An Academy was formed to identify and popularise the songs of the royal composer.
The year 2012 will be the birth bi-centenary year of Swati Tirunal, for the composer king was born in 1813. There will be year-long celebrations for sure and the world of Carnatic music will join in, for the works of the music-minded king form a large part of our music repertoire. And yet it is only around 80 years or so that he became accredited as a major composer.
Early in 1939, the Government of the Princely State of Travancore announced the formation of the Swati Tirunal Academy of Music with Harikesanallur L Muthiah Bhagavatar as its head, to be assisted by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Their main task being the identification and collection of Swati Tirunal’s songs, popularising the singing of those that already had tunes, setting to tune the songs for which only lyrics were available and finally, ensuring that the musician community featured them regularly in concerts.
Getting the sabhas of Madras to present the songs of the ruler was an important part of this exercise and contacts were made. The Music Academy was happy to help and decided to dedicate December 29, 1939, to the “rendering and exposition of the compositions of the late Maharajah Swati Tirunal by the musicians present.”
The December Music Season that year was to see a lot of royalty. The Maharajah of Cochin was inaugurating the Music Academy’s season but Travancore Royalty was also conspicuous in its presence. On the last day of the Music Academy’s season, The Hindu reported on January 1, 1940, that Muthiah Bhagavatar gave a talk on Swati Tirunal wherein he gave details of the ruler’s works and put the number of his songs at 310.
Early in 1940, it was announced that the Maharajah of Travancore would inaugurate in a joint session, the music conferences of the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society at The Senate House in December that year. Shortly thereafter, the Music Academy commissioned the then young and upcoming painter S Rajam to work on the portraits of the Carnatic Trinity of Syama Sastry, Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar. Purandara Dasa was added as an afterthought and then, while he was working on these, word was received that the Junior Maharani of Travancore, Setu Parvati Bayi, would be happy to sponsor a portrait of Swati Tirunal too. This was duly commissioned and it was ready in time for the inauguration of the 1940 Season, along with the other portraits.
“The Senate House was filled to capacity last evening,” reported The Hindu on December 23. At 4 p.m. the event had begun with the Maharani unveiling the portraits. It saw as K. Balasubramania Iyer was to remark on the occasion, Swati Tirunal taking “rank by the side of great masters and composers, Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar, Syama Sastry and Gopalakrishna Bharati.”
S. Rajam was paid Rs. 100 for his efforts but as he was to rue later, he had spent much more than that in purchasing a suitable dress with a pair of shoes to go with it, to suit the occasion. An endowment was made to the Music Academy that day by the Travancore royal family, which would enable the institution to celebrate Swati Tirunal Day each year.
Other Sabhas soon picked up the cue. On December 25, we learn from The Hindu, Her Highness the Maharani presided over the unveiling of yet another portrait of Swati Tirunal at the Rasika Ranjani Sabha, Mylapore. On December 26, the Indian Fine Arts Society’s music concerts at the Gokhale Hall began with S.V. Ramamurthy, ICS presiding. There again, Swati Tirunal was made note of.
This was at a time when those championing the cause of Tamil as a musical language were not making much headway. Kalki Krishnamurthy was to compare this with the success in propagating Swati Tirunal kritis. “If only our vidwans handled Tamil kritis with sincerity they too would acquire the status of being concert worthy,” he wrote. “We have to deliberate on how this is to be done and who is to do it. Recently a clever man has shown us the way. He is Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar. Three years ago not many would have known about Swati Tirunal. Today his kritis are very popular. At least one of his kritis is sung in every concert. All vidwans, senior and junior, sing them. They are sung over the radio too. How did this happen?
“The rulers of Travancore state roped in Gayaka Sikhamani Muthiah Bhagavatar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. Sri Muthiah Bhagavatar corrected the tunes, Semmangudi sang the songs often during concerts. Everyone acknowledged that Swati Tirunal was a great composer. Soon Swati Tirunal festivals also began.”
Thus started the composer-king’s journey to popularity and acceptance. The rest, as they say, is history.