Balu may have asked this question and started the topic in right earnest and innocence. But this subject is not new in musical circles wherein it is akin to asking what is a “wheel”. A wheel is a wheel and would remain a wheel for all time to come . Similarly, there is no need for redefining the term vaaggEyakaara .
In this thread, there has been too much discussion with some digression too and I feel that still nothing definite has been precipitated at the end of it. Too many terms have been brought into the discussions. I attempt below to bring some clarity to the issue.
A. : Vaak = words . Other form of this term is vachanam. Gitam = which is sung or has been sung, gEyam = which can be sung, gaanam = singing or song.
B. : VaaggEyakaara: = it is a compound word of Samskritam origin which can be split-defined in two ways .
a. vaakkaarascha asau gEyakaarascha = which means that the person is both the writer of lyrics and also the tune & rhythm setter. This is like the phrasing in English “ He is NOT ONLY the writer BUT ALSO the music composer.
b. vaakkaara: eva gEyakaara: = the song writer is himself the music composer
Hence vaaggEyakaara is both the lyric writer and also the music composer.
VaaggEyakaara is not a genderless term actually but has been converted to be so in English for sake of convenience. It is derived from the masculine form “ vaaggEyakaara:” the feminine of which is vaaggEyakaarika. There are other forms of this word with the same meaning like vaaggEyakartaa / vaaggEyakartri (masc./fem.) and vaaggEyakaarii / vaaggEyakaariNii ( masc./fem. ) respectively.
C. : There are five types of composers so far as we can see through history.
1. Original two-in-one : The Trinity, GKB, many of those before them like Melattur Veerabhadraiah, Ramaswami Dikshitar, etc. and many afterwards like Patnam SI, HMB, Poochi Iyengar, Papanasam Sivan, etc to name a few are true vaaggEyakaaras. This is because they have to be qualified sufficiently in both the language grammar/literature as well as music. In Carnatic music the lyrics are the skeleton which conveys the emotions intended and embellished by the tune and rhythm, which is in contrast to the western and Hindustani music where lyrics have either no role or minimum role. Hence a Western or Hindustani composer is less than half a composer as per Carnatic definition of VaaggEyakaara.
2. Combination vaaggEyakaara : The duo of Ramaswami Sivan and Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan are in this category. The former wrote the lyrics while the latter set it to tune & rhythm and sung them.
3. Default or proxy vaaggEyakaara : The songs attributed to them have actually been written and composed by the court musicians and dedicated to the rulers in return for patronage. Swati Tirunal, Mysore Maharaja, etc come into this category.
4. Vaakkaaras or poets : They are true poets ( extempore or otherwise ) and hence are responsible only for the words. They are not concerned whether their poems can be sung or not. Annamacharya as an extempore poet ( aashu kavi ) falls into this category. His poems have been sung by many persons in many ways , many after being altered to conform to musical aesthetics. Even in film world, the song writer and the music composer are defined separately by the terms songwriter and music composer/director. Hence, poet, songwriter, lyricist, sahityakaari/sahityakaariNi, etc., are all same.
5. gEyakaaras or music composers : These set to tune & rhythm the songs written by others and made the lyrics worthy of singing. Semmangudi ( for Swati Tirunal ) , MSS, DKP, etc ( for Subrahmanya Bharati ), Nedunuri ( for Annamacharya, Ramadas, etc. ) are in this category.
C. : One more category of composers is those about whom we may not know much . We are not aware whether they composed the lyrics with any particular tune in mind or not and even if they did, we wouldn’t know what those tunes were. Jayadeva, Kshetragna, Purandaradasa fall into this category.
It is suggested hereby to please read " Musings of a musician " by R. Rangaramanuja Iyengar.