Swathi Thirunal-‘A prince among musicians and a musician among princes.’

Swathi Thirunal –  ‘A prince among musicians and a musician among princes.’

Priya Krishnadas                                                                            

Swathi Thirunal-‘A prince among musicians and a musician among princes.’

On April 16th, 1813 the Queen Regent Gauri Lakshmi Bhayi of Travancore State was blessed with the birth of a male heir to the throne thus providentially escaping an annexation to the British Empire under the Doctorine of Lapse.   Proclaimed an heir to the throne while still in the womb, ‘Garbhasreeman ‘Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, has been one of the most remarkable monarchs of the Indian State.

After the death of his mother at the age of two, he was brought up by his aunt Rani Parvati Bhayi. Recognizing the prodigal talent of the young boy, the Regent Queen, a great visionary paid special attention to the education of the young Prince.  His intellectual prowess, mastery over languages, proficiency in music and literature impressed his illustrious tutors as well as the visitors from overseas.


He took over the affairs of the State from his aunt at the age of 16. A good administrator with a progressive outlook he has many ‘firsts ‘to his credit.  He founded the first English High School; the first Public Library in Trivandrum; the first allopath hospital, introduced vaccination; established an observatory; set up the Government press and laid the foundation for the Trivandrum zoo, museum and the oriental manuscripts library. A visionary, he also brought about many social reforms and innovations. The first Munsif’s court and the code of laws for the Travancore state were set down by Maharaja Swati Tirunal.  During a short reign of 18 yrs., Maharaja Swathi thirunal elevated Travancore to a ‘model state’, earning the appreciation and admiration of his people and the British Raj.

Today the most celebrated fact about this great ruler is his contribution to the world of music. His name is synonymous with the history and development of Mohiniyattam .  A great lover of music and dance his patronage also extended to painting, sculpture, architecture et al. Jewels such as Meruswami, Irayimmin Thampi, Shadkala Govinda Marar , the Tanjore quartett   adorned his court.  A brilliant poet and a musical composer of distinction he stands along with his contemporaries, the Trinity of Carnatic Musicians, Thyagaraja, Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri. 

Unique features of Swathi  Thirunal’s composititons:

The Maharajas of Travancore ruled their kingdom as servants (dasas) of the Lord Padmanabha and most of Swathi Thirunal compositions carry the signature “Padmanabha”.

·         Compositions specially written for dance are a unique feature of this composer. They are distinguished by their rhythmic and poetical quality being suitable for both nritta and natya . This adds another facet to this genius, who had a sound knowledge of the techniques of dance as well as a scholarly understanding of the aesthetic theory of classical dance.  In this regard the contribution of Nattuvanar Vadivelu and his troupe of dancers need special mention. Swathi Thirunal’s dance compositions consist of Swarajathis, Varnams, Padams, Keertanams and Thillanas.

Swathi thirunal : 200th birth anniversary

·          He was the first composer to adapt Sanskrit and Malayalam in a Varnam format. The Varnams are about 23 in number in 19 different ragas and 3 different talas. They are in various languages such as Sanskrit (18), Telugu(4), Malayalam. The variety and volume which is unparalleled.

·         An innovation of this master is the Stavavarnam in which the lyrical content is a sthuthi (prayers or praise) of the deity, as opposed to the expression of the sentiment of love in the Sringaravarnams.

 ·         Many of the varnams have the names of the ragams interwoven into the sahitya.  ‘Saveritanuja’, ‘Nilambariyaharshanityakarana’, Purnachandrikanibhanga are some examples .

·         Another prominent feature is the Swarakshara technique in which the swaram and the aksharam are synchronized. For eg., the Todi varnam ‘Dhanisamajendra’ begins with the swaras dha, ni, sa and this is maintained in all avartas right through the composition.

·         He is probably the first South Indian composer who composed in the North Indian forms of music. There are about 38 songs in various forms  such as the Khayal, Dhrupad, Bhajan and Tarana.

A brief note on varnams and padams.

 The sahitya of His padams and varnams mainly deal with the sringara theme, the Nayaka mostly being Lord Padmanabha. This conforms to the Vaishnava philosophy of the bhaktha as the Nayika imploring the compassion of the Lord. The varnams can be classified on the basis of its musical pattern as Tanavarnams (without swarasahitya )and Padavarnams (with swarasahitya) . Of these the padavarnams are also called chowka varnams and are most suitable for elaborate abhinaya  in Mohiniyattam.  The sahityam of his padams and varanams portray the Vipralambha nayika. The varnams and padams can be categorized into these scenarios:

1. The Nayika addresses the Lord directly. Eg. Padavarnam , ‘Sami ninne’ in yadukula khamboji depicting the virahotkanditha nayika.

2. The Nayika addresses the Sakhi and sends her as a messenger to the nayaka.. Eg. Padavarnam, ‘dhanisamajendra’ in todi.

3. The Sakhi addresses the Nayaka on behalf of the Nayika. Eg. Tanavarnam ‘Sumasayaka’ in kapi.

4. A dialogue between the Sakhi and the Nayika. Eg.  Padam ‘Kaminimani sakhi’ in Purvikhamboji.

The dhanyasi thillana ‘geetdhvanikuthaka’  is probably the most popular of his dance compositions. ‘Dhanisamajendra ‘in todi , ‘Sumasayaka’ in kapi , ‘Sami ninne’ in yadukulakhamboji are traditionally performed in Mohiniyattam, the tempo and the  sahitya  perfectly lending itself to the dance form . A vast majority of his Padams  depict the vipralambha nayika  .Aliveni enthu cheyvu, panimathimukhi bale, kanthanodu chennu etc. are taught in the traditional repertoire at Kalamandalam.  Keertanams such as ‘Nrityati nrityati’ and ‘sankara srigiri’ are popularly used  by dancers now.  Recognizing the lyrical beauty and the scope for abhinaya many more varnams and padams are being added to the dance repertoire of classical dance forms. 

A versatile composer with more than 300 kritis to his credit, his compositions are deeply devotional and philosophical. Research and studies can unearth more gems of this divinely gifted composer and embellish and enhance the dance repertoires of today. 

Maharaja Swathi thirunal : 200th birth anniversary

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