Some of the greatest composers of music from the south before the eighteenth century
I have provided a list of names of some of the greatest composers from the pre-trinity (before the late eighteenth century). I have briefely discussed only some of these composers and I will continue to add to this list in the future.
6 – 11 Century
Thirunavukkarasar: (7th Century) This great composer was also known by the name of Appar. He hailed from Thanjavur in Tamilnadu. He was a Saivite or a devotee of Shiva and was known as one of the three great saints of the Tevaram Trinity. Tevara Pathigams are sacred humns and Thirunavvukkarasar has composed over 30,000 verses of the Thevaram. Even today, in Saivite temples, Thevaram is recited as part of the rituaals. Thevaram songs belong to the musical form “Virutham.” Appar is known as the father of the bhakthi or devotional movement. The Thevaram humns convey great philosophical ideas and are written in simple language so that the common individual can relate to them and udnerstand their significance.. The Thevarams are grouped under the song classification “Thirumurai.”
Thirugnana Sambandar: (7th Century) Like his predecessor, Appar, Sambandar, was born in the Thanjavoor district. He is supposed to have been blessed by Goddess Parvathi and from then on began to compose songs and other devotional lyrics. His songs are classified as virutham. The story is that Sambandar composed his first song, tOdudaiya Seviyan, at the age of three, making him the youngest composer ever in the world. Sambandar wrote a variety of compositions, some about nature; others, as a combination of romance and bhakthi or devotion, visioning Shiva as the Nayakan and the poet as the Nayaki. Thus, Sambandar contributed to the development of not only Saivism but also to the development of music.
Sundarar: (7th Century) followed both Appar and Sambandar and has even composed songs about these two great poets who preceded him. His songs, somewhat like Sambandar’s hymns, portray Lord Shiva as his friend, philosopher and even the playmate with whom he sometimes talks to in anger, jest, and affection.
Azhvars (6th to 11th centuries)
Unlike the three great Saivite composers – Appar, Sambandar, and Sundarar – the Azhvars sang in praise of Vishnu. There were 12 Azhvars. Nathamuni, an admirer of Mathura Kavi Azhvar, a disciple of Nammazhvar, compiled 4,000 hymns composed by the Azhvars into a book called the “Nalayira Divya Prabhandam,” a book considered sacred and important for expressing bhakthi by the Vaishnavite followers. A great feature of the Azhvar’s compositions is that they emphasize that, in reality, there is no difference between Shiva and Vishnu, bringing out the unity of one Paramapursha. Andal, was the only female Azhvar. She is supposed to have composed the Thiruppavai, devotional hymns sung during the month of Margazhi (Dec-Jan).
Manickavachagar (10th Century): Another great composer of the 10th century was Manickavasagar. He is the composer of two of the greatest poetical treatise of his period, ThiruvAchakam and TiruvempAvai. Although I have mentioned the period as tenth century, it is not absolutely certain whether he was from this period. A few historians date Manickavasagar as pre-Thevaram period (before the 7th century) while others place him as a poet from the post-Thevaram (10th century or later) period. Regardless of the period, the contributions to Indian music and poetry that Manickavasagar made through ThiruvAchakam and TiruvempAvai is unquestionable.
Note: Thirunavukarasar, Appar, Sambandar, and Sundarar, the thirumurthi’s of Devaram used several PaNNs or the equivalent of modern day Raga and similarly, the NalAiyira Divyaprabhandam also used several PaNNs. Thus, the Thevaram Thirumurthis and the twelve Azhvars have had a significant influence on the subsequent development of Indian music system. Interested readers may refer to sangIta ratnAkara, the musical treatise written by sAarangadeVa points to many paNNs as part of his treatise on Indian music.
Jayadeva (12th Century) is the author of Ashtapathi. Ashta means eight and these songs are written with eight charanams and hence called Ashtapathis. Jayadeva also is well known for composing a musical play (Gaya Natakam) in Sanskrit, called Geetha Govindam and Ashtapathis are integral to each other. Jayadeva was a poet in the court of Lakshmana Sena of Bengal. When Jayadeva wrote the Geetha Govindam, there was only one Indian music and there were no separate distinctions called Carnatic music and Hindustani music. In the Geetha Govindam, Jayadeva describes the relationship between Krishna and Radha, his devotee, and symbolizes the union of the individual soul with the universal soul or Paramathma and Jeevathma.
Arunagirinathar (15th Century). Arunagirinathar is the author of the famous Tamil songs collectively called Thiruppugazh or the Praise of the Lord. Most of the songs are in praise of Lord Muruga, son of Shiva. Like Appar, Sambandar, and Sundarar, Arunagirinathar also set his songs to music. One of the greatest contributions of Arunagirinathar is to the concept of Laya or Thalam. Because of his contributions to the development of Thala, Arunagirinathar is given the title of “Chandppavalapperuman” and “Talachelvar.” He has also been responsible for highlighting some of the greatest ragas and setting his compositions in such ragas as Anandhabhairavi, Varali, Lalitha, Malahari, Bauli, etc. Like the Azhvars, Arunagirinathar did not discriminate between Saivism and Vaishnavism. To him, all of these philosophies, took us to the same destination and the unity of religions was more important than differences. The Thiruppugazh highlight human values and righteous conduct more than rituals or worship routines. Some of the notable works of Arunagirinathar include: Kandarnubhoothi and Kandaralankaram – both in praise of Lord Muruga or Karthikeya.
Muththandavar (14th Century) Like many others before and after him, Muthuthandavar became a poet because of his extreme devotion to God. The story about Muthuthandavar is that when he was very young, he was affected by a serious disease and was neglected by his relatives. He lived near the temple and ate whatever was offered as food at the temple to devotees. He became very frutstrated with his life and prayed to God to rescue him. Goddess Parvathi, the wife of Lord Shiva appeared before him and asked him to go to the shirine of Lord Nataraja in Chidambaram. Muthuthandavar does accordingly and begins to compose songs in praise of Lord Shiva or Nataraja. His first composition was “Bhooloka kailasagiri chidambaram.” His other famous song is “Aru marundoru thani marundu ambalaththe kandene”. Muththandavar is well-known for the padams and is credited with creating the padam form of Carnatic music.
Annamacharya: (15th Century) Annamacharya or Tallpakam Annamacharya is from the holy city of Tirupathi, from the current day Andhra Pradesh. Annmacharya was not only a great composer but also a musicologist. He created the musical forms that we use today to separate a composition into Pallavi, Anupallavi, and Charanam. Annamacharya was born as into family that followed the Advaitic philosophy propounded by Adi Sankara. However, Annamacharya was facinated by the Vaishnavite Azhvars and their compositions and accordingly, converted to the Vishistadvaitic philosophy propounded by Sri Ramanuja. Some scholars even to go the extent of saying that many of the compositions of Annamacharya were literal translations of Azhvar pasurams into Telugu, his mother tongue. Regardless of whether such claims are true or not, the greatest contribution of Annamacharya is the codification of the bhajana or worship through songs tradition. He promoted madhura bhakthi or a devotional worship where the devotee assumes himself or herself to be a sweet heart of the Lord and consider the Lord as the beloved Hero.
Some of the great works of Annmacharya include: Over 10,000 Sankirtanas or musical lyrics, 12 Satakas (sets of one hundred verses), a treatise on SankIrtana lakshaNa or the grammar of sankirtanas, Sringara Manjari, and Venkatachala Mahatmyam in praise of Lord Venkateshwara of Tirupathi.
Kshetrajna or Kshetrayya (16/17th Century): He was born in Muvapuri in Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh. Many consider Kshetrajna to be the father of Padams (same claims have been made of Muthuthandavar as well). Like Annamacharya, Kshetrajna also promoted madhura bhakthi. He composed many of his padams on rare ragas. Please refer to the article on music forms for an explanation of Padams. He is supposed to have composed 4,200 padams of which only about 125 are available today. Five of these padams were composed in praise of King Vijayaraghava Naik of Thanjavur and are known as “Vijayaraghava Pancharathnam” or “Kshetrayya Pancharathnams.”
Narayana Teertha (16th or 17th Century) took up sanyasa or gave up family life at a very early age. His most famous contribution is the “Sri Krishna Leela Tharangini,” a dance-drama in praise of Lord Krishna. It was written in Sanksrit and consisted of twelve tarangas. The Krishna Leela Tharangini is nothing but the essence of Bhagavad Gita composed into songs. One of the well-known disciples of Narayana Thirtha is Sonti Venkatasubbaya, himself the guru of the Great Saint Thyagaraja. Narayana Theertha was not only a scholar of Carnatic music but also of Bharatha Natyam. The Sri Krishna Leela Tharangini contains 12 tharangams (or waves), 147 Keerthanas, 267 Slokams, and 39 Gadyams (a musical form). The Krishna Leela Tharangini is also an opera and takes us, through dance-drama, through the lives of Lord Krishna since his birth throuogh his marriage with Rukmini. The ragas that Narayana Theertha selected and used brings out the emotions. He is also supposed to have composed two other operas, “Parijatha Abaharanam” and “Haribhakthi Sundarnavam.”
Bhadrachala Ramadasa (17th Century): Ramadas lived in Andhra Pradesh. Bhadrachala Ramadas’s famous work is the Dasrathi Satakam. Ramadasa is supposed to have received his musical knowledge and blessing from the illustrious Kabir Das. There is a famous story about Ramadasa Ramadasa was a clerk in the Nawab’s court. When Ramadas collected taxes from the citizens, instead of paying it into the treasury, he used them to renovate the Sri Rama temple in Bhadrachalam. The Nawab assumed that Ramadas has stolen the revenue for himself and accordingly, put him in prison. Ramadas spent his time at the prison composing songs on Sri Rama. One day, Lord Rama along with his brother Sri Lakshmana appeared like ordinary citizens and paid the Nawab the money that Ramadas has spent building the temple and got Ramadas released from the prison. Saint Thyagaraja also refers to this incidence in his famous compostion, “Ksheerasagarasayana.” .
Sarangapani (17th Century): Like Muthuthandavar before him, Poet Sarangapani was famous for his padams.He has written over two hundred padams. He wrote compositions in both Sanskrit and Telugu. In his personal life, he was a Minister of Education in the court of Maharaja Venkata Perumal of Karvetinagaram, Andhra Pradesh. Sarangapaniwas also a learned scholar of the Natya Sastra or the Art of Dance. Most of his padams were in praise of Lord Krishna.
Purndaradasa (15/16 centuries): Purandaradasa was born in Pandharpur (currently in Karnataka State) and like his father, Purandaradasa was a money-lender by profession. The story is that Purandaradasa was also very miserly and he became liberated and became wise after Lord Vishnu came as a Brahmin person, asking for alms for his son’s upanayanam and Purandaradasa’s wife made Purandaradasa realize the greatness of sharing and charity.
After this incident, Purandaradas moved to Hampi and became a disciple of Vyasa Raya and composed many songs in both Kannada and Sanksrit. His compositions are simple and yet contain great meaning and wisdom. He composed his songs in many rare ragas such as Vasanthabhairavi, Manjeesabhairavi, Maravi, etc.
Purandaradasa is said to have codified or systematized the teaching of music and it is his contributions that allows every student to go through the hierarchical process of learning music starting from Sarali Varisai, Janta Varisai, Thattu Varisai, etc. For this reason, Purandaradasa is called the Pitha Maha of Carnatic music or the Great Father of Carnatic Music. Purandaradasa’s greatness was recognized even by his guru, Vyasa Raya. Vyasa Raya conferred the title Purandara Vittala on his disciple.
Arunachala Kavirayar lived in the 18th century. He was a maste of the Kamba Ramayanam, written by the famous Tamil poet Kambar. Based on the Ramayana Arunachala Kavirayar composed the “Rama Nataka Keerthanaigal” Another famous compostion of Arunachala Kavirayar is the “En palli kondeerayya,” in praise of Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam temple. He is also credited with other literary works such as “Ajamukhi natakam”, “Anumar Pillai Tamizh”, Sirkazhi Sthala Puranam” and “Sirkazhi kovai”.
Pachimiriyam Adiyappa lived in the 18th century. He is the guru of the great Syama Sastry, one of the trinitis of Carnatic music. Many of are familiar with the Viriboni varnam in Bhairavi ragam. Pachimiriyam Adiyappa is the composer of this varnam. Sri Adiyappa is also well-known for contributing the musical form tana varna. For this reason, he is known as the “Tanavarna margadarsi.”
Marimutha Pillai also lived during the 18th century. He is supposed have composed songs from an early age and most of his compositions were on Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram. His most famous contribution is the “Puliyoor Venpa.” His compositions followed the Nindatuti format.
Sadasiva Brahmendra was also a poet of the 17th century. Like Narayana Thirtha, he took up sanyasa at a very young age. He had composed about two dozen songs in the Sanksrit language. Most of them are sung as part of the Bhajana sampradaya. Many of today’s musicians have also popularized his compostions (e.g. M. Balamuralikrishna). Most of his compositions were either about Sri Rama or Lord Krishna and in some cases about the Nirguna Brahman or Lord without attributes. One of his famous conposition is Gayathri Vanamali.
Oothukadu vEnkatasubbayyar was almost the end of the gredat composers of the pre-triniti era. He hailed from Mannargudi in Thanjavur District of current day Tamilnadu. He is also popularly known as Venkata Kavi. Venkata Kavi is supposed to have been blessed by Lord Krishna and hence acquired his musical knowledge through the Lord’s blessings. Most of Venkatasubbayar’s compositions have not been preserved and have been lost to posterity. If we preserve even some of his compositions today and have access to the treasures of this great musician, it is because of musicians such as Needamangalam Krishnamurthy Bhagavatar and most recently, Chitraveena Ravikiran.
Oothukkadu Venkata Kavi was prolific and was a learned scholar of not only music but also dance and was proficient in many languages. His knowledge translated itself into his compositions evidenced by the hundreds of rare and traditional ragas that he has used and the rare and complicated thalas that he has handled. He not only produced the regular kritis but also various forms within them such as tillana, sloka, kavadi chindu, and javali. His most significant contributions include: Kamakshi Navavarna kritis, Saptaratnas (similar to Pancharathnas of Saint Thyagaraja), and even couple of operas. His compositions expressed not only bhakthi and devoition to God but also moral values such as humility and modesty.