On 17th November, 2015, my wife Sreelakshmi and I woke up with startling news from Chennai that the legendary soul stirring devotional musician Swami Pithukuli Murugadas, 95, affectionately called by thousands of fans spread all over the globe as ‘Muruga’ has attained the lotus feet of the Lord. He left us on the first day of the auspicious Malayalam month of vrichikam that coincided with skandashashti (the day lord Muruga killed the demon Surapadma). Alas, the life events of the unique saint, composer, singer and musician came to our mind making us restless and moody for a couple of hours. We sadly realized that the soothing and melodious voice that had always comforted us for years will never again be with us as his soul had merged with eternity.
Ever since our marriage in 1997, we have been very closely connected with Murugadasji as it was he who solemnized our marriage at an Ashram near Kanyakumari. We lovingly called him ‘periappa’ (father’s elder brother) and whenever we had problems in life, we often consulted him for advice and help. Interestingly, while guiding he had never tried to impose his ideas on us and had never interfered with any of our decisions. Rather, he gave counsel in such a way that we ourselves will find a solution so that the experience will always stay behind us. Once while bidding good bye to him after a short visit to his house at Mylapore, when we offered namaskarams he had advised, “Children, whatever be the life situation, always follow the OUP rule; Observe, Understand and Proceed, so that you can cross over the ocean of life smoothly and confidently. Observe keenly the real nature of the issue or problem, understand what led to the situation and then proceed with care and caution.”
Whenever they met, appreciating the in-born musical talent in my wife, without an iota of ego, the great musician insisted her to sing in front of him so that he could correct and steer her rendering so as to make her music more perfect. On many occasions, he had taught her the intricacies of classical singing and had always provided her the tips to sing with confidence and faith. He had always encouraged her to experiment with different ragas and talas and persuaded her to study new songs and techniques.
A unique saint, singer and composer in the lineage of great saint poets of India who had wandered the land preaching and propagating the glory and greatness of God, Murugadas (servant of lord Muruga), was never after name and fame. In spite of his introvert nature, the inherent musical talent won him acclaims from far and near and his passing away has left us with a legacy, which perhaps, no other musician in India can claim. He had written and composed more than 4000 devotional songs in different languages of India! Unfortunately, the modern age has not properly assessed and recognized this wonderful musician as he was always self-elusive, unassuming and simple.
Murugadas had been honoured with several citations and titles from far and near. Participating in the World Hindu Conference at Durban, South Africa in 1995, hearing his unmatched devotional concert that had stirred the audience of around 40000 people, Dr. Nelson Mandela, the then President of South Africa described him as the world’s greatest living devotional singer. Bestowing on him on him the title Sangirtana Samrat, late Swami Sivananda of Rishikesh said, “He has a child like nature, he wins your heart, he is a tyagi, he is the servant of the lord, he is the servant of all. The services he has rendered to humanity are invaluable.”
In 1998, the President of India Sri K.R.Narayanan presented him the Sangeet Nataka Academy award and the Tamil Nadu Government presented him the title Kalaimamani, the State award for artists. Bagawan Ramana Maharshi and Swami Ramadas of Anandashra have also blessed him and appreciated his dedicated and selfless services.
Witnessing the bhjan maestro’s recital was an experience by itself. Adored in saffron dhoti and kurta, dark sun glasses and saffron turban, Murugadas sits majestically in the centre of the stage with his fingers in the Harmonium. Often he starts the recital with a brief spiritual lecture and then a song dedicated to Lord Muruga. The devotional songs embedded in bhakti rasa with the melodious voice, vibrant tone and the rhythmic music from the Harmonium, Tabla and Mridangam in the background penetrates deep into the spectators’ heart and soul making the listener to the peak of ecstasy and merriment. One song after the other, slowly and steadily, the momentum picks up, making the audience drenching in different emotions. One can see jubilant and smiling faces as well as tears rolling down the cheeks of some other. The comment made most often was “He is amazing.”
The journey of Balasubramanian to Swami Pithukuli Murugadas was astonishing. Born on 25.1.1920 in Coimbatore to Sundara Iyer and Alamelu Ammal as their last child on a thaipoosamday (an auspicious day in Tamil Nadu as the day goddess Parvathy giving the vel (spear) to her son lord muruga), at the age of seven, the child began singing devotional songs and learnt the basics of music from his grandmother. Afterwards, he was attracted to the music of then stalwarts like Vilathikulam Swamigal and Brahmanda Paradesiyar, wandering saint singers of that time. Seeing the boy’s god intoxicated ways of life, it was the latter who gave the surname ‘Pittukuli’(meaning god intoxicated in Tamil) to him.
The financial conditions of his family had compelled him to accept odd and sundry jobs during his adolescent period. At the age of 15, taken up by the revolutionary spirit of the day, he left home to protest against British rule as a freedom fighter. In 1936 while participating in a protest rally in Bangalore, he was seriously beaten up by the British Police and completely lost the sight in his left eye. Inspired by the writings of poet Subramania Bharathiar and the speeches of Mahatma Gandhi, Gokhale and Tilak, he courted imprisonment for his active participation in the national struggle for freedom.
Later while wandering through India on a spiritual quest, at the age of 20, Murugadas had a spiritual experience that had changed the course of his life. While meditating on the banks of river Ganges, he heard an inner voice commanding him in Tamil to “Go to south India, you have work to do there.” At once, cutting short his wanderings he came back to Tamil Nadu to live the life of a singing saint.
He was an ardent devotee of Lord Muruga and one day obeying the command of the ‘divine force’ he went to the temple of Palani, one of the six principal abodes of lord Muruga, and met Brahamananda Paradesiyar, a saint and nadayogi, who is believed to have lived for more than 400 years. Murugadas became one of his beloved disciples of learning the music and devotional songs. Due to the blessings of Lord Muruga and his guru, Murugadas acquired the proficiency of composing lyrics and songs. He had performed in seven languages.
Long ago, he undertook a padayathra to the holy places of India covering 18,000 miles on foot, including the Himalayan abodes of Gods. In course of time his ardent bhakti towards lord Muruga earned him the surname ‘Muruga’ by his admirers and followers. He feels very proud of his surname and desired to be called only as Pittukuli Murugadas and the same name remained to stay. He has composed songs in praise of all the gods and goddess.
Murugadas believed in living rather and preaching and had donated a large portion of his wealth for the Deenabandu Ashram, Tamil Nadu and also for several orphanages and Homes. He had formed the Jothirmaya Devi Trust for giving free education to children of poor families.
Widely travelled, Sri Pittukuli Murugadas is respected by all sections of the people irrespective of caste, creed, colour and language. In 1978, he married Smt.Devi Saroja, a music composer, dancer and a musician as his life partner. The couple had no children.
As a poet-singer, till the age of 90, Murugadas had widely travelled in India and abroad, spreading India’s musical culture. His message was simple and clear, “For devotion to God, there is no caste, colour or creed. Every section of the population has its peculiar form of worship to God. It you sing devotional songs every day, God will free you from all pains, sorrows and miseries. With the present technology every one can now hear devotional songs on radio and television but love of God is the most important action of man. Everyone can express their love to God through service to our fellowmen and through prayers and devotional songs. God purifies the mind. That is why there is peace and harmony in the world.”
Murugadas, through his songs and life showed that to have a contended and happy life one must tread the spiritual path. His bhajans always stressed the need to surrender to the Divine for having a meaningful life. One of his poems stands testimony to his vision:
Life is short, time is fleeting
The world is full of miseries
Cut the knot of avidya
And drink the sweet nirvanic bliss
Feel the divine presence everywhere
See the divine glory all around
Then dive deep into the divine source
Realize the infinite bliss
Even though Swami Murugadas has departed from our midst, his thoughtful words, melodious voice and rhythmic music will ring in our hearts and souls forever.
Author: Pradeep Krishnan, Trivandrum, Kerala