Tuesday, July 24, 2018

An Inquiry Into the Eroticism of Thygaraja: Humanizing a Saint with Exaggerations.

What is the antidote to a century old myth making that turned a man into a saint? If it is anywhere but India one would say presenting facts but then in India facts never suffice and the antidote to a myth is, if not another myth at least an exaggerated and embellished version of facts. V. Sriram, a carntic music aficionado and famous trivia hunter rises to the occasion to humanize Saint Thyagarja, the preeminent deity amongst the Carnatic music trinity, with some facts, some trivia and dollops of sweeping generalizations.

A speech by V. Sriram titled, "Sringaram - Through the eyes of Thyagaraja" is an attempt to humanize the Saint by focusing on the erotic element of his lyrics. Sriram highlights a little known and less spoken work of Thyagarja, 'Nauka Charitram', 21 lyrics set in drama fashion that is often, mistakenly, referred to as opera.

V. Sriram
The literary tradition of 'Nauka Charitram' was an absolutely old and long tradition in Indian, particularly Tamil, literature wherein sex or eroticism is used as a metaphor for oneness with the Supreme. This is usually a popular genre for Krishna. The lyrics are not rich in the literary sense and in fact they are pedestrian and use very shopworn allusions and imagery. But, the lyrics abound in sexuality as pining cowherd girls, the gopis, lasciviously cavort with Krishna on a boat ride and tawdry descriptions of seduction are sprinkled liberally. The descriptions still fall short of the far more explicit and more unabashed eroticism of Tamil Bhakti literature.

The gopis in a state of sexual ecstasy try to get dressed but get their dresses all mixed up says Thyagaraja. From Sangam literature to Kannadasan one finds this shopworn joke about women being so mentally numb from sexual ecstasy that they don't know where their dress is. There is, dare I say, no originality in the lyrics?

'Nauka Charitram', Sriram says, is rarely performed by Bharathanatyam, that famously bowdlerized dance form of what was called Sadir. The reason is Carnatic music and its sister dance form did not want to acknowledge that Thyagaraja, now deified, was the author of this erotic lyric. Sriram then, in his continued attempt to humanize and romanticize Thyagarja, turns to his kritis and the exaggerations begin in full earnestness.

Sriram cites "Endu Kaugalinturaa" to underscore that Thyagaraja was no alien to 'Sringaram'. 'SRingaram' is a difficult word to translate. It is several shades more than romance and is not yet lusty. But it certainly is not PG rated gracefulness. The line "Where shall I embrace you (Rama)" is exaggerated by Sriram as erotic. It is a simple devotional question that is in no way an euphemism to hint at any eroticism. This is evident not only because the rest of the lyric, very simplistic in nature, does not support it but there are no other lyrics, besides Nauka Charitram, supplied as evidence of Thyagaraja employing anything erotic.

To support his exaggeration Sriram then cites the eroticism of Ramayana and how Hanuman, seeking to convince Sita that he is no impostor but a true messenger of Rama, describes Rama's 'private parts'. I guess Sriram was too blasé to recite the verses or state in simple language what Hanuman said. A tad ironical one could say given his complaint of how Thyagaraja was bowdlerized. Sriram exaggerates the shock value of eroticism in Ramayana. Anyone who knew the history of Dravidian politics, as one would expect of a chronicler, would know how Annathurai relentlessly waged a battle to cast Ramayana as pornographic and even authored a book selecting the salacious verses from the Tamil epic. Eroticism in literature has a long history and Tamils are no strangers to it. It is Carnatic music that unmoored itself from the history and sanitized music. Sriram never gets into 'why' beyond accepting that sanitization happened. Of course, if he had gotten into the why he'd be speaking like T.M. Krishna.

Having begun his exaggerations Sriram then sees eroticism in every very pedestrian lines that are merely rhyming.

நீது பலுகே பலுகுரா (Nidu paluke palukura) ---- tr. Your talk is the talk
நீது குலுகே குலுகுரா (Nidu kuluke kulukura) --- tr. Your walk is the walk
நீது தளுக்கே தளுகுரா (Nidu taluke talukura) --- tr. Your glow's the real glow

(Translation taken from William J. Jackson's 'Tyagaraja: Life and Lyrics)

Anyone familiar with present day film lyrics, especially by Vairamuthu ('முட்டாசு வார்த்தையிலே, பாட்டாச வெடிக்கிறியே'; 'இந்திரன் தோட்டத்து மந்திரியே, மன்மதன் நாட்டுக்கு முந்திரியே') will recognize that Thyagaraja was just being a lazy lyricist who is tyrannically subjugating lyrics to serve the rhythm. Ilayaraja who worships Thyagaraja thinks of lyrics as completely subservient to the beat of the song and actually thinks lyrics have to be substandard for the music to standout.

Sriram unnecessarily gets excited that the second line is ill rendered in English translation. Every language has its nuances and translations often convey the meaning but sacrifice the richness and sometimes miss the nuances too. My English professor said, with his tongue in cheek, that translations are like beautiful women, seldom faithful when beautiful and never beautiful when faithful. As for the third line Sriram completely loses himself and claims that it can never be sufficiently translated into any non-Dravidian language. He charges that the word 'taluke' (தளுக்கே) is often euphemistically translated as 'brilliance' (to denote luster). He cites the use of the word in colloquial Tamil to denote a woman acting seductive and affected, rather lascivious. The word, he emphasizes, is often used in Javalis and Padams, two genres of lyrics for dances that are notorious for their lustiness.

Where do I begin? Just because a word is used in erotic genre it does not become a word of eroticism.  It could mean "showiness" or simply "brightness". Jackson, I am sure is no prude and has chosen, with good reason 'glow' as the translation instead of any hint at naughtiness. Thou protesteth too much Sriram. Also, Sriram, being no linguist, he does not supply any further linguistic evidence of how the word was used then and what it might have meant in that era and to Thyagaraja himself.

The next song Sriram picks is 'Maravakara nava manmatha reopen'.

Kuluko pavala giluko kapurapu,
Baliuko chekkula thaluko manasa

(Trns. 'What a graceful style of walk, jingle sound of anklets, the speech scented like camphor or the sheen of the cheeks, oh my mind -- From a blogger)

These innocuous lines, Sriram crows, again show that Thyagaraja was no alien to romanticism and no saint. Oh my my. Is that all it takes? Oh of course there's that Vairamuthu style.

Srinidhi Ranagarajan, a Bharatanatyam dancer, in her introductory remarks said an opinion poll (online, therefore unscientific) conducted showed that 90% of the respondents said 'sringara' had a place in music and 10% had said no. Sriram, attempting levity in his opening lines, said he wonders who the 10% were and how did they come into this world without 'sringara'.

Sriram needs to learn that children are more often the results of byproduct of recreation and mostly as unintended consequences of momentary biological acts. Knowledge of sex and indulging in sex are not evidence of knowledge of romance or its use in high art. Billions indulge in sex and have no idea of romance or using romance in art. Gandhi, famously, knew everything about sex and spent a lifetime trying to extinguish it in his personal life. To Gandhi sex was permissible only when a couple indulge in it to bring forth children. Sex for the sake of sex or romance was abominable to Gandhi. That Thyagaraja was the product of sex and had a daughter from his marriage are laughable evidences to support the theory that he was a romantic lyricist. Remember, to Thyagaraja, like Gandhi, sex is still permissible only as an expression of love towards God. Sex as just sex and women as sexual beings were pathologically hated by Thyagaraja. Interestingly Sriram himself supplies examples in later part of the lecture to show how Thyagaraja could be repulsed by sex and used incestuous relationships as an abusive curse on those he disapproved of. Some romantic Thyagaraja was.

Javalis did not become notorious for use of simple words like 'Taluku'. Here's an excerpt from a javali  that Davesh Soneji provides in his exquisitely researched book on Devadasis.

"Listen, sweet hero of Dharmapuri. She's the one.
She has learnt her erotic lessons.
No woman can outplay her! She's the one.
She'll never say no to you, moon-faced one,
She knows all your lovemaking moods. She's the one"

Thyagaraja comes across as an ignorant teenager who has not even read pornography but only watched posters of soft-porn movies compared to such lyrics.

Sriram also alleges that Muthuswami Ddikshithar's lyric "rupamu juchi" is rarely acknowledged as Dikshitar's lyric because it is scandalously romantic. Nonsense. It is very PG rated. "Seeing your beauty, with love, I approached, can you get displeased" and so it goes making some fleeting reference to the god of love. That's all. If this is considered scandalous even the prudes of Victorian era would chuckle.

It is an old saw to blame imported colonial era Victorian morality for Indians becoming bashful about sex and sexuality. India, we're told is the land of Kamasutra and erotic literature and sculptures that depict orgies. Yes, India is that too. India is also the land where women have had severe strictures placed on their conduct and sex itself has come in for severe condemnation. It is not without reason that Gandhi was obsessed with curbing his sexual instincts and believed that such curtailment will give him powers miraculous enough to overcome his then arch rival Jinnah and keep India united. Alas Gandhi failed on both counts. Truth be told India's partition had more to do with Jinnah's intransigence than with Gandhi failing to be a Brahmachari. Sriram too indulges in this intellectual laziness and blames Victorian morality for Thyagaraja's romanticism being airbrushed from history.

In his hour long speech Sriram, after half an hour, practically veers into the history of Thyagaraja aradhana, the role of Bangalore Nagaratnam Ammal in constructing the mausoleum and its related politics, riffed from a biography he wrote about Nagaratnam and has no relevance to the topic. If his intention was to show the deification of Thyagaraja and the aradhana led to eclipsing his romantic side he fails miserably in connecting those dots. Even if he did it'd not have been truthful.

The 10% who said sringara has no role in music are not idiots who don't know about sex. In their minds art, particularly Carnatic music which is inseparably intertwined with devotional life, has no place for sex. The explicit eroticism of Bhaja Govindan or Soundarya Lahari does not trouble them too much because of its unfamiliar language and they're not staples of daily life but Carnatic music, to many of its lovers, is part of daily life. In daily life sex is for the bedroom and nighttime only, not an audio track in a car drive. More importantly Carnatic music was defined as devotional and one that transcends daily life.

The real history of the deification of Thyagaraja can be understood only as a product of a confluence of events in early 20th century. The question of "what kind of a culture will free India project as heritage and future aspiration" rode the wave of rising of nationalism in South India. The domination of nationalist politics by Smarta Brahmins aided the Sanskritization of arts that saw, both due to the abolition of devadasis and conscious marginalization of other communities by Brahmins, music and dance become devoid anything dishonorable. Sex, sensuality and eroticism in arts were actively eschewed by Brahmins, not withstanding the fact that several authors of very obscene javalis were indeed Brahmins. A reading of Sonjie's book made me think that it is not the arrival of Brahmins on the music scene that emasculated the sensuality of the arts but it is the arrival of nationalism and the Brahmins aligned with that wave that changed the nature of arts.

Of course, Sriram, who is more a chronicler in the sense he gathers interesting trivia and sprinkles them for spice in his columns, has no sweeping understanding of historical forces at work. My earlier blog on Sanskritization of carnatic music addressed that at length.

If his lack of intellectual rigor in history is appalling it is Sriram's upper class arrogance, that not just peeks but parades, which is disgusting. Referring to free food supposedly provided to the residents of Thiruvaiyaru for 10 days when Thyagaraja Aradhana took place Sriram compares it to the free lunch scheme that Tamil Nadu government has been running for decades in government schools to ensure nourishment for impoverished kids who typically attend those schools. It is sheer upper caste and upper class chutzpah to compare that with free lunch provided during Aradhana and that too with dripping sarcasm about present day politics.

This is what passes for lectures and talks on history in the Carnatic music circles. I'm sure the audience, as Sanjay Subramanian would refer, of 'mamas' would've dispersed saying "என்ன ரிசர்ச் பார்த்தேளா, நேக்கு இது எதுவும் தெரியாதுங்கானும். சும்மா சொல்லப்பிடாது மனுஷன் பின்னிட்டர். ஆனாலும் தியாகைய்யர் பகவான் தான். மனுஷாள் தான் பகவான்னு சாஸ்திரம் சொல்றதே".

During Q&A it was refreshing to hear Sriram tell a lady that he refuses to call Thyagaraja a Saint or Swamy and prefers to refer to him only as a composer. While that was refreshing Sriram unnecessarily compares Thyagaraja, married twice and one who has quarreled with neighbors and no miracles to his credit, with Ramana Maharishi and Adi Shankara and Kanchi Paramacharyal. In Hinduism a rishi could very well be a married one too. A better lecturer would've identified the history of carnatic music as the root of deification and opined that it is time to reclaim Thyagaraja as human being like Mozart or Beethoven. Srinidhi added some surmises about Thyagaraja's life and supported Sriram. Sriram said that even biographical notes published during Thyagaraja's own lifetime were very sparse, just a couple of pages. After 200 years we've barely added to the pages.

As I always lament history writing is NOT India's tradition. We love to create and propagate myths. Thyagaraja (1767-1847) was contemporaneous to Mozart (1756-1791) and Beethoven (1770-1827). We know so much about Mozart and so much more about Beethoven and compared to that even the shreds of what we know about Thyagaraja are pathetic especially considering the fact that he lived in an era when record keeping had advanced a lot thanks to the colonial era.

Someday I hope Carnatic music will be better served by better intellectuals and I can stop complaining. A note for those rushing at me with brickbats I've not said a word about music itself. I've only commented on lyrics and I've disagreed with the history presented. That's all. Please don't insult your intelligence by asking me if I know Ragas, no I don't and that's completely irrelevant to the topic here.

As for those who feel scandalized by Nauka Charitram may I offer a truly scandalous work of music and an opera in two acts, check out Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. It involves, according to wikipedia, 'fiancee swapping'.


1. Sriram's speech (I cannot bring myself to call it a lecture) https://youtu.be/ZAsYl2hOF44
2. Tyagaraja: Life and lyrics -- William J. Jackson
3. Unfinished Gestures: Devadasis, Memory, and Modernity in South India -- Davesh Soneji
4. Nauka Charitram (translation provided) http://translationsofsomesongsofcarnticmusic.blogspot.com/2015/04/nauka-charithram-of-saint-thyagaraja.html
5. RUpamu Juchi lyrics http://www.narthaki.com/barchives/messages7/1259.html
6. Taluku (தளுக்கு) Dictionary meanings https://agarathi.com/word/தளுக்கு
7. Maravakara nava manmatha roopuni lyric and meaning http://translationsofsomesongsofcarnticmusic.blogspot.com/2015/04/maravakara-nava-manmatha-roopuni.html