The poet of ‘Earth Signs’ poetry review

Donald T Nigli  []   poetry review

Above all, Murali’s poems are soothing and pleasing.  They do not disturb, but as one closes the book the poems leave with a valediction to the human heart and a profound feeling of nostalgia as if something precious has been laid aside.

Sing he does, for this collection will not fail to impress upon you its lyricism and the poet’s many black and white sketches of trees and birds ‘amidst’ the pages and as they appear in lower-case names throughout the book. If you’re not critiquing and skimming just for simple pleasures of poetry…

EARTH SIGNS Poems by Murali Sivaramkrishnan, Pondicherry: The Creative People, 2006.  Rs.60.

Tucked away in one corner of south India, in a sprawling 800 acre 8000 treed 80 bird-specied Pondicherry University sings Murali Sivaramakrishnan the poet of Earth Signs teasing you with poem after poem of rustic images of an earth dear to us all and of birds and trees we cannot but love in this Wordsworthian Lake Country campus.

Sing he does, for this collection will not fail to impress upon you its lyricism and the poet’s many black and white sketches of trees and birds ‘amidst’ the pages and as they appear in lower-case names throughout the book. If you’re not critiquing and skimming just for simple pleasures of poetry, you might open page 3:

“I draw my dreams up tightly / around me every night / and make a soft cocoon of kingly wisdom / In plain black and white I loll / No day light enters through its thick / comfort; no bird drones its sorrow / nor delight – I am alright alone / in my empire surfeit, successful, content / on a perpetual knight errand on camel back.

He walks his images and metaphors as he would his favourite dogs without leashes, in good control as they move here and there with a few of his disapproving  titches – while they enjoyed themselves within his watchful art’s wide arc.

This evening / the river is not wide enough / to hold back the shadow / of the tree / as it spreads… The saplings had learned / it from the hugging the earth closer /and closer night and day… Let the evening / stretch the tree and shade, and the river / trickle down to its last drop / the earth is thirstier than ever” from ‘Clear Logic of Reason’.

Along with the fine touch & feel of the off-white acid-free paper, I counted 15 poems and impressive lines on every page that I liked, but here are two short pieces I could not resist quoting entirely, “A lone crow, they say / you see the first thing at dawn / brings you ill luck / I should ask the crow / what it thinks about this / seeing a lone me the first thing at dawn.” It is thought-provoking mischief in his ‘Ramblings’ but you know that if you are naturalist how else but from a crow’s point of view you must see. And here’s one that’s more Protestant in its titillation, “Give to God / what you value most / yourself / if only God will take it

Murali seems to have, with the single-mindedness of a barber (or a physician of yore), sat through a whole day stropping his razor on the leather strap to finally sit and slice slivers of these words in ‘The Ghost in the Room’

“Now I see the / face aghast at the human sight, like / broken glass-bits in the mid-day sun / up-bearing the abrupt light. Why don’t/ some owls hoot ad dogs howl to suffer / me to falter and fumble in fake distress / and let my guest out through the open window?”

How many lines of worth must one quote to say these are of quality and repute, since there is enough of them and then more and more? Yet there are instances of wordplay like an American story giving you a slice of life but going nowhere, but by and large this is the poetry of a content man, his gripe if any probably swept up in to his professorial dialogues, his intent caught-up in the out-of-the-box ideas at enervating his young students. There are crisp images and canny metaphors but you find it hard pressed to find the hungry poet, and his anger probably weaned away by his years of contriving his wards in to appreciating the Masters and Bards with the ever encroaching and bountifully rewarding soft-ware languages sniping at their heels.

There are the traditional (internal) rhyme, alliteration and assonance… so easily strewn and hidden, so too repetition, caught in the free-flow of a poet in the natural rhythm and earthly elements. Above all, Murali’s poems are soothing and pleasing.  They do not disturb, but as one closes the book the poems leave with a valediction to the human heart and a profound feeling of nostalgia as if something precious has been laid aside.



It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves— Tibetan saying.

Solitude begins where the market place ends—Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

It has often happened that many a concerned visitor from overseas has enquired of me how in the midst of so much noise we in India could still consider silence to be a desirable value at all. Turn wherever we might, except perhaps in the very lonely stretches of the higher Himalayas or in the profoundly hostile sunburned wastes of the Rann of Kutch, where by very virtue of the terrain, solitude and silence are forced in upon the human mind, one cannot easily experience silence—in the sense of total lack of sound—and solitude—in the sense of absence of other human company.  We are so much people, and we appear to love noise so dearly! Nevertheless as a spiritual-minded people we have always extolled the virtues of silence and solitude as well down through the ages. This always would appear as a contradiction to the non-Indian no doubt. Do we account for this contradiction? Do we take responsibility to reflect on this at all? Do we need to, in the final analysis?

Is it that we in India have changed so much that we have spirited ourselves off from the path that those wise ones trod once? I do not wish to propose to be able to answer such a conundrum. No one can, I guess. Because of the inexhaustibility of life that propels us off our feet when we are so dismally unaware ourselves. However somewhere deep inside myself I feel that these apparent contradictions are only apparent and seen on the outside! Once we break in to the inner levels the oppositions cease to be and things get sorted out easily. Yes, noise is there on the outside, and may well have existed for ages. We are a lot of people indeed and we seem to love such a noisy world. And yet we worship silence and solitude! Perhaps in the very contradiction truth lurks. Only in the noise can one seek silence, only amidst the crowd can one seek solitude.

There are so many people in the Indian subcontinent and our living spaces are so cramped and limited in comparison with the some of the western countries. In Sweden for instance you could walk for a long time on exquisitely maintained town-roads and still not meet with any one human being for miles and miles on end. Space and time appear so different there. So healthy and crisp the air. One suddenly feels so wealthy and wise. One finds so much time and space at one’s disposal and one could also suddenly feel so desperately lonely. On the other hand, the moment one lands back in India, the market place begins and solitude and silence end. For one who is used to the noise and polluted air of the market place there is no other heaven as being back home and the feeling of belonging. There is a tale that goes like this:

A flower seller in the town had a friend who lived beside the sea and was a fisherwoman. Once she visited her friend after a hard day’s work. The friends kept awake a long time in to the night talking, laughing and sharing jokes.  However, when the time came to sleep the poor flower seller could not sleep for the stench in the hut! Somehow she tossed and turned all through the rest of the night and bid adieu to her friend the next day. It must have been a real welcome treat for her to be back amidst the sweet smelling flower filled home. Now, it so happened that her friend returned her visit one day. Of course they were delighted to meet each other and shared their dinner with equal delight. When the time came to sleep the poor fisher woman found it so terrible to be amidst the strong smell of flowers that she could hardly breathe. What is fragrance, what is stench? What the flower seller cherished the fisherwoman could not tolerate. Very late into the night she decided to drag the basket of unsold fish into the room. The pure stench of dry fish crept into the room slowly and put her to a lovely sleep.

Just like beauty that is held to be in the eyes of the beholder, smell is something that besets the smeller! The relative truth of things is a different matter. What is significant for us now is the habitual world we live in and that makes us feel at home. Now, this is not to mean that we Indians are so used to being in the midst of noise and sound that we do not feel ourselves at home elsewhere without these! The point I wish to highlight is that noise and sound are very much a part of the Indian reality. One needn’t be ashamed of it. However we as a people have always extolled the virtues of silence and solitude nevertheless. And we might as well do so because we are rightfully entitled to those! Where else can we seek silence and solitude other than in the very midst of noise and sound? Silence and sound are not binary opposites, they are complementary! They are not mutually exclusive categories, but so integrally unified. Silence begins where the marketplace ends! Solitude begins where the market place ends. There is this Tibetan saying that I have quoted as an epigraph to this essay: It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves. Just as meat without bones is unthinkable tea without leaves is also a misnomer. Silence without the experience of noise does not make any sense at all. No wonder Indians from very ancient times have extolled the values of silence and solitude.

According to ancient Indian wisdom life is seen as a pilgrimage: and the realization that betokens the end is liberation or mukti. The purusharthas or value graph that are supposed to guide the Indian seeker after truth (and everyone is a potential seeker irrespective of caste, creed, race, ability or gender) is set out thus in our scriptures: dharma, artha, kama and moksha.  It is through the rightful path that is morally and ethically righteous (dharmic) that one seeks the pure pleasures of meaning (be it material or ideological) and life (be it love, affection, desire or sexual fulfillment).  Ultimately one moves towards that one realization—freedom from all and everything, moksha. Life is seen as liberation from itself, a release from all bondages.  And freedom is that one unique self realization. In the light of this wisdom tradition, liberation can be achieved only through the path of engagement and commitment. Only one who has traveled the entire gamut of human emotions experiencing the pleasures, the trails and travails of life can relish the final understanding. Living through means engaging at every point — experiencing every minute, relishing and living through contradictions and discrepancies. Nothing is anathema to the Indian vision. This is an all inclusive view that does not see binary opposites and mutually exclusive categories. This is the integral vision of the seer, the kavi, the drsta. Where is the fragrance, where is the stench? Both are very much real and present. In a way, silence begins where the market place also begins.  After all when Parvati, as the Puranas tell us, underwent the tapas for attaining Siva, she stood undauntedly amidst the panchagni—the five fires—during the severely scorching summers, and lay on chilling cubes of ice during the marrow-chilling icy winters.  Where else can one seek silence but in the very midst of the market place and the racket of life? This is the very place where we begin our quest. This is the real point of embarking on this adventure of life.   It’s a tall order to ask for meat without bones, and tea without leaves.

Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906)

In our own times, among the arts, often the most misunderstood has been the art of painting. The painter is looked upon as one who is either a freak or an export from another time and place, or a mere craftsman, a worker. While there are many among us who believe that the duty of the painter is to represent life as it is in all similitude, there are others who look upon this art as being explorative and creative just like any other art form. True, the history of the art of painting has been quite long and it has taken a long time to evolve in its many phases and manifestations. In our part of the world the history of painting has been most exciting in its phases of discovery and reinventions. Raja Ravi Varma, has, no doubt, a significant place in this.

As an artist my self one of my earliest exposures to painting was to the work of Raja Ravi Varma. In fact as a child I used to regard them much more than as mere paintings—his lifelike depictions of devi devathas were the very sources for my imagination while trying to visualize gods and goddesses. Saraswathi seated on a rock playing the veena with a peacock beside her, Lakshmi, Parvathi– in short, the very essence and substance of the Hindu mythology in terms of the visual appeared through the visual language of this noble painter. The hero heroines of Vyasa and Kalidasa were not elsewhere either. Ravi Varma provided a visual language to a whole generation. And this he did through his amazing talent in adopting a European medium of the 19th century art, and also his equally great imitative capacity of illusionism. Not only did he change the way Indians perceived the world he also gave eyes to a pan Indian vision. How did he do it, what did he achieve, what is his true significance? Let us take a brief look at his life and works.

Raja Ravi Varma



Born on 29th April 1848 to Umamba Thampuratty and Ezhumavil Neelakantan Bhattathirippad at Kilimanoor, in Travancore district ( Trivandrum in the present day Kerala state) Ravi Varma showed precocious talent at drawing.  His uncle Raja Raja Varma was instrumental in bringing him to Thiruvananthapuram where Ayilyam Thirunal accorded him royal patronage. In 1862 he moved into Moodath Matom which belonged to the Kilimanoor palace , inside Thiruvananthapuram Fort near to the Thevarathu Koikal Palace. Soon under the generous patronage of Ayilyam Thirunal, Ravi Varma was exposed to a whole lot of new influences, western and Indian alike. Traditonal Tanjore painters and then fashionable Italian artists as well. It was the technique of oil on canvas that drew his intimate attention and he began to practice it. However despite the wide variety of styles and techniques available to him, Ravi Varma was constantly aware of  his inadequate technical skills and also the lack of  a reliable Guru seems to have worried him. His biographers point out that Ramaswamy Naicker the noted painter from Madurai in the service of the crown prince Visakam Thirunal at that time jealously guarded the secrets of oil colour mixing, preparing the canvas, and the technique of perspective from the aspiring painter.   So too did the visiting Dutch painter Theodore Janson (visiting Thiruvananthapuram to paint royal portraits in 1868). Perhaps one can easily detect a clear trace of jealousy in this act: both the recognized painters were awestruck at the novice’s genius. Nevertheless one of the helpers of Ramaswamy Naicker, a man named Arumukham, used to visit Ravi Varma secretly in the dead of night to enlighten him with the secrets of oil painting he had learned from his master. Ravi Varma was obviously quick to learn on his own and adapt any new technique. He was bold enough to explore things on his own and thus remained an untutored painter all his life. As his name began to spread quite soon he was commissioned to execute portraits from all over the country

Ravi Varma’s talent never went unrecognized. He was awrded the highest honour of Veerasringala by Ayilyam Thirunal—the very first time such an award was given to a painter. In Madras his painting “Nair Woman with Jasmine Flowers in her Hair,” won the gold medal and later in 1873, for the same work he secured the most distinguished award at an art competition in Vienna. In 1876, his large figurative composition Sakunthala writing a Love Note was exhibited in Madras and was purchased by the English Lord Buckingham. When Sir Monier Williams later published his English version of Kalidasa’s Shakunthalam, this picture adorned the cover page.  And of course this has been the very mode in which later generations have visualized Kalidasa’s heroine.

Ravi Varma’s paintings won virtually all the accolades that were possible for an Indian painter of his times. He was invited to Baroda, Mysore, Bhavnagar, Jaipur, Alwar, Gwalior, Indore and Udaipur.  Wherever he went he painted portraits and paintings on a variety of mythological themes. His equally talented brother Raja Raja Varma also travelled with him and painted. His diaries written between 1895 and 1904 are perhaps the earliest personal accounts of an Indian artist.  They reveal the inner workings of a creative mind. Raja Raja Varma has been credited with the title of the earliest Indian landscape painter. While Ravi Varma concentrated on evolving a special technique of portrait paintings his brother chose mainly to capture the variations of the land. In fact their sister back home Mangala Bai Thampuratti was also credited with equally great talent as an artist. Her works can be seen in the Sri Chithra Thirunal Art Gallery in Trivandrum alongside the works of her brothers.

Sir T Madhava Rao, the then Diwan of Travancore and later the administrator of Baroda State was quick to see the possibilities in Ravi Varma’s popularity. He suggested they reproduce his works through the technique of Oleography. Oleography was a comparatively new mode of printing perfected in 1885 by George Boxter in England and it was another mode of lithography. Ravi Varma’s oleographs established his reputation as an Indian artist.  At the turn of his century Ravi Varma had become some sort of a cult figure so that when he came to die on 2nd October 1906, people had already started worshipping his pictures.

While he was dying Ravi Varma’s house was overflowing with his admirers—people who had come from all over the world. The small village of Kilimanoor would certainly have never seen such a crowd before or afterwards. Correspondents and reporters from all the world’s newspapers and dailies were there. And Ravi Varma breathed his last in great fame and popularity. Living at a time when the country was passing through the traumatic experience of colonization, he virtually invented visual prototypes out of a legendary past and reintegrated them with a new iconography. His achievements have been equally legendary.


Among Ravi Varma’s greatest works are his innumerable life-like portraits of people.  He appears to have discovered the effect of light on different textures of skin and that had definitely given him tremendous pleasure—his portraits speak to us of the people they show. Further he often delights in depicting the curves and falls of the clothing and the texture of ornaments.  It is often a delight to let your eye dwell on one end of the portrait and slowly allow it to migrate over the different textures—skin, clothing, ornament and more specifically the pattu kasavu and its metallic sheen!

The most outstanding pictures perfected by Ravi Varma would certainly be his majestic compositions of epical dimensions: Mohini Rukmangada, The Victorious Indrajit, Draupadi, Jatayuvadh, Viswamitra and Menaka – the list is elegant. It is definitely to Ravi Varma that one returns to get a visual depiction of Kalidasa’s Shakunthala, and Vyasa’s Bhishma. Among the noted dramatizations of Indian mythology Ravi Varma’s Damayanthi with the Hamsa and Shakunthala turning back for a quick glance at Dhusyantha would stand unrivalled.  He laid the foundations for later generations to visualize the Indian classics in a neoclassical mold. This is often cited as Ravi Varma’s strength as well as his weakness: he popularized the classical and brought the high dimensions of art into the levels of the ordinary.

Siva Parvati by Raja Ravi Varma


Ravi Varma’s Achivements : Critics and artists have argued that Ravi Varma gravitated to the medium of Oil on Canvas very much like the colonial Indians sliding into the English language. During British colonization only the western way of life was looked upon as valuable and desireable, the English language was raised into great position of prominence, and western manner of dressing, eating, living and thinking, came to be adored and imitated. Similarly in visual arts Ravi Varma symbolizes the colonial mode of painting.  Nevertheless, being a child of his times, Ravi Varma perfected his chosen art skills, and excelled in his medium. The art of portrait painting that he borrowed from his European ways of seeing, did not show any commitment to the earlier manner of painting practiced in the courts during the Mughal period: and yet Ravi Varma’s portraits reveal a touch of class.  He is most definitely a painter of great craft –be it in his proscenium stage-like dramatic compositions, or in his life like depictions of the goddesses Saraswathi, Lakshmy etc. He left a great legacy after him. He single-handedly pioneered a popularization of the art of painting through his oleographs.

And of course it is to him that we have to turn for a pan Indian vision.—the introducing of Oil on canvas as a medium, portrait-styles, the view as if from a proscenium stage, —invention of the sari as a Indian dress—and a pan Indian vision.

What Ravivarma means to me:

Saraswati -by Raja Ravi Varma

In a manifesto that wrote for a recent brochure of mine I pointed out that although my way of thinking is definitely different from that of Raja Ravi Varma his works have been a great influence on me. His painterly creations have been ingrained into the psyche of the land I grew up in. It was he who popularized the art of painting in this country. Of course when new influences seep in they shape up new and newer sensibilities. Ravi Varma imitated the early nineteenth century European decadent art no doubt, but he added a great deal to it in terms of his craft and meticulous eye for details. He transcreated the Indian myths and legends in a new language of perception. His greatest achievement as a painter I believe is his discovery of a pan Indian dress for Indian woman—the Sari. There are innumerable ways of wearing the sari in the Indian subcontinent. He chose the Maharashtra variety, and afterwards when the Indian Film industry developed this fashion had come to stay. There is a much debated painting of his entitled Here Comes Papa! Art historians and social critics have discussed this as a text of the matrilineal societal practice giving way to the patriarchal. But this is not among my favourites as a painter. The painting that depicts Nala slowly leaving the sleeping Damayanthi in the middle of the forest captures the quietness of the night and also speaks volumes about the grief and anxiety in the eyes of the distraught king. This work stands out as an outdoor composition. In my childhood home there were innumerable oleographs of Ravi Varma, and my favourites among those were that of Saraswathi sitting on a rock playing the Veena and Damayanthi in a flowing red sari gazing deeply into the eyes of the Swan and dreaming of Nala. I cannot close this talk without mentioning the exquisite work figuring human figures in the street. On a pavement below a large palacial building a darkish woman sits with a thampura on her side and a child in her lap.  Her eyes lead us away from the painting surface into infinity. She is obviously singing. Her fingers are caught in the act of strumming the thampura. Beside her are her worldly possessions a few tattered bundles. On the floor a little child dressed in green sari crouches, and her eyes are oceans of sadness and apprehension. Just to her left id a boy carelessly examining a wound on his elbow.  In the middle of it all is an empty pot. The entire composition has been so carefully constructed and one can easily perceive the deliberateness of the painter’s craft. But the execution is exquisite. This Ravi Varma at his best.



Contemporary critics like Aurobindo Ghosh dismissed Ravi Varma as a talentless imitative painter.  Even Ananada Coomaraswamy found him quite displeasing. His theatricality and want of imagination are reasons for their dislike.  However, for me Ravi Varma continues to be prince among painters and painter among princes.  Many differences not withstanding, he has left behind him a great legacy that the world will not willingly let die.


See also Swati Tirunal

Swati Tirunal

Anyone who had ever turned an ear to music of the carnatic tradition would certainly have come across the popular kriti Bhavayami raghuramam… the entire Ramayana in a ragamalika. How effortlessly it moves, how imaginatively it swings between actions and bhavas, emotions and suggestions.  Perhaps it could be considered as one of the most popular and widely listened to compositions of the maestro of Carnatic Music—Swati Tirunal. This name is so very well associated with quite a lot of compositions in a variety of languages and moods.  Perhaps one can say about Swati Tirunal’s creations: here’s god’s plenty!  Needless to say his was a life of devotion and dedication. And the poet in him drew inspiration and guidance from Lord Padmanabha, Vishnu as Anantasayi. As the name itself implies Swati Tirunal came from the far south from the Malayalam speaking territory of Kerala, the erstwhile Thiruvithancore, and later Thiruvananthapuram.—the present day capital of the state.  Here the country itself is God’s own, surrendered by the famed ruler Marthanada Varma to the Lord Padmanabha.  The rulers merely ruled with the consent of the Lord. And Swati had a great tradition—a tradition of excellence.  But more than anything else Swati Tirunal is remembered today not merely for his excellent and innovative period of rule but more for his great musical contributions—in Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Hindi and Marathi.

As one who was schooled and grew up in Trivandrum, In Kerala, I have always felt proud of my heritage whenever I had the opportunity to speak of that land either anywhere else in India or abroad—this was a land of great temples and architecture, of murals and masterpieces in painting and sculpture, folk arts and rituals, magic and mystery.  But over everything else towered two supreme names, world renowned in painting and music—Raja Ravi Varma and Maharaja Swati Tirunal.  What Ravi Varma did to the field of Painting, Swati Tirunal did to music.  Painting and music whether it be in Kerala or the rest of India, were never the same again after them.

Generally speaking, Carnatic music is to this day rather conventional and rigid in comparison with that of Hindustani tradition. The contributions of the Musical trinity—Tyagaraja, Syama Sastri and Muthuswami Dikshitar—are so very well tuned and set in the minds of the sahrdaya that they have become the standards of excellence. And there is seldom any variation possible in the renderings of their well known compositions and ragas, barring of course the variations effected by noted singers of our own times like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, M S Subbalaksmi, M L Vasantha Kumari, M D Ramanathan, Balamurali Krishna, and a few selct others.  This is not the case with Hindustani music as there is quite a lot of possibility for personal free play and manodharma. The entire corpus of Hindustani musical texts is forever being reinterpreted and re- rendered and of course that would add to its charm and endearment. This of course is only a general statement.  In the world of the Carnatic there are equally great contributions made by the rediscovery of innumerable kritis rendered by Annamcharya, Purandhara Dasa, Bhadrachala Rama Dasa, Oothukkadu Venkata Subbha Iyer  to name only an outstanding  few. Of course it is not what a kriti is but how it is rendered that often matters in music, nevertheless the basic text does certainly offer the mode and manner of its own fruitful rendering.  The ragas and talas of Carnatic mainstream music would never be a burden to the creative mind, instead they would supply the nuances and variations on one select theme or a multiple freeplay of thematic variations.   That Swati Tirunal composed texts in most significant Indian languages in a variety of ragas goes to prove his incredible creative strength and poetic excellence.  Yes, a great deal of his compositions are excellent in their poetic qualities—they are not mere songs.

Garbha Sreeman–Sree Padmanabhadasa  Vanchipala  Rama  Varma  Kulasekhara Kireeta pathi  Swathi Ramaraja  Mannai Sultan  Maharaja Raja  Bahadur ShamSher Jung  Maharaja—that was his complete title–  was born on Friday the sixteenth of April 1813 on Swati star in the month of  Metam to Rani Lakshmi Bai of Travancore and Rajaraja Varma Koil Tampuran of Changanassery.   He was held to be Garbhasreeman because the title of the king was bestowed on him even before his birth! Travancore was always blessed by rulers who were elite and thus by virtue of their background well schooled and scholarly. Swati Tirunal was no exception—he was provided with the best possible education.  As was the custom in those days a King had to learn the niti—or law– in terms of how to run his kingdom—it was called rajaneethi. He was schooled in Sanskrit and many other languages over and above Malayalam.He also learned several languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada,Marathi, Hindusthani, and Persian .His aunt Rani Parvati Bai wanted him to learn English. The famed scholar Tanjavoor Subba Rao, was entrusted with the task. He was to wield a strong influence on Swati Tirunal’s life.  As a brilliant student he mastered English and other languages very well.

The musical talents of Rama Varma were developed first by Karamana Subrahmanya Bhagavatar, a prominent court musician. Subba Rao was proficient both in the theory of music and its practice in Tanjore. Swati Tirunal came to imbibe a lot of it. He also learned to play swarabat, a rather rare (stringed) instrument.

Swati Tirunal’s love for music brought numerous musicians of repute to the court who, in turn, enriched his understanding and exposure to music. Kannayya Bhagavatar,a direct disciple of Tyagaraja, Vadivelu, Chinnayya, Ponnayya, andSivanandam — known as the Tanjore Quartette, — all disciples of Muthuswamy Deekshitar, are notable among them.  A Maratha saint-singer Meruswamy also known as Anantapadmanabha Goswami introduced Swati Tirunal to the finer points of Carnatic and Hindusthani music as well as the hari katha tradition.  Other scholars and musicians who were associated with the Maharaja closely were Irayimman Thampi (1782–1862), quite famousas a poet and composer of music and Kathakali plays, Kilimannoor Koil Tampuran, a Sanskrit scholar and poet, Shatkala Govinda Marar, an amazing musician with a legendary ability to sing pallavis and Palakkad Parameswara Bhagavatar(1815–1891), a very gifted singer. Parameswara Bhagavatar and his sishyaparampara came to be known as the Mullamoottil Bhagavatars. They, along with the nadaswara vidwans of Padmanabhaswamy Temple,preserved Swati Tirunal’s music for over a century till   K. Chidambara Vadhyar, Muthiah Bhagavatar and others started documenting them.

Swati Tirunal’s literary contributions include the following.

Bhaktimanjari, an exposition consisting of 1000 shlokas on the nature and forms of bhakti, addressed to Padmanabha. (The kingdom of Travancore as I had mentioned earlier, had been offered at the feet of Sree Padmanabha of Trivandrum by Marthanada Varma, who took on the name padmanabha-dasa or the dasa of Padmanabha.)

PadmanAbhashataka is a collection of 100 shlokas addressed to Padmanabha.

syanandYrapuravarNanaprabandha is a kavya mixing verse and prose written in the champu style. This describes the legendary history of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple.

His musical output consists of about 400 compositions in five languages, namely, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Hindusthani, Telugu, and Kannada. He has composed compositions of all types: Tanavarnam,Padavarnam, Swarajati, Krti, Kirtanam, Ragamalika, Javali, Tillana,Bhajan and even some Hindusthani styles such as Drupad and Tappa. He modeled his compositions after the 17th century composer Margadarsi Seshayyangar, and even wrote a treatise on the prosody of Sanskrit compositions, taking the kritis of the maestro as ideal models. His compositions are all devotional. Most of them are addressed to Padmanabha or Vishnu—nevertheless, there are some addressed to Krishna, Siva, and Devi also. Some of is notable compositions are:

1. navaratnamalika: Nine compositions devoted to the nine

forms of conventional bhakti or devotion.

2. navaratri kIrtanams: Nine compositions that are sung as the

main piece in the concerts held at the navaratri mandapam

outside Padmanabhaswamy temple during navaratri.

3. utsavaprabandham: Twelve songs and several verses describing

the ten-day long festival at the Padmanabhaswamy temple.

4. kuchelopakhyanam and ajamilopakhyanam: Compositions that tell

the respective stories, influenced by the harikatha tradition.

5. ghanaraga krtis: Eight compositions in eight of the ten

traditional ghana-ragams.

6. ragamalikas: pannagndrashayana, kamalajasyahrta,

sohaniswarup (in Hindusthani ragas), Pancharaga swarajati, etc.

(The popular bhavayami raghuramam that I mentyioned earlier as one my own all time favourites was composed as an Adi tala krti in Saveri and was made a ragamalika by Semmangudi.)

7. Dance compositions: Consisting of several padavarnams, varnams,

Swarajatis and padams.

Having said this let us take a brief look at one or two major compositions of Swati Tirunal.  Mention has already been made of the ragamalika composition Bhavayami raghuramam—an all time favourite of mine. Even now as I listen to this unique composition rendered in equally unique style by MS Subbha lakshmi I feel the living pulse of the gifted poet who perhaps had been a little more closer to his Lord than many of us lesser mortals.

As the reigning deity of Travancore was none other than Sree Padmanabha, Swati tirunal naturally wrote a great deal of songs in his praise.  This was Sree Krishna for him appearing in a variety of forms –as boy, young man, lover, benign god, and in a great lot of inspiring roles.   Among my own favourites are: Kripaya Palaya Saure—   Sarasaksha paripalaya  Pannagendrasayana in the ragamalika style,— of course, all these now have seeped in to the memories of whole generations of music lovers for their perfect form and unique personal style. Swati’s songs are personal submissions to Lord Padmanabha—he is the perfect devotee always hopeful, always submissive, but persistent in his devotion.   His touch is unique even in the Malayalam songs he crafted perhaps under the influence of Irayimman Thampi in the Mohiniyattam style— One cannot but mention his Thillanas for their skilled notations of swaras and talas—many of which are still sung by major singers at performances. Mention has already been made of the facilities he provided to other visiting musicians and poets to his court. All in all, Swati Tirunal was a complete poet—his compositions and songs are unique contributions of a rare poet endowed with imagination and great talent.

What Sree Rama was to Tyagaraja, Padmanabha was to Swati. He perceived the divine face everywhere. And he saw him in all forms.  As the King Swati’s rule was quite brief—he passed away before he could effect much change—but nevertheless we cannot forget the fact that it was Swati Tirunal who evolved and developed the now famous zoological gardens of Trivandrum—he saw to it that several exotic trees were planted in the spacious lawns and many species of animal and bird life reared in near perfect captivity.  Another important aspect of Swati Tirunal’s was his serious involvement in whatever he did and his commitment to his people—he established the Observatory near the Kanakakunnu palace in order to foster the study of Astronomy and Astrophysics.  Nevertheless, despite all these significant contributions, Swati is now remembered mostly through his memorable songs and kritis. As long as there are music lovers and singers Swati Tirunal’s musical compositions are bound to be alive and they would be fondly remembered and cherished. Swati is a Poet among Kings and a King among poets!

See also Raja Ravi Varma

There are Many Ways to Kill a Poet

There are many ways to kill a poet.

The best one –is to neglect him.

From the wet treetops on monsoon dawns

The brainfever screams in all delirium

The sky glows red and green all night,

He walks the streets, stands bewitched by the sea,

Rolls on the lush grass, and lies open eyed

Under the rolling skies.

You walk beside him

In silence.

There are many ways to kill a poet, remember.

He is naïve and like the parrot writing across open skies.

That is his green and red mistake.

It is easy enough to kill a poet, remember.

He hopes in the dark

Screams in the night

And keeps wide awake till all the stars go white

In a pale blue sky

He breathes in air

Walks on water

Caresses all tamarind trees

And climbs the gooseberry by the wall

He is brown

He is black

He is tall

And is everywhere

Sees beyond all walls.

He is fool, he is prophet, he is the king of Iran.

In Istanbul, Jerusalem, Papanasam, Belur, Budapest, Pakshipatalam.

You fear him, remember

Remember, there are many ways to kill a poet.

You blast him sky high

Tied to a rock. You kill him many times over.

He mocks you in your slumber.

He rocks, he sings, he dances the ramba ramba

He keeps you all wide awake while he sleeps.

There are many ways to kill a poet, remember.

Fear not fear not Wedding Guest!

Drink more water and spit on him full blast.

Tell him to leap sky high

And rock the sun like a big red fruit.

You feign sleep when he weeps beside you

You shout and laugh

When he weeps beside you

You celebrate everyday

While he weeps beside you.

He walks on water

Sleeps on a giant snake

Plays with saints and scholars

On Mount Olympus, Parnassus, Tiruvannamalai, Kodajadri, Annapurna.

In Weimar, in Pondicherry

By the sea, over all hills and peaks

You fly by and shop while he weeps beside you.

There are many ways to kill a poet, remember.

Perhaps, the best is not to listen to him.

You throw him deep down into the gorge

He bounces back like a rubber ball and stands tall.

You harness the elephants and stampede him chained

He smiles his innocent smile and bows to the beasts.

He is farmer he is scholar he sees far more

Than you or I. There are indeed many ways.

Perhaps, still, the best is not to listen to him.

That’s easy enough by our standards.

You search all stacks and rows of books

Run around with Google and Yahoo

Pick up handfuls of periodicals and papers

Probing and prying, trying to dislodge meaning from his word

You tear him to shreds in your goddamn dissertations

And debate across podiums in classrooms round the world

Of  Jack and Jill and Race and Class and Gender,

Of why he writes of butterflies and balloons

Of clowns and cacophonies

Of himself and no other.

All the while, remember, remember

There are indeed many ways. One could, of course,

Invent more fear. Silence is another.

Still, the easiest, is to stop by and ask him for a catalogue.