Personality His aim is to make everyone enjoy Carnatic music. Lakshmi Anand
He is a refreshing presence in the world of Carnatic music, which has its own idiosyncrasies. Prince Aswati Tirunal Rama Varma is a member of the Travancore royal family and a direct descendant of Maharaja Swati Tirunal and Raja Ravi Varma.
He is a vocalist, vainika, organiser, musicologist, world traveller, humorist, linguist, book worm and a connoisseur of world music and movies.
With an unrivalled repertoire of Swati Tirunal compositions, Prince Rama Varma begins his first Chennai workshop tomorrow (February 9), exclusively on his ancestor’s pieces, to commemorate the Maharaja’s bicentennial.
“I began sapthaswaram very late,” he says, “at an age when many have started performing.” But this only served to increase his enthusiasm and commitment to the art. It was Prof. T.V. Gopalakrishnan, who encouraged him to step out of the royal confines and sing.
The Prince’s concerts are marked by clear diction and sincerity to the lyrics irrespective of language. “The clarity comes from learning the veena,” he says. He believes that all vocalists should learn an instrument.
He does not sing a song without researching its background and lyrics and comprehending the meaning. Appropriate, succinct and insightful explanations with trademark humour allow the rasika to soak in the mood and engage in the song fully. He performed at the Rashtrapati Bhavan on the invitation of the then President Abdul Kalam. “Concerts are a team effort,” he points out, which is why he introduces and acknowledges each accompanist every time.
Prince Rama Varma conducts two large and popular music festivals in Thiruvananthapuram – during Navaratri at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and the Swati Sangeethotsavam every January. He attends to every detail and the events are marked by a unique ambience and professionalism, making them favourites with performers and international and domestic rasikas.
The Prince spearheaded the opening up of the Navaratri Mandapam - an erstwhile male bastion - to women in 2006, by featuring Parassala Ponnammal for the maiden concert. “Navaratri is a festival celebrating the female Goddess; it was illogical to disallow women,” he says. “It was not easy, but it had to be done.” Where, earlier, the veena had been the only instrument permitted for solo performances, he opened it up to other instruments as well.
Featuring only Swati Tirunal compositions, Prince Rama Varma began the Swati Sangeethotsavam in 1999 at the Kuthiramalika palace, built by the Maharaja, which is held from January 6 to 12. This April being the composer’s bicentennial, the Prince organised an additional four evenings of concerts in the recently concluded series.
His erudition and organisational accomplishments are probably surpassed by Prince Rama Varma’s teaching abilities. One of his disciples is Bangalore-based Amrutha Venkatesh, known for the purity of her music. He regularly teaches at several workshops free of cost at the Veenavadini School of Music in the tiny hamlet of Perla, in North Kerala. Run by Sri Yogeesha Sharma, who returned to his home town after being musically trained, the school has a mix of people of all ages who would have never been exposed to Carnatic music otherwise.
The Prince has taught compositions of several vaggeyekaras – from the Trinity and Maharaja Swathi Thirunal to Dr. Balamuralikrishna and Kaiwara Amara Nareyana. His charisma and skills drew people, including this writer, to the idyllic school. Over 200 hours of classes have been telecast by the SVBC channel. Several clips are available at http://bit.ly/YhlfLF.
He has the ability to get across even complex pieces such as Dr. Balamuralikrishna’s ‘Kuntalavarali’ thillana to the learner. “My own struggles in learning are always in mind when I teach. I was really fortunate to have patient gurus, who shared all their knowledge,” he explains.
Prof. Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer, a senior disciple of Dr. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, initiated lessons and continued to teach Prince Rama Varma until Iyer’s death in 1994. He also studied the veena under Trivandrum R. Venkataraman for five years and then under Prof K.S. Narayanaswamy. His knowledge of the instrument, coupled with a keen ear, allows him to analyse music by breaking down even the smallest gamakams into their constituent notes. The Prince is now one of the foremost disciples of Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna, having had the rare privilege of not only singing with him, but also having his guru accompany him on the violin while singing.
“There is a belief that for music to be classical, it should not be comprehensible to the common man. I disagree with that entirely,” he remarks with candour. “Classical music can and should be enjoyed by everyone. It is the responsibility of artists to present our music in an appealing way,” he concludes.
(Prince Rama Varma
can be reached at writetoramavarma
through his personal website: http://ramavarma.yolasite.com/)
The Prince had the privilege
of not only singing with Balamuralikrishna, but also
had the guru accompany him
on the violin.