Swati Tirunal (1813 — 1846)

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

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