The Trend Setters in Carnatic Music

Ashok Madhav (

The Bhakti movement was infused with musical fervour by many saint -musicians all over India over the centuries. Notable among them -Purandara Dasa and Thyagaraja played key roles during their lives. Both these men belonged to the line of saint-musicians, who influenced the masses for their moral and spiritual upliftment through the medium of their musical compositions. Both men have emphasized that bhakti without sincerity of devotion is meaningless. These two ardent devotees of God were in a manner of speaking, trend-setters. Their reformist zeal to set bhakti in its proper perspective devoid of sham and meaningless rituals was frequently stressed in their krithis. The spiritual and philosophical contents of their krithis are often compared to the Upanishads.

While Purandara Dasa was instrumental in laying the foundations of Carnatic music, Thyagaraja took Carnatic music to the peak of its perfection. It is not surprising that these two musical stalwarts are featured more often than other musical personalities in many discussions of Carnatic music.

Purandara Dasa (1484-1564) had enjoyed the privileges and comforts in his youth and middle age. However, he realized the tawdry selfishness of people and the world around him which prompted him to give up all his wealth and physical comforts and devote himself to a life of high ideals of philosophy and spirituality. After his tutelage from his guru-Vyasa Raya, Purandara Dasa devoted his second half of his life to composing songs in praise of Lord Krishna-the deity of Pandharpur. He, thus became Purandara Dasa- a devotee or servant of Supreme Lord.

Purandara Dasa was a great bhakta, musician and composer. His krithis are set in simple words which exude bhakti, common sense and philosophy and which have universal appeal. He was a pioneer and creative genius. His contributions to Carnatic music are immense. He adopted 'Malavagoula' (later changed to 'Mayamalavagoula') to enable beginners learn the basics of Carnatic music. He introduced various musical forms like Sarali, Janta varisas, Hecchu and Taggu stayis, Alankaras, Geetas etc. Simple lessons (pillari geethams) in ragas like Malahari and Shuddasaveri were introduced by him. He also systematised suladi sapta talas. He is credited to have composed several thousands of krithis. Unfortunately, only a fraction of his total output of krithis is available.

It is incredible that even four centuries later, Purandara Dasa's teaching models have been handed down to us with no variation! His immense contributions to music have earned him the recognition as the Sangeetha Pitamaha-the grandsire of Carnatic music.

Thyagaraja (1767-1847) was born of modest means, but eschewed all material comforts even as a youth and devoted himself to the worship of Lord Rama. He had his musical training from Sonti Venkataramanayya. Thyagaraja was influenced by the music of Purandara Dasa and other great savants. Thyagaraja has paid tribute to Purandara Dasa in his "Prahlada bhakti vijayam". His unswering devotion to Rama is demonstrated through emotional outpourings in many of his krithis. His compositions are simple but laden with bhakti and philosophy which caught the appeal of many music lovers. Thyagaraja's krithis reached the height of perfection. He was instrumental in developing several new ragas, which were used in his compositions. One outstanding feature of Thyagaraja's krithis is its inherent scope for adding sangatis eg: Dorakuna itu vanti (Bilahari) and Dharani telusu (Shudda saveri).

Similarity in Their Thought Process

While these musical geniuses (Purandara Dasa and Thyagaraja) lived almost three centuries apart, it is interesting to compare their lives, their contributions to music and philosophical thoughts. There are several parallels in their lives. Both Purandara Dasa and Thyagaraja were pious, saintly and great devotees of Krishna and Rama respectively. The lyrics of their krithis were simple, but with high philosophical and spiritual contents. Both were musical prodigies who disliked royal patronages and gifts. They abhorred 'narastuthi' or praising of mortals. Purandara Dasa was not enamoured of the royal bounty and wealth of King of Vijaya nagar.

Similarly, Thyagaraja too refused invitations from the Tanjavur Maharaja and other Kings of Travancore and Mysore. Both have commented on their feelings in musical forms and idioms. In Purandara Dasa's krithi 'Namma bhagya doddado,Nimma bhagya doddado', he feels more blessed because of the Lord's protection compared to the King, who has just material possessions. In another krithi,' Antarangadalli Hariya kaanadava', Purandara Dasa retierates the same concept 'Narara sevisa bedavo endendigu' , while Thyagaraja says in his 'Nidhi chala sukhama, Ramuni sannidhi seva sukhama', that he does not need anybody's blessings but Rama's.

Purandara Dasa and Thyagaraja have expressed their thoughts and feelings on other aspects of life as well. A general concept of the meaning of their songs is given within brackets. Regarding music,what Purandara Dasa has said in 'Talabeku takka mela beku' Thyagaraja has echoed similar ideas in his 'Sogasuga mrudanga talamu' (basic details of an ideal krithi). The words 'Sakala tirtha yaatreya maadidante nikhila punyada phalavu' in Purandara Dasa's 'Smarane onde saalade' have parallel expressions in Thyagaraja's 'Dhyaaname varamaina Ganga snaanamu' (Plunging in holy waters will not purify from the sins of deceit). To focus one's mind to the devotion of the Lord, the words used by both Purandara Dasa and Thyagaraja in their krithis are almost identical. Purandara Dasa says 'Manava nilisuvudu balu kashta' and Thyagaraja's lyrics are 'Manasu nilpa shakti leka pothe' (Controlling one's mind for worship is hard). Purandara Dasa's 'Sakala graha bala neene' and Tyagarja's 'Graha bala memi' are close in their contents (Strength from the Divine protection is better than those from all planets). Similarly, Dasa's 'Dwaitavu sukhava' and Thyagaraja's 'Dwaitamu sukhama' are alike in their philosophical content (the decision to follow Dvaitha or Advaitha for bliss).

There are several examples where the thoughts of these two men run very similar. A few relevant lines are mentioned:


The contributions of these two vaggeyakaras are enormous in terms of the voluminous number and different types of compositions. Their rich bequest to Carnatic music continues to captivate and fascinate music lovers all over the world and will carry through for many centuries more.

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