garbha shrImAn
The Life & Times of Maharaja Swati Tirunal Rama Varma - Part I
by Dr. P. P. Narayanaswami

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Kutcheri, Raga, Tala, Sahitya
Artistes, Composers, Lyrics
Tributes, Tidbits, Quizzes
Dance, Harikatha, Folk Music


[Editor's Note: We are pleased to welcome back Dr. PPN after a long break, with this insightful piece on Swati Tirunal, on the occasion of the Maharaja's birth anniversary, April 16th]

The  time-honored dhyAna shlOkam in the “viSNu sahasra nAma stOtram”, reads

shAntAkAraM bhujaga shayanaM padmanAbhaM suresham

The magnificent  “ananta shayanam” pose of Lord padmanAbha in the temple situated at the heart of Trivandrum (tiru ananta puram -- the holy village of  ananta himself!). has been an eternal source of inspiration for pilgrims for generations. This abode of Lord  padmanAbha was known as “syAnandUra” in the k.rta yugam,  “Anandapuram” in trEtA yugam,  “anantapuram” in dvApara yugam, and in  the kali yugam, it is called “padmanAbhapuram”. It was to this Lord, the then ruler of Travancore,  mahArAjA svAti tirunAL dedicated most of his soul-stirring compositions.

About svAti tirunAL's contributions to music, the late Mysore vAsudEvAcAriAr once remarked:

“One should see this great padmanAbha to get at the secret of the greatness of mahArAjA's compositions, for they are verily the very voice of mahArAjA pouring out his heart to his Maker. Unless the words and the music we compose simultaneously breathe a feelings of oneness with the Supreme, a composition does not come to life. svAti tirunAL's compositions are immortal because we see padmanAbha in them''

As a ruler, svAti tirunAL had few equals, and as a patron of arts and music, he can be compared to King bhOja of Sanskrit mythology (who always had the so-called “nine gems“ (scholars) in his court, including the great poet kALidAsa). But above all, what immortalized him was his brilliant compositions in several languages which have elevated him to an eminence in par with the musical trinity of  the karNaTik music.

His Early Life

During the beginning of the eighteenth century, the Travancore Royal court was the focal point for various arts forms, including classical music and dance. It is no wonder that many an artist, poet, composer and performer, was attracted to this region, and enjoyed a generous patronage here. The ruler, kArtika tirunAL bAlarAma varma mahArAja was a great composer and a poet. In addition to numerous compositions and several  ATTa kathas (songs suitable for kathakaLi dance) to his credit, he was also the author of a dance treatise, “bAlarAma bharatam”.  After his death,  the family had no male members to succeed the throne. This was the time, when one of his divAns, vElu tampi revolted against the British rulers. Consequently, the kingdom was under constant threat of annexation by the British. As a silver lining in a sable cloud, the throne was aptly blessed with a suitable and appropriate heir. SvAti tirunaL was born in 1813, in the month of  citra, and the birth star was  svAti . It was customary to name the royal members by the auspicious stars on which they were born. His original name was rAma varma. His father was rAjarAja varma kOyitampurAn. His mother, mahArANi lakSmi bAi (daughter of bAlarAma varma) was the reigning sovereign of the state of Travancore.  Even while she was pregnant, our hero was declared to be the next ruler. This special circumstance earned him the title of  “garbha shrImAn'' (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. The astrologers had already predicted that the reign of this new member would be a golden period. And indeed it was so.

When he was four years old, his mother passed away, leaving him to the care of his father, and his 13 year old aunt, Princess pArvati bAi. Under the able guidance of his father, the young Princess administered the State very efficiently. SvAti tirunAL was an ardent student. By the time he was seven, he had already mastered his mother tongue, Malayalam, and Sanskrit, and has begun to learn English, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Hindusthani, and even Persian. As a linguist, he always impressed visitors from different regions, by holding conversations in their own tongue. The palace provided every encouragement he needed for his intellectual pursuits. The Princess was a gifted vINa player, and she often invited leading musicians and vaiNikas from other regions to perform in the Travancore court, and extended her patronage to them. Thus, svAti tirunAL grew up in the surrounding of music. The court poet was the brilliant composer, Irayimman Tampi, whom we always remember as the author of the song “Omanatti”nkaL kiTAvO”. He composed this soothing lullaby piece, to be sung over the cradle of svAti tirunAL, the baby prince. A Marathi scholar, subba rAo from Tanjore, taught him Marathi and English, and introduced him to the musical instrument “surabat”.  His mentor in Sanskrit language was koccupiLLa vAriar. His Telugu teacher was subbarAma bhAgavatar, and he mastered Persian and Arabic from Mohammed Ali. He grasped the fundamentals of karNATik music from various  scholars who visited the court from Tanjore and PudukkOTTai.

The Ruler

In his book, “Military Reminiscences'', Major Wells, a British official, who visited the Travancore court, described the 11 year old Prince as “greatly improved in mind, though rather diminutive in person. This promising boy is now, I conclude, the sovereign of the finest country in India.''

Thus, in the constant company of court musicians, poets, and scholars, svAti tirunAL grew up, and took over the reins of the State in 1829, at the age of 16. He ruled the kingdom for barely 18 years. During this short span of time, his achievements were remarkable, both in quality and quantity. Although Trivandrum was the capitol, Quilon (Kollam) was the seat of all public offices. He moved them all to Trivandrum, to enable him to have a direct supervision of the daily administrative activities. The judiciary was completely re-hauled, and enlarged so as to impart quicker and more efficient justice system. A modern code of law, the first of its kind was drawn up by a Commission. Several English schools were started, hospitals (both Ayurvedic and Allopathic systems) were established, and irrigation and Engineering Departments set up. An observatory, again first of its kind in South India, a Government Printing Press, and a zoo also came into being. SvAti tirunAL was also responsible for the creation of a comprehensive Malayalam Grammar and Dictionary. He was a progressive ruler, with an open mind to new ideas and suggestions, and attracted new people to the state. During his later days, the British Resident General Cullan started interfering with his style of administration, which the MaharAjA could not tolerate. So, he slowly withdrew from royal duties, and spent most of his time in the worship of Lord  padmanAbha , till his death in 1846.

His Music

When the illustrious teacher, subba rAo, started tutoring the young prince, he had no idea that his pupil was destined to become an immortal composer. Aptitude for poetry was a family tradition. Among his predecessors were the great poet kulashEkhara perumAL, and kArtika tirunAL, the composer of  numerous ATTa kathA padams. When he came into contact with the traditions of karNATik music, it became a revelation. He acquired a burning desire to express his passionate devotion to Lord  padmanAbha through the medium of karNATik music. So, inspired by this all-absorbing devotion, and equipped with a natural flair for poetry,  svAti tirunAL started composing a variety of compositions. The long list includes  varNams (both tAna varNam and cauka varNam),  jatIsvaram, kIrtanam, padam, tillAnA, jAvaLi, rAgamAlika, rAgamAlika shlokam, and compositions suitable for  harikatha  ---  and that too in many languages -- Malayalam, Sanskrit, Telugu, Marathi, Kannada and Hindusthani. Perhaps he was the only composer of his time who tried at so many different forms, in so many different languages, in so many modes, making each of his compositions distinctive in its unique way. As Mysore VasudevAcAriAr pointed out, “the one ATa tALa varNam,  “sarasijanAbha” is enough to immortalize this royal composer.  I feel this is the last word on kAmbhOji.''

Likewise each of his work is a perfect piece of artistic creation. He was one composer, who touched the entire range of composition forms in  karNATik music. There are several features that mark out svAti tirunAL's compositions. The  sAhityam is mostly in chaste Sanskrit, a feature that reminds us of the scholarly muttusvAmi DIkSitar. The lyrical simplicity approximates that of Saint tyAgarAja, and in fervor, that of SyAma shAstri. A bulk of his compositions are “garlands woven out of the synonyms of Lord and His attributes, exhortations to spiritual life, allegories in man's relationship to God, and epitomes of the purANams” --- in short a musical transcript of the heart of a great devotee and a great poet. It is no surprise that the person who saw Lord padmanAbha in everything, appropriately chose the “paryAya mudra” such as  padmanAbha, sarOjanAbha, jalajanAbha, vArijanAbha, pa”nkajanAbha, and so forth, as  a”nkitam (signature) for his compositions.

A majority of his compositions are in Sanskrit, and quite a few in Malayalam; but, we also find a large number in the style of  maNipravALam (a mixture of many languages, in this case, Sanskrit and Malayalam), a few in Telugu, one in Kannada, and numerous in Hindusthani. The  “utsava prabhandam” is completely rendered in  maNipravALam style (Sanskrit mixed with Malayalam). While there is just one k.rti available in Kannada (“rAjIvAkSa bAro” in sha”nkarAbharaNam), there is no composition  of the mahArAja available in Tamil,

With a happy blending of svarAkSara passages, his compositions illustrate not only the basic modes in all their purity, but also rise to an evocative eloquence. He refrained from the usage of complicated gymnastic laya patterns that mutilate the bhAva. The mastery of several languages, and the science and art of music, enabled him to ornament his sAhityams with colorful imageries and elegant phrases.

He was a brilliant composer of padams, a sort of compositions, which are esoteric allegories of the relationship between man and God. These pieces are primarily meant for dance. Many compositions that are light pieces suitable for bhajan renditions find a place in his contributions. Examples are: “smara sadA mAnasa” (bilahari),  “kalayE shrI”  (ce~njuruTTi), and “jaya jagadIsha” (yamunA kalyANi). His  tAna varNams put him in par with Adi Appayya, and his pada varNam s are eminently suited for abhinayam

SvAti tirunAL has used 104 rAgams in around 391 compositions available to us. About the  rAgams he has chosen, one may very well say that he fell in line with his illustrious contemporaries. He chose well known  rakti rAgams like sha”nkarAbharaNam, tODi, bhairavi, Arabhi, and nATTakura~nji. Rare rAgams like saindhavi, navarOj, dvijAvanti, rEvagupti, lalitapa~ncamam, ghaNTa, shuddha bhairavi, and gOpikAvasantam found full expression in his hands, and he evolved new ones like mOhana kalyANi. While the trinity handled many hindustAni rAgams and adapted them to suit the karNATik system, svAti tirunAL employed rAgams such as hamIr kalyAn, kAfi, pUrvi, dhanAshrI, bibhas, etc., in their originality without any modifications.

Part II - Swati Tirunal's Compositions >>


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