Muthuswami Dikshitar: Legend of Carnatic Music


By Nithin Sridhar

rAkAcandramukhI rakSitakOlamukhI

ramAvANIsakhI rAjayOga sukhI

shAkambari shAtOdari candrakalAdhari

shaHNkari shaHNkara guruguha bhakta vashaHNkari

EkAkSari bhuvanEshvari Ishapriyakari

shrIkari sukhakari shrI mahAtripura sundari ||

Translation: Your face is like the full moon, you who protected Kolamukhi-Varahi. You are the companion of Lakshmi and Sarasvati. You enjoy the Rajayoga, oh Shakambari, the mother of nature, of slender waist, oh wearer of the crescent moon. Oh benevolent one, You are fascinated by the devotees of Shiva and Guruguha. You are the single syllable Om, oh Empress of the world, one who enchants Lord Shiva. You are the bestower of prosperity and happiness. You are Shri Maha Tripurasundari.

These immortal lines soaked in sublime devotion and expressed in the beautiful Raga (a type of melodic mode) Sri, were composed by Muthuswami Dikshitar around 200 years ago.

Today, the October 21, is the 180th death anniversary of the Music legend who is celebrated as one among the Trinity of Carnatic Music.

Life of Muthuswami Dikshitar

Dikshitar was born on March 24, 1775 in Tiruvaruar, in the modern day Tamil Nadu to Ramaswami Dikshitar, an accomplished musician who had created the famous Raga Hamsadwani, and Subbamma.

He was exposed to music as well as traditional Vedic learning from childhood. He was also trained in Lakshkya (aesthetics) and Lakshana (grammar) of music. His father got him married quite young and had two wives.

At the age of 25, Muthuswami Dikshitar along with his wives accompanied his family Guru Yogi Chidambaranatha to Varanasi where they stayed for 7 years. Under the guidance of the Guru, Muthuswami not only learned the intricacies of Advaita Vedanta, he was also initiated into the spiritual path of- ‘Srividya Upasana’ (wherein Brahman is worshiped as Goddess Maha Tripura Sundari seated in SriYantra).

During his stay in Varanasi, Muthuswami also came in contact with Hindustani music that had a profound influence on him. It is said that, his Guru presented Muthuswami with a unique Veena (a string instrument) and shortly thereafter left his body.

Muthuswami returned south and went to visit Tiruttani (a temple town near Chennai). It is said that, when he was immersed in meditation at Tiruttani, he had a vision of Lord Murugan (also known as Kartikeya), and composed his first Kriti (composition) ‘Srinathadi Guruguho Jayathi’ in the raga ‘Mayamalava Gaula’.

Later he visited various temples and composed and sung many devotional songs. He is estimated to have composed around 450-500 compositions and the most famous among them being his ‘Kamalamba Navavarna Kritis’ that consist of 11 compositions that is dedicated to unfolding the mystery of Sri-Yantra.

Muthuswami Dikshitar also trained numerous disciples in Carnatic music. The most renowned among them were four disciples Ponnaiah, Chinnaiah, Vadivelu, and Shivanandam, who became famous as “Tanjore Quartette”.

It is said that on the day of October 21, 1835, after performing his daily Devi Upasana (Goddess worship), he asked his students to sing the song “Meenakshi Me Mudam”. While the students were singing the song, Muthuswami Dikshitar is said to have raised his hands and called out “Shive Pahi” (Mother take me in the refuge), and discarded body.

His contribution to Music, Society, and Spirituality

He is considered as one among the trinity of Carnatic music, because of his invaluable contribution to the Carnatic music through his vast knowledge, sublime spiritual realizations, innovation, and profound musicianship.

He was not only a music composer, but was also a musician who not only sung his own songs but was also well versed in Veena. He mostly composed in Sanskrit, and along with Syama Shastri and Tyagaraja, ushered in a new era in the history of Carnatic music.

Muthuswami is also famous for “Nottuswara Sahitya”- compositions in Sanskrit and Telugu that were composed for well-known western tunes. He transformed various Hindustani Ragas into Carnatic Ragas, and synthesized both music systems.

He was a pioneer of samashti charanam krithis– compositions where in the Pallavi (main stanza) is followed by only Annupallavi (second stanza) which itself acts as Charanas (last stanza), unlike normal compositions where Annupallavi and Charanas are different.

Muthuswami Dikshitar gave form to all 72 Asampurna Melakartha Ragas, by composing in all of them, thereby providing an example for various rare ragas that could be emulated by future generations.

Perhaps his most important contribution to music and society is his demonstration through his compositions that Music is not just an art, but is a Sadhana- a spiritual effort. He showed how music can be a vehicle for expressing sublime devotion and attaining union with God. Through his compositions, he repeatedly stressed that devotion is the key to the music, and attainment of God is music’s ultimate purpose.

For example, in his famous Kamalamba Navavarna Kritis, he dedicates nine compositions to exclusively deal with nine Avaranas (layers) in the Sri-Yantra. Each of these compositions are not only filled with details regarding geometrical shapes, the number of Yoginis and shaktis present in them, but also bring out devotion and the philosophy behind the worship of Sri-Yantra.

The compositions further bring out the tenets of Advaita Vedantic realizations. In his composition dedicated to second Avarana, he says: “Oh mind, worship goddess Kamalamba, and cast aside attachment to this illusory world.” Similarly, in composition on third Avarana, he begins by saying: “Shri Kamalambika has cast Her gracious glance on me, and now I am identified with the nature of Absolute Brahman, the fullness of existence, consciousness and bliss.”

Thus, Muthuswami Dikshitar, not only used his compositions to teach the tenets of Bhakti (devotion) and Vedanta (Non-dual philosophy), but he also effectively demonstrated that God-realization is the ultimate goal of music. Further, by his sheer dedication, devotion, and musical brilliance, he managed to start a new era in Carnatic music.