The period spanning latter half of 18th century and the former half of the nineteenth century is considered the golden age of Carnatic music, as in this period were born the holy trinity of Carnatic music; Sri Shyma Sastry, Sri Thyagaraja and Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar. As a strange coincidence all the three were born In Thanjavur district, the first two in Tiruvarur and the third in Govindapuram. Of the three, Sri Thyagaraja who is also known as Thyagabrahmam comes of a Telugu Brahmin family of scholars who shifted south when Vijayanagar Empire fell to Muslim invasion. Thyagaraja came of a highly cultured family of scholars. His grandfather Giriraja Kavi was a poet and musician, attached to the Royal court of Thajavur. His father Ramabrahmam was a Vedic scholar, who gave musical discourses on puranas and Ithihasas.
Shortly after his birth, his father had shifted from Thanjavur to Thiruvaiyaru, on the banks of the River Cauvery. Sri Thyagaraja became well versed in Sastras under the guidance of his father while his mother Seethamma encouraged him to sing devotional songs. He studied Sanskrit, astrology and was also well versed in his mother tongue, Telugu. He started learning music under Sonti Venkataramanayya, one of the foremost singers of the day, from his very early age. He was given sacred thread at the age of eight. By that time itself he had become well versed in Jayadeva’s Ashtapathi and in the Keerthanas of Annamacharya, Bhadrachala Ramadas and Purandaradasa. He had also started composing kritis in Telugu from that age. His objective while practising music was purely devotional, as opposed to focusing on the technicalities of classical music. He did not want to use his musical talents to make money or make a name as simplicity, spirituality, vairagya, and sense-control marked his lifestyle.
He was a great devotee of Sri Rama and he had the good fortune of being initiated by one mahatma, Ramakrishna Yatindrar, in Sri Rama Taraka Mantra who asked him to chant it 96 crore times which he also faithfully carried out in 21 years with rigorous chanting of 1,25,000 Namas every day. One day when he was chanting he heard the knock on the door. He opened the door only to see in his doorsteps young Sri Rama as he was when he followed Maharishi Viswamitra to protect his yaga from desecration by asuras. With overwhelming devotion out poured from him the kriti in Ataana “Ela nee daya radhu----”. Though the sight of Sri Rama disappeared from his physical eyes it did not from his mind and from that day he started worshipping daily the family idol of Sri Rama with Laksmana and Sita Devi with great fervour, singing kritis. His attachment was for Lord only and his desire was for His Grace only. So when his father died, and assets were divided among brothers he took as his share only the idol of Sri Rama with Sri Lakshmana and Sita Devi. As his attachment was only for the Lord and not for worldly riches, he did not claim anything else.
Sri Thyagaraja married, at the age of eighteen, a girl called Parvati who died without leaving any children. He then married her sister, Kanakamba. A daughter, Seetalakshmi, was born to them but his lifestyle did not change. He was satisfied with what he got in Unchavritti, and did not hanker for any patronage or favours from the rich and powerful. Though many people adored him for his kritis, he had also his detractors who were commenting that his music, born of devotion is only for laymen who do not have knowledge of music and not for elite pundits. When this comment reached his ears his comment was only in the form of kriti in Danyasi “Sangeeta jnanamu Bhakthi Vina-----“
Now an incident happened which silenced his detractors and enhanced his reputation. One day a sanyasi came to his house. He told Sri Thyagaraja that he had come for special biksha and requested him to sing for him first. Sri Thyagaraja gladly entertained him with his kritis and after a while, the sanyasi gave him a book for safe custody until he returns after his anushtanams and left. Sri Thyagaraja waited for him to return after anushtanams and when he did not come back even after a while, went in search of him. He did not find him anywhere. As he did not want to eat without feeding the guest, he went to bed that night fasting. That night in his dream Devarishi Narada appeared and said that he came as a sanyasi only to hear him and the book he had given is for him only. Sri Thyagaraja woke up with a start and saw the book he had received for custody was the book on swaras, “Swararnavam”. Gratitude to Divine Guru flowed out in the form of kriti in Bhairavi, “Naradha Muni Guru Raya ---“
Now his fame started spreading and he got disciples to learn from him but his life style did not change. Unchavritti and puja in the forenoon and classes to disciples, pravachanam, Bhajan and Aradhana in the afternoon was the routine. Now an incident happened that made his brother who already had a grievance that he was not encashing his talents and fame, to get angry with him. King Serfoji of Thanjavur, who wanted him to adorn his court as royal vidwan, invited him to the court, sending a palanquin with royal honours. His brother was delighted to hear the news as this honour would bring royal grants of land and money that will enrich their lives and so he advised his brother to accept it and move to Thanjavur. But Sri Thyagaraja who was not enamoured of wealth and honours saw the royal court only as golden prison taking him away from his Rama. So he refused the royal invitation politely with the kriti in Kalyani “Nidhi chala Sukhama----“.
The king accepted his refusal gracefully, respecting him all the more for his devotion and detachment, but his brother could not accept his rejection. The infuriated brother vented his anger on the idol of worship by throwing it in River Cauvery one midnight. Sri Thyagaraja was overpowered with grief when he found the idol missing the next morning and he started looking for it here, there and everywhere and was immersed in grief without proper food, rest and sleep for days. Even his brother was taken aback and regretted his action. A few days later Sri Rama appeared in Sri Thyagaraja’s dream and indicated where the idol could be found. Sri Thyagaraja waking up with a start, rushed to the place revealed and there in the river-bed discovered the idol buried in sand. He danced in delight singing the kriti in Bilahari “Kanugontini Sri Ramuni Nedu-----“
His brother now reformed also joined him in his Bhajans and Aradhana. Many eminent people were drawn to him and they visited Thiruvaiyaru to meet him and hear him. Muthuswamy Dikshithar, one of the trinity of Carnatic music, met him many times and discussed the nuances of Carnatic music. The son of Shyama Sastry, the other member of the Trinity, joined as his disciple. One day a visitor came to see him when his disciples were singing a kriti in Aabhogi. When Sri Thyagaraja learnt the visitor was from Mayavaram, he asked the visitor whether he knew Gopalakrishna Bhagavathar who had written the musical drama on Nandanar. And the visitor was none other than the Bhagavathar. Then in the course of his talk, Sri Thyagaraja asked him whether he had composed any kriti in Aabhogi. Bhagavathar did not reply immediately but that night composed the Kriti in Aabhogi “ சபாபதிக்கு வேறு தெய்வம் சமானமாகுமா ---“ and sang this kriti next day before Sri Thyagaraja and won his appreciation.
At the request of Sri Upanishad Brahmam, his father’s friend who was living in Kanchipuram, Sri Thyagaraja left on a pilgrimage for the first time with his disciples. After staying for a few days in Kanchipuram, visiting various temples there and singing Kritis on Lord Varadaraja, and Devi Kamakshi, he went to Tirupathi. At the time he went to the temple the curtain had been drawn and he could not have the Darshan of the Lord. He saw the curtain as his accumulated sins that come in the way of his vision of the Lord and sang in anguish the kriti in Gowli Pantu “ Tera Teeyaga Radha ---“, with a prayer to Lord to remove the inner screens of pride, arrogance and jealousy from him. The curtain fell down and he had Divya Darshan of the Lord.
On his return besides visiting Tiruvottiyur, Sholinghur and Chennai, he also stayed at Kovur, a Siva Sthala, accepting the hospitality of the local landlord, Sundaresa Mudhaliar When they were leaving Kovur, Mudhaliar secretly placed in his palanquin thousand gold coins, telling the disciples to reveal it to him only on reaching his place. When they were journeying through the forest in the night, thieves surrounded them and at that time only disciples told him about the money. Sri Thyagaraja said nonchalantly that it was Rama’s money and started singing the kriti in Durbar “ Mundhu Venuka------“ Suddenly the thieves dispersed as quickly as they had come but in the morning they came back. This time they fell at the feet of Sri Thyagaraja and prayed they meet again the two handsome princes who were guarding his palanquin with bow and arrow. Sri Thyagaraja knew it was Sri Rama and Sri Lakshmana who were guarding his palanquin and tearfully congratulated them on their good fortune to have the vision of Sri Rama and Sri Lakshmana. On learning this they completely reformed as Rama bhakthas and joined the palanquin bearers in carrying the palanquin of Sri.Thyagaraja for the rest of the journey.
On his return he continued his Rama Nama Sankeertan more vigorously in Thiruvaiyaru till his death. Sri Thyagaraja took sanyasa towards the end of his life and attained samadhi on 6th January, 1847. Before his death Lord Sri Rama appeared before Him and assured Him that he will join the Lord within a few days. This Sri Thyagaraja conveys in one of his last kritis, in Manohari “Parithapamu kani Aadhina Palukula marichithivo----", where he asks the Lord “Have you forgotten the words of assurance which you, seeing my anguish, lovingly expressed when you were on the golden boat on the river Sarayu in the company of the incomparable Sita, the assurance that you take me to you in another ten days." The Lord had not forgotten and it happened on the Pushya Bahula Panchami day in Prabhava.
On this Pushya Bahula Panchami day every year, thousands of people and hundreds of Carnatic musicians gather at his Samadhi in Thiruvaiyaru to sing in unison the Pancharatna Kritis, his immortal five gems of kritis, with accompanying artists on veenas, violins, flutes etc. as a climax to week – long festival of music commemorating the memory and works of this divinely blessed giant of Carnatic music. His life was a confluence and symphony of three streams - spirituality, saintliness and sangeetha. The divine words came vibrating from his soul as a moksha sadhana. The goal of his music was to lay bare his soul at the feet of Sri Rama. Apart from thousands of songs of kriti type, of which only 700 are available now, he had composed Utsava Sampradaya Keertanas and Divya Nama Sankeertanas which are sung in devotional congregations. He has also created two operas: Prahlada Bhakti Vijayam and Nauka charitram. While some of his kritis are in Sanskrit, the majority of them, including the operas, are in Telugu only.