Art Beat

A prince among musicians, a musician among princes

If one would go on to ask general Indian historians about how the first half of the 19th century was? they would say that it was perhaps a very gloomy period or as they call it was the period when the ‘British Raj’was beginning to tighten its grip on many Indian kingdoms.

The early 1800s might have been gloomy in general for the Indian Subcontinent but for Carnatic Music devout it was arguably the golden-age of music.

The age of Sri Tyagaraja, MuthuswamiDikshitar and SyamaSastri-who are appropriately called the Trinity of Carnatic Music-was the golden age of Indian Music. There flourished in that glorious epoch one who was their peer albeit, if not better he was musically as great as the trinity were but the most interesting thing about this peer was the fact that he was a prince on a throne-His Highness Sri SwathiTirunal of Travancore-who was a prince among musicians as well as a musician amongst princes.


Like many Indian kingdoms the kingdom of Travancore was also about to fall prey fell prey to the infamous ‘Doctrine of Lapse’ according to which any princely state or territory under the direct influence of the British East India Company, as a vassal state under the British Subsidiary System, would automatically be annexed if the ruler was either “manifestly incompetent or died without a direct heir.”

Nobody in Travancore, including the then British resident Col. Munroe (apparently) wanted the kingdom to be annexed to British India. It was with great relief that the news of Rani Lakshmi Bayi’s pregnancy was announced. It appears that Col Munroe himself prayed at the Padmanabha Swami temple for a boy to be born and even announced the boy’s birth to his superiors even before he was born.  And so, while he was still unborn, Swati Tirunal was declared to be the next ruler. This special circumstance earned him the title of ‘GarbhaSriman’ (glorified even when he was in the womb). When he was barely four months old, the Maharani proclaimed him the Maharaja, and dedicated him as the obedient dasa of Lord Padmanabha, on whose behalf; he was destined to rule the State of Travancore.

It was on the occasion of his birth that his maternal uncle and great composer IrayimmanThampi wrote OmanaThinkalKidavo probably the greatest lullabuy ever written in Kerela’s history. As it is written in the book the ‘The Music of Hindostan’- “Generations of children have been lulled asleep by its soothing notes. Sung by generations over centuries the strains of this lullaby have been dyed into the warp and woof of the Malayalee’s cultural repertoire. Evoking intense nostalgia for a bygone phase of one’s life filled with tender affections and motherly care, the lullaby also thrills one with a sense of dejavu.”

Swathi was a prodigious talent.He went on to achieve proficiency in eighteen languages including Sanskrit, Malayalam, English, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Persian etc. under separate tutors at a very early age and he could compose poems in all these languages. Among his many tutors the most outstanding was Subba Rao who taught him English, Marathi, Political Science, Ethics and many miscellaneous subjects. As a ruler Swathi was an efficient administrator and brought in many changed policies and played a great role in modernizing Travancore. Efficiency was the key word and corruption a taboo.

Swathi was indeed a great king and administrator but as a musician he was a genius someone who was a class apart of all his contemporaries considering the fact that he lived in the period of the trinity. Though each of the trinity in them had some excellences which surpassed similar traits in him, he combined their excellences and surpassed the same in a unique and original manner of his own.

To his name are more than 400 classical compositions in more than 6 languages including Malayalam, Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu, Marathi and Tamil in both Carnatic and Hindustani styles. Thillanas, Varnams, Padams, Javalis, Keerthanams, JathiswaramsSwathi composed them all. Some of his greatest compostitons include DhanashriThillana, BhavayaamiRaghuraamam, Sarasijanabha, Devan kePati and many others. Almost all his compositions include his characteristic “Padhmanabha” Mudra as he was a devotee of Lord Padhmanabha of Travancore. The website does well to list more than 200 of his compositions with audio samples and lyrics. SwathiThirunal was a great follower of classical dance and hence many of his compositions are very well apt for dance recitals are still used by dancers across the globe.

Not only a great composer Swathi was a brilliant patron of art.SwathiThirunal’s court was home to a number of great giants from various fields ranging from classical music, classical dance and fine arts. His court musicians included the famous Thanjaore Quartet brothers (Chinnaiah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu) who formed the first line of modern Nattuvanars and excelled at the art of Bharatnatyam. Even today the compositions of the Quartet are used in Bharatnatyam performances by various dance artiste. In his court was for a long time home to GovindaMārāra contemporary of Saint Tyāgarāja.His expertise in singing in the six degrees of geometric speed earned him the title Ṣaṭkāla.By legend, EndaroMahanubhavulu, one of Thyagaraja’s most famous compositions, was composed after he heard Mararsing.Other musicians in his court included Tyagaraja’s disciple KannayyaBhagavathar, AnanthapadmanabhaGoswami (a Maharashtrian singer known as Kokilakanthameru swami) and many others.

SwathiThirunal did not live long and the genius died unfortunately at a very young age of 33. Sadly,Thampi who gave us this marvelous and ecstatic lullaby also had to endure the agony of composing Swati Tirunal’s death chant or Charamasloka.

Even today after more than a century after Swathi’s death his compositions are a favorite among several musicans and dancers.Prince Rama Varma, renowned South Indian Classical musician and descendant of SwathiThirunal, organizes the SwathiSangeethotsavam, a 10-day music festival featuring exclusively the compositions of Maharaja SwathiThirunal. Eminent Carnatic and Hindustani musicians participate in this unique musical event, which is conducted every year from 4 to 13 January at Kuthira Malika, Trivandrum and attracts music aficionados from across the globe. TheSwathiSangeethaPuraskaram is awarded to musicians who have made valuable contributions to the music field.

I quote what a European newspaper wrote about this great genius-

Both intellectually and morally, he was indeed far beyond his country and equals in rank; in both respects he might have taken a high place among the most enlightened of European Sovereigns had his destiny been so cast.He was a steady and staunch advocate of education, friend and patron of men of letters … his loss will doubtless be greatly deplored by all of us. May his name live long”

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