Muthuswami of Manali

Fourth and final post based on my reading of T.L. Venkatarama Aiyar’s biography of Muthuswami Dikshitar

The last three posts in this series focused on the music of Muthuswami Dikshitar, and my unfamiliarity with so much of it. They covered his Vibhakti kritis, rarely heard kritis in well-known ragas and kritis in rare ragas. This post is a little different. Without reproducing the biography, I discuss aspects of his life that made me pause and think a bit.

Cultural Manali

An abiding memory from the first decade of my life is of my father wearing his dark blue pants, light blue short-sleeved shirt, polishing his black slip-on leather shoes, grabbing his brief case and heading off to Manali, far away in north Madras (we lived in the then new Kalakshetra Colony, in the southern part of the city). He worked at (and later turned around) Madras Fertilizers Limited, a public sector company. In my mind’s eye Manali was as distant, exotic and mysterious as wherever Jack ended up when he climbed his beanstalk. That my father made it back from there seemed like a minor daily miracle. Manali was and is as industrial as it gets.

So it is difficult to think that in ~1780 Ramaswami Dikshitar, the father of Muthuswami, deliberately moved from the culturally and economically rich Cauvery delta region (specifically, Tiruvarur)to settle down in Manali. Apparently Manali was a “prominent principality” in those days, lorded over by Muthukrishna Mudaliar, a generous patron of the arts. Upon Muthukrishna’s passing, his son Venkatakrishna Mudaliar continued to generously support Ramaswami Dikshitar.

Ramaswami Dikshitar was an accomplished musician in his own right and had made his reputation in Tiruvarur both as a top performer and composer. He is now of course known largely for two things — being the father of Muthuswami, and creating / discovering the raga Hamsadhwani. Aiyar suggests that Ramaswami’s fame and legacy as a composer may have been far greater today if his achievements had not been overshadowed by that of his son. I wonder if Manali’s trajectory as a cultural center may have also similarly been different, even slightly, if Ramaswami Dikshitar’s star had shone brighter in its own right.

Manali is adjacent to Ennore. The polluted landscapes of the Ennore Creek formed the backdrop of the now-famous Poromboke Paadal. Whereas the song was on environmental degradation and specifically, the destruction of the commons , it also marked the start of a small but growing effort, most visibly spearheaded by T.M. Krishna to bring the cultural periphery — whether geographic, linguistic, community-based or artistic — into the mainstream, deserving of respect and audience. For instance the Urur Olcott Kuppam Thiruvizha is held in the fishing hamlet at the edge of Elliot’s Beach in Besant Nagar and brings different art forms — whether ‘folk’ (such as vilupaatu) or ‘classical’ (such as Bharatnatyam) or hip-hop, to the same stage, to the same audience. This idea has been expanded into a city-wide Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha umbrella and has embraced venues in the north Chennai, including Korukkupet and Pulicat lake.

In the opening episode of the interview series “The Artiste”, parai artiste N. Deepan is conversation with T.M. Krishna. They open with the stigma attached to areas like Korukkupet that are in north Madras — that the young folk from their are ‘good-for-nothings’ prone to breaking the law. Deepan has an M.Com degree and says if he were to go for an interview, he’d hide the fact that he is from Korukkupet. I wonder what Muthukrishna Mudaliar or Ramaswami Dikshitar might have made of that. Is it possible that we could one day think of Manali as more than an industrial zone, and see its communities and their artistic legacies? One fine distant day, when we think of cultural Madras, may places like Manali come readily to mind along with Mylapore? I’m not too hopeful.

Deliberate fiddling

The violin is thought to have been first introduced to India by the Portugese, and then taken across the country as the The East India Company established themselves. It’s well known that Baluswami Dikshitar (younger brother of Muthuswami) introduced the violin to Carnatic music. I assumed that this was some sort of osmotic process powered by pure genius — “young lad picks up foreign instrument, sublime music pours out”. It was only when I read the book that I realized how deliberate the whole enterprise was. Strictly speaking, it was Ramaswami Dikshitar who was responsible, with Baluswami the chosen instrument.

Apparently Venkatakrishna Mudaliar was the Dubash of the East India Company, and would take the Dikshitar boys frequently to Fort St. George to listen to the company band. Ramaswami would also accompany them occasionally. On hearing the full orchestra on one such occasion, they were all impressed by the prominence and versatility of the violin and “the idea struck that it could be used on the lines of the Vina, as an accompaniment”. Since Muthuswami Dikshitar had already cornered the veena, Baluswami was given the job of mastering the violin. Venkatakrishna Mudaliar arranged and paid for an English violin tutor who taught Baluswami over a period of three years. The first ever concert featuring the violin, the grand culmination of this very deliberate experiment had Baluswami on the violin accompanying Muthuswami Dikshitar on the veena. From the beginning, the violin has played second fiddle.

Collaboration and congeniality

In a previous post on Subbaraya Sastri, I remarked that it was wonderful and surprising to learn that it was Subbaraya’s father Shyama Sastri’s idea for him to also learn from Thyagaraja. I found this open-minded lack of ego surprising and refreshing, hardly imaginable today.

But that is not the extent of it. According to Aiyar’s biography, Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar were good friends in Thanjavur. They lived at opposite ends at the same street, meeting often to discuss religious treatises and music. While their approaches to music were very different, Shyama Shastri loved Dikshitar’s compositions, and put his son Subbaraya under Dikshitar’s tutelage as well. [Other sources say that Subbaraya learnt a “few songs” from Dikshitar, but Aiyar’s account suggests a much stronger relationship].

Aiyar’s biography describes one incident of astounding open-mindedness, especially on the part of Shyama Shastri. Muthuswami Dikshitar’s two younger brothers Chinnaswami and Baluswami, living in Madurai at that time, visit Thanjavur [Aiyar sources the Sangita Sampradaya Pradarshini for this account]:

Ramaswami Dikshitar has written a Chowka-varnam, “Sami Ninne Kori” in Raga Sriranjani. The charanam of the piece has only one Swara passage composed by Ramaswami Dikshitar, while the others would appear to have been lost. Syama Sastri felt that such a good piece as that should not be allowed to die for incompleteness and so he himself composed the second passage of swaras, and called upon Muthuswami Dikshitar and Chinnaswami to to complete the varna. The latter composed the third passage and the former the fourth and last passage.

From this account, it would seem that far from being proud, insecure or stuck-up about their art, there was genuine sense of respect, conviviality and discovery that marked artistic relationships. Co-passengers on a grand journey in an exciting time, enjoying great intellectual and personal bonhomie.

Here is that one varnam, created by two among the Trinity, three among the Dikshitars and in all, four composers:

Losing a son, and in search of a brother

The biography does not deal much with the personal or emotional. This is understandable as Aiyar wrote over a century after the death of Dikshitar, and sourced the biographical details largely from Ambi Dikshitar, the great grandson of Baluswami Diskhitar. In its basic structure, the life of Muthuswami Dikshitar is characterized as a long itinerary of serial pilgirmage — he went to A and composed X, then had an urge to go to B, where he composed Y.

There was an astonishing realization that crept upon me as I got further and further into the biography - the absolute lack of long-distance communication in those times. Forget the telegram — this was pre-postal. Once a person had left your door, you had no idea if they were alive or dead until you saw them again or if someone came to you with news. This could take months and years.

So imagine the plight of Ramaswami Dikshitar. A guru-sanyasi that he reveres, Chidambaranatha Yogi is on his way to Kashi / Benares, and stops on his way in Madras. Ramaswami hears of his presence in his city and invites him to stay in Manali. The yogi plays coy and asks Ramaswami if he would grant him a request without specifying its nature. Ramaswami gallantly says of course, you are my guru, there is no need to request me, order me. This could be the plotline of a great myth or a great Sivaji Ganesan movie. Then the dagger — the yogi asks Ramaswami to send Muthuswami to accompany him on the pilgrimage to Kashi! Ramaswami desperately pleads with Chidambaranatha to release him from his commitment, much as one imagines Dasharatha pleaded with Kaikeyi. Finally it is Venkatakrishna Mudaliar who convinces Ramaswami to not break his promise by likening the situation to when Vishwamitra asked a nervous Dasharatha to allow Rama to accompany him into the forest for a period of training. Only good will come to Muthuswami, he says, just as Rama benefited from his time with Vishwamitra.

Muthuswami Dikshitar spent five to six deeply formative (both musically and spiritually) in Kashi, as a disciple of Chidambaranatha. While there, he also traveled to many parts of northern India and Nepal. It probably took him at least a few months or a year to get there from Manali and back. So when Ramaswami next saw him, as he entered the house unannounced, it would have been after a gap of about seven years. Seven years of not knowing where, and if, your child is.

To the extent that the personal is animated in the biography, it is through the clearly close relationship Dikshitar had with his younger brothers Chinnaswami and Baluswami. In his later years, the peripatetic impulse in Dikshitar is fed as much by a poignant and somewhat desperate search for news of his brothers as it is by pilgrimage.

In 1817, when the whole family is settled in Tiruvarur, Ramaswami Dikshitar and his wife pass away. Dikshitar is invited by patrons to come to Madurai to compose in praise of the deities there. He is reluctant to go — instead, he sends his younger brothers to teach in Madurai, intending to join at a later date. Now lonely in Tiruvarur, he accepts a long-standing invitation from Ponniah and Vadivelu (of the ‘Tanjore Quartet’) to teach them in Thanjavur.

He spends four to five whole years in Thanjavur before returning to Tiruvarur. In all this time there is little news of his brothers in Madurai. Four to five years! He hears disturbing news of the passing of Chinnaswami, and so sets off to Madurai. In Madurai, at the Meenakshi temple, he sings his compositions on the deity. A small crowd gathers. They tell him that they have heard two musicians “from Tiruvarur” singing these songs and that these songs are by one Dikshitar, little realizing who they were speaking with. Inquiring after the “two musicians from Tiruvarur”, Muthuswami realizes that Chinnaswami has indeed passed away, and that Baluswami, in grief, had embarked on a pilgrimage to Rameshwaram, promising to return soon. Muthuswami now has to make an excruciating choice — wait in Madurai for the return of Baluswami or press on to Rameshwaram in the hope of catching up. He chooses the former.

He spends a few months in Madurai, being musically productive, but when there is no sign of Baluswami, he resumes his quest and sets off for Rameshwaram. After spending some time there, he finally hears of a “musician from Tiruvarur” who had been in Rameshwaram for a while, but who had been invited by the Maharaja of Ettayapuram to become court musician. Assuming this to be Baluswami, Muthuswami goes on to Ettayapuram.

On his way, at a stop in Sattur, he encounters a group of priests who are on their way to Ettayapuram. They are excited because the Maharaja of Ettayapuram is celebrating the wedding of his Samasthana Sangita Vidwan in two days’ time and they are likely to get celebratory dakshina if they get there in time. One of them confirms that the Vidwan in indeed Balusami Dikshitar.

It is in this way, that for the first time in about five years Muthuswami Dikshitar gets his first credible news of Baluswami, and finds out that he about to get married! It is not surprising that after all this, he chose to settle down in Ettayapuram, to be close to his brother.

Privilege

Dikshitar made life difficult for himself, financially, by refusing offers to compose in praise of wealthy patrons. He was happy for financial support and patronage, but only from like minded folk who were fine with him composing in praise of important local deities, or for the sake of the music itself.

But it should also be clear that it was a life of privilege.The learning that informed his musicianship and the choice to lead a life pursuing the arts, patronized by others was only afforded to a very few. There is nothing new in this and neither is this any sort of comment on his undoubted genius.

Just what a rare privilege it was, was made startlingly clear by one incident recounted in the book.

The household was running exceedingly low on provisions and so Dikshitar’s wife asked one of his students, a Devadasi named Kamalam if she could help out. With alacrity, she offered to pawn her bangles and other jewelry. On hearing this, Dikshitar became desolate and overcome by a sense of failure — a guru is meant to provide for his students, not the other way around. He dissuaded Kamalam from her plan of action, saying that the Lord Thyagaraja would take care of him. The book claims that he said to her that he did not want to give anyone the chance to claim that he was making a living out of teaching music to his disciples!

Having put his faith in Thyagesha, he went to the temple and sang “Thyagaraja Bhaja Re Re Chitta” in Yadukulakambhoji, a song he happened to have composed earlier in the day. He sang in a state of vulnerable emotion. He returned to find that a miracle had taken place. Apparently a high ranking official of the Tanjore king was to have visited Tiruvarur that day for an inspection. The local official had “collected provisions on a large scale for him”. This is an ambiguous statement, but it sounds like the provisions were collected from a whole lot of individuals. I can’t make out the purpose of such large scale provisions either — whether for a feast, or a bribe (“for him”). Either way, at the last minute the trip was cancelled, and not knowing what to do with this large amount of provisions already gathered, the local official thought it best to send them to Dikshitar’s household. Thyagesha may have engineered the miracle, and the cancellation of the official trip may have been blind luck, but the result was certainly a consequence of privilege.

I write mainly about my experience as a listener of Carnatic music.