The annals of Carnatic music have composers ranging from kings to commoners. Among the kings who composed music, the name of Swati Tirunal shines bright.
Sri Padmanabha Dasa Swati Tirunal Rama Varma Kulashekhara Perumal, to give his full name, was born on 16th April 1813 to the ruling queen of Travancore Gouri Lakshmi Bayi and her consort Raja Raja Varma Valia Koil Tampuran. As the queen had been placed on the throne as a temporary measure owing to the absence of a male ruler, the child?s advent was hailed with relief. He was referred to consequently as ?Garbha Sreeman?, a king even while in the womb. With the mother and later an aunt ruling as regents, the boy king was educated. In 1829, at the age of 16, he took over the reins of the government.
Swati Tirunal?s reign witnessed several administrative and religious reforms in the initial stages. The relations with the British East India Company, which effectively controlled the fates of all the ruling princes, fluctuated depending on who was the British Resident in the Travancore Court. During the time of General Cullen it reached its nadir and this had its effect on Swati Tirunal. The personal life of the ruler too was an unhappy one, what with his losing his wife and children one after another due to illnesses. The stresses and strains of court affairs and family matters took their toll and he gradually withdrew into a life of contemplation. His devotion to the tutelary deity of the Royal Family, Padmanabhaswami was intense and this manifested itself in several donations and grants to the temple besides several musical compositions dedicated to the Lord. After a brief illness, the ruler passed away on 26th December 1846, much mourned by all.
But during the short reign, he managed to put Travancore on the musical map of India. His reputation as a patron having spread far and wide, a great galaxy of musicians, composers, scholars and Harikatha performers thronged his court. The ruler owed his knowledge of many languages and Carnatic music to Tanjore Subba Rao, who had been his tutor and later became Dewan of the state. The death of Sarabhoji II in Subba Rao?s native Tanjore in 1832 further ensured that many artistes migrated to Travancore. The greatest among these was Meruswami who moved in 1833. Known as Kokilakantha (cuckoo-voiced), he introduced the art of Harikatha to Travancore and became the preceptor to the king. A Mutt was built for him to stay which still stands in Tiruvananthapuram. Being of Marathi origin, he made Swati Tirunal familiar with the music forms of his region such as Saki, Dindi, Ovi and Abhang, all which the ruler used in his operas ? Kuchelopakhyanam and Ajamilopakhyanam.
Next in line were the four brothers comprising the Tanjore Quartet ? Chinniah, Ponniah, Sivanandam and Vadivelu. They hailed from a family with a strong music and dance tradition and were disciples of Muttuswami Dikshitar. Vadivelu was one of the early practitioners of the violin in the Carnatic style and he in particular became a very close collaborator with Swati Tirunal in music-making. The ruler gifted him with an exquisite ivory violin which is a treasured possession among the musician?s descendants.
Other musicians included ?Veena? Subbukutty Iyah, Kannayya Bhagavatar ? a disciple of Tyagaraja, ?Shatkala? Govinda Marar who got his prefix owing to his ability to sing in six speeds and Parameswara Bhagavatar. The last named was hand-picked by the king when he heard him sing at the Padmanabhaswami Temple. His musical tutelage was arranged under the king?s supervision and he was housed in a building called the Mullamoodu Malika. He was the first of a long line of palace musicians who called themselves the Mullamoodu Bhagavatars. Besides these artistes, Hindustani musicians and Western classical musicians were also employed by the palace.
Given his extreme devotion to Lord Padmanabha and the prevailing musical atmosphere in the palace, the king himself took to composing. He used a variety of languages ? Malayalam, Sanskrit, Telugu, Hindustani (Khari Boli/Brajbhasha) and Kannada (in one song alone). There is a wide variety in the kinds of composition too. He created varnams, kritis, svarajatis, padams and tillanas besides operas. In all his creations he strictly adhered to rules of prosody and alliteration. Indeed, his emphasis on these tenets was so much that he wrote a treatise on the subject titled Muhanaprasa Antyaprasa Vyavastha. Most of his compositions are dedicated to Vishnu as Padmanabha, but he did compose on the deities of some other temples in kshetras such as Tiruvattar, Srikanteswaram, Suchindram, Vaikom, Attingal, Kumaranallur, Padmanabhapuram and Haripad. He used the word Padmanabha and its synonyms as his mudra.
Swati Tirunal was responsible for the codification of music that was to be performed at the Padmanabhaswami Temple at various hours of the day. Besides, he also created the Utsavaprabandham, a set of 12 kritis and 42 verses in the Manipravalam genre (mix of Sanskrit and Malayalam). These describe the ten day festival at the temple. He also created a set of nine songs on Devi which were to be performed during the Navaratri festival. An ancient idol of Goddess Saraswathi is brought from Padmanabhapuram to Tiruvananthapuram ceremonially for this each year. The deity is housed in the Navaratri Mandapam where a musical concert is offered each evening. The central piece each day is one of the Navaratri kritis of Swati Tirunal, each preceded by raga alapana and tanam. In addition, he composed nine songs depicting the nine forms of devotion to the divine.
Being a king he had no disciples and the songs he created remained with the Mullamoodu Bhagavatars after his death. The music of many was lost and it was only in the early years of the 20th century that an active effort was made to retrieve the songs. Some books were published. The creation of a Swati Tirunal Academy of Music in 1939 gave the move a fillip and musicians such as Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, KS Narayanaswami, CS Krishna Iyer and others worked on setting to tune the songs for which music was lost. They also rectified errors in the notations of the songs for which music had survived. A series of publications and the featuring of the kings songs in concerts ensured that the songs received their rightful due and Swati Tirunal was recognised as a great composer.