The Southern Indian classical music world owes a great deal to Venkataramana Bhagavathar (1781-1874), one of the prime students of the great composer Saint Thyagaraja (1767-1847). But for him, we will not find many precious works of the saint today. He stayed with his Guru (Teacher) for almost 26 years, learning music, taking notes and serving him. He was meticulous in writing the compositions on palm leaves and preserving them for posterity. The saint’s few operas too saw the light of the day due to Bhagavathar’s efforts. It is said that he had a beautiful writing as well, as evident from the palm leaves still kept in the town of Madurai, along with other memorabilia of him and the Saint, including the tanbura of St.Thyagaraja.
A couple of weeks ago, I had an opportunity to visit the house the Bhagavathar lived on his return from Thiruvaiyaru, the place of Thyagaraja. Belonging to Sowrashtra (a part of Gujarat in Western India) community, he settled down in Walajapet where many of his ilk lived. The Nayak Rulers of Southern India had great liking for silk wears and as the Saurashtrians were specialists in the weaving trade, they were invited by the Kings to come down south to take care of the royal wardrobe. Walajapet being close to Kanchipuram, a town known for silk-weaving for centuries, must certainly have played a role for this community to take roots here. Later though, the Nawabs of Arcot in the neighbourhood too enjoyed the silk robes woven by this community. In addition to teaching music, Bhagavathar engaged himself in weaving, his community tradition, to make a living.
The house stands as it was during his time and Bhagavathar’s seventh generation continue to live here. One of Bhagavathar’s music student, Pallavi Ellayyar, must have been a talented artist as the living room walls take up his numerous paintings. But his priceless works are kept at the altar (not allowed to photograph) – portraits of Rama and Sita, the Bhagavathar and Saint Thyagaraja; Also, the idols of Rama and Krishna given to Bhagavathar by the saint. Though various portrayal of Thyagaraja in circulation, if one wants to have an authentic look of the saint, this must be the place to visit as the painting was done during his visit here. The popular number, ‘nannu palimpa’ in the raga Mohanam supposed to have burst out of the saint when Bhagavathar presented him with a portrait of his beloved Rama, painted by his student, on the occasion of the saint’s daughter’s wedding.
Here’s the sampler of the song –
Having reunited with his student for a few days, the saint and his entourage walked on towards Thirupati where the magical ‘Theratiyagaradha’ flowed out of the saint’s heart.
I was told that many of Bhagavathar’s and the saint’s belongings once here were taken away by Bhagavathar’s community and followers from the town of Madurai to be preserved there. Bhagavathar too has lot of compositions that are sung in the concert circuit today.
Walking down the lane where these immortals walked and lived left a blissful chill up the spine !!