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Swathi Thirunal

“I was at the Barbican Centre the other day, expecting to be indulged in nostalgia, expecting also for the famous acoustics of the Barbican to enhance the familiar voice of the popular musician.  Instead, the voice came through the synthesiser, the rendition was more Classic FM than Radio 3.  And sadly, Yesudas, arguably the best and certainly the most famous musician from Kerala chose not to sing the works of the only well known composer from Kerala.  Comparisons could be drawn, Yesudas has sung in several languages and experienced discrimination from the establishment in Carnatic music in recent times; the composer had composed in several languages, but was discriminated by the classical music establishment of the day for some time.  That composer is Swathi Thirunal."

Dr. Pat Nair reviews the life and times of the great composer Swathi Thirunal

Early Days

Swathi Thirunal was born in 1813 in Trivandrum.  His mother was the ruler of Travancore at the time as his maternal grandfather had no male children.  This gave him the right to rule the country before being born and was therefore known as Garbhashriman.  He was named Rama Varma but as he was born on Swathi day according to Astrology, tradition dictated that he could be called Swathi Thirunal.

He took over as the ruler in 1829.  Until then, first his mother and then his sister ruled on his behalf.  He was educated in Indian languages and in English.  He was also trained music and musical instruments.  Trivandrum enjoyed royal patronage in performing arts; it also had the advantage of visiting artists from Tanjore which had reputation for encouraging arts and artists the same way as Raja Ravi Varma, the painter, experienced.  Several artists from Tanjore including Vadivel brothers, the eldest of whom had introduced Violin to Carnatic music, visited Trivandrum during his time.  Another great composer, Iriyamman Thampi and his daughter Kuttikkunju Thankachi graced his court.  Although their main compositions were in the style of Kerala music (Sopanam), they both also composed in the Carnatic style.

World of Music

Swathi Thirunal composed over 500 pieces in different languages, he also adopted totally different styles of different regions in India.  He used the sanskrit language often and composed in rare Ragas.  The compositions varied from light bhajans such as ‘Sarasaksha...' to complicated pieces such as ‘Janani Mamava..’  Delicate feelings and gentle imaginations are expressed in beautiful words showing the linguistic talents but following the complicated rules of Carnatic music.  His linguistic talent is exemplified in a book he wrote on the use of language.

His music is devotional, mostly dedicated to Sri Padmanabha which he also used as a monogram in the way composers do.  Being the ruler, he did not have disciples who could continue his work but his court was filled with artists of high calibre.  Shatkala Govinda Marar, Iriyamman Thampi, Sulaiman Seth and Palghat Parameswara Bhagavathar were some of them.  He did learn from others, like a true scholar, and never stopped learning

His music was to be played at the Padmanabha Temple from early days onwards which perhaps helped to maintain the music in its original format and remain ever-popular.  He was disillusioned with the reigning as the then British Resident increasingly interfered with court matters which was not uncommon in the relationship between the princely states of India and the colonial government.  He eventually retreated to a more spiritual existence towards the end of his days.

End of an Era

Swathi Thirunal passed on in 1846.  History has had several great sons who lived for just over 32 years and in that short time achieved what others can only dream about.  While comparing Swathi Thirunal against the more prolific and famous composers such as Thyagarajah, Dikshitar and Sastri, it needs to be borne in mind that they lived longer than he did.

An institute, the Swathi Thirunal School of Music, was established in Kerala belatedly five decades ago to keep the memory of the most widely known composer from the state.  Had he not been of the royal family, establishing a Malayalee amongst the closed society of Tamil and Telegu musicians would have been difficult in the 19th century India.

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