Compiled by Sri Ramakrishna Prasad – Chennai
Gopalakrishna Bharati will be remembered forever due to his Magnum Opus opera “Nandanar Charitram”. Tamil scholar, U.Ve.Swaminatha Iyer, couldn’t have been more right when he described Nandanar Charitram as “a gift to Carnatic music and a perfect specimen of a Tamil opera.” It is said, Bharati got the inspiration to compose “Nandanar Charitram” after seeing the sculpture of Nandan with Shovel and Crowbar at the Chidambaram Temple.
The highly emotional Tamil opera Nandanar Charitram of GKB, when it was launched, in the mid-nineteenth century tugged at the heartstrings of the entire Tamil diaspora and even spread further to draw the attention of the French collector of Karaikal, Seesay. Familiar with the language and music of the locals, Seesay expressed his appreciation of this masterpiece of an opera by undertaking its publication. The first edition came out on November 11, 1861, and the second barely nine months later, in August 1862.
About 200 years ago Gopalakrishna Bharathi (1810-1896) was born in Narimanam, a village near Nagapattinam in Tamilnadu. His father’s name is Ramaswami Bharati. Music was one of the ancestral properties that he inherited. Gopalakrishna Bharati lived in Mudikondan village, near Nannilam for a brief period. He also served at the Sri Saraswathi Temple at Koothanur village. Later, when he moved to Ananda Thandava puram, near Mayavaram, Annoo Iyer, a local good samaritan supported him and his stay in the village for a long period. Bharati considered Govindasivam, also called Govinda yati his philosophical guru under whom he learnt vedantas and yoga shastras. He was trained in music under the veteran Ghanam Kishna Iyer and learnt Hindustani music from another exponent, Ramdas.
Formal study of Hindu philosophical and religious lore and interactions with composers like Anantabharati Iyengar, enriched his flair for composing and singing. Deeply spiritual, Bharati led life with yogic discipline. His compositions, only in Tamil, reflected these aspects in ample measure. He had commendable ability to grasp and reproduce complex musical feats. In those days thanks to the boom in Carnatic Music several musicians lived in the village of Tamilnadu. Listening to the music of these artistes further enriched Bharati’s musical prowess. He amalgamated his understanding of music with his proficiency in language and started composing kirtanas. As time progressed his bank of compositions increased and so did his passion of composing. Gopalakrishna Bharathi composed several kritis on the principles of advaita. Gopalakrishna Bharathi’s kritis, portraying several musical facades, were extremely well received by the public and were sung in a number of concerts during his lifetime. This prompted several musicians to approach Gopalakrishna Bharathi. The musicians would express his vision for a new kirtana and Bharathi would always oblige and compose a song to fit the musician’s requirement. He lived life as a celibate, doing yoga.
The story of Nandanar, as Bharati developed it, had considerable resonance with the Nationalist movement in India. Nandanar was an untouchable (dalit), and M. K. Gandhi, among others, saw his story as expressing the plight and aspirations of India’s dalits. Others argue that Nandanar, with his burning desire to see Lord Siva at Chidambaram, captured the mood and paralleled the aspirations of Indian nationalists yearning for independence from Britain.
Once, Bharati visited the legendary Saint Thyagaraja. The latter on coming to know that the visitor to his house was from Mayuram, asked, “Do you know Gopalakrishna Bharati?” The affirmative answer led to a lengthy conversation. Bharti then listened to Thyagaraja’s disciples singing a kriti of Thyagaraja “Manasu Nilpa” in the Ragam Abhogi. Then he went to bathe in the river Kaveri, and composed the famous kriti “Sabhapatikku Veru Deivam Samanamaguma” on the spot in Tamil in the same ragam on Lord Nataraja of Chidambaram. When he came back to Thyagaraja’s house, Thyagaraja asked GKB if he has composed any kriti in Abhogi. GKB said he did so after hearing Thyagaraja’s kriti and sang it for him. Thyagaraja was happy and showered praise on GKB.
Inspired by Tyagaraja’s Pancharatna kritis, GKB composed a set of five kritis in the Ghana ragas — Nattai, Gowlai, Arabhi, Varali and Sri Ragas. GKB composed several songs and other operas to his credit. Many of them, including are popular on the music and dance platforms. The compositions show his mastery over literary and musical forms. Such is the variety displayed in them — Darus (situational songs), Irusollalankaram (dialogue), Sindu, Dandakam, and Kummi. He used “Gopalakrishnan” and “Balakrishnan” as his Mudra in his songs. GKB also composed many famous works like ‘Katakaletshepam’, Iyarpagai Nayanar Charitram, Tiruneelakanda Nayanar Charitram and Karaikal Ammayar Charitram. Many of his students including the famous Vedanayagam Pillai who was the District Munsif at Mayuram were taught a number of his songs by Gopalakrishna himself.
It is widely known that Gopalakrishna Bharati, although hailed from an orthodox family, was an ardent supporter of the downtrodden, as is obvious from his magnum opus “Nandanar Charitira Kirtanai”, a Tamil opera eulogizing the low-caste farm hand Nandan for his unbounded bhakthi, who was later inducted in the Nayanmar Hall of Fame as “Tirunaalaippovaar”.