Tyagaraja The Activist

by Rajeswari Satish | Aug 20, 2019

A preponderance of lyrics praising the glory of Rama reveals the peerless RAmabhakti of TyAgarAja. Did you also know that his activist mentality shines through in many of his compositions? As I was looking up some of the kritis I have learned, I was awed by some of his work that are germane to issues we face today! TyAgarAja the activist and reformer speaks out through these four kritis:

Kriti: Yagnadulu, RagamJayamanohari, Talam: Adi


lajnAnulugalarA O manasA


Ahi vishasamavishayAkrishtulai



In this kriti set in raga Jayamanohari, he condemns animal cruelty by bringing to attention the heinous act of animal sacrifice, illegal but still prevalent in some communities. Ritual killing of an animal to appease a certain deity finds mention in the vedas. Ashvamedha or horse sacrifice is said to have been performed by ancient kings. Tyagaraja says: “O’ Mind! There are people who declare that sacrifices lead to prosperity and happiness. It is the height of ignorance to resort to such devilish observances involving cruelty to animals.” At a time when these acts were perhaps the norm, TyAgarAja’s words illustrate his compassion, immense wisdom and independent thinking.

Kriti: Kanukonusowkhamu, Ragam: Nayaki, Talam: Rupakam







In this beautiful Nayaki kriti, Tyagaraja proudly says, “I have had the unique privilege of having had a direct glimpse of Rama. Even Brahma cannot aspire for such an honor. Unless there is harmonious integration of the body and mind oriented towards God, one cannot succeed by merely putting on the garb of spirituality and imposing on others”.

Tyagaraja is confident that he attained the auspicious darshan of RAma with his single minded, concentrated, and unadulterated devotion, with no other goal other than getting a glimpse of his beloved RAma. Don’t we come across umpteensuch pseudo spirituals that just put on their garbs and exploit vulnerable people these days? I hear Tyagaraja’s progressive voice in condemning such individuals.

Kriti: Padavi Ni, Ragam: Salagabhairavi, Talam: Adi




Raga lObhayutayagnAdulacEbhOgalabbutayadipadaviyA?



The last charaNam starting with “TyAgarAjanuta” is the only one generally sung in performances but I want to refer to the earlier passages here: What contributes to one’s status? By status, or padavi, TyAgarAja means not the stature or popularity that one has in society, but trueearned respect. He asks, “Does mere lip service to the scriptures help? Does mere pretense of doing japa and practicing austerities contribute to status? Does it help to have wealth, wishes or connections in high places?” Tyagaraja could be living today and asking the very same questions. Finally, he states that to be ignorant of the doctrines and principles (as demonstrated by RAma) diminishes the status of a person.

Kriti: Vacchunu Hari, Ragam: Kalyani, Talam: Adi

Vacchunu Hari ninnujUdaVacchunu Hari ninnujoochi
Mecchunu Hari ninnujoochi


 Ye japatapamulakurAduyAjanAdulakurAdu


The highlight of this kriti is the charaNam, where TyAgarAja declares that no amount of mindless chanting, meditation or penance  will bring you closer to God. Love and worship Hari with all your heart, detesting worldly pleasures, he exhorts. The message seems rather confusing, since we resort to japa and tapa to praise and show our love to the divine. What Tyagaraja attempts to convey is that, involving oneself in any kind of japa or puja with the purpose of attractingsocial attention, and no real love for God, is futile.

I am sure that there are numerous other examples of TyAgarAja’s social awareness, and activist nature in other kritis. Musically and lyrically, the brilliance of  TyAgarAja will undoubtedly stand the test of time.

Govinda Rao, T.K. (1995) Compositions of Tyagaraja. Chennai: Ganamandir Publications, 1995. pp, 322, 341, 376, 812

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