They were mere mortals, not realised souls like Tyagaraja!
How evil was Tyagaraja’s brother Japyesa/Jalpesa? Going by the Harikatha accounts, the man was wickedness personified. The dramatised versions for theatre and film later went to town on this and added for good measure a harridan of a wife, who aided and abetted him in all his plots against Tyagaraja. These characterisations were always helpful to highlight in contrast the exemplary conduct of Tyagaraja and his wife. But was the brother really that terrible?
Firstly, his name was not Japyesa or Jalpesa. There were in reality two older brothers – Panchanada and Panchapakesa, both named after the presiding deity of Thiruvaiyaru.
As per the biography of Tyagaraja written in his lifetime by his disciples Walajahpet Venkataramana Bhagavatar, the two were ‘gunamulenivaaru’ – lacking in good qualities. Of these, as per the same biography, Panchapakesa passed away owing to an illness and it was by way of prayer for a cure that Tyagaraja composed the song ‘Anyaayamu seyakura’ (Do not commit an injustice) in raga Kapi.
The line ‘naa purvaju bhaadha deerpa ledani’ is therefore an appeal that Panchapakesa ought to be rid of his suffering. Somehow this was later interpreted to mean that Tyagaraja prayed to Rama for release from the torments of his elder brother.
The second biography of Tyagaraja, written by Walajahpet Krishnaswami Bhagavatar, has it that the elder was Panchapakesa and the younger, Panchanada. It however does not mention the illness and death of one of them. Later accounts found it convenient to forget a second brother of whom little was known and coalesced both into one. By 1908, the brother’s name was firmly fixed as Japyesa in collective memory. This is probably explained by the fact that Lord Panchanadeswara/Panchapakeswara of Tiruvaiyaru is also known as Jalpeswara/Japyeswara.
As per the first biography referred to above, the surviving brother, Panchanada, married and settled down to the life of a householder. There is no further mention of him. The second biography has it that both the elder brothers could not get along with Tyagaraja, given their worldly bent of mind and so the mother, Sitamma, called in the village elders and partitioned the ancestral property.
Tyagaraja’s ancestral house in Thirumanjana Veedi of Tiruvaiyaru however only had a bifurcation – a single wall longitudinally divided the house into two. It is therefore most likely that just one brother survived till the time of partition of the property. That there was such a division and not in the happiest of circumstances is borne out by Tyagaraja’s song ‘Naadupai palikeru narulu’ (Madhyamavati). Ironically a perusal of the song would reveal that the villagers blamed Tyagaraja and not his brother for the partition!
Was Panchanada really opposed to Tyagaraja worshipping Rama? From the song ‘Naayeda vanchana’ (Nabhomani) and ‘Naadupai,’ referred to above, it would appear to be so. Both songs claim that Tyagaraja parted from his brother on a matter of principle . However, looking at it from a worldly point of view, Panchanada’s disappointment is understandable. Imagine having a genius of a brother, who by lowering himself to the level of mortals, could rake in plenty of money but refuses to do so. If we were in Panchanada’s shoes we would be equally enraged. He was just an ordinary person. But that does not make him evil. And no song of Tyagaraja explicitly supports the story of Panchanada flinging the Rama idol into the river leaving his brother to hunt for it. That the two families remained on cordial terms after partition is evident from a joint sale of the backyard of both the houses dating December 31, 1828. By then Panchanada was dead, for Tyagaraja and the former’s son Subbabrahmayyar signed the sale deed. The purchasers were two women of Maratha aristocracy – Lagubai and Bayammabai. The transaction, for 32 gold coins and three and three-fourth fanams was facilitated by the palace shroff (money exchanger) Ayyalu Nayak. The witnesses were three men from Thirumanjana Veedi itself and from this we know the names of some of Tyagaraja’s neighbours – Venkatarama Sastry and Sambasiva Iyer. We also know of two other co-residents of the same village – Venkatarama Iyer and Panchanada Gurukal, the son of Sama Gurukal.
Tyagaraja signed his name as Tyagabrahmayyar in the deed. Years later, when the palm leaf bearing this precious transaction surfaced in Tiruvaiyaru, a photo of it was published in the Music Academy’s 1946 souvenir. The whereabouts of the original are not known. A copy of Tyagaraja’s signature is now appended to the Thanjavur-style portrait of his that hangs at the Thiagaraja Vidwath Samajam, Mylapore.
Reverting to Panchanada, it is interesting that it was his descendant Ramudu Bhagavatar who was entrusted by Bangalore Nagarathnamma to conduct the daily worship at Tyagaraja’s Samadhi in 1921. His descendants continue the tradition.s