Scanned from articles in ALAPANE Series in the Deccan Herald, Bangalore
May 28, 1994
MYSORE VASUDEVACHARYA remembers Muthaiah Bhagavathar, the master who composed Bhuvaneshwariya nene manasave and other beautiful songs.
GEM OF A COMPOSER
"WHERE do you have your bath?"
"There is the river, by God's grace. Three dips in it and my bath is over. I need neither a boiler nor any fuel!"
"What about your food?"
"It is enough if I get a few morsels of rice from a couple of houses. I am a Brahmachari, my Upanayana having been already performed. If I ask for alms, some kind-hearted woman gives me food. Each day I have a different sort of food and a different relish!"
"You bathe in the river, you get your alms, it need hardly be said that you must be living in some choultry."
"Your guess is right. Right from my twelfth year, this dharma chatra has been my home. What else do I need?"
This in brief was my very first conversation with Muthaiah Bhagavatar when we were students at Thiruvayyar. Even when he was speaking of the mis-fortunes he had faced, he maintained a cheerful countenance. One evening, when we were sitting in the front verandah of his choultry, we talked about our younger days and thought the Creator had made both of us sail in the same boat. Thereafter, we became fast friends.
Harikeshanellur in Tirunelveli district was Bhagavatar's birthplace. He was born in January 1887; Lingammayyar was the name of his father. When Muthaiah Bhagavatar was yet a boy of ten, Lingammayyar passed away and it was left to his uncle to bring him up. The uncle was an orthodox Vedic scholar who believed that music and dance were not for the respectable and tried very hard to make his nephew turn to the study of Sanskrit.
Muthaiah Bhagavatar studied Sanskrit for about two years but his heart was not in it. Finally, one day, he left Tirunelveli for Tiruvayyar without telling anyone. He had resolved to learn music even if it meant begging for a living.
Bhagavatar wandered about in search of a guru. At last, a reputed vidwan named Sambasivayyar agreed to teach him. Muthaiah Bhagavatar studied under him for seven years and acquired proficiency in music.
Muthaiah Bhagavatar was 20 when he returned to Harikeshanellur. He stayed in his hometown for about five years, and gave a few concerts. In those days music concerts did not receive as much encouragement as musical discourses did, and Muthaiah Bhagavatar decided to switch over to that form for a career. He had good scholarship in Sanskrit, he had fluency of speech, an excellent knowledge of music and a rich voice. No wonder his discourses became popular within a short while. He was able at last to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, he went to Travancore, where he displayed his learning at the palace and earned, as a mark of royal recognition, a pair of golden wrist-lets and shawls. The patronage and support that he received at Travancore encouraged him further to pursue music.
In his 25th year, Muthiah Bhagavatar settled down in Madurai. He made a living by teaching music; he ran a small music school of his own. Shortly after this, he went to Karur where he was able to gain the friendship of a wealthy landlord of Andipalli named Petta Chettiyar. Fortune smiled on Muthaiah Bhagavatar now. The Chettiyar, who was all admiration for his learning, honored him profusely. As suggested by Muthaiah Bhagavatar, he celebrated the Skanda Sashti festival every year at Karur. He invited well-known vidwans from all over south India to give concerts, and rewarded them liberally. This gave Bhagavatar an opportunity to come into contact with the famous artistes of the time, as also to further his scholarship. But those happy days did not last long. Petta Chettiyar passed away and Bhagavatar felt dejected. He left Karur and went on a tour to places like Calcutta and Rangoon and on his return settled down in Madras.
In 1927, Muthaiah Bhagavatar visited Mysore during the Dasara festivities. He was about 50 then. He gave a couple of concerts at the palace and earned the benevolent attention of Krishnaraja Wodeyar. He secured a position of prestige among the musicians of the court. In 1928, the Maharaja bestowed on him the title of Gayaka Shikhamani. In Mysore, Muthaiah Bhagavatar used to go to Chamundi Hills every Friday and offer worship to the goddess. His Ashtottara Kirtanas are ample testimony to his devotion. He had been busy composing these kirtanas between 1929 and 1932. When he completed a kirtana, he sang it before His Highness and won his admiration. The words of the kirtanas were composed by Devottama Jois, who was a scholar in the court, while Muthaiah Bhagavatar composed the music himself. The Ashtottara Kirtanas, which were rich in musical and emotional content, delighted His Highness who honored Bhagavatar with a Golden pendant bearing the figure of Chamundeshwari.
In 1936, Muthaiah Bhagavatar received an invitation from the Travancore palace. At the request of Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bai, he stayed there for two years and entertained the court with his melodious performances. He was appointed the first Principal of the Swati Tirunal Music Academy which was established in 1938. Muthiah Bhagavatar systematized the notations of about 300 kirtanas of Swati Tirunal.
He wrote and published a book in Tamil on the theory of music, entitled Sangeeta Kalpadruma. In recognition of his invaluable contributions Travancore University honored him with a doctorate. He later returned to Mysore where he spent his last days. He passed away on June 30, 1945.
Muthaiah Bhagavatar, who had undergone several hardships in life, had great compassion for the poor. No musician who went to him returned empty handed. His was a small family himself, his wife and his daughter. Even the daughter passed away shortly after his coming down to Mysore. Though they were only two at home, husband and wife, at least 15 persons would be there for food, morning, and evening. Friends and relatives always flocked around him but Bhagavatar never encouraged idle talk; his life was dedicated to music and he spoke only about music. Those who went to him would hardly ever return without acquiring some valuable piece of information or other. Occasionally, when he felt bored, he played cards. On many occasions, he invited me to join him in the game.
Before he composed his kirtanas in Shankarabharana and kharaharapriya, he sent for me and made me sing half-a-dozen times the kirtanas I had composed in those ragas, namely, Harini BhaJinche and Rara Yenipilichithe. He then remarked:
"Acharya, I now have a complete picture of the emotional shades of ragas and I shall begin my composition".
Apart from his varnas and kirtanas which are rich specimens of melody and emotion, I had a great admiration and liking for his tillanas and darus. Many a time, when I sang at the palace, he accompanied me on the mridanga. No one could question his skill. After all, he had learnt under no less a vidwan than Narayanasamappa of Tanjore. He possessed an accurate knowledge of rhythm which explains the excellence of his tillanas and darus. He first sang his compositions before vidwans and welcomed their suggestions and comments. He accepted all the criticism he found valid, and incorporated the necessary changes. Though he could render all ragas equally well, fully elucidating their emotional content, Mukhari was his favorite and his rendering of that rag a was unique.
Script: S. KRISHNAMURTHY