Ramayana’s crest jewel — Tyagaraja’s inspiration

In content, emotion and raga choice, many of the bard’s kritis can be traced to Sundara Kandam

Sundara Kandam is hailed as the crown of Ramayana. It brings a mini Ramayana woven into it and establishes the relationship between honesty, tact and bhakti. Various characters — human, super human, animals, animals with human qualities, plants and shrubs — are all interlinked in this canto. This offers sumptuous material for a genius like Tyagaraja to create myriad compositions that trace their source to Sundara Kandam.

Parayana of the Sundara Kandam is considered auspicious and bestows bountiful benefit. The kandam sings the greatness of Hanuman who was affectionately called Sundaram by his mother Anjana. Sundare means that which is lost and got back. This is probably the only kandam that begins and ends with the same syllable ‘ta’ (tato Ravana… abhipiDita). All other Kandams in the Ramayana are identified by the event or the venue of the event. But Sundara Kandam goes by a name that signifies beauty. It translates as the ‘beautiful chapter.’ No wonder a person like Tyagaraja, who had a high sense of aesthetics found much inspiration from this kandam.

An incident in Sundara Kandam finds its way spontaneously into the magnum opus kriti, ‘Jagadanandakaraka.’ Surasa, the demon, obstructs Anjaneya’s travel over the ocean and says ‘aham tvam bhakshayishyami’ meaning, ‘I will devour you.’ Hanuman overcomes her. Tyagaraja hails Hanuman as ‘Surasa ripu’ (enemy of Surasa) in this kriti.

In ‘Chakkaniraja,’ Tyagaraja makes a reference to preferring despicable alcohol to pure milk (‘chikkani palu yundaga cheeyenu Ganga sagara mele’ — Ganga sagara meant illicit liquor in Thanjavur slang). Those familiar with Sundara Kandam can immediately relate these lines to a description of Ravana’s personal bar. Valmiki (in sarga 11) lists a variety of lip-smacking meat delicacies and captures the scene of different kinds of alcoholic beverages. Anjaneya chances upon this scene during his search for Sita. Ravana obviously did not choose the chakkani raja margam though being a devout Siva bhakta.

Tyagaraja celebrates the wedding of Rama and Sita in the dainty kriti, ‘Pavanaja sthuthi patra.’ Incidentally, Anjaneya also did the same in Sundara Kandam. Perched atop the Simsupa tree, his last desperate prayer (‘Nomustu Ramaya sa Lakshmanaya’) led him to spot a beautiful woman in a garden who he instinctively knew was Sita. Immediately he visualised Rama beside her and lo and behold, it is Sita Kalyana Vaibhogame.

‘Nivartaya manah mattah…’ says Sita to the arrogant Ravana — ‘turn your mind back to yourself (also meaning let manaha become namaha; manaha means mind and namaha means negation of self at His feet) so that you can turn to the path of righteousness.’ Tyagaraja asks in the kriti, ‘Manasu nilpa shakti,’ what is the use of puja and prayers if one cannot anchor the mind on good thoughts? Obviously he is echoing Sita’s words to Ravana. The song is in Abhogi, Bhogi meaning poison and Abhogi meaning pregnant with poison. Sita has been described as a five-headed serpent by Rama in the kakasura episode and as a gigantic serpent by Vibhishana in the Yuddha kandam. How appropriate is it that the raga chosen also has five swaras establishing a clever link between the incident, thought and raga.

Words of advice

Often, Tyagaraja addresses mankind with words of advice. In the kritis, ‘Koluvamaregada’ and ‘Kaddanuvariki,’ both in Thodi, he recommends the practice of rising up early in the morning, tuning the tambura with passion, singing the praise of Lord with a pure mind and purity of note (Veguva jamuna… in Koluvamaregada, Niddura nirakarinchi… in Kaddanuvariki ). The direct source of this advice is Sita’s words to Ravana: She says, “Just as knowledge and art effortlessly become the property of those who uphold vrata and snana (vratha snatasya…), I belong to Rama.” Vrata means waking up early and engaging in worship. Doesn’t this reference seem like a simple tip to musicians?

‘Telisirama chintanato’ is Sita’s strong warning to Ravana. She tells him that he had better understand that Rama is none other than the Almighty, the Parabrahmam (Vishnu Iva, Lokanatha and more). The choice of the raga Purnachandrika for this composition could have an underlying significance. Chandrika (the moon) whose beauty waned into nothing over 15 days had his dignity restored by Lord Siva who chose to wear him like a jewel on his locks. Ravana, an ardent devotee of Siva, could also acquire similar credit by restoring Sita to her rightful place beside Rama. She is like the waning moon in his captivity and could regain her radiance like the full moon. She also warns him that if he did not do so, he would soon be slain. This warning is issued on a full moon day and Ravana is killed on amavasya (no moon day). In other words, he did not live to see the next full moon (Poorna Chandran)!

‘Ma Janaki’ is a kriti that can liven up the audience in a concert the moment it begins. Tyagaraja’s eyes too must have lit up with joy visualising the sequence in Sundara Kandam which led him to compose this kriti: Sita says, ‘Oh Ravana! I am myself capable of reducing you to ashes but I don’t have Rama’s mandate to do so. I will not use, rather misuse my austerity for a destructive cause. “(Asam deshat Ramasya…)” Tyagaraja beams with pride when he hails Janaki as the one who generously allowed Rama the credit of destroying Ravana. He asks Rama — ‘But for holding the hand of my mother Janaki would you have been celebrated as Maharaja?’

‘Namastesham mahatmanam’ — “I pay my obeisance to all the Mahans” is what Sita says in the 50th sloka of the 26th sarga. Are we not immediately reminded of ‘Endaro mahanubhavulu andariki vandanamu…?’ It was probably divine ordinance that the song came out soaked in Sri Raga… since the inspirational utterance came from none less than Sri or Mahalakshmi.

 

Tortured by the piercing words of Ravana, Sita asks him — “Iha na va santi santah?” (Are there not sadhus here in Lanka?). “There are, but you did not take their counsel,” she continues.

Sita decides to end her life, unable to withstand Ravana’s torment. As she hears Rama Nama and the brief Ramayana from Anjaneya, she abandons the attempt. Her life, thus saved, found happiness and prosperity. Tyagaraja hence declares — partaking of ‘Rama katha sudha rasa’ (what a regal Madhyamavati!) can bestow on one a kingdom, courage, happiness, prosperity and torch away sins.

Sita’s joy on beholding a sadhu (Anjaneya) at last, in Lanka is reflected in the kriti, ‘Rama Bhakti samrajya.’ Tyagaraja exclaims that it gives ‘Atyanta Brahmananda’ (ultimate subliminal joy) just to behold pious souls who dwell in the samrajyam of Rama Bhakti. This song is in the raga Suddha Bangala. Bangam also means destruction and Suddha bangala means complete destruction of obstacles — Sita’s obstacles started melting away on seeing Hanuman.

Rama’s pleasing virtues

Hanuman praises Rama’s pleasing virtues while talking to Sita (sargam 16 — Gunabhiramam Ramam…) And an inspired Tyagaraja composes ‘Sujana jeevana suguna bhushana’ (the one whose virtues are his ornaments)? Hanuman refers to himself as Rama duta (messenger of Rama) until he meets Sita. He then re-designates himself as Ramadasa (Dasoham kosalendrasya…) This makes one wonder if Tyagaraja meant Anjaneya, when he mentions Ramadasulu in the kriti ‘Kaligiyunte’ as against the popular notion of Bhadrachala Ramadas. Since others mentioned are — Narada, Prahlada and Parasara —would Anjaneya not be a more appropriate guess?

Valmiki’s sloka, ‘Raraasa Bhumih…’ beautifully captures the fierce battle between Ravana’s son Aksha and Anjaneya. Aksha was finally vanquished by Anjaneya. Probably the only reference to Aksha by Tyagaraja is in the Vasanta Varali composition on Anjaneya — ‘Pahi Rama Duta’ (dasavadana sunu tanu harana).

“To those who cannot intuitively perceive the mind of Siva, who revels in Nada through the Vina, is salvation attainable?’ — Hanuman seems to be asking Ravana. Tyagaraja takes care to see that Hanuman, in his counsel, subtly includes the elements that are close to Ravana’s heart — the Vina and Siva worship — in the charanam of the Saramati raga kriti ‘Mokshamugalada.’ Strikingly appropriate is the choice of the raga for this song. Saramati means the essence of intelligence — something which Anjaneya desperately tried to give Ravana!

After extinguishing the fire on his tail in the ocean, a horrible possibility dawns on Hanuman. He did not think of Sita while setting Lanka ablaze.

Was she still alive? He rushes back to Ashoka vana and confirms her safety. Tyagaraja smiles at this episode through his Manavati (a woman of great dignity) song ‘Evaritone.’ ‘Gana nathudu seya…’ he makes Anjaneya speak about himself jocularly… (I went to catch an elephant but ended up with a monkey in my hands!)

Which of these topped Tyagaraja’s inspiration — Sundara Kandam, Raga bhava or the Raga’s name? The debate will never end. It would be best to quietly assume that compositions flowed from him due to divine ordinance… for they still remain unmatched and unsurpassed.