The most notable period for Carnatic music was the 18/19th centuries when three of the greatest composers of the music system lived and composed songs. These three great composers - Syama Sastri (1767-1847), Thyagaraja (1767-1847) and Muthuswamy Dishitar (1775-1835) - are called the Triniti's of Carnatic music. What distinguished the Trinity from other composers of Carnatic music is not only the number of compositions they composed but the messages that their songs contained. Indian music and Carnatic music in particular, was both an emotional and an intellectual phenomenon. While the songs and the music projected an image of religion and devotion, it was much more than these attributes; it was also a spiritual exercise that took the ordinary mortal from the everyday living to a higher state of philosophy and liberation. Saint Thyagaraja, in particular, showed us that nadopasana or the practice of music is the path towards moksha or liberation. Therefore, collectively, the contributions of the Carnatic music Trinities to Indian philosophy and spirituality is unparalled. I strongly urge the younger readers of this article, especially those growing up in the Western World, to understand the meaning of the Carnatic music compositions and use them for your everyday life.
All three of the Trinities lived and composed in Thanjavur, in Tamilnadu. Thanjavur is virtually the Carnatic Music Capital, not only because the Trinities lived there but also because the place has nurtured Carnatic music since time immemorial. The Kings from Thanjavur - the Cholas, Nayaks, and the Marathas - have consistently supported Carnatic music and the artists, and contributed to its current day greatness and preservation. Apart from the Trinities, several great Carnatic Music composers were either born or lived and composed in and around Thanjavur. Some of these stalwarts include: Varahappa Dikshit Pandit, Pachimiriyam Adiyappayyah, Govinda Dikshita, Venkatamakhi, Subbaraya Sastry, and Patnam Subramania Iyer and the well-known Thanjavur quartet: Chinnaiah, Ponnaiah, Vadivelu and Sadashivam.
Syama Sastry: (1763-1847 AD): Syama Sastri was born in 1762 to Visvanatha Iyer and Vengalakshmi. The name given to him at birth was Venkata Subrahmanya. He was proficient in both Sanksrit and Telugu. Even at a young age, he was highly proficient in music. Although he had initial music training from his cousins, later he came under the tutelage of a great sanyasi from Benares, Sangitha Swami and then from Pachimiriyam Adiyappayya (see his biography in Pre-Trini composers).
Syama Sastry composed most of his songs in Telugu and mostly in praise of Goddess Parvathi or Ambal. However, as Smt. Vidhya Shankar has shown, some of the compositions were in Tamil (Gowli Panthu: tarunam idamma) as well as in Sanskrit and also one of the compositions in praise of Lord Karthikeya, son of Goddess Parvathi. Syama Sastry and Muthuswamy Dishitar and Sri Thyagaraja, all lived in Thanjavur District of Tamilnadu. Syama Sastri always sought the blessing of the Goddess when he was in difficult circumstances. According to one story, Kesavayya, a great musician, was visiting Thanjavur and the King asked Syama Sastri to have a competition with him on music. Before doing so, Syama Sastri went to the temple and prayed to Goddess Parvathi, and sang the composition, "Devi brova samayamide' or "Oh Goddess Parvathi, this is the time for you to help me and to protect me." He later went to the auditorium and won the competition against Kesavayya. Similarly, during his visit to Madurai, Syama Sastri composed the now famous "Navaratna Malika" or nine kritis in parise of Goddess Meenakshi.
Syama Sastri's greatest contribution was the swarajathi. He converted these from their dance form to the musical form that we now know of. Some of Syama Sastri's swarajatis include: Kamakshi Anudinamu (Bharivai), Kamakshi Ni Padayugame (Yadukula Kambhoji), and Rave Himagiri Kumari (Todi). Syama Sastri has composed songs not only in popular ragas such as Todi, Kalyani, and Sankarabharanam but also in rare ragas such as Manji, Chintamani (Devi Brova Samayamidhi that I had referred earlier), and Kalagada. Another noteworthy contribution of Syama Sasti to Carnatic music is related to the layam or thalam aspects. He illustrated and and highlighted Viloma style of Chapu thalam (4 plus 3 instead of the more common 3 + 4). Another thala contribution of Syama Sastri worthy of mention is the kriti "Sankari Samkaru (Saveri)". This kriti can be sung either in Rupaka Talam or Adi Talam (Tisra Gati). Some of Syama Sastri's discicples are: Subbaraya Sasti (Syama Sastri's son), Alasur Krishnayyar, and Tharangambadi Panchanathayyar.
Muthuswamy Dikshitar (1776-1835): Dikshitar is the youngest of the trinities. He was born in 1776 to Sri Ramaswamy Dikshitar and Mrs. Subbulakshmi Ammal. Somewhat similar to Syama Sastri, Dikshitar also learns music from s Sanyasi from Benares, Chidambaranatha Yogi. One of the distinguishing feature of Dikshitar is that he was not only proficient in Carnatic music but also in Hindustani music (the Dhrupad style). Dikshitar's first composition was rendered in Tiruttani, about sixty miles from Madras city. In the Tiruttani Lord Muruga's temple, Dikshitar composed his first song, Srinathadi Guruguho Jayati Jayati (Mayamalavagowla).
Like Thyagaraja, Dikshitar has composed several "sthala" kritis or compositions in praise of the God or Goddess of a holy town. For example, Dikshitar has composed kritis in parise of Ekambaranathar in Kancheepuram, Shiva of Vaitheeswaran Koil, Meenakshi of Madurai, and in other places. Similarly, he has also composed group of kritis in praise of Lord Shiva and the five elements that he represented. These include: Prithvi Chintaya (Bhairavi) in Kancheepuram representing the element Earth, Jambupathe Mampahi (Yamunakalyani) in Thirunavaikkaval representing the element, Water; Arunachala (Saranga) in Thiruvannamalai representing the element Fire, Sri Kalahastisa (Huseini) in Kalahasti (near Thirupathi) representing the element Air; and Ananda Natana (Kedaram) in Chidambaram representing the Ether or atmosphere. Dikshitar also composed kritis representing each day of the week called VAra kritis. Actually, these consist of nine kritis, seven to represent the seven days of the week and the last to represent two other grahams or planets. For example, the Navavarna kritis, as they are called include kritis such as: Budham asrayami (Natakurunji), Brihaspate (Atana), Angarakam, Surya Murthe.
Most of Dikshitar's kritis were in written in the Sanksrit language but some were in Telugu and a few even in Manipravalam or more than one language. He ended his kritis with his stamp or Mudra, Guruguha. One of the most well known kriti of Dikshitar is: Vatapi Ganapatim (Hamsadhwani), Annapoorne (Sama), Kanjadalayatakshi (Kamalamanohari) and so on.
Saint Thyagaraja (1767-1947): Sri Thyagaraja Swami, as he was popularly known, was the greatest composer of all times and the most well-known of the Trinities. He was born to Ramabrahmam and Seetamma and learnt music from Sonti Venkataramana. Like the other two of his contemporaries, Syama Sastry and Dikshitar, Sri Thyagaraja Swami also lived in Thanjavur.
Thyagaraja Swami is credit with composing over 2,000 compositions. His great contributions also extend to to developing and streamlining the kriti form (transition from kirtana - see the article on Musical forms) and in the thalas, for introducing the anagata eduppu or compositions starting after the first beat.such as, ¼ , ½ , ¾ and 1½ beats after the sama. His compositions are mainly in the Telugu language and he has used multitude of ragas, both popular (Todi, Kalyani aarabhi) and rare ragas such as Kalavathi, Manoranajani. He also composed two dance dramas (Nowka Charitham and Prahlada Baktha Vijayam) and several group kritis used for special occassions such as the Divyanama Kritis and Utsava Sampradaya Kritis. His Pancharathanas are the most well-known (five gems in the ragas Nattai, Gowlai, aarabhi, Varali and Sri).
Many musical scholars and philosophers consider Thyagaraja Swami to be more than a composer. He is considered an "avatara pursha" or a "Great Soul" who led through life and interpreted religion, morals, and values in contemporary terms, in the light of the times in which they were born. Thyagaraja Swami was the first composer whose compositions dealt with human beings - their problems, society's ills and the consequent belief in wrong values. His teachings were ecumenical and catholic and opposed the narrow belifes and biases of human beings because of caste, religion, and origin. Thyagaraja Swami not only wrote about moral values and freedom from bias but, he also lived a simple and pure life to demonstrate to the world that the purpose of education and erudition was to mould character.
No other composer has been praised so highly by so many generations of composers and savants. From his own time to this day, composers have sung in his praise and wherever Carnatic music flourishes, there are aradhanas conducted as a homage to him. Many have wondered why all this praise has been showered on this composer and why an aradhana is organized only for him. The simple and basic answer is that he sang about man and the path to lasting happiness; he sang about music and nadha and, above all else, he led a life of Spartan simplicity and truth; totally rejecting the temptation to live a physically comforable life and rejecting offers of wealth and possession even from King Sarabhoji. There is no other composer with such a large and impressive array of shishyas or disciples; there is no other composer whose life story was written down by his own shishyas, even during his own life time and finally, there is no other composer who taught us "Sulabhumuga kadatheranu soochana" (ManasaA Etulone - Malayamarudham) or the easy means to salvation or liberation (worship through music or Nadopasana). His works appeal to the scholar and the ignorant alike. To those taking an intellectual approach to life's problems as well as to those who need an emotional solution, he has the right answer.
I do not wish to add any further lines to describe the greatness of Sri Thyagaraja, who has aptly been called Saint Thyagaraja. A few paragraphs are not adequate to do so. I have dedicated an entire webpage with numerous articles (Musicology of Thyagaraja) written by musicology scholars such as Sri T.S. Parthasarathy and Dr. R. Krishnaswamy (Founder and former President of Sadguru Sangeetha Samajam). I strongly urge the readers to read these articles because they contain valuable gems that no money can buy or no penance or yagna can deliver.