The Singer by the River

On the occasion of Thyagaraja’s Birth Anniversary

Author of three books on Saint Thyagaraja and several other books on South Indian singer-saints, Professor William Jackson shares his love for India and her music.

The Singer by the River is a novel about the South Indian singer-saint Tyagaraja (1767-1847). The story of Tyagaraja, growing up in the village of Thiruvaiyaru and becoming the greatest composer of South Indian music is interwoven with the stories of his brother Jalpesh, who is remembered traditionally as a troublemaker and trickster. While Tyagaraja follows his inspiration to find spiritual heights through creating mystical music, his brother gets into trouble time and again, disturbing the plans of his family, and his community, and incurring the wrath of rulers who try to reign and control their fates and the land. The story of the saint and his brother is both poignant and humorous.

By Professor William Jackson

I fell in love with India when I first visited for six months in 1970-71. It was a new beginning for me, I learned so much. I drew pictures of elephants, monkeys, cows, flowers and birds. I met friendly people, saw the ocean and temples, experienced the Indian dawns, storms and sunsets. I wrote poetry and read books like The Yogavasishtha, and The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, about a Tibetan sage. India gave me a new beginning, a fresh set of principles. Yes, I fell in love with India.

My PhD is from Harvard University, in the Comparative Study of Religions. My special area of focus in that program was Hindu traditions. The story of my path leading up to that degree program is a long and winding one. I grew up in the Catholic tradition in Rock Island, Illinois, in the time of the Latin liturgy. That meant an education in Catholic schools, and serving mass as an altar boy, reciting the Latin responses to the priest, and also singing in a choir. 

“Thyagaraja’s songs have a meditative quality, the sounds put one in a meditative mood, in my experience.”

When my first marriage ended in divorce when I was twenty-two or so, there was no place for me in the Catholic Church, because divorce is forbidden. I went to India to learn from a spiritual teacher, and part of the tradition I followed include bhajans, as well as meditation, and social service.

 That led to many friendships with Indians. One friend, Ram Ramachandran gave me a book by Raghavan and Ramanujachari, “The Heritage of Thyagaraja.” Ram also took me to hear M.S. Subbalakshmi sing in a concert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. My PhD program was in the Comparative Study of Religion, which is also known as the History of Religions. When it was time (after several years of studying Sanskrit, and courses on Indian Literature and studies of various religious traditions (my favorite were the poems and songs of mystics from around the world) I had to pick a thesis topic; because I knew from my spiritual teacher and from friends that Thyagaraja was considered an authentic voice of bhakti, I chose to study his life and works, to learn all I could about him. I spent 18 months in India doing PhD research between1980-82.    

I love the sounds of Indian classical music, but I am not a musicologist, so the sahitya rather than the sangita is what I work with as a scholar. I am a poet and for a long time I have written lyrics—jotting them in notebooks. I enjoyed reading the lives of the saints in my childhood, and so the poet-composer-saint Thyagaraja was a historical figure I wanted to study. I felt that music has a power beyond explanation. I wanted to write about the mystic-musician.

 I loved to attend many concerts during the time I was studying Thyagaraja in Chennai. I interviewed musicians and musicologists because I was ignorant of the tradition, and was determined to learn as much as I could. I’m a historian of religion and so I am concerned more with the lives and works of the saints, rather than music. Later, when I became a professor at Indiana University, my job description was to continue researching other topics related to my study of South Indian devotion and music. And so I studied Namasiddhanta in the Kaveri delta, and the Vijayanagara empire singer-saints, etc.

“There’s feeling in Thyagaraja’s songs and also wisdom. “

I studied Sanskrit with Prof Daniel Ingalls for three years at Harvard, and studied Telugu at the University of Wisconsin, with Prof Velcharu Naranayan Rao, and at the University of Madras I studied Telugu (especially Thyagaraja’s Nauka Charitra text) with Prof Krishnamurthy. While in Madras for my PhD thesis research I met with T. S. Parthasarathy almost daily for 18 months to go through Thyagaraja’s krithi lyrics, translating them with him, and writing out the meanings. I studied the Kannada of Purandaradasa and Kanakadasa with Narayana Bhatt in New Delhi.

Thyagaraja’s songs have a meditative quality, the sounds put one in a meditative mood, in my experience. The lyrics of course express moods of devotion, the dramas of a devotee’s relationships to the Supreme Being. They also express reminders, sometimes in proverb-like lines, to be a good person, avoid pitfalls, and keep the faith, surrender to God’s will. So all those universal spiritual teachings are inspiring. There’s feeling in Thyagaraja’s songs and also wisdom.

It is not a perfect fit with the academic life, because bhakti is devotional love and love is not easy to talk about in a strictly rational world, but there are ways to translate the lyrics, tell the saints’ life stories, show how spiritual and creative people have been important in culture and in history.

I’ve been exploring archetypes in various ways all these years—the archetypes in singer-saints’ songs and life stories, the archetypes in storytelling, the archetypes in cultures and in psyches. In the last two decades I’ve studied archetypal psychology, in the writings of C. G. Jung and James Hillman especially. The deep images in our dreams, in our religions, in our creative works, are very important, they determine a lot. They attract us and impel us.

So for years as a university professor and writer of books and articles I worked to put forward an appreciation of the wisdom in the works of inspired people. I feel that wisdom is life-supportive, and shows the way to fulfill one’s life.

(William Jackson, Professor Emeritus Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis)

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