On his 245th birth anniversary, it is time to focus on the composer’s music rather than on the myths surrounding his works
The youngest of the famed Carnatic Trinity is a personality that continues to intrigue, enthral, educate and amaze, so many years after his passing. Born in 1775/1776 and having passed away in 1835, he took his time to come into the limelight. But beginning with the 1960s, there was a rediscovery of sorts of Muthuswami Dikshitar, and he continues to remain in the limelight. Chief among the great minds that studied his works in depth was Dr. V. Raghavan.
His works have much to offer that is of interest — Hindu mythology, local lore, architectural and iconic details, and the way in which he embeds the raga name in many of his songs. To stand at a shrine, and reflect that you are seeing what he sang about is an indescribable thrill. Every aspect of his compositions is sifted and analysed, and scholars and laypersons, especially with the explosion of the internet, post their findings and opinions on a daily basis. Of course, in the process of amateur research many myths have accrued to Dikshitar, which would be nothing but a disservice to him.
There is a school of thought that all songs with the Guruguha mudra or signature are Muthuswami Dikshitar’s works. This simple attitude is not entirely correct. Firstly, we do know that his descendants too used the same signature. There is the diametrically opposite view that claims that only the compositions as compiled by Dikshitar’s nephew Subbarama Dikshitar in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini (1904), are authentic. This too may not be a correct view. True, many of the compositions outside of the Pradarsini suffer from prosodical errors or poor alliteration, both of which would have been anathema to Muthuswami Dikshitar given the high standard he adopts in undoubtedly genuine works. But even among these there are some which are exemplary. The truth therefore lies somewhere in between what is in the Pradarsini and outside of it. Unfortunately for us, those who knew the truth, and in this I include a whole host of Carnatic greats right from the composer’s grandnephew Ambi Dikshitar, chose to remain silent and have passed on.
That even Dr. Raghavan had reached a frustrating dead end in his research is evident from a note in his monograph on Dikshitar where he states that “it was up to the present representatives” to “co-operate with us to bring to light more of the rare compositions of Dikshitar.” In his time the chief sources of such manuscripts were three — the descendants of Ambi Dikshitar, the Guruguha Gana Vidyalaya of Ananthakrishna Iyer and the descendants of the Thanjavur Quartet. Today, all three stoutly deny being in possession of any such material. Perhaps what there was has perished with time. A fallout of this has been the sudden influx of ‘new compositions’ that are inferior in lyrical quality — I need refer to only two most commonly heard — ‘Sri Venkatesam’ in Kalyana Vasantham and ‘Nandagopala’ in Yamuna Kalyani, which are now fathered on Muthuswami Dikshitar chiefly owing to the presence of the Guruguha mudra.
There is also a tendency to make Dikshitar a frequent traveller of sorts. With no awareness of the difficulties in commuting during his time, it is common to attribute visits by him to all kinds of remote places starting from Pasupatinath in Nepal to Honnavar in Karnataka, Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and even Pushkar in Rajasthan and Puri in Orissa. That he did travel to Varanasi in the company of his guru is a fact that is vouched for in the extremely truthful and barebones biography provided by Subbarama Dikshitar.
This journey by itself was a great achievement in the unsettled late 18th/early 19th century. Travelling beyond that, and this within a short span of five years, with two wives in tow, would have been impossible. Raja Serfoji’s travel to Varanasi at around the same time is well documented. Even he, with all the resources at his command, did not stray from the time-tested route. What then of Dikshitar? But what is significant is the distance he did travel within a lifespan of just 59 years. Twenty years after his death, the Government of Madras embarked on a study and its report revealed that hardly anyone ever stirred out of their places of stay, given the conditions of the roads, the rapaciousness of toll collectors and the fear of harassment by dacoits, apart from dangers of falling ill. That Dikshitar braved all this makes him a remarkable man indeed.
It is time to get back to the lyrical and musical aspects of Dikshitar’s compositions, though there has been an increasing tendency over the years to ‘Tyagarajize’ his songs. Perhaps in the five years left for his 250th birth anniversary, we may see a change, with less myth-making and more focus on his music.
The Chennai-based author and historian writes on music and culture.