Prince Rama Varma upholds his ancestor’s pledge with musical offerings to Devi during Navaratri.

The Chalai Bazaar at Thiruvananthapuram, cleared of traffic, wears an expectant look. Groups of merchants light gleaming oil lamps and string flowers in their shop fronts. Although the street is full of pedestrians, nobody is shopping. Suddenly at the western end of the bazaar, music and activity herald the approach of a grand procession. Platoons of mounted police are followed by uniformed men, music bands, nagaswaram and then a group of men carrying the sword of the Maharaja. A caparisoned elephant appears and the merchants rent the air with shouts, accompanied by showers of flowers and garlands. The elephant is carrying the idol of Goddess Saraswathi, who is arriving in the city for Navaratri.

The holy arrival is in keeping with a promise made by a Chera King centuries ago. The sage Kambar had an idol of Goddess Saraswathi that he gave to a Chera King, who promised that the Goddess would be worshipped and the Navaratri Festival held in Her honour every year.

When Maharaja Swati Tirunal shifted the capital from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram in the 19th century, he made arrangements to bring the Devi to his new capital every year and built the Navaratri Mandapam adjoining his royal palace. In the 20 century, the political scene underwent huge changes. However, when Prince Rama Varma, scion of the Royal Family of Travancore, organises the Navaratri Festival this year, as in the previous years, he will continue to honour his ancestor’s promise.

For the rest of the year, Devi blesses devotees from Her Thevarakkettu at Padmanabhapuram Palace. It is the ‘Moola Vigraham,’ which is brought to Thiruvananthapuram leaving a lighted lamp in the sanctum. Lord Kumaraswamy on a silver horse from Kumara Kovil and Goddess Munnoothinangai from Sucheendram on a palanquin also accompany the Devi.

At the Navaratri Mandapam, situated at the eastern entrance to Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple, devotees can have darshan of Saraswathi Devi every day at designated times. But every evening, the Mandapam resonates to the sound of special musical offerings by renowned Carnatic musicians.

The Navaratri concerts feature Maharaja Swati Tirunal’s compositions. He composed nine Navaratri keerthanams in Sanskrit, each to be sung on designated days of the Navaratri. They are in the ragas Sankarabharanam, Kalyani, Saveri, Thodi, Bhairavi, Panthuvarali, Suddha Saveri, Nattakurinji and Arabhi respectively, and are sung as the main piece on each day. Mangalam is sung only on the last day. During the first three days, the Devi is worshipped as Saraswathi, the next three days as Lakshmi and the last three days as Durga. “I feel so utterly blessed and privileged to be able to do my bit to continue such a sacred and wonderful event as the Navaratri festival,” says Prince Rama Varma, a renowned vocalist, vainika, musicologist and teacher. Every year, he performs on one day of the event.

Stalwarts performed

Earlier, only the family members of Mullamoodu Bhagavathars used to perform. “Amma Maharani (Prince Rama Varma’s great grandmother) invited stalwarts to perform at the Navaratri Mandapam,” explains the Prince. One such concert featured Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer with Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu on the violin, Palghat Mani Iyer on the mridangam and Palani Subramania Pillai on the ganjira. Although he was a percussion giant, the Travancore Asthana Vidwan title was the sole recognition Palani received in his lifetime.

The Prince recalls being told by Amma Maharani and by Maharaja Chitra Tirunal (his grand uncle) about the Navaratri concerts in the 1920s and ’30s. “The audience was musically erudite. The concerts were transformed into Sangeetha Sadas, where a raga alapana by the artist would be taken up by members of the audience in succession and only then would the main piece be sung.” As a child, he attended the concerts where the Mangalam ‘Bhujagasayino’ would be joined by the members of the audience and the whole Mandapam would reverberate with the group offering.

This year, being the birth centenary of K. S. Narayanaswamy, who was a regular at the festival, his disciple Jayashree Aravind will be giving a veena recital.

The concerts are held in front of the Devi’s sanctum, with the musicians sitting to its left. Behind them is a mural depicting Devi on Simhavahanam. Facing them sit three rows of the audience, behind which is a latticework window through which the members of the Royal Family watch the concerts. The rest of the audience sits in the larger mandapam area, amidst the granite pillars and tall oil lamps. There is no artificial lighting. Canopies of flowers decorate the ceiling. The pillars are covered with strings of yellow lemons and brown betel nuts made of wood.

“The glow of the oil lamps, the fragrance of flowers and incense, the divine musical offerings, the sacred presence of the Devi presiding over all this is an unforgettable experience,” explains Prince Rama Varma. “One really has to be there and experience it to understand what I am talking about.”

Traditionally, only men were allowed to perform and to listen to concerts at the Navaratri Mandapam. However from his teens, the Prince started to question this exclusive practice. “I could never understand why women were not allowed to perform at this festival, where the concerts were held essentially in honour of the Devi, the Universal Mother,” he says. After 22 years, his effort to change this finally bore fruit and in 2006, the taboo was lifted. The Prince invited Parassala Ponnammal to be the first lady to perform at the Mandapam. The event catapulted her from the obscurity of retirement into the public eye. From that point, women could also attend the concerts at the Mandapam.

Preceding the evening concert, the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars sing the Thodayamangalam (mainly compositions of the Maharaja), 5.30-6 p.m.

Timings are strictly adhered to here. At 6 p.m., the main concert starts and at 8.30 p.m. a bell is rung to signal its end. Artists time their renditions to end before the bell. “The sanctity of the timing has its origins in the era of Travancore Radio during the 1930s, when the concerts were relayed live,” says Prince Rama Varma. Sadly, today there is no live telecast but portions of the concerts including the main Navaratri piece sung that day are broadcast by AIR, 9-10 p.m. every evening.

In the mornings, anyone can hire the Mandapam for a nominal fee and give vocal or instrumental concerts or dance performances as their offering to Devi. For details, call the Fort Palace Office at 0471–2479245 for a booking.