(Last Updated on : 25/02/2011)
Hymns and Bhakti Devotional Poetry of Vedanayaka Sastri were among his most prolific works. During his time, in nineteenth-century Tamil Nadu
, expressions of such devotion through songs and hymns were a common feature shared by Hinduism
and other religions. This system had been established in the Tamil region in the sixth and seventh centuries, with the hymns of the Nayanmars
and the Alvars
, the poet-leaders of the Shaiva and Vaishnava bhakti movements. By the last quarter of the eighteenth century, when Sastri was growing up in Tanjore, Tamil Protestants sang mainly German hymns in Tamil translation, in European melodies, from the Fabricius Hymn Book. This was a compilation of J.P. Fabricius that included several of his own translations. When Sastri began to compose his original hymns and songs for the Church, they were received positively by the missionaries who continued to be open to Tamil poetry and to Tamil singing styles.
Though Vedanayaka Sastri had great reverence and admiration for the German texts in translation that had been formative in his Pietist education, he went on to compose a large number of new Tamil hymns for the Evangelical church. A major reason for these compositions was the need that he and the other Tamil members of the church felt for a body of original Tamil songs with which to praise God and express their devotion to Him. Tamil hymns had to be original poems, preferably songs, composed in Tamil meters, genres, melodies and beat-patterns. The hymn translations of Fabricius and other missionaries were not true Tamil poems in the above sense. Sastri's hymns fulfilled the prosodic and stylistic requirements of Tamil verse, including etukai and monai (forms of alliteration and rhyme), ornate description, and the patterned placement of words in each segment. They were true Tamil songs, since they were set to Tamil (Carnatic) Raagas and Talas.
The Tamil Protestants referred to the European hymns in translation by the term Nanappatal (hymn of Wisdom), a modification of the traditional terms for 'hymn' (Patikam, Pattu) in the Hindu Bhakti traditions. Sastri's new creations, however, were called Nanakkirttanai or Nanapatak Kirttanai (Kirttanais of Wisdom). The majority of Sastri's hymns were composed not in older Bhakti hymn styles, but in the Kirttanai genre, a new eighteenth-century song form developed and perfected in Tanjore. The range of the Kirttanai was broader than that of the traditional hymn. Kirttanais usually contained devotional themes and simple lyrics which made them easily understandable to the common and uneducated people. They ranged in musical complexity and difficulty from those that could be performed only by classically trained professional musicians (Vidvan), to others that could be sung in a simple, often congregational (bhajana) style. In Sastri's hands the Kirttanai became the standard form of the Tamil Protestant hymn.
Vedanayaka Sastri as an Evangelical devotional poet was greatly influenced by the Tamil ideal of the Bhakti poet. The Shaiva Bhakti poets composed not only the words of their hymns but their melodies and rhythmic patterns as well. Vedanayaka Sastri found the ideal of the Bhakti poet perfectly compatible with the Biblical and Evangelical ideal of the poet of divine song. For the forms and themes of his Tamil Protestant hymns, Sastri drew mainly on Shaiva Bhakti genres. These were conventions with which the poet was most familiar because of the Shaiva Vellala background that he shared with a large number of the Tamil Evangelical congregations. Sastri used stylistic elements from the major Shaiva poets, including Manikkavacakar, Tayumanavar and Arunakirinatar, renowned mystics, each of whom is well-known for achievements in a different aspect of poetic composition. He included his own name and made autobiographical references in the final, 'signature' verses of his poem. In doing this, Sastri followed the standard practice of older Tamil Bhakti poets.