A small town in the Cauvery delta comes alive in January each year. Carnatic musicians and rasikas all over the world turn their focus to Thiruvaiyaru (city of five rivers) in the Tanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. Many even travel from around the world to be there. Thiruvaiyaru is where carnatic composer Tyāgaraja lived and composed some of the most well-known songs of the genre.
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On Bahula Panchami—the fifth day of the lunar month Pushya—Jan 25 this year, five songs of Tyāgaraja, simply referred to as the “pancharatna kritis” were sung in one voice by millions of people all over the world. The lucky ones got to be where the action was in Thiruvaiyaru for this Tyāgaraja aradhana. They assembled at the samaadhi (memorial) of the composer for the choral rendition of the songs while others were glued to their television sets or radios and sang along as the performance was broadcast live. It is an exhilarating experience for rasikas as anyone could participate and sing with the biggest stars in the carnatic world.
The path from private celebrations of Tyāgaraja’s life by his disciples to its present privileged status as the platform to be seen on and heard, is a drama-filled story of its own. It was social activist and musician Bangalore Nagarathnammal working with others, in the early 1920s, who set the aradhana on the path to its present status as a de riguer annual pilgrimage for musicians.
Over the years, the Tyāgaraja aradhana has inspired similar festivals in different parts of the country and world. Across every continent from Australia, through Asia, Africa and Europe, all the way to North America, the pancharatna kritis of Tyāgaraja are performed by carnatic musicians as a group. Thiruvaiyaru itself has transcended place and become a state of mind. It is no longer geographically pinned to one latitude and longitude in the Cauvery delta, but is anywhere when rasikas converge to celebrate the life and compositions of Tyāgaraja.
Ironically, outside the world of carnatic music aficionados the Tyāgaraja aradhana remains little known. Contrast this with the phenomena of Shakespeare in the Park, a celebration of the bard’s works. From its origins in the small town Stratford upon Avon, the Bard’s works are not just performed in parks all across the US, from New York to Oregon and around the world, but have entered both mainstream awareness and patronage. In a smaller way, the Jaipur Literary Festival is one such recent cultural destination that has transcended its core audiences of book readers.
The Tyāgaraja aradhana is a uniquely Indian phenomenon that combines a long tradition of group singing with formal classical rendition of complex compositions. The uniform rendition of the songs by musicians trained by different gurus and styles, and many even untrained, is without an equivalent in public performance anywhere. Some who are old enough, may recall Woodstock with a certain nostalgia and fondness, little aware that such an event—a veritable Kumbh of carnatic music happens each year in Thiruvaiyaru and puts this small town from south India on the global map.