eventually British ascendancy in Madras resulted in the poets, composers and musicians moving slowly to the new center at Madras from the various principalities. The music form also changed with the passage of time. With the advent of Maratha rule, Marathi style Bhajans were introduced to blend with the Ashtapadis, Tarangam, keertans and other forms and compositions. Harikatha and yakshagana were popularized and the use of western instruments like the flute and the violin promoted. Purists however complained that the Carnatic style was getting diluted, becoming populist and simpler, but that was development, I suppose. And as we saw the dasiattam or nautch dance which had attained a bad name (and was banned by the British) evolved into the flowing dance form Bharata natyam that we see and enjoy today.

All of this took place at the Sangeetha mahal or the royal hall of music in the Tanjore palace. Quoting a Hindu article, the hall, a rectangular hall with a vaulted roof, used to have four punkahs that spanned the breadth of the room. The design of the hall is such that it would have helped in balanced absorption and deflection of sound waves. The chandeliers and other decorations must have helped in sound dispersion. The many perforations would have ensured that excess amplification was avoided. There used to be a pit in front of the stage, which would be filled with water. This too must have helped in proper deflection of sound waves to the upper gallery. But as we all know good things come to an end, the Sangeetha Mahal that had seen all these stalwarts (except perhaps Tyagaraja) perform since the 1600’s became a godown and a government office during the British rule and even after Independence.
As always these things change with time, in fact there are people who now feel that places like Cleveland, the birthplace of rock music may soon become another new center for Carnatic music with a growing number of listeners, wealthy patrons, annual concerts and a steady flow of teachers on demand. That then would be a passage across time and the oceans….

Development of Sadir in the court of Raja Serfoji II (1798-1832) of Tanjore – VS Radhika
The Reception of Western Music in South India around 1800 - Takako Inoue
From the Tanjore Court to the Madras Music Academy - Lakshmi Subramanian

Maddys ramblings
NottuSwara – Muthuswamy Dikshitar’s European airs
A Rummy Tale


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