Kaveri, Saint Thyagaraja’s muse

By Dr. Ramakrishna Easwaran
Trichy: 16-11-2010 3:58PM

The rivers of India are considered holy because they have not only provided physical sustenance or fostered culture but have nurtured spirituality. The evidence for such inner nourishment is seen in the outpourings of bhakti from the innumerable composers who have lived on their banks. The poetry of the Aazhwars and the Thevara trinity abound in instances of their wonderment at the Kaveri that rivals their devotion to the Lord. Bhadrachala Ramadas, who sang ‘adigo bhadradri, goutami idigo choodandi’, must have been inspired by the muse# of Godavari to create immortal poetry and music. Sri Thyagaraja, who was born in Thiruvaiyaru and lived on the banks of the Kaveri all his life, must have witnessed its serenity, ferocity and eternity. It is an elevating experience to simply sit on the banks of the Kaveri at Thiruvaiyaru during the dawn or dusk and watch it flow quietly even today. The experience is soul-filling if you hear a snatch of a Thyagaraja kriti in say, Malayamarutham, wafting with the gentle breeze along with the twittering of the birds - a never-to-be-missed experience for any sangeetha rasika during the aradana.  What an enchanting and ennobling sight would it have been in the days before the riparian disputes! It is but natural that such a Jeeva Nadi irrigated the fertile creative mindscape of Thyagaraja to result in a ‘never-before’ kind of harvest of timeless kritis that blend music, poetry and bhakti.

Thyagaraja’s is a phenomenon that occurs only once in a few centuries.  He shifted gears, made a quantum leap and altered the entire scene of Carnatic music. Music until then was something esoteric indulged in by a handful of musicians singing to obtain patronage from the royal clan. Thyagaraja had taken this medium to an exalted status and into one of a spiritual quest, a nadopasana. The primacy of rhyme and metre of the lyric is substituted by the bhava, the inner emotion. By keeping the song simple, he was able to reach out to the common man’s heart. Thus, the music becomes truly democratic, without distinction between the pundit and the pamara. This is the same quality of the river Kaveri that is mentioned in the saint’s Asaveri raga kriti set to Adi tala, where he invites us all to feast our eyes upon the great river:
Saari vedalina ee Kaverini joodare                 (saari vedala)
He says in the anupallavi,
Vaaru veerani joodakadaa nav -
vaarigaabheeshtamula nosanguchu                 (saari vedala)

The river does not distinguish between the learned and the unlettered, the saint and the sinner, the emperor and the pauper. It distributes its bounty to everyone’s heart’s contentment. So also does Thyagaraja’s music. Whether sung by the master musician with scintillating embellishments or by a ghoshti as in the numerous aradanas on the Pushya BahuLa Panchami or by the devout in soulful prayer or even by the novice in training, the kritis suffuse the soul with inner peace.

Note that the Saint has set this piece to Asaveri, which itself rhymes with Kaveri. This raga seems to be ideally suited to convey at once the bouncy prancing quality of the river along with its karunya and majesty. The first charana brings out these contrasts in the lyric.

Duramunanoka thaavuna garjhana
bheekaramoka thaavuna nindu karunathoni-
rathamukanoka thaavuna naduchusu
Vara Kaveri kanyakaamani                 (saari vedala)

At one spot, she hurries with great speed with a frightening roar and at another she flows with eternal karuna, this boon-giver, the Kaveri, the gem of a maiden. The rhyme of the lyric mimics the cadence of the river.

Thondaradipodiyazhwar avers ‘Gangayir punithamaaya Kaviri’ (NDP 894, Tirumaalai 23). Kaveri is held to be holier than the Ganga, as she forms a garland over Sri Ranganatha’s chest while the Ganga merely took origin once upon a time from Lord Vishnu’s feet. This adornment she does in not just one place, but in three-the Aadi, Madhya and Antyarangams. But Kaveri, like Thyagaraja, is impartial to the Gods. There is no room for Siva-Vishnu discordsin the nadi pravaaha or in the nada pravaaha of the divine composer. So, he pictures the river as flowing further east, after her dalliance with the Ranga Raja, to see Panchanadeeswara, the Lord of the Five Rivers. En route, she becomes the life-sustaining force of the fourteen worlds and she has lovely koel birds singing on her banks. The second charana declares
vaedukaga kokilalu mroyaganu
veaduka rangesu jhoochi mari ee-
raedu jagamulaku jeevanamaina
moodu randu nadi natuni joodaka                 (saari vedala)

Eeraedu=2x7=14 (the 14 worlds), moodu randu=3+2=5 (the 5 rivers of Thiruviayaru).

The baktha in Thyagaraja pays his obeisance to this mighty river even as the kavi in him pays a poetic tribute to her stately gait, just as the scores of vedic scholars on its two banks, showering jasmines and hailing her as the ‘Rajarajeswari’

raajarajeswariyani pogaduchu
jaaji sumamula dhraamaraganamulu
poojaliru kadala seyaka thyaaga
raaja sannuthuraalai muddhuga                 (saari vedala)

It seems plausible that Thyagaraja’s description of the lovely Yamuna in the Nouka Charithra is not merely reconstructed from his knowledge of the puranas or from sheer imagination but from the actual experience of seeing the enchanting Kaveri. He invites us, in the words of the gopika sthree, to come and joyfully share the soundarya of the Yamuna, just as he did for the Kaveri. The song is ‘Choodare chelulaara’set to Panthuvaraliand Chapu thala. The redness of the lotuses, the buzz of the bees hovering over them, the contrast of the white sand banks with the blue black (Indra-like) complexion of the river, the waves lapping about the diamond steps of the bathing ghats, the dulcet songs of the swans, the honey-dripping dates hanging in the homes nearby, the creepers laden with luscious grapes, the lovely pairs of green parrots, the multitudes of flowers, the hearts filled with love and the koels singing on the Yamuna are described by Thyagaraja in this rapturous song, celebrating the godliness of Mother Nature.  Though it is certainly not beyond a vaaggeyakaara of Thyagaraja’s calibre to conjure up such a scene merely from an inner vision, we would not be wrong to assume that the Saint saw these sights on the Kaveri and transposed them to the Yamuna.

The river does not remain the same placid, idyllic scenery painted thus far. It is in her nature to reveal her primal force, her fury, her avatar as a destroyer. Those who know hydrology will tell you that she still does good by flooding periodically, churning the soil, rendering it more productive than before. But when it lasts, the fury only serves to remind man of his own diminutive nature, his frailty, his utter dependence on a higher force: a fact that the gopikas on the nouka learned to their horror later in their boat journey. Their plight is brought out in another Nouka Charithra song ‘Unnathaavunanunda niyyadu vaana in the apoorva raga, GhaNta. “The storm rocks the little boat, the waves spin it; ho, there is a crack in the boat. The driving rain competes with the rushing water of the river to fill the boat. The sky is darkening and there is a deafening thunder. This is the punishment for our hedonism; a right lesson for our conceit. We have no refuge than the ferocious river. Oh! This is the praLaya”, cry out the gopikas. The song brings out the full ferocity of the deluge, another dimension of the river.

The sangam age of Tamil poetry classifies the various moods or behaviour patterns as the five thiNais, in the agam mode. In the bhakti literature, the Aazhwars and MaNikkavasagar sublimated the thiNais from a sensual connotation to a divine one. The table below indicates the thiNai divisions.

ThiNai Geography Mood Meaning
Kurinji mountain  puNarthal union
Paalai arid pirithal separation
Mullai pastoral iruththal waiting
Marutham riverine oodal sulking
Neithal littoral irangal pining

The polar opposites are puNarthal (samslesha) and pirithal (vislesha), the other 3 being only subtle variations of pirithal. The Kaveri, which flows from the steep slopes (kurinji) of Kodagu, through the arid sands (paalai) of Thalakkadu, the vast swath of forest (mullai) in the border of the Kannada and Tamil countries, the plains (marutham) of Erode, Karur, Trichy and Thanjavur districts and finally the coastal delta (neithal) where she embraces the sea with a thousand arms, epitomizes these moods perfectly. Thyagaraja was brought up in the Telugu and Sanskrit traditions. Nevertheless, examples of the emotive thiNais are legion in the compositions of Thyagaraja. If ‘Kanukontini (Bilahari) and ‘Dhayaraani(Mohanam) record the delights of samslesha, ‘EnnaaLoorake’ (SubhapanthuvaraLi) depicts the sulking mood not in just the lyric but in the very music. What better example of the iruththal mood than ‘Marimari ninnae’(Khambhoji*) or the irangal mood than ‘Nee daya raadaa’ (Vasanthabhairavi)? Aeti janmam edi haa (VaraLi) is an embodiment of the pathos of separation. Of course, these kritis do not mention the Kaveri. They are cited to show the range of emotions handled by Sri Thyagaraja.

Kaveri flows to its full breadth (akandam) for a few miles between Karur (past the Amaravathi sangamam) and Mayanur, where the Uyyakkondan channel takes off.  You can stretch this segment further downstream to Mukkkombu where the Kollidam takes off.  It is a contrast to see the same mighty river, broken up in to innumerable channels, running into the backyards of village homes in the delta region. Thyagaraja’s music has similar and simultaneous attributes of majesty and easy familiarity. If we take the Pancharatnas to represent the akanda Kaveri, the Utsava sampradayacompositions are the people-friendly back yard rivulets.

Thyagaraja’s abiding faith in the river attains a pinnacle in the second charanam of ‘Ennaado rakshinchithe’(Sourashtra).Thyagaraja asks Lord Rama why He cannot be more like the Kaveri. Kaveri, who senses that her children, starved of water, are looking up to her for succour, washes down the water brought by the rain clouds in the Western Ghats.   He wails ‘Oh! Rama, if only you had such sensitivity to my suffering long ago, would I have reached such a wretched state?’

There are a few other kritis that mention the Kaveri. Quite naturally, three of the five Sriranga kshetra kritis mention the Kaveri. ‘Karuna joodavayya’ (Saranga) celebrates the Kaveri Ranga in the pallavi, ‘Vinaraada naa manavi (Devagandhari) in the anupallavi and ‘Raaju vedala’ (Thodi)in its charanam. ‘KOTi nadulu’ (Thodi), though not a part of the Sriranga Panchakam, suggests that Kaveri derives her greatness from worshipping Ranganatha.

Similarly, one of the Thiruvaiyaru Panchakams, ‘Sive paahimaam’ (Kalyani) on Dharmasamvardhani, the Goddess of Thiruvaiyaru, calls her as the resident of the north bank of Kaveri. Kaveri is referred to as the sahya kanya in the charanam of Amma dharmasamvadhani (Atana). The KalyaNiraga composition Kaaru velpulu’ says equating Rama to a lesser god is like comparing the Kaveri to a little canal. Manasu nilpa’ (Abhogi) asks how can even the Kaveri or Mandakini save a person who bathes in them without shedding the ahankaara?

Let us meditate on the ‘Eedulaeni malayamaruthamuche koodina Kaveri thata’ (Muripemu galigegadha in Mukhari)upon Sri Thyagaraja’s music which emanates from ‘Naabhhi hrudh kantta rasana naasadhula’ (Sobillu sapthaswara in Jaganmohini).

# Muse- In the ancient Greek concept, a Muse (note the capitalization) is one of the nine goddesses of the liberal arts, daughters of Zeus. One of the Muses was believed to arise from the movement of water! Euterpe was the Muse of lyric poetry and music and Polyhymnia was the Muse of sacred lyrics. Homer, Virgil, Chaucer, Milton and Shakespeare have invoked Muses in their works. The word muse refers in the modern context to a person, thing or spirit that gives a writer, artiste (musician, dancer) or artist (sculptor, painter) inspiration, idea, desire and energy to create his/her work. Note that the words music and muse have the same root.

* ‘Marimari ninnaewas set to Khambhoji by Sri Thyagaraja and was popularised by the Alathur duo. The younger generation should note that it is not in Saramathi!