Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar

Tyagaraja had a large number of disciples. Of them, Walajapet Venkataramana Bhagavatar and his son Krishnaswami Bhagavatar deserve our gratitude for chronicling his biography and preserving his precious compositions.

Stamp on Venkataramana Bhagavatar

The Department of Posts brought out a commemorative stamp on Venkataramana Bhagavatar on 27th December 2009. It was released by the Postmaster General, Madurai.

The multi-coloured, five-rupee stamp was printed by the web-offset process at India Security Press, Nasik. The stamp and the First Day Cover depict a portrait of the Bhagavatar with a tambura. The cancellation has, in the centre, a sketch of a pair of paduka-s, presumably the ‘Rama paduka’.

His life

Venkataramana Bhagavatar was born on 18th February 1781 to Nannuswami of Ayyampettai in Tanjavur district, also known as Ramachandrapuram. Belonging to the Saurashtra community, he was educated in Telugu and Sanskrit, besides his mother tongue, Saurashtram, and he attained extraordinary proficiency in them.

Venkataramana’s passion for music drove him to Tyagaraja, who lived in nearby Tiruvaiyaru. Initially, he used to listen to Tyagaraja’s teachings on the sly. Later, Tyagaraja took him as a disciple. Besides learning music, Venkataramana also attended to all the services needed for his guru’s day-to-day life. His devotion to him was total. This went on for 25 to 30 years, till he left for Walajapet to earn his livelihood.

Venkataramana was so obsessed with learning music that marriage was the last thing on his mind; he felt it would come in the way of his mastering compositions from Tyagaraja. Eventually he agreed to marry on the advice of his guru. He was 41 by then! He married Muthulakshmi and set up family in Ayyampettai. He had two sons and a daughter. He named his first son, Krishnaswami, after his favourite deity, and the second son, Ramaswami, after the favourite deity of his guru. The daughter was given the name Tulasammal. After initial training, he sent Krishnaswami to Tyagaraja for further learning. During his stay with Tyagaraja, Bhagavatar kept meticulous records of the guru’s daily activities, particulars of important events and pilgrimages, and visitors to his home. The material collected by him included even the horoscope of the bard. Later, he wrote a biography of Tyagaraja. Krishnaswami too wrote a separate biography of his guru. Both wrote in Telugu. Venkataramana’s account ends with Tyagaraja’s second marriage, whereas Krishnaswami’s covers Tyagaraja’s life till his mukti in 1847. (Both these manuscripts were translated into Tamil by the late T.S. Parthasarathy.)

The two also noted down all the songs of Tyagaraja, including his operas. It is from them that posterity came to know that he had composed a third opera – Seetarama Vijayam, besides Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauka Charitam. They also taught their disciples Tyagaraja’s compositions.

On settling down at Walajapet, Venkataramana Bhagavatar set up a bhajana mandira in a portion of his house where he installed a portrait of his guru. With boundless reverence for Tyagaraja, he composed several ashtaka-s, stotra-s and kriti-s, in Sanskrit and Telugu, in praise of his guru, and recited them as a part of his daily worship. In one keertana he avers that Tyagaraja is an incarnation of Narada; and in another piece, on Rama, he declares that he could ‘see’ Him in his guru.

In the course of his pilgrimage, Tyagaraja visited Walajapet and stayed with Venkataramana Bhagavatar for some days. The valuable manuscripts prepared by father and son are kept in an archive in the premises of the Saurashtra Sabha, Madurai. Tyagaraja’s affection for his dear sishya – and the trust he had in him  was so great that he left behind his puja idols, ‘Rama paduka’ and his tambura-s in his care. These are also preserved in the Sabha. It was Prof. P. Sambamoorthy who researched into these manuscripts and brought out valuable information on Tyagaraja, the Bhagavatar and his son and their compositions.

Venkataramana Bhagavatar attained mukti on 15th December 1874 (this month 136 years ago). A temple is dedicated to him near the Tyagaraja samadhi in Tiruvaiyaru.

Eminent vaggeyakara

Venkataramana Bhagavatar was a distinguished vaggeyakara and musician. His output was prolific and versatile. His corpus includes tana varnam-s, pada varnam-s, swarajati-s, keertana-s and tillana-s. He signed his kriti-s ‘Ramachandrapura Venkataramana’. His compositions are more or less on the pattern of his guru’s. Though he is said to have composed 2000-2500 pieces, only 150 have been traced, 54 of them were published, with text and notations, by the Venkataramana Bhagavatar Swamigal Jayanti Committee, Ayyampettai, in 1981.

The Walajapet parampara

Krishnaswami Bhagavatar also composed some kriti-s. He provided invaluable assistance to A.M. Chinnaswami Mudaliar in preparing his Oriental Music in European Notation. It was from him that Mudaliar collected hundreds of kriti-s of Tyagaraja.

Mysore Sadasiva Rao, the famous composer, and Kavi Venkata Suri were Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s disciples. Similarly, Tiruvotriyur Ramaswamy Iyer was a disciple of Krishnaswami Bhagavatar; he was the first scholar to publish the complete works of Tyagaraja.

Krishnaswami Bhagavatar’s son Ramaswami Bhagavatar also wrote a biography of Tyagaraja, Tyagabrahmopanishad. It was published in 1935.

Jayanti celebrations

The Saurashtra community celebrates Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s jayanti in a grand manner every year near the Sree Prasanna Rajagopalaswami Temple at Ayyampettai; the 229th Jayanti and aradhana of the Bhagavatar was held there this year from 7th to 9th March.

The Srimad Venkataramana Bhagavata Seva Samajam, Madurai, conducts Bhagavatar’s Jayanti as a three-day festival every year, when his kriti-s are rendered. The Samajam constructed a separate shrine in the premises of the Sree Prasanna Venkatesa Perumal Temple of Saurashtra Sabha and consecrated Bhagavatar’s idol there in 2008. It was thanks to the tireless efforts of the Samajam that the Government of India brought out the stamp on him.

His compositions in concerts

Only a few of Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s compositions are heard in concerts. The late Alathur Brothers popularised Kannulara kanti (Dhanyasi) by singing it regularly in their concerts. Years ago, this writer heard the following songs in AIR concerts: Anandamaya manamey (Jyotiswaroopini) by Manakkal Rangarajan, Dr. S. Ramanathan and Seerkazhi Govindarajan; Palaya mam Sree Pattabhirama (Suvarnangi) - Srirangam Krishnamurthy Rao; Neeve nannu brova (Darbar) – T.V. Sankaranarayanan; Manasa Ramuni (Khamas) – B.V. Raman and B.V. Lakshmanan; Vada rasane (Poorvikalyani) – T.N. Seshagopalan.

Concert of Bhagavatar’s songs

In December 2008, the Chennai Fine Arts Trust organised a special concert exclusively of Venkataramana Bhagavatar’s compositions. Prema Rangarajan, a senior disciple of Sulochana Pattabhiraman and S. Rajam, sang the following: Bhajare manasa – Gaula / Adi; Manasa Ramuni – Khamas / Adi; Vada rasane – Poorvikalyani / Adi; Rara Dasaratha rajakumara – Bhairavi / Roopakam; Harihari Hari yani – Saraswati / Adi; Rara Vasudeva kumara – Todi / Roopakam; Paravasameyenura – Nadanamakriya / Adi; Tillana – Kedaragaula.

Before the concert commenced, scholar B.M. Sundaram delivered an informative lecture on the life and works of Venkataramana Bhagavatar.

Some years ago, the Tiruchi station of All India Radio broadcast a 30-minute feature on the Bhagavatar. The main singer was Dr. Vageesh, the Station Director.