Swati Tirunal Rama Varma was the Maharaja of the State of Travancore and was a great patron of music and arts. He appears to have been a social reformer, who contributed to modernizing laws, improving justice and administration, establishing a number of institutions. In modern day Trivandrum, the Observatory, Public Library, the Zoo, Government Press, University College and the Oriental Manuscripts Library of the University of Kerala all owe their existence to Swati Tirunal. He introduced English education. Reporting on the King’s English schools in Travancore the Gardner’s Magazine of 1841 referred to the Rajah of Travancore as ‘the great promoter of science in the East’. It is said that he was an honorary member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.
Swati Tirunal lived a mere 33 years (1813-1846) and had to deal with a complex web of family politics and the pressures of ruling a state under British colonial presence, initially under the regency of his mother and aunt and later on his own. Yet, over 400 musical compositions are attributed to Swati Tirunal, covering both Carnatic and Hindustani music. It is recorded that he was an accomplished and erudite King and spoke several languages. It is said that he was proficient in English, Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. He also composed music in Manipravalam – a combination of languages, particularly Sanskrit and Tamil.
The music appreciation group met on the theme of Swati Tirunal as a composer.
The royal patron Swati Tirunal drew many musicians to his court. Notable among them were the Tanjore Quartet of four brothers – Vadivelu, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, and Sivanandam – who were disciples of Muthuswamy Dikshitar; and Kannayya Bhagavatar, a disciple of Tyagaraja. He patronized music and literature. He was a world citizen and is supposed to have traveled out of India and to have imported European musical instruments into Kerala.
Swati Tirunal was a devotee of Lord Padmanabha (Vishnu) and many of his compositions are in praise of this Lord. Let us start with:
Jaya Jaya Padmanabha Murare in Raga Sarasangi by Dr Balamurali Krishna
Next is the very popular piece – those familiar with Carnatic music will have heard it plenty of times:
Bhavayami Raghuramam in Ragamalika by MS Subbalakshmi
Kuthira Malika (or a Mansion of Horses, named after the large number of horses that are carved into the wooden wall brackets), is a palace that Swati Tirunal built overlooking the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Trivandrum. The building is in traditional Keralite style. The courtyard of Kuthira Malika palace is the venue for the annual Swathi Sangeethotsavam, the music festival to commemorate the music of Swati Tirunal.
Listen to a few performances at the Swathi Sangeethotsavam in Kuthira Mallka;
Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma is a direct descendant of Swati Tirunal (wish he would not call himself Prince Rama Varma!) and is the organizer of the annual Swathi Sangeethotsavam in Trivandrum. Apart from inviting many musicians to perform, he also gives concerts at the festival. Listen to a rendering by him at the traditional venue of Kuthira Malika – he gives a nice explanation of the piece at the beginning:
Pannagendra Shayana in Ragamalika
Next is a piece by Sanjay Subramaniam who performed at Kuthira Malika in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This musician has been chosen for the prestigious Sangeeta Kalanidhi award by the Music Academy in 2015.
Paripalayamam in Raga Ritigowla
Next is a lovely Flute Piece by Pravin Godkhindi in Hindustani style at this year’s Swathi Sangeethotsavam.
In addition to kritis for vocal performances, Swati Tirunal also composed music for dance. These include Swarajatis, Varnams, Padams and Tillanas. Rukmini Devi who founded the famous dance school Kalakshetra in Chennai, is said to have choreographed dance pieces set to the music of Swati Tirunal. She was close to the royal family of Travancore. Kalakshetra celebrated the bicentennial anniversary of Swati Tirunal in November 2013.
Geeta Dhuniku is a very well known Thillana piece composed by Swati Thirunal – this piece was immortalized by Lalgudi Jayaraman. But, here, listen to a wonderful contemporary version of Geeta Dhuniku.
Here are a few Hindustani music inspired bhajans of Swati Tirunal by various artists:
Aaj Aaye Shyam Mohan in Raga Yaman by Pandit Ganapathi Bhatt (it’s a wonderful spirited piece, don’t be put off by the break between part 1 and 2)
Aaye Giridhara by Bombay Jayshree in her trademark evocative style
A superb rendering of Vishweshwara Darshana Kar in Sindhu Bhairavi by Sudha Raghunathan
Chaliye Kunjan mo in Raga Bridavana Saranga by Chitra (please scroll down the page for the video)
If the above seems ample diversity in musical compositions, there is more to Swati’s repertory than the selection above! He composed ‘kshetra kritis’ or compositions in praise of various temples and their presiding deities. His Navaratri compositions – 9 compositions for each day of the 9-day Navaratri festival – are in praise of the Goddess or Devi. The Navaratri Mandapam at the Padmanabhaswamy temple is the venue for the 9-day concerts which are held each year. Strict punctuality, lighting of traditional oil lamps, use of natural sound reflectors and an accent on devotion rather than musical prowess are said to be trademark qualities of the Navaratri Festival in Trivandrum. I hope that one day I will listen to concerts at either Kuthira Malika Swati Festival in January or at the Navaratri Mandapam during the Navaratri festival!
Swati Tirunal also composed the Nava Vidha Bhakti Kritanas or Navaratna Malikas, evoking nine types of devotion. He composed 39 khyals and inspired Hindustani singers. The renowned musician Pandit Jasraj from the Mewati Gharana is believed to have announced that there should be a new gharana called ‘MeSwati’ to weave in the compositions of Swati Thirunal. But these are for another post!
I close with two soulful renderings – sit back, listen and be mesmerized:-)
Deva Deva Kalayamithe in Raga Mayamalavagowla by Shashank
Ghaffil Bhai Lo a Khyal in Raga Aadi Basant by Pandit Ramesh Narayan