About the Talks


About the Academic Talks

The Social World of Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar
Davesh Soneji

This paper focuses on the social history of music in the time of Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar (1775-1835). Attentive to the colonial milieu and other structures of power and patronage in this period, the paper locates Dīkṣitar’s music at the cusp of an emergent – albeit elite – musical modernity. It argues that Dīkṣitar’s music, far from being a marker of smārta Brahmin “tradition,” as it comes to be represented by the twentieth century, was fundamentally sourced from a range of sonic and social worlds that included music for courtesan dance, nāgasvaram and tavil music, Marathi kīrtan, Hindustāni music as practiced by Tanjore’s Muslim court musicians, and European music. More centrally, the paper focuses on the fact that a major thread in the preservation and transmission of Dīkṣitar’s music – unlike that of Tyāgarāja or Śyāma Śāstri – is the central role played by the mēḷakkārar (today’s icai vēḷāḷar) community, which included non-Brahmin male nāgasvaram and tavil artists as well as female courtesan performers (devadāsīs). Popular versions of Diksitar’s life narrative generally come to us from celebratory twentieth century works such as Subbarāma Dīkṣitulu’s Telugu work Saṅgīta Saṃpradāya Pradarśini (1904) or V. Raghavan’s Sanskrit poem Muttusvāmi Dīkṣita Carita Mahākāvya (c. 1955). By contrast, this paper deploys both ethnographic as well as early print sources that push the boundaries that have hermetically sealed off certain types of historical speculations about Dīkṣitar’s life, and by extension, his music.

Temples, Sanskrit, and Tamil in Muttusvami Dikshitar’s Songs: The Tiruvarur and Thanjavur Kritis
Indira Viswanathan Peterson

Among the major composers of the 19th-century canon of Karnatak music, Muttusvami Dikshitar is distinguished by a corpus of kriti songs in Sanskrit, dedicated to numerous deities in the Hindu pantheon, and demonstrating the subtleties of rāgas in a stately and majestic style. In this presentation I wish to illustrate the deep connections manifested in Dikshitar’s kritis, not only with esoteric Sanskrit mantras and stotra hymns, but with local Tamil temple tradition and iconography, and above all the Tēvāram, the foundational Tamil hymns to Shiva authored by Nayanar saint-poets in the Kaveri delta in the 6th to the 8th centuries. Focusing on the songs to the deities Kamalamba and Tyagaraja in Tiruvarur, and the Brihadisvara and other temples in Thanjavur, I demonstrate the mingling of linguistic, musical and cultural streams in Dikshitar’s songs. Methodically treating south Indian rāgas along with north Indian ones, these Sanskrit kritis are framed in a shared Dravidian (southern) prosody. Steeped in the lore of delta temples like the Nayanars’ hymns, they embody specific envisionings of deities as icons, invoking their particular names and their temple abodes. Dikshitar’s kritis are musical icons of a uniquely south Indian habitus of space, place, deity and song.

Singing the Body of the Goddess: Language and Religion in Dikshitar's Kritis
Anand Venkatkrishnan

Muttusvami Dikshitar was born into a remarkably rich religious and literary world. Recent studies have reconstructed the social nature of intellectual confrontation in early modern South India, in which one wore religion on the body and defended it in the court. The South Indian Tantric tradition of Śrīvidyā, dedicated to the worship of the beautiful goddess Lalitā Tripurasundarī, featured prominently in this milieu. It was both a religious tradition - involving ritual initiation, esoteric spiritual practice, and sophisticated textual exegesis - and a literary one, making its way into the belletristic writing of accomplished poets, whose social sphere ranged between the courts, temples, and seminaries that dotted the Kaveri delta. Dikshitar's religion, then, was not a private preference but a public theology, one that he performed aloud through his songs in temples and homes alike. In this talk, I locate Dikshitar as Śrīvidyā practitioner in the context of the generations that preceded him. I then read some of his lyrics in light of this tradition's specific doctrines.