Today, no matter where it happens, the Tyagaraja Aradhana is synonymous with the choral singing of the Ghana Raga Pancharatnam — the five songs being ‘Jagadanandakaraka’ (Nata), ‘Dudukugala’ (Gaula), ‘Sadhinchene’ (Arabhi), ‘Kanakanaruchira’ (Varali) and ‘Endaro Mahanubhavulu’ (Sri), all in Adi tala. The most famous of the group-singing sessions is the one that takes place at Tiruvaiyyaru during the Aradhana celebrations of the composer.
And yet, given Tyagaraja’s time span (1767-1847) and that of the Aradhana (from the early 20th century), this joint rendition is a relatively recent phenomenon. As per an article in the Adal Padal section of the Ananda Vikatan dated January 30, 1949, it was only in that year that the Aradhana’s organising committee hit upon the idea, as a means of getting all musicians to sing together.
On Aradhana day, Bangalore Nagarathnamma, the woman who had built the samadhi was asked to sing the 108 names of Tyagaraja that she had composed, as verse. This she did even as she performed the Kumbhaharati — the traditional right of the Devadasi. It was followed by Palladam Sanjeeva Rao playing ‘Chetulara’ on the flute. And then the assembled musicians sang the five songs in chorus. Today, Nagarathnamma’s ashtottarashatanamavali on Tyagaraja is forgotten, and the performance begins with the assembled flautists rendering ‘Chetulara,’ following which the Pancharatnam are sung.
The week leading to that first choral singing had seen hectic activity. Not all the musicians assembled knew all the songs. The Varali piece in particular posed a challenge given the taboo that existed on learning this raga directly from a guru.
It was Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer who found a way out. He sang the song from the first floor of a building. The assembled musicians sat a level below and followed him line by line, thereby overcoming the bar on learning songs in Varali directly.
This interesting anecdote was related to me by Tiruvaiyaru Chellam Iyer, a veteran of several Aradhanas, and who passed away last year at 100. Even today, while the remaining four are sung with gusto, ‘Kanakanaruchira’ has muted participation.
Were these songs really grouped together by Tyagaraja? It is very difficult to say ‘yes’ with certainty. And what exactly is meant by ‘ghana’ ragas? This term is given various interpretations and today, we follow Prof. Sambamoorthy’s explanation that these are ragas whose “individuality is brought out by playing madhyamakala (medium tempo) or tanam.”
Given the importance of tanam playing especially among vainikas, it is interesting to see that the concept of ghana ragas is more evolved among practitioners of that instrument.
In a later addition to the 17th century Chaturdandi Prakasika of Venkatamakhin, we see, according to Dr Premeela Gurumurthy’s monograph, The Ghana Raga Pancharatnas of Sri Tyagaraja, the first arrangement of eight ghana ragas — Nata, Gowla, Varali, Bowli, Sri, Arabhi, Malavasri and Ritigowla. Later, there is mention of a second set of five — Kedaram, Narayana Gowla, Salanga Nata, Ritigowla and Bowli. That the Tyagaraja school was quite familiar with this concept is buttressed by his disciple Veenai Kuppaiyyar’s varnam ‘Inta Kopa,’ which has pallavi in Nata, the anupallavi in Gowla, muktayi swaras in Arabhi and Varali, and the charanas sequentially in Sri, Narayanagowla, Ritigowla, Natakurinji and Kedaram. It is clear that while some ragas change in the set, the first five are constant.
But were the five songs ever intended to be sung together? They are not thematically united, unlike the ‘Kamalamba Navavaranam’ or even the Kshetra Pancharatnas that Tyagaraja composed at Srirangam, Lalgudi, Tiruvottriyur and Kovur. The songs vary in length and while the Nata piece is in Sanskrit, the rest are in Telugu. The Varali piece was relatively unknown and sung without the swara passages in concerts. In fact it is omitted altogether in Subbarama Dikshitar’s Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini. In subsequent works such as Sangita Sudhambudi (1929), there is mention that the music of many charanas are unavailable.
In terms of structure too, the pieces, all excellent individually, have striking differences. There are also variations in the order of charanams as per some lineages of Tyagaraja’s disciples. The composer’s name appears three times in the Nata song, twice in the Sri piece and once in the others.
Their grouping was perhaps one of convenience. Historically it was the practice among musicians to sing their favourite pieces immediately after the Aradhana. That worked when just a few were present, or when the three factions in charge of the worship followed individual itineraries. Effective 1941, following the unification, this became difficult.
In 1942, we see the announcement that a Pancharatna kriti would be sung after the Aradhana. This was usually done in pairs. By 1949, the numbers necessitated choral singing and these five became the chosen songs. In retrospect, the choice was for the best.