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The maharaja lives on
The 200th birth anniversary of Thiruvananthapuram's composer-king, Swathi Thirunal, is being celebrated with a festival of classical music.
A friend, let us call him Musiquebox, told me recently that on Youtube the song Aaj Aaye Shaam Mohan had received more than 73, 000 hits. This certainly is not a Gangnam Style or Kolaveri grade hit but it is thrilling to know that a pure classical song sung by a more or less unknown singer like me had been viewed by so many. This charming little song describes the raas leela (divine dance) of Lord Krishna and delirious gopis (cowherd maids) at Vrindavan and is set to the raga Mishra Pahadi.
So far so good. But the really amazing thing is that this was composed by a young man who lived in Kerala around 200 years ago. Maharaja, Raja, Ramaraja, Sri Patmanabha Dasa, Vanchi Pala, Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, Kulasekhara Kiritapati, Manney Sultan, Bahadur, Shamsher Jung, Maharaja of Travancore (April 16, 1813-December 25, 1846) was no ordinary maharaja, or for that matter, ordinary musician. He was a poet, musician, composer, linguist, patron of arts, social reformer, devotee of Lord Padmanabha and visionary, all in one.
Despite his tragically short lifespan of less than three-and-a-half decades, he did a lot to foster astronomy and education. But what really defines him more than anything else is his music. Though he lived in the South, he invited great masters of music and arts from all over India and taught himself Indian classical music, both Carnatic and Hindustani. When many practitioners of either systems remain more or less closed to the charms of the other even in the 21st century, this young man, who lived in Thiruvananthapuram 200 years ago, composed pada varnams, thaana varnams, keerthanams, ragamalikas, padams, javalis, jathi swarams and thillanas in the Carnatic style and dhrupads, khayals, thumris, bhajans, tappas, horis, and taranas in the Hindustani style.
Being a patron of dance, many of his compositions are descriptive in nature, as opposed to ones that express profoundly philosophical or abstract thoughts. But a lot of music was philosophical too. In Kaaranam Vina Kaaryam Na Utpadyate Kim Api, he talks of the cosmic scheme wherein nothing happens without a certain reason. In the end, he dedicates the song to his beloved deity, 'Padmanabha is the sole reason for my well being'.
Many of his compositions are in Sanskrit. Just as Oscar Wilde used English differently from say Wodehouse or Hemingway, Swathi Thirunal's Sanskrit carries a distinct stamp, and you can tell it apart from the other Sanskrit greats like Adi Sankara, Kalidasa or one of the Carnatic trinity Muthuswami Dikshitar. The king also wrote songs in Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Braj Bhasha and Mani Pravalam, a mix of Malayalam and Sanskrit. The words, mani pravalam, literally mean gems and gold.
An interesting aspect of his musical history is that he did not have a continuous line of disciples like say Thyagaraja, to keep his music alive through the aural tradition.
Many of his lyrics were set to music later by musicians of the 20th century. But from what is available, we can see that he was an unparalleled master of a technique called swaraksharam, that can be crudely translated as a musical pun. This happens when the syllables of the lyrics mirror the musical notes of the melody. For example, a simple musical phrase like sa, ni, dha, pa, ma, ga, ri, sa would be set to the lyrics Sa Nidhipathi Girisha - you can see the words reflect the notes.
A festival of both Hindustani as well as Carnatic compositions of the composer king is organised from January 6 to January 12 every year at the Kuthiramalika Palace in Trivandrum where he lived. This year is the bi-centenary of his birth, so a ten-day long special feast of music is being organised from January 4 to January 13. The concerts, featuring artistes like Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Amrutha Venkatesh, Sikkil Gurucharan and OS Arun are open to the public, there are no tickets or passes.
There are excerpts of past festivals on YouTube but, as is the case with most Indian classical music, the best option is to hear it live. And hear it in a sublime ambience - in the open grounds of the 200-year-old wood palace, in the flickering light of oil lamps, star and moonlight.
Rama Varma is a direct descendent of Swathi Thirunal and a vocalist and veena player in the Carnatic tradition.
(The festival is on till January 13 at the Kuthiramalika Palace, Thiruvananthapuram)
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