What it means to belong to Swati Tirunal’s family and grow up listening to his Navaratri kritis

Well known Carnatic vocalist Rama Varma describes the literary and melodic beauty of Swati Tirunal’s Navaratri songs

October 17, 2023 05:12 pm | Updated October 18, 2023 04:01 pm IST

Prince Rama Varma.

Prince Rama Varma. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

In cultures all over the world, there have been people who wanted good things to reach the masses and not rest with just a privileged few. Purandaradasa’s songs, which contains the essence our spirituality continue to strike with listeners even several centuries after they were composed. Tulasidas wrote Sri Ramcharithmanas in simple Hindi that could be understood by a vast majority. Muthuswamy Dikshitar incorporated powerful mantras and beejaksharams into his compositions in a way that it would benefit anyone who sang these songs.

A painting of Maharaja Swati Tirunal

A painting of Maharaja Swati Tirunal | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Poet Kambar, a Sanskrit and Tamil scholar, retold the Ramayana in Tamil to make it accessible to those who were well-versed in this language. He had a beautiful idol of goddess Saraswathy, which he worshipped. Before he passed away, Kambar gave this idol to the king who ruled Nattarasankottai at the time.

As regimes changed and new kingdoms were born, this precious idol got passed down to the royal family of Travancore, which was founded in 1729 by Marthanda Varma. The capital of Travancore was at Padmanabhapuram in Thuckalay, near Kanyakumari. The palace at Padmanabhapuram, with the Navarathri Mandapam, remains an architectural marvel. The capital of Travancore eventually shifted to Thiruvananthapuram during the reign of Maharaja Swati Tirunal (1813-1846). . He was the one who codified the Navaratri celebrations by composing nine exquisite songs to be sung during the nine evenings. Sanskrit gains a different flavour in the hands of Adi Sankara, Kalidasa, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, Sadasiva Brahmendra and Maharaja Swati Tirunal. The language has been used in a distinct manner by Swati Tirunal in his various works such as Kuchelopakhyanam, Ajamilopakhyanam and swaraksharam-studded sahityam for his phenomenal pada varnams. The same goes for his Navarathri kritis.

The Navaratri Mandapam, where music concerts are held during the nine evenings of Navaratri.

The Navaratri Mandapam, where music concerts are held during the nine evenings of Navaratri. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Among our great composers, Sri Tyagaraja is celebrated for his devotion to Lord Rama, Sri Muthuswamy Dikshitar for his devotion to Lord Subramanya, Sri Syama Sastri for his devotion to the divine Mother and Maharaja Swati Tirunal for his devotion to Sree Padmanabhaswamy. But there are exquisite songs composed by some of them on deities other than their chosen favourites. A classic example of this would be the set of nine Navaratri kritis. These nine songs are comparable to the beautiful jewels that adorn the goddess as described by Maharaja Swati Tirunal in these songs.

For instance, ‘Purandaraadi suroththama suruchira kireeta mani kiranaanchitha charane (One whose feet are lit up by the brilliance of the gems studded on the crowns of Indra and all the other gods who bow down before Her and worship Her).

The Navaratri idols’ procession, which starts from Padmanabhapuram Palace near Thuckalay in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu and culminates at Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram

The Navaratri idols’ procession, which starts from Padmanabhapuram Palace near Thuckalay in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu and culminates at Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram | Photo Credit: MAHINSHA S

‘Naalamiha phani naayakopi batha aalapithumayi mahimaanam the’ (You are so great that even all the tongues of the thousand heads of Adisesha the divine serpent, would fail to describe your greatness).

These beautiful lines are from ‘Saroruhasana jaaye’‘ the Navaratri Kriti for the sixth day. This song comes studded with a set of splendid jathis, which reveal the Maharaja’s affinity for dance. Some of the other songs such as ‘Bharathi mamava’ in Thodi and ‘Janani mamava’ in Bhairavi have impressive jathis too. I have once heard a scholar say that the Maharaja probably composed these songs even before he might have composed his kritis on Padmanabha.

Rituals in progress for the start of the Navaratri idols’ procession at Padmanabhapuram Palace in Thuckalay.

Rituals in progress for the start of the Navaratri idols’ procession at Padmanabhapuram Palace in Thuckalay. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

We hold the dubious record for being truly abysmal in maintaining records. Because of this, some songs by the Maharaja contain original tunes and modified and fresh tunes by musicians later. But it it not clear who tuned which song. I have heard from vidwans that ’Pahimam Sri Vageeshwari’, ‘Janani pahi’ and ‘Pahi janani’ in Kalyani, Shuddha Saveri and Nattakurinji respectively were set to tune by Musiri Subramania Iyer. If we keep the music and personality of Musiri in mind when we listen to these songs, we can easily spot the unmistakable Musiri stamp. They may be hard to sing and make an impact withbut are replete with bhavam (emotional content) and sowkhyam (tranquillity). ‘Devi ‘pavane in Saveri is probably one of the most beautiful songs composed in this raga. Being the fastest, smallest and lightest of all the nine songs, ‘Pahi parvatha nandini’ in Arabhi, on the goddess of Attingal, is the most frequently sung kriti in concerts.

A view of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram.

A view of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

These nine songs, the thaanam with mridangam accompaniment that precedes them, and the mystic atmosphere of the Navaratri Mandapam are the most precious and beautiful memories of my growing up years. Despite being intimately familiar with them, their lyrical, melodic and spiritual worth only seems to increase with the passage of time.

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