Carnatic keys

What we can learn from the stories of South India’s saint-composers

Arts and music have a way of flourishing amid oppression.

In a world that seems to be growing more intolerant, I still have hope that things will change. History shows us they always do – whenever oppression, bigotry and prejudice became common, arts, music and poetry survived and flourished.

In these times, the stories of some saint-composers from South India should give us heart. Their works transformed society, altered the way it viewed itself, caused upheaval and broke caste prejudices – even if temporarily, until the cycle repeated itself.

Gopalakrishna Bharati, a 19th century scholar, composer and musician, is best known for his Nandanar Charitram, a musical ode to an extraordinary 8th century Shaivite saint called Nandanar. Born a Dalit, Nandanar was a labourer, town crier and handyman who was prohibited from worshipping in the temples he was so drawn to. Legend has it that his faith moved stone (the Nandi at Tirupunkur temple) and caused the temple doors to open to him, challenging the caste beliefs of the time.

His absolution – by walking into a pyre by a mystical divine decree – is viewed as “upper caste appropriation” or as “purification of a true devotee”. Either way, it has played a major part in the Dalit narrative against upper caste oppression. For many, though, the story carries the message of breaking free from the shackles of social differences.


Bharati’s magnum opus Nandanar Charitram turned this story into beautiful compositions that are still the mainstay on the Carnatic platform. Bharati himself had an unusual life. Orphaned at an early age, he became a temple cook, but providential meetings with teachers of scriptures and patrons made him a legendary musician and storyteller. A story goes that the French governor of Karaikal was so moved by Bharati’s artistic prowess that he helped publish the composer’s works.


Another narrative that exists both in the mystical and in the mundane is the story of Thiruppaan Azhwar, a Vaishnavite saint or Azhwar born in late 2700 BCE. Brought up by a childless couple from the Paanar community of village singers, he was marked an untouchable.

Though a gifted musician and a devotee of the deity at the Srirangam temple, he was prevented from worshipping before it – until, according to legend, the deity ordered the head priest to carry Thiruppaan Azhwar into the temple on his shoulders. His Amalanadhipiran, consisting of 10 verses, is performed till date, a run of nearly 4,000 years.


This article was not about saints and their teachings. It was about hope that inspires devotion through art – and such art can introduce great change, transform lives, and break political and social shackles.

Anil Srinivasan is a classical pianist and music educator. His work in music education reaches over 100,000 children in South India.

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