He was named Tyagaraja, after Lord Tyagaraja, the presiding deity of the temple at Tiruvarur. His maternal grandfather, Giriraja Kavi, at whose house in Tiruvarur Tyagaraja was born, was a poet-composer in the court of the king of Thanjavur. There is a composition by Tyagaraja which seems to be a pun on himself and Lord Ganesha. The first line says ‘giriraja suta tanaya’. This can mean himself as he is the son of Giriraja’s daughter. It can also mean Lord Ganesha as he is the son of the daughter of Giriraja (King of the mountains – Himavanta). The family was a pious Telugu-speaking smartha brahmin family of the Mulukanadu subsect.
Tyagaraja was married at a young age to Parvatamma, who died shortly afterwards. Tyagaraja then married Kamalamba and they had a daughter named Sitalakshmi. Tyagaraja attained moksha on January 6, 1847.
Tyagaraja started his musical training under Sonti Venkataramanayya, a noted scholar of music, at an early age. Tyagaraja regarded music as a way to experience the love of God. His objective while performing music was purely devotional rather than to display his mastery over technicalities of music. He also showed a flair for composing music and while in his teens composed his first song Namo Namo Raghavaya in Desikatodi and inscribed it on the walls of the house.
A few years later Sonti Venkataramanayya, invited Tyagaraja to perform at his house in Thanjavur. On that occasion, Tyagaraja sang Endaro Mahaanubhavulu, the fifth of the Pancharatna Krithis. Pleased with Tyagaraja’s song, Sonti Venkataramanayya told the king of Thanajavur about the genius of Tyagaraja. The king sent an invitation, accompanied with many rich gifts, inviting Tyagaraja to attend the royal court. Tyagaraja, however was not inclined for a career at the court. He rejected the invitation outright, composing another gem of a kriti, Nidhi Chala Sukhama (does wealth bring happiness?) on this occasion. Angered at his rejection of the royal offer, Tyagaraja’s brother threw the statues of Rama Tyagaraja used in his prayers into the nearby river Kaveri. Tyagaraja, unable to bear the separation with his Lord, went on pilgrimages to all the major temples in south India and composed many songs in praise of the deities of those temples.
In addition to nearly 600 songs (kritis), Tyagaraja composed two musical plays (dramas) in Telugu, the Prahalada Bhakti Vijaya and the Nauka Charita. Prahlada Bhakti Vijaya is in five acts with 45 kritis set in 28 ragas and 138 verses, in different metres in Telugu. Nauka Charitam is a shorter play in one act with 21 kritis set in 13 ragas and 43 verses. It is the most popular of Tyagaraja’s operas, and is a creation of the composer’s own imagination and has no basis in the Bhagavatam.
Often overlooked is the fact that Tyagaraja’s works are some of the best and most beautiful literary expressions in Telugu language. He is considered as an incarnation of Maharshi Valmiki, while Valmiki composed the Ramayana, the story of Rama, with 24,000 verses, Tyagaraja composed 24,000 kritis in praise of the lord.
K.V. Ramachandran, a well-known 20th-century Indian music critic, wrote: “Thyagaraja is an indefatigable interpreter of the past…but if with one eye he looks backward, with the other he looks forward as well. Like Prajapati he creates his own media and adores his Rama not alone with jewel-words newly fashioned, but also with jewel-music newly created. It is this facet of Thyagaraja that distinguishes him from his illustrious contemporaries.” In other words, while Tyagaraja’s contemporaries were primarily concerned with bringing audiences the music of the past, Tyagaraja did so while also pioneering new musical concepts.