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)