The Navaratri Kritis of Swati Tirunal
The festival of nine nights or Navaratri as it is called is celebrated all over India. In most parts of the country it involves the worship of Devi for she battles for nine nights the forces of evil as symbolised by Mahishasura and emerges victorious on the tenth day which is celebrated as Vijaya Dasami.
In the erstwhile princely state of Travancore Navaratri was a festival with a unique flavour for it reflected the history of the area. Kamban the composer of Ramayana in Tamil (c 1080 AD) was a great devotee of Saraswathi. It is believed that Kamban was greatly honoured by the king of Venadu whose capital was Kalkulam. Kamban left behind the idol of Saraswathi he worshipped with the king. The kingdom in time became part of the Chera empire. During the reign of Marthanda Varma (r1729-1758 AD) the capital was renamed as Padmanabhapuram. The king rebuilt the palace which is even today considered a work of art. The Saraswathi idol was housed in a temple inside the palace.
In the last decade of the 18th century, during the reign of Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma (r1758-1798AD) the capital was shifted to Tiruvananthapuram. The Saraswathi idol remained in Padmanabhapuram. The composer king Swati Tirunal (r1829-1847AD) however felt that the neglect of the Goddess was not advisable and took a vow to celebrate the Navaratri Festival in Her honour. For this purpose he had the idol brought each year to Tiruvananthapuram in a grand procession. The Goddess was placed on a richly caparisoned elephant and received with royal honours in the Tiruvananthapuram palace, worshipped for nine days and returned ceremoniously to the Padmanabhapuram palace at the end of the celebrations on the 12th day. During the Goddess? absence, a lamp is worshipped in Her place at Padmanabhapuram.
The celebrations in Tiruvananthapuram take place in an exquisite wooden pavilion that is referred to as the Navaratri Mandapam. Swati Tirunal composed nine songs in praise of the Goddess which together are called the Navaratri Kritis. The king himself it is said codified the order in which they were to be sung, one for each day. The first six songs are dedicated to the Goddess as Saraswathi and the last three to Her as Durga. The first song alone has four charanas, while all the others have three each. The first three do not have the mudras usually adopted by the king in his compositions. The middle three songs have sollukattus (or dance syllables) appended to the anupallavi. The seventh and ninth songs have references to the Goddesses enshrined in Attingal and Kanyakumari as well.
Scholars have disputed the assumption that the king composed these songs specifically as a group. There is internal evidence that the songs were composed at various times in the ruler?s brief life and were later put together as a set for Navaratri. However the tradition of singing them during the festival has remained and continues till today.
After independence and the merger of Travancore with Kerala, Padmanabhapuram was absorbed by Tamilnadu. The tradition of sending the Saraswathi idol to Tiruvananthapuram however continues where the head of the erstwhile royal family receives the Goddess. Concerts are arranged on all nine evenings at the Navaratri Mandapam. There are strict rules for performing. Only male artistes are invited and it was and is a matter of prestige to be asked to perform. Among the great musicians, Kerala?s own son, Chembai, was however never asked to sing, for reasons unknown. All musicians need to perform wearing the traditional dhoti and angavastram without a shirt. There is no artificial amplification inside the mandapam. The natural acoustics are said to be perfect. On each day, the relevant song from the Navaratri Kritis of Swati Tirunal is to be rendered as the main piece, preceded by raga alapana and tanam. The tanam is performed to mridangam accompaniment. Neraval and swaras are also rendered for the songs in pre specified lines. The concerts are held in pin drop silence with no member of the audience getting up or moving about during the performance. There are arrangements made for listening to the concert from outside the mandapam for those who do not want to be fettered by these restrictions. All the concerts begin and end on time and applause is usually reserved for the end of the concert. The entire atmosphere is filled with piety and cultural fervour.
Overall the festivities remain unique and bear the stamp of erstwhile Travancore and its star king ? Swati Tirunal.