MUSIC AND THE ROYAL HOUSE OF TRAVANCORE
[By T. Lakshmana Pillai, B.A.
KERALA SOCIETY PAPERS 11, SERIES 8]
What would have been the course and history of Indian music in Travancore but for the support and patronage it received under two illustrious sovereigns, Their Highnesses Swathi Tirunal and Ayilyam Tirunal Maharajas, who stood out as votaries of the art, the first, a composer and the second, a singer of undoubted eminence ? Would Travancore have produced a Govinda Marar, a Vadivelu Nattuvan, and a Raghava Iyer ?
These are interesting questions, although it is no easy task to answer them to satisfaction. It is somewhat like asking what would have been the course and history of English literature but for the impetus it received under Queens Elizabeth, Anne, and Victoria. Would England have produced a Shakespeare, Swift and Tennyson? Though his poverty brought on by his father’s debts and the persecution of Sir Thomas Lucy, were the immediate causes of Shakespeare’s flight to London and his choice of the dramatic profession, yet the personal encouragement he received from Elizabeth would certainly have been an important cause that contributed to the eminence he attained in the art She used to accost him in pride as “my Shakespeare.” and the anecdote of her having come into the stage while one of Shakespeare’s dramas was being acted, and her having dropped her handkerchief in order to divert the attention of Shakespeare who was acting the King’s part, so as to make him improvise the two well known lines, is a well authenticated piece of evidence to show the personal interest she evinced in him, It is possible to recall similar anecdotes in the case of Vadivelu Nattuvan and Raghava Iyer, two of the greatest musicians that Travancore has ever produced, though they may not be so generally known. Govinda Marar and Vadivelu were contemporaries and were recipients of allowance from H.H. Swathi Tirunal Maharaja. Raghava Iyer was the pet of H.H. Ayilyam Maharaja. I have here mentioned two of the greatest royal patrons though this does not mean that there were not other less prominent patrons of this noble art in the royal house of Travancore.
As stated above, H.H. Swathi Tirunal was an eminent musician and composer. He played on the Swarabit, and, on this instrument, his own Dewan Mr. Subba Rao was a companion player. What should we think of the importance that would naturally have been attached to music by the people, when the reigning sovereign and his trusted minister were both exponents of the art and took a lively interest in its development? Almost every evening, the Dewan had musical performances at his residence, at which the eminent Vadivelu took part. It is known that there were at least two other composers at that time in Travancore, one of whom as H.H.’s own relative, viz ,Iravi Varman Thampi and the other Ponniah, the younger brother of Vadivelu. There are about 150 of H.H.’s compositions of all varieties, while Tampi;s compositions are said to number nearly 400, though in many cases, the latter were merely the replica of H.H.’s compositions in regard to music. It is a pity that most of Tampi’s compositions hang for their very existence upon the life of an obscure Brahmin Bagavathar who alone knows them and who is not eminent enough to merit any recognition or encouragement. Both His Highness and Tampi were excellent poets too. Some of Ponniah’s varnams, as for instance his Sarasijanabha in Kambodi and manavichay in Sankarabharanam are of a very superior order. Of course, His Highness stands supreme as a composer of varnams, and in point of their number and variety, perhaps H.H. has no equal in the whole field of Hindu music. Many of his varnams are among the best in their respective ragas, and it is a pity that several have been lost through neglect in recording them. It is source of great satisfaction that most of the known compositions of His Highness have already seen the light of day through the untiring industry of Mr. Ranganatha Iyer.
Govinda Marar and Vadivelu (both of whom won the appreciation of Tiagayya of Tiruvayyar, the great composer,) were patronised by H.H. Swathi Tirunal. The first received his allowances from the Palace though he soon left Travancore, intent on his pilgrimage to Benares. Vadivelu received the handsome salary of Rs, 110 at a time when Munsiffs and Tahsildars were paid Rs-40 and 30 respectively. As a singer, he was certainly one of the best of his age, and according to Parameswara Bagavathar, the veteran musician of Trivandrum, was unequalled by any vocalist of a later age. Vadivelu was the man who first introduced the violin into Travancore. He was a dancing master as well as a musician. He was engaged by the Dewan to give performances before him almost every evening to the delectation of the officers who were invited to attend them, and sometimes the Dewan himself took part in the performance with his Swarabit. While Govinda Marar left Travancore for good and alter on distinguished himself at Tiruvayyar and Baroda and died at Pandrapoor near Poona, the native place of the composer Jayadevar, Vadivelu fell into disfavour with his sovereign and lived and died an exile at Haripad, though he continued to received his usual allowances. The name of two other musicians of the time deserve notice. One, Parameswara Bagavathar, who was got down from Palahgat at the early age of eighteen, became a veteran musician and lived through the next four reigns and shone as the leader of the whole band of Palace musicians. The other was a Mahratta Brahmin by name Meruswami, famous for his Bajana songs in Mahratti. The latter possessed a magnificent voice and by his singing exerted a great influence on the art of Katha performance.
His Highness compositions, as already stated, are of almost every variety, Swarajits, Varnams, Kirtanams, Padams, Tillanas, etc. He was master of nearly12 languages and composed in all of them. The compositions are all dedicated to God Padmanabha whose name would appear in most of them, as Tiagayya dedicated his to Rama. One notable feature in his compositions, to which H.H. Visakham Tirunal Maharaja drew attention, may be mentioned, and that is , the appearance of what are called swaraksharas, that is, the swara symbols tallying in important places with the initial or other important letter of the words to which the music is set, a feat rarely attempted by composers and which requires much skill and a consummate mastery of the language. It shewed His Highness extraordinary mastery over the Sanskrit and Malayalam languages. His compositions have ever since been sung by the court musicians and the people alike, and have gladdened the hearts of thousands. His Highness demise took place at the early age of 33 exactly in the year of Tiagayya’s death, viz , 1022 M.E. (1847 A.D)
The next glorious reign as regards the practice of music (not composition) was undoubtedly that of H.H. Ayilyam Tirunal Maharaja (1036-1055 M.E.).It was during this period that he great vocalist Raghava Iyer flourished. It was during the same regin that the famous musical combat between Mahavaithi Iyer and Raghava Iyer took place in the presence of H.H.in 1047 M.E.. It was then too that Kalyanakrishna Iyer, the greatest Veenaist (excepting Seshannah of Mysore) and Mahadeva Iyer, the greatest violinist (excepting Tirukkodikkavoo Krishna Iyer), of the age, began their distinguished careers. His Highness himself was no ordinary vocalist, his superlative merits having been acknowledged by such a great master as Mahavaithi Iyer himself. Of the famous musical combat, no detailed description is here attempted as the subject has been already dealt with by me on two occasions elsewhere. The combat proved that Travancore Could produce musicians who could meet foreign musicians on equal footing, provided the necessary encouragement was forthcoming. Incidentally, it is worthy of note that it was during H.H.’S reign that Raja Ravi Varma, one of the greatest painters of all time worked and won laurels. Raja Kerala Varma, C.S.L one of the greatest Sanskritists and poets rose to prominence, and Narayana Chakkyar, the greatest artist in that interesting field of Chakkiar Kootthu ,(a realistic narration of puranic stories) attained the heighte of his fame. Besides the stars of the first magnitude, viz, Raghava Iyer, Parameswara Bagavathar, Kalyanakrishna Iyer, and Mahadeva Iyer, there was then a cluster of other luminaries, only a little less brilliant, yet fully worthy of mention, viz, kitty Bagavathar, Raghupathy Bagavathar, Ramaswamy Bagavathar, Ganapathy Bagavathar , Ananthu Bagavathar, Satthu Bagavathar and others, some of them living through the next two reigns. All this splendid outburst of musical talent was due originally to the personal encouragement accorded by H.H. Ayilyam Maharaja.
Apart from the reigning sovereigns of Travancore who were themselves good musicians and who actively encouraged the art of music by patronising its votaries, we may now make brief references to the princes and other members of the Royal House who were accomplished in music to a noteworthy extent.
Going as far back as tradition would take us, two of the earliest names in this line were those of the princes Kartigay Tirunal and Aswathi Tirunal who flourished about the middle of the eighteenth century A.D. They were composers of devotional hymns (kirtanams), several of which are still sung in the temple of Padmanabhaswamy. Of these, the second was a Sanskrit scholar of note. The style of the music was of necessity simple, being adapted to the felling of devotion, to say nothing of the fact that there was not much scope in those days for the influx of the modern, elaborate eastern style of Carnatic music into Travancore.
Her Highness Rukhmini Bai (1800 – 1837,) the sister of the Royal composer, H.H. Swathi Tirunal Maharaja and grandmother of H.H Moolam Thirunal Maharaja composed some irthanams. They (?) all simple and touching. The song Sreekantesa Pahi Pahi “in mukhariraga may be cited as a specimen.
Coming to recent times, the names of Raja Kerala Varma, C.S.I , and his Royal consort H.H. Lakshmi Bai, the then Senior Rani, stand out prominent in the sphere of music. Raja Kerala Varma was a musician in so farwas able to play on the Veena. H e was a personal and devoted friend of Raghava Iyer, to whose supert music he often listened with delight. H.H. The Senior Rani was a great expert on the Veena having been taught by the great Veenaist Kalyanakrishna Bagavathar and latterly by his equally distinguished brother Ramachandra Bagavathar. Several prominent European ladies, who had the good fortune to listen to her, have testified to her marvellous skill on this instrument; and foremost among. Her admirers was her own Guru Kalyanakrishna Iyer, who had the modesty to say that Her Highness surpassed him in the art. There were constant musical parties at her palace by the Court Musicians.
In the category of musicians of the Royal House, one can never omit the name of H.H.Aswathi Tirunal, B.A. the late lamented Second Prince of Travancore, who met with an untimely death. His Highness was a thorough musician and could sing as well as any professional whether it was Raga, Thana, Pallavi or Kirtanams. The Prince was (?) proficient in Carnatic, Hindustani, (?) and Tibetan music, and could (?) the Veena. His versatility maybe imagined when it is known that this gifted Prince added his rare intellectual equipments to his accomplishment in this fine art, and his mastery of Sanskrit, Malayalam, English and Photography was not less noteworthy. Almost every evening he listened to the performances of the court musicians and paid them regularly and liberally.
Some reference may here be made to the Mavelikaray Royal family whose members have a traditional attachment to this art and still continue to be its votaries. They exert a whoe some influence on the practice of music in the whole taluk. The late Kunjari Raja was one of the greatest players on the swarabit that ever lived. He also had admirable mastery over the violin, the harmonium and the Jalatarangam. With the Swarabit, he held his ground victoriously against such master-singers as Mahavaithi Iyer and Raghava Iyer. Among living members, the names of the two Udaya Varmas (Senior and Junior) have to be noticed for high proficiency on the Veena.
I cannot close this brief narrative about “ Music and the Royal House” , without making specific mention of Her Highness the present Junior Maharani whose knowledge of the theory and practice of music is simply astonishing. No one who has had the good fortune of listening to her conversation about music can fail to be struck with Her Highness high, keen and refined intelligence, her profundity of knowledge and the vast fund of her information on the subject of music. As a player on the Veena, Her Highness takes rank with the best artists in the field. Her daughter, Princes Kartigay Thirunal, shows precocious natural endowment in the art, which is full of promise. Her noble son, His Highness the present Maharaja, is well-equipped in music, and this fact leads one to entertain the joyous hope that His Highness reign will be one of glorious achievements in the line of this “finest of the finearts”.
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