The Kuthiramalika festival is both royal and divine.
For connoisseurs of music, the curtain on the festival may come down in Chennai, but a classy fare awaits them in Thiruvananthapuram, where the Kuthiramalika festival will be held next month. This writer made a visit to the hallowed venue, considered divine by artists, many of whom find it a privilege to perform.
The Kuthiramalika Palace was built by Maharaja Swati Tirunal Rama Varma of Travancore in the 1840s close to the abode of his family deity, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple. A striking feature of its architecture is the array of 122 carved horses (kuthira) on the wooden brackets holding up the entire southern part of the palace roof, that give it its name.
A portion of the palace is open to the public as a museum. A signboard still calls it Puthen Malika Palace, its original name. Such boards direct me all the way around the palace to its western side until I go through a small door and suddenly find myself on its grounds. It is past noon and the bright sunlight that floods the sprawling courtyard does not take away the air of melancholy pervading the place.
In sharp contrast, for one week each year the palace courtyard wears a festive look when it hosts a unique festival of music, the Swathi Sangeetholsavam. Held to commemorate the legacy of the Maharaja who was a prolific composer and patron of music and dance, the festival is organised by his descendant, Prince Rama Varma, scion of the Royal family of Travancore. Over the years the festival has grown in stature and now attracts music lovers from all over India and abroad.
Usually held over seven days from January 6-12 every year, the Swati Sangeetholsavam in 2013 will be an extended festival from January 4 to 13 to commemorate the bicentenary of the Royal composer.
Prince Rama Varma points out that Maharaja Swati Tirunal was one of the few people to have composed in both the Carnatic and Hindustani styles and they are in as many as seven languages - Sanskrit, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi, Brajbhasha and Manipravalam. The astonishing variety - Varjam, Swarajati, Tillana, Kirtanam, Padam, Javali and Tillana in Carnatic style and Dhrupad, Khayal, Thappa and Bhajan in Hindustani style - makes it possible to hold an entire festival of the Maharaja’s compositions and still have enough variety.
The concert stage is the “Poomukham” or the wide hexagonal centre of the verandah running along the south side of the Palace. Chairs are laid out in the palace grounds facing this stage. Palm leaves strung around the stage make a stunningly simple ornamentation.
The artist of the day first lights a lamp in front of the picture of Sri Padmanabhaswamy on the stage and then goes on to light the lamp in front of Maharaja Swati Tirunal whose portrait forms the backdrop. The musicians then seat themselves in the light of the setting sun to start the evening of music. Two men move unobtrusively around the stage, lighting the tall oil lamps and the lamps hung around the “Poomukham” and keep tending them from the shadows until the concert concludes. The festival boasts one of the finest open-air sound systems you can experience anywhere. As darkness falls, the spotlights gently light up the stage.
The moon rises over the palace roofs sometime before the “Main” and the famous Kuthiramalika owls (two white owls that have made the palace rooftops their home) fly overhead in circles.
Being both an organiser and a performer at the same festival can be a “slightly embarrassing situation” says Prince Rama Varma. A vocalist and a vainika, he says he tries to bring variety by sometimes giving vocal and sometimes veena concerts. And he freely shares the videos of the festival on Youtube.
A wealth of past concerts can be experienced if you search with the keywords “swathi” and “kuthiramalika.” An orkut community (Rama Varma) has members who eagerly report and follow the festival concerts.
The Kuthiramalika festival is not ticketed. Initially funded personally by Prince Rama Varma, the festival is now conducted by an official trust called H H Sir Rama Varma Maharaja of Travancore Trust.
“The musicians at the festival understand the purpose behind it,” says Prince. “They prepare themselves to present a variety of compositions. Throughout the festival, we try to ensure that no piece of music is repeated.” This is an important factor he keeps in mind when inviting artists to perform. As an organiser Prince Rama Varma takes great care to honour artists of merit irrespective of their age, gender, religion or mother tongue.
The 2012 festival saw artists as young as Master Abhilash perform alongside veteran Prof. Venkataramanan in his seventies whose concert videos, uploaded by Prince on Youtube, catapulted him into the hearts of lovers of chaste Carnatic music.
Prince Rama Varma is also at the helm of the centuries old Navaratri Mandapam festival at Thiruvananthapuram where concerts are held on all the nine days in the sacred Mandapam. In 2006, he “broke tradition” by throwing open the Mandapam to women performers and listeners.
“Navaratri is the festival of Devi who is the Universal Mother. That being the case, why should women be kept out of the Mandapam?” says Prince explaining what prompted him to struggle for 22 years to get the ‘ban’ lifted. It was Smt Parassala Ponnammal, then in her early eighties, who was invited to be the first lady to perform there. She recalls this with deep respect and gratitude when she talks of her performances at Kuthiramalika. While the Mandapam has restrictions in terms of entry, attire and concert timings, the Kuthiramalika festival is open to all lovers of music and gives artists a relaxed performance space.
“I was fortunate and blessed to have performed twice at Kuthiramalika” says vidushi Ponnammal. “The venue, infused with the divine presence of Sri Padmanabhaswamy and Maharaja Swati Tirunal is equal to the celestial ‘Indrasadas.’ When singing there I could distinctly feel they were actually there in person and blessing me.”
Sri Balamuralikrishna, Prince Rama Varma’s Guru has tuned many of the Maharaja’s compositions whose original scores were lost. “I was attracted to the poetry in his compositions,” Prince Rama Varma says. “The Maharaja was a great Vaggeyakara. I pray to him, he occupies my heart, he sings and the tunes just come,” he says simply. “Every time I sing at the Swati festival, I take care to tune and sing new songs.”
“This is my favourite venue apart from the Navaratri Mandapam” says Amrutha Venkatesh. “The fact that the Maharaja sat in a room in that very palace and composed makes it very special for me. I particularly like the practice of artists lighting the lamp before their concerts,” says Amrutha.
“We felt so happy to be part of the festival,” exclaims Akkarai Subhalakshmi, the young violinist who gave a vocal concert with her sister Kum Sornalatha. “It is an opportunity to bring out the rare compositions of the Maharaja. With the variety of varnams, javalis, padams and thillanas we were all fired up for the concert. The stage is so beautiful; we felt it was coaxing us to keep on singing. It was a divine experience.”
And that in a word is what makes the Swathi Sangeetholsavam at Kuthiramalika a music lover’s destination.
Swathi Festival 2013
Jan 4 - Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Jan 5 - Rama Varma
Jan 6 - Master Sidhdharth (5 to 6:30 p.m.)
J.B. Sruthisagar (flute) 6:30 p.m.
Jan 7 - Amrutha Venkatesh
Jan 8 - Sikkil Gurucharan
Jan 9 - Ramakrishnan Moorthy
Jan 10 - Ranjini Guruprasad
Jan 11 - Debapriya and Samanwaya (Hindustani)
Jan 12 - Vighnesh Eashwar
Jan 13 - O.S. Arun