Navaratri in Tiruvananthapuram
Navaratri or Dussehra invariably brings to mind Mysore or Bengal. However, for all Carnatic music lovers there is only one destination during the festival of nine nights and that is the Navaratri Mandapam in the Fort at Tiruvananthapuram. The Mandapam is home to a unique tradition of musical homage to the Goddess.
The Travancore Kings had in their possession an idol of Goddess Saraswathi, which as per legend was worshipped by the Tamizh poet Kambar (9th Century AD). This was handed over on his death to the reigning Chera King. In later years, the idol was housed in the famous Padmanabhapuram Palace, which was commissioned during the second half of the 16th century, by Tirupappur Muppan, whose descendants form the Tirupappur Swarupam, later styled the Royal Family of Travancore. During the reign of Kartika Tirunal Rama Varma (1758-1798AD) the capital was shifted from Padmanabhapuram to Tiruvananthapuram and the idol continued to remain at Padmanabhapuram.
Swati Tirunal was born on 16th April 1813AD, to Rani Gouri Lakshmi Bayi and her consort Rajaraja Varma Koil Tampuran. The previous king had passed away in 1811AD and Swati Tirunal?s mother was installed as the reigning queen. It was expected that Swati Tirunal would eventually succeed her and he was therefore considered king even when he was in the womb and given the title of garbha shriman. His mother died a few years after his birth and was succeeded by her sister, Gouri Parvati Bayi who ruled as regent during her nephew?s minority, handing over the reins of the kingdom to him in 1829 AD.
Among the first acts of Swati Tirunal on becoming king was to resume the practice of worshipping the Saraswathi idol during Navaratri. He made arrangements for the panchaloha idol to be brought from Padamanabhapuram to Tiruvananthapuram in a grand procession each year for the celebration. The Goddess was installed in an exquisite mandapam that came to be known as the Navaratri Mandapam. The King composed nine beautiful compositions on the Goddess and set them to some of the finest ragas of Carnatic music. The songs are listed below:
Song Raga Tala
Devi Jagat Janani Shankarabharanam Adi
Pahi Mam Kalyani Adi
Devi Pavane Saveri Adi
Bharati Mamava Todi Adi
Janani Mamava Bhairavi Misra Chapu
Saroruhasana Jaye Pantuvarali Adi
Janani Pahi Shuddha Saveri Misra Chapu
Pahi Jagajjanani Natakuranji Misra Chapu
Pahi Parvatanandini Arabhi Adi
The tradition initiated by Swati Tirunal continues till date. Each year the Goddess is brought over on a richly caparisoned elephant. A lamp is lit and worshipped in her place at Padmanabhapuram till her return.
A music festival is organised for each of the nine nights at the Navaratri Mandapam. The mandapam itself is a marvelous creation, made largely of wood. It has a unique set of pots suspended from the ceiling, facing downwards and all held in place by coir. These pots were the amplifiers in an era when no mikes or speakers were thought of. What is unique is that the system still works and there is no necessity for any artificial amplification inside the hall. The mandapam cannot accommodate large numbers and so a PA system is used in the outer courtyard for the benefit of those listening there. The mandapam is illuminated only by oil lamps and is decorated with flowers. Together with the camphor and the incense, it makes a divine setting for some heavenly music. In the years when Travancore was a princely state, the ruler would attend the performance. Today the head of the royal family continues the tradition.
The main song on each day is one of Swati Tirunal?s Navaratri pieces preceded by a detailed raga alapana and tanam. The tanam is uniquely performed to the accompaniment of mridangam. Women artistes were not allowed to perform on this platform till 2007 when Parassala Ponnammal sang there. The performances have generally been restricted to vocal and veena/gottuvadyam concerts. There is a strict dress code for men and no male can wear an upper garment be it the performer or the audience. Dhoties are a must. The concert is preceded by a half hour rendition of the Ganesha Stuthi and Todayamangalam by the Mullamudu Bhagavatars, the traditional custodians of the King?s music before it became popular. The concert proper begins at 6.00 PM and concludes at 8.30 PM sharp. No delays are tolerated either at the beginning or the end. A section of each day?s concert is broadcast over the radio.
Over the years most of the famous Carnatic musicians have performed here. Semmangudi, given his exalted status in Kerala, was a regular and so was GNB. MD Ramanathan and KV Narayanaswami were sons of Kerala who had made the state stand tall in the field of music and were invited each year. Among the instrumentalists, veena players such as Trivandrum Venkataraman and his guru KS Narayanaswami were very popular choices at this venue. Palghat Mani Iyer made it a point to perform at the mandapam at least on one day during Navaratri each year, preferring this opportunity over several other concert engagements.
The concert tradition continues till date, with today?s stars joining the ranks of performers at this hoary venue.