The Trinity of Karnataka Sangeetam

Music is an integral part of an Indian’s life. Classical music indeed brings peace and harmony to the soul. Musical renditions have the power to lift man from depression into ecstasy, especially when sung with a devotional note. In an earlier post on Hindustani music, we had seen the contribution of the legendary Pandit Bhatkhande in helping to sustain the survival of Hindustani classical music. Hindustani music is to northern India what Karnataka Sangeetam (Carnatic Music) is to South India. Like the former, Carnatic music is also highly systematized. In fact, classical Carnatic music is one of the world’s oldest and richest musical traditions. In the modern era, three musicians had seminal influence on the evolution and popularization of Carnatic music – Saint Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri. They were the Trinity of Carnatic music. They were each prolific composers with unique styles and were contemporaries who lived during the period between 1760 and 1850 in the Kaveri delta of Tamil Nadu. Even today songs written by them constitute an integral part of Carnatic music concerts. This post will narrate short anecdotes from each of this trinity’s life.

Saint Tyagaraja is the most well known among the trinity and one of the most celebrated Carnatic musicians. Even as a young boy, he was a staunch devotee of Lord Rama. He spent most of his life composing devotional kritis (songs) about Rama and sometimes neglecting his householder responsibilities. One day, the king of Tanjore sent an invitation to Tyagaraja to come to the court and accept his patronage, but Tyagaraja remained detached from this golden opportunity. He was so happy leading a life of poverty with his Rama idol that he did not care about riches or fame. He chose to remain at home worshipping his Lord Rama and not go to the court and get involved with money and politics. Even his own family members were not able to understand the pure and devoted heart of this sincere devotee. His elder brother was very disappointed at this seemingly irresponsible behavior and in a fit of anger, threw the Rama idol into the Kaveri river. Tyagaraja was heartbroken at this loss and composed several devotional songs in his grief also. It is believed that Lord Rama appeared in his dream, and told him the spot in the river where the idol could be retrieved. Following the idol’s retrieval, Tyagaraja composed happier songs celebrating his reunion with his divine Rama. Because of his intense bhakti (devotion) he was respected like a Saint. He attained Samadhi (realization) in 1847 in Thiruvaiyar, a small town in the Tanjore district, on the banks of the Kaveri. Every year on the Bahula Panchami day of the Pushya month, the Tyagaraja Aradhana festival – in commemoration of Tyagaraja’s Samadhi day – is celebrated in Thiruvaiyar and Carnatic musicians from all over the world congregate to pay their respects to this genius composer and to sing his kritis – especially the pancharatna (five gems) kritis.

Muthuswamy Dikshitar was also born in Thiruvarur, in the Tanjore district. His father was himself a well-trained Carnatic musician and composer. Muthuswamy Dikshitar composed kritis in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit. He travelled extensively throughout peninsular India and composed songs on all the deities he visited. He has sung songs in every one of the 72 melakarta rAgams (rAgams that have all the 7 notes). His extensive knowledge of the Advaita philosophy and the SAstras is deeply reflected in his work. He was solely responsible for reviving some dyine rAgams like Narayanagaula, Purvagaula, and Chayagaula. Among his famous compositions was the Navagraha Kritis (songs in praise of the nine planets). Muthuswamy Dikshitar was a practicing tantric and his songs has tremendous impact on people. Once Dikshitar was travelling through Etayapuram district in Tamil Nadu. His heart went out to the thousands of people who were living in the drought-stricken area. In his compassion, he composed a brilliant song in the Amrutavarshini (meaning a rain of nectar) rAgam called Ananda amrutakarshini. In the song he begins by pleading to the skies to rain some showers and it ends with the words “varshaya varshaya varshaya (meaning rain down, rain down, rain down). The minute he sang “varshaya!” tender rain drops wetted the parched soils of Etayapuram –which had not seen rain for several consecutive years. The amrutavarshini rAgam is compared to the Megh Malhar rag in Hindustani –when sung correctly these rAgams have the power to cause rainfall. We can still hear several kritis of Muthuswamy Dikshitar beign sung in present day concerts.

The legendary Shyama Shastri deserves no lesser praise than his two other contemporaries. Shyama Shastri’s compositions were also mainly in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and his mastery over tAlam (beats) is clearly depicted in his work. He has composed songs in some of the most difficult tAlams. His swarajathis in tODi, bhairavi and yadukula kAmbOji rAgams are very popular among musicians to this day. Like the other two, he also lived in the Tanjore district. It has been recorded historically that there was some amount of interaction between the three musicians and that they interacted with one another occasionally and respected one another very deeply. Once, a certain talented but arrogant musician called Poppili Keshavayya came to the court of the Tanjore king and challenged any Tanjore musician to defeat him in a concert competition. Shyama Shastri agreed to take up the challenge and he prayed to the Goddess KamAkshi to be kind on him and give him the skills to defeat the arrogant musician. Even though Poppili Keshavayya rendered a fine performance, Shyama Shastri left the audience astounded and speechless by an impromptu improvisation of a tAlam called Sharabhanandana (having 49 beats in a cycle). This tAlam is the rarest of all tAlams and even the most skillful musician today is afraid to take up singing with this tAlam.

Just because this blog post covered only 3 musicians doesn’t mean the list of famous contributors to Carnatic music ends there. There were numerous famous and influential musicians following the Trinity and many preceding them. However, the devotional nature of the Trinity’s work really endears the soul of the listener and helps him see glimpses of divinity through the medium of their songs, and hence we fondly remember the Trinity and greatly respect them.


  1. Tamil Nadu’s Contribution to Carnatic Music – A Bird’s Eye View (by B.M. Sundaram)
  2. Saint Tyagaraja
  3. Shyama Shastri
  4. Incredible feat in Carnatic rhythm

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