Swaras in the soft glow of oil lamps

Serenity prevails at the Navaratri Mandapam concerts, a tradition followed by the Travancore royal family

Updated - September 28, 2017 05:15 pm IST

Published - September 28, 2017 02:30 pm IST

 A view of Padmanabhapuram Palace, in Kanyakumari district.

A view of Padmanabhapuram Palace, in Kanyakumari district.

Navaratri, Pooja, Dasara... a wonderful festival that is celebrated all over India, highlighting Shakti or the Female Force. When no man could stop the demon Mahishasura, the Divine Mother appeared as a combination of Saraswati, Lakshmi and Durga and offered him a hard deal. “We fight, if you win, you can marry me. If I win, I will kill you!” They fought for nine days. She finally won and earned Herself the name ‘Mahishasura Mardini.’ This is why the ninth day is called Maha Navami. We celebrate Her victory on the tenth day, which is called Vijaya Dasami. The Goddess is worshipped in nine different forms during the nine days.

There is another legend that Lord Rama prayed to the Goddess for nine days before fighting and killing the ten-headed asura king Ravana, which is why this festival is called Dussehra. This festival is celebrated in different ways across our vast country . I am fortunate to have been part of the Navaratri celebrations in Thiruvananthapuram for a few decades now.

It started way back in the 13th century, when sage and poet Kambar foresaw his end and entrusted his personal idol of Goddess Saraswati to the Chera king, who ruled at the time, on the promise that Navaratri would be celebrated every year, come what may.

The Chera kingdom later morphed into Venad and Travancore, the capital of which was the small town near Kanyakumari called Padmanabhapuram, which is famous for the magnificent palace that stands there. This is where Devi resides even now, though the capital of Travancore was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram around two centuries ago. The royal family of Travancore has honoured the promise made to Kambar by bringing Devi all the way to Thiruvananthapuram year after year, to celebrate Navaratri.

Maharaja Swati Tirunal (1813-1846) who was passionate about music and dance and a great patron of the arts in general, composed nine songs specifically for the nine evenings of Navaratri. The festival was held in the magnificent Navaratri Mandapam in the Padmanabhapuram Palace, glimpses of which we get to see in the song ‘Oru Murai Vanthu Parthaya’ from the 1990s Malayalam film Manichithrathazhu.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, 10/09/2008: Navaratri Mandapam where musicians perform during the nine-day Navaratri Festival. An idol of Devi is brought from Padamanabhapuram Palace and is worshipped here for nine days, in Thiruvananthapuram September 10, 2008.
Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM, 10/09/2008: Navaratri Mandapam where musicians perform during the nine-day Navaratri Festival. An idol of Devi is brought from Padamanabhapuram Palace and is worshipped here for nine days, in Thiruvananthapuram September 10, 2008. Photo: C. Ratheesh Kumar

The Navaratri Mandapam in Tiruvananthapuram is far simpler than its counterpart at Padmanabhapuram. This remains vacant and unused for the rest of the year. It comes to life and transforms itself into a magical place, just for the nine days during Navaratri. Until the early part of the 20th century, it would be a gathering of scholars (called a Vidwat Sadas) every evening, when every person present, could take turns in singing raga alapana, tanam, niraval and swaram, along with the resident troupe of musicians called the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars.

Amma Maharani Sethu Parvathy Bayi (1896-1983), mother of the last Maharaja of Travancore, revolutionised the concert format at the Mandapam with the help of Dr. Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavathar, by inviting professional musicians from various parts of the country to perform full-fledged concerts, more or less the way it happens now.

The traditional Mullamoodu Bhagavathars sing a Thodaya Mangalam every day, from 5.30-6 p.m., after which the concert starts. When the Travancore State Broadcasting Service came into existence, the concerts were relayed live from the Navarathri Mandapam from 6-8.30 p.m. A bell would ring and the musicians would have to stop. Even though the live relay stopped decades ago, the timing is maintained even now.

Enter women

Earlier only male artistes performed. Women were not allowed inside the Mandapam either as performers or listeners. Amma Maharani introduced veena concerts, again only by men. A few changes happened by the end of the 20th century, after Amma Maharani’s time, in the form of Gottuvadyam concerts, violin solos and flute solos. Women were finally allowed inside the Mandapam (both to sing and listen) in 2006.

But the atmosphere inside the mandapam remains more or less the same. There are no electric lights; the oil lamps cast light as well as shadow in equal measure. Despite being located next to one of the busiest spots in Thiruvananthapuram, the Mandapam is almost as silent as a sound proof recording studio. Since the concerts are in the form of offering to the Divine Mother, the audience sits quietly and listen without applauding. The ambience makes the music more meditative and inward looking .

Tanam is sung every day, to the accompaniment of mridangam, which is unique to this place. Only Hindus are allowed inside the Mandapam. Men have to wear a veshti or mundu and no shirt. Women have to wear a sari and young girls, paavadai . Mobile phones have to be kept in the silent mode. People who are not prepared to follow these rules sit on the steps of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple and listen to the concerts , enjoying even soft drinks and pop corn sold by vendors there.

On the other side of the same building where the Navarathri Mandapam is situated, a very different festival happens every year, honouring the memory of Maharaja Swati Tirunal. Called Swathi Sangeethotsavam, it is held at the Kuthiramalika Palace, January 4-13. Music lovers of all communities can come here and the atmosphere is relaxed. But that is another story. Both these festivals together embody the spirit of our country, which seamlessly combines the traditional with the modern.

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