Though technically not a festival in the way we have come to associate festivals with, the Tyagaraja Aradhana is an annual music festival that glorifies the Telugu saint composer Tyagaraja. The music festival is observed in the states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, primarily in Tiruvaiyaru in the Thanjavur district, where Tyagaraja attained Samadhi. The Aaradhana is observed on Pushya Bahula Panchami day when the saint attained samadhi when musicians render the saint’s Pancharatna Kritis.
A composer and Carnatic music vocalist, Thyagaraja or Kakarla Thyagabrahmam was born on the 4 May 1767, to a Telugu Vaidiki Mulakanadu Brahmin family in Tiruvarur in present-day Tiruvarur District of Tamil Nadu. Tyagaraja and his contemporaries, Shyama Shastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar are regarded as the Trinity of Carnatic music. Thyagaraja composed thousands of devotional compositions, most in Telugu and in praise of Lord Rama, many of which remain popular today, the most popular being Nagumomu. Of special mention are five of his compositions called the Pancharatna Kritis or the five gems, which are often sung in programs in his honour, and Utsava Sampradaya Krithis or festive ritual compositions, which are often sung to accompany temple rituals.
Tyagaraja hero-worshipped the celestial sage Narada, a reference to this is Tyagaraja’s krithi Vara Nārada in Vijayaarī raga and in Adi taḷam. Legend has it that a hermit taught him a mantra invoking Narada, and Tyagaraja, meditating on this mantra, received a vision of Narada and was blessed with the book Svarārnavam by the sage. During his last days, Tyagaraja took vows of Sannyasa. Tyagaraja died on a Pushya Bahula Panchami day, or 6 January 1847, at the age of 79. His last composition before his death was Giripai Nelakonna in rāga Sahāna, Ādi tāḷam and was cremated on the banks of the Kaveri river at Thiruvaiyaru.
The Aradhana or ceremony of adoration is held every year on the anniversary of his death which is the fifth day of the waning moon in the Hindu lunar month of Pushya. The Aradhana is conducted by the Sri Thyagabrahma Mahotsava Sabha and is held in the precincts of the samadhi or memorial of the saint located at Thiruvaiyaru village in Thanjavur district. The Aradhana in its present format is less than a century old. A few days before his death in 1847, he formally renounced everything and become a sanyasi. When he passed on, his mortal remains were buried on the banks of the river Kaveri and a small memorial was built at the site. His disciples returned to their respective villages and observed his death anniversary at their own homes. The memorial soon fell into neglect and became quite dilapidated by 1903, when two of the last surviving students to have been taught by Tyagaraja happened to make a nostalgic visit to the site. These were the elderly and eminent musicians Umayalpuram Krishna Bhagavatar and Sundara Bhagavatar who were dismayed by the neglect and dilapidation and had to search for the memorial in the wild foliage of the riverbank. They arranged for the renovation of the samadhi and decided to commemorate the tithi or death anniversary of their guru every year at the Samadhi itself.
In the next year, efforts were made by musical stalwarts to observe the death anniversary regularly at Tiruvayyaru, and to use the occasion as an opportunity for his followers to converge and interact with each other. In 1905, a lavish ceremony, complete with the feeding of the poor and worship at the memorial as per Vedic tenets, was celebrated. Brothers Tillaisthanam Narasimha Bhagavatar and Tillaisthanam Panju Bhagavatar were the main financiers and organisers of the aaradhana. By the next year, the brothers had fallen out with each other and from 1906, each began conducting a parallel Aradhana. Various musicians also aligned themselves with one or the other and two rival factions came into being. The group and Aradhana celebration conducted by Narasimha Bhagavatar came to be called the Periya Katchi or the senior party since he was the elder, and that of Panju Bhat became known as the Chinna Katchi. Gradually, a convention emerged whereby the Chinna Katchi’s celebrations began five days before the Aradhana and concluded on the Aradhana day, while the Periya Katchi’s celebration began on Aradhana day and continued for four days after that. Both groups organised music performances and the feeding of the poor and so the public was the real beneficiary during the nine days. At one point, both groups were united and did not allow women to perform during the Aradhana as in those days, the only women who sang or danced in public were the devadasi or temple performers. Another point in common between the two groups was that they did not permit nadaswaram performances.
In 1921, the aged and childless Bangalore Nagarathnamma, an ardent devotee of Tyaharaja decided to dedicate her life’s earnings to preserving Tyagaraja’s legacy and perpetuating his memory. In 1925, she began the construction of a temple enclosing the memorial and according to some sources, she purchased the land on which the grave stood, whereas according to other sources, her construction was illegal, but tolerated by local residents due to its pious intentions. Nagarathnamma also had an idol of Tyagaraja sculpted and installed in front of the memorial. The consecration of the temple took place in early 1926. The two rival groups, while not interfering with all this, refused to let Nagarathnamma perform her music, or even Harikatha, within the temple which she herself had had constructed. Undeterred, Nagarathnammal began a third front which conducted its music programs at the rear of the shrine. This third event featured many women artists, and perhaps for that very reason, it began eating into the public popularity of the events hosted by the two Katchis. She also filed suits in the local courts demanding the prevention of the Katchis from entering the temple, claiming that it belonged to her by right. She lost the case, but the hours of worship were laid down by the courts, dividing the Aradhana day equally between the two Katchis and her group. Matters continued this way till 1940 when the groups united and it was in 1941 that the Aradhana as we know was first conducted and the choral rendition of the five songs was made an integral feature of the Aradhana. A huge complex is now under construction at Thiruvaiyaru at this site to accommodate the large audience that comes to the concert in ever-increasing numbers every year.