Musicians and music buffs explain why the Swathi Sangeethotsavam strikes a chord with them. The festival begins today
Every year, the music calendar in the city begins with the Swathi Sangeethotsavam at the heritage Kuthiramalika Palace grounds in the Fort area. It was in this palace that Maharaja Swati Tirunal lived and composed his kritis in many languages.
On January 4, as in the last so many editions of the fete, maestro Sanjay Subrahmanyan will open the festival in his signature style to a packed audience in the open-air venue. On stage will be a galaxy of musicians who will pay homage to the composer by singing the royal musician’s compositions only. Organised by Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma, a scion of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore and a musician himself, the festival includes a wide range of musicians drawn from all over India.
Music buffs get to hear chaste Carnatic compositions in addition to a Hindustani concert comprising Swati kritis. The likes of Pandit Ajoy Chakaraborthy, Pandit Venkatesh Kumar and Debapriya Adhikary have regaled audiences at Kuthiramalika. Every year, there is usually an instrumental concert featuring virtuosos such as the Lalgudi siblings, flautist J.B. Sruthisagar and so on.
Both musicians and rasikas chorus in unison that it is the hallowed ambience and the open-air venue that give an edge to the Swathi Sangeethotsavam.
For the music buffs thronging the venue it is 10 days of unadulterated classical music that awaits them. Rhythm, melody and lyrics meld to create a unique experience for listeners.
At the helm of the fete
In conversation with Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma, organiser of the fete, who is at the helm of the 15th edition of the Swathi Sangeethotsavam that begins today.
How does it feel to be organising the 15th edition of the fete?
I just did it on an impulse the first time, without thinking much about the financial burden and so on. My tennis hero Rafael Nadal, when asked: ‘Who do you think will win the title this time?’, always answers ‘I only think of my next match now’. Similarly, I never thought this would run for 15 years then... and I don't think about how many more years it will run, now. I just feel grateful when one more successful and heart warming edition of the festival happens.
How do you try manage to keep the fete mint fresh?
The credit goes mostly to the artistes who have given amazing concerts here over the years, bringing credibility and value to the festival itself. Being a music lover myself helps a lot, in seeking out new talent and bringing them here.
Are performers given some kind of instruction regarding compositions to avoid duplications?
Yes. I fix the artistes many months in advance and network and coordinate with them to ensure that almost nothing gets repeated. The festival would bring out a minimum of 55 to 60 compositions of the Maharaja each year. The fact that the artists I invite, are usually very understanding and cooperative plus the fact that Maharaja Swati Tirunal has left us such a rich treasure trove of compositions, helps a lot in achieving this objective.
How are the participating musicians chosen?
I listen to every artiste I invite, in person as far as possible and, at times, online. I have always believed that it is the organiser who should approach the artiste and not the other way around. These days the artistes apply to various organisations most of the time. Though I can't change the general trend, I quietly stick to my way as far as my festival goes. I invite artists who are professional in their attitude, who sing or play well obviously, who feature Maharaja's compositions in their other concerts too.
I had a pre-teen kid sing last year and I have 90-year-old Parassala Ponnammal teacher sing this year, along with teenagers from the Bala Brundam, Amrutha Venkatesh who is in her 20s, Sanjay who is in his 40s, Venkataramanan Sir who is in his 70s, TVG Sir who is in his 80s and so on!
This year, we have a group rendering of Swati kritIs and Varadarajan who has accompanied several maestros at the same venue making his debut as a solo artiste at the festival. Your thoughts...
Prof. Seetha Rajan has a brain and an attitude that is simply stunning! I have had the privilege of attending several of her thematic group presentations on subjects like compositions of Dikshitar, compositions on Lord Subramaniam and so on.
I am thrilled that she has kindly agreed to apply her intellect to the various facets of Maharaja’s prodigious output.
Varadarajan has always been a top favourite of mine, as an artiste and as a human being. Though he plays accompaniment, many have felt that he usually sounds better than all the singers he accompanies.
Ghatam vidwan Karthick
It is incomparable because the experience is unique. The festival has acquired an international stature. Full marks to the ambience. Imagine playing at the very same venue where the composer lived and created his compositions. Just behind is the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple. I feel that performing here gives me a spiritual and musical connect to the infinity. One should also mention that the Maharaja’s repertoire is so vast. There are varnams, keertanas, bhajans, javalis, Hindustani… and in so many languages, including Manipravalam. So there is always something new to look forward to. This year, I will be playing in four concerts.
Ace violinist S. Varadarajan
This year is special for me because I am making my debut as a soloist at the venue where I have accompanied giants of Carnatic music. It is all the more special because my Guru T.V. Gopalakrishnan is accompanying me. I am a little nervous because I feel I must make a mark here to make a difference to my career. I plan to play familiar kritis to strike a chord with the audience and I have been practising hard for this recital.
What’s special about the Kuthiramalika concerts is the eclectic audience that fills the ground of the Palace. It is true that I have travelled all over the world with leading musicians but the experience of playing at the Swathi Sangeethotsavam is uplifting because of the packed grounds and the appreciative audience.
(Musician and percussion player)
I make it a point to attend the concerts every year because of the sheer variety that one gets to listen to. It is interesting to listen to superb combinations of vocalists and musicians and understand how they ensure that the musicality of their performances never flags. Moreover, it is one of the few occasions that we get to listen to Hindustani music.
(Engineer, musician and composer)
It is the city’s own music festival and the only one of its kind in the open-air in a heritage building. The ambience ensures that the music touches your soul. I wish there was more diversity in the selection of musicians who perform at the fete.
(Percussionist doing his doctorate in music)
I am a regular at the festival as it gives us the opportunity to listen to top grade artistes and also learn from them. As such, there are many of us who look up to the festival. However, I wish new percussionists were given opportunities to perform. It is true that Karthick sir is a legend, he is playing for four concerts this year. It would be a dream come true for a young percussionist to get even one opportunity to play at this venue.