The genius of Maharaja Swati Tirunal lay in his prodigious talent and innate musical sense. Today is the royal composer’s death anniversary.

April 16, 1813. The star of Swati was on the ascent. It was an auspicious day, a Tirunal. News came in that the reigning queen of Travancore, Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, had given birth to a boy. There was palpable relief all around. Rani Lakshmi Bayi’s ascension to the throne had gone against the diktat of the British that only a male heir had the right to the throne. Non-compliance meant annexation. This Damocles sword had now been shattered. The baby was born a king.

It was a tradition with the Travancore royalty to prefix the names of their children with the asterism under which they were born. The new born was named Swati Tirunal Rama Varma. Submitting to the commands of Lord Minto, the Queen arranged for the coronation of four-month-old Swati Tirunal as King of Travancore on August 28, 1813, and stepped down to rule as his regent. He was now -- Sree Padmanabha Dasa Vanchi Pala Rama Varma Kulasekhara Kiritapathi Swati Rama Raja Manney Sultan… .

It was indeed a long train of titles that decorated the names of the Travancore kings. But to them, ‘Sree Padmanabha Dasa’ was not just a title. The rulers prided themselves on being devoted slaves of the Lord and governed the kingdom as his representatives. A historic dedication of the entire kingdom to the Lord by Sri Anizhom Tirunal Marthanda Varma (1729-1758) had set the precedent. Thereafter, all the rulers were first proclaimed as Sree Padmanabha Dasas even before they were proclaimed as kings.

‘A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times’ by P. Shungoony Menon, a contemporary of Swati Tirunal, gives an elaborate description of Swati Tirunal as a child. “By the time His Highness attained his majority, he had completed his education and become a perfect master of Sanskrit, English, Persian, Hindustani, Maharatti, Telugu, Canarese, Tamil and Malayalam.”

In an earlier chapter, Menon chronicles the observations of Colonel Welsh, a commandant of the British forces. “Swati Tirunal, now thirteen… took up a book of mathematics and selecting the forty seventh proposition of Euclid sketched the figure on a country slate but what astonished me most was his telling us in English that Geometry was derived from the Sanskrit, which as Jaw metor (Jyamiti) to measure the earth and that many of our mathematical terms were also derived from the same source such as hexagon, heptagon, octagon… This promising boy is now, I conclude, sovereign of the finest country in India for he was to succeed to the Musnud (throne) the moment he had attained his 16th year.”

Prodigious talent

Clearly, young Swati Tirunal was prodigiously talented, and also innately musical. This predilection was not surprising considering that his ancestry boasted of talented musicians, scholars and composers such as Karthika Tirunal (1758-1798) and Asvati Tirunal (1756-1788). Thanjavur Subba Rao, also known as English Subba Rao because of his mastery over the language, was a past master in Carnatic music. He taught the young king to play the swarabat. The king had other music teachers too including Karamana Subramanya Bhagavatar. Government records stand testimony to the fact that young Swati Tirunal was trained in instruments such as the mridangam, veena and the swarabat.

On April 20, 1829, Swati Tirunal formally assumed charge of his kingdom. Those were tough times for Indians. A candid letter written by Sir Thomas Munro to the Governor-General Lord Hastings in 1817 reads: “There is perhaps no example of any conquest in which the natives have been so completely excluded from all share of the government of their country as in British India. …Foreign conquerors have treated the natives with violence, and often with great cruelty, but none has treated them with so much scorn as we… .”

Against this dismal backdrop the 16-year-old Swati Tirunal donned the mantle of kingship. Creditably, notwithstanding his limited powers, he aimed to make Travancore a “model state.” A well-formulated code of laws, courts of Justice, introduction of English education, construction of an observatory, installation of the first Government printing press, establishment of the first manuscripts library were amongst the many initiatives taken by Swati Tirunal to modernise Travancore. Efficiency was the key word and corruption, a taboo.

On a parallel track took place a luxuriant flowering of the king’s musical and literary genius. Historian Shungoony Menon writes, “The Maharaja was a remarkable Sanskrit author. He composed numerous works on religion, metaphysics etc. …He also composed songs (on religion) in Telugu, Hindustani, Mahratta and other languages.” The literary works of Swati Tirunal include Bhakti Manjari, Syanandurapuravarnana Prabandham, Padmanabhasatakam, Muhana prasa antya prasa vyavastha, Ajamila, Kuchela Upakhyanas and Utsava Varnana Prabandha. His musical compositions, varied in form and structure, approximate 400 in number, in Carnatic and Hindustani ragas, both familiar and rare. Varnam, kriti, tillana, ragamalika, swarajati, jatiswaram, padam, javali, khayal, dhrupad and tappa, the Navaratri and Navaratnamalika thematic compositions, he composed them all, this prolific output implying an impressive degree of effortlessness on his part. Being a linguist, he opted for a choice of languages like Sanskrit, Telugu, Kannada, Hindi and Manipravalam (a combination of two chosen languages). He was a past master in the usage of swaraksharas - a musical device where the lyric phonetically matches the note that couches it. He affixed his compositions with the mudra ‘Padmanabha’ and its synonyms.

The vibrant mind of Swati Tirunal forever sought new avenues to satisfy his creative urges. Standing testimony to this is his designing of a Vahana for the temple festival, a golden chariot for himself and the costume for Mohiniyattom. He streamlined to the last detail the bi-annual festivals at the Padmanabhaswami temple and the Navaratri festival, which he shifted from the old capital of Padmanabhapuram to Trivandrum.

With such an effervescent personality at the helm, the royal court was home to brilliant musicians of the likes of Irayimman Thampi, the Thanjavur Quartet, Govinda Marar and Kokilakanta Meruswamy.

As a monarch, Swati Tirunal was incredibly hardworking and supremely committed to his kingdom and people. Unfortunately, the dice in the game of life seemed to have been heavily loaded against him. The appointment of General Cullen as Resident sounded the death knell for the Maharaja. To quote Shungoony Menon, Cullen “assumed almost sovereign authority.” Such was his oppressive intrusion in the administration. The king was made totally powerless. Compounding this atrocity was the machinations of his aide Krishna Rao, who schemed with Cullen for his own personal gain.

A deeply distraught Swati Tirunal increasingly retreated into solitude and silence. He weakened intensely in body and mind. Death swished across the guarded doorway of his palace, a shroud billowing behind it. The monarch of Travancore and a king of a musician passed away on December 27, 1846, at 3 a.m. He was just 33.

The demise of Swati Tirunal attracted the attention of even the foreign press. Allen’s Indian Mail and Register of Intelligence of British &Foreign India, China, & All Parts of the East wrote, “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.”