Swathi Madhuri – Lecture Demo on the Music of Swathi Thirunal by Prince Rama Varma @ Essae Music Foundation , 19th Sep 2010

21 Sep
Sri Rama Varma , eminent musician and musicologist, presented a lecture demonstration on the music of Swathi Thirunal at the Essae Music Foundation, last Sunday. Sri Rama Varma, member of the Travancore Royal family, arguably the best suited to talk about the music of Swathi Thirunal. Unlike the typical ‘life and music’ type of presentation, Sri Rama Varma chose to present the lecture more impromptu and focussing on lesser known compositions. The 2 hrs lecture was filled with his natural flair for talking, quoting anecdotes, conversations, rendezvous and historical facts. His trademark humour, humble stature and impeccable capability to sound like MDR, SSI and BMK ( to mimic is a sick word) were some of the highlights of the morning. Earlier, host Srividya introduced Sri Rama Varma to the audience, mentioning him as a fan of MDR,BMK and Rafael Nadal.

Sri Rama Varma, started his talk excusing for being half asleep, as it is too early on a Sunday morning to start such a session. He said, he was not prepared a standard Lec-Dem, but will do this as a random discussion on the Maharaja composer. There are enough and more information available on the internet on Swathi Thirunal.

Musicians in general have their favourites. They take up on the compositions of their favourite composers and become specialists. He has been particularly fond of three composers, Swathi Thirunal , MDR and Balamuralikrishna. His liking towards each are in its own different ways. Swathi Thirunal lived as a contemporary of Thyagaraja and Dikshitar, unlike them Swathi Thirunal did not have any disciples and hence there is no document on the way they were originally composed. MDR, though died only 25 odd years back, in his time , left no foot print of his own compositions. Though we have recovered his compositions, they were mere sahitya ( lyrics) with no notation. Though he did rarely sing some of his compositions, Sri Rama Varma says, he make the mudra ‘varada dasa’ so obscure ( demonstrated in MDR style) and incomprehensible. With BMK, he says, he is on safe grounds. It takes a phone call to clarify the doubts. BMK continue to sing his own compositions, and unlike MDR the mudra ‘murali’ is obvious and clear. Sr Rama Varma joked that even if the word ‘murali’ appear in any other compositions, BMK sing it with emphasize.

To speak on Swathi Thirunal , no body is an authority. Having a biological relationship with the Maharaja Composer does not make him the authority to talk about the music of Maharaja. Every body speak with their own ignorance, and so does he. He noted that there are many eminent musicians in the audience, and whenever need arise, they can stop him, and add or correct as appropriate.

Swathi Thirunal’s position in history is unique, unlike the other composers. He was a ruler and a composer. He ruled the Travancore during one of the most difficult period of Indian History with British Interruptions were at the peak.

Like Bhadrachala Ramadas, Narayana Theerthar , Annamacharya the original texts of his compositions were lost. Unlike Thyagaraja and Dikshitar he did not have disciples. His compositions performed by Travencore court musicians Mullamoodu family and the nadaswara vidvans of Padmanabha Temple.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Sri Rama Varma’s great grand mother Rani Sethu Parvathibai ( called as Amma Maharani) , who was a connoisseur of music, collected the available sahityam and requested Harikeshanallur Muthaiah Bhagavathar to tune them. Muthaiah Bhagavathar sought the help of Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, K S Narayanaswamy and Musiri Subramanya Iyer to complete the task. Muthaiah Bhagavather, preserved many in original form and the rest were modified by the others.

1 Deva deva kalayami – mayamalavagaula

( this was initially was set in Misrachapu tala, which is now changed to roopakam)

Swathi Thitunal had the advantage of being a king. Stationed at Trivandrum all his life, he learned various languages and both carnatic and hindustani music. He also have the disadvantage of not having any direct disciple. He lived a short life, but within that time span he composed nearly 300 kritis , almost 40 of them in hindustani raga. Only 15-20 of his compositions are generally heard regularly in concerts these days.

The dilemma of the musicians who set the manuscripts to music is to determine what needs to be focussed. Should we give preference to the sahitya or to the raga and tala structure. Sri Rama Varma says, Balamuralikrishna , for one, gave a lot of importance to the sahityam.


Swathi Thirunals pada varnams has a uniqueness of having the swarakshara in sahityam. This is not observed in the contemporary composers like Tanjore Quartret. He composed most of the varnams in sanskrit.

2 varNam – khamAs

( he said there is no use of kAkaLi nishAdam in this varNam)

The uses of swarakshara is demonstrated at ‘sa ni dhi pathi gi ri sha’ and at ‘ma ni da pa’ ( maNidarpaNa). This varNam has the romantic reference of ‘chAnd-chakOra’ as the lady ask KrishNa about his love towards her.

Maharaja was also a patron of dance and it comes out clearly in his kritis. Most of his kritis has an ‘audio visual effect’. They are also a performance piece for the dancers.

In this particular varNam, Rama Varma says, he made a small change in the notation. The swara phrase ‘sa ni ga ri sa’ as found in books has been modified as ‘sa ma ga ri sa’ ( Note: Need clarity).

Nadaswaram vidvans uses small gandharam in khamas. Sri BMK used this while tuning Bhadrachala Ramadas’ krithi ‘sarvam brahmamayam’, refering it to a ‘vishesha prayogam’. Sri Rama Varma refered to one of his sparring discussions with Semmangudi on the use of ‘big dhaivatham’ in shaNmukhapriya. Mimicking his voice, he said Semmangudi called it ‘vishesha prayogam’. When old and senior musicians make mistakes, its called ‘vishesha prayogam’, joked Rama Varma.


He was obsessed with Lord Padmanabha of the Trivandrum Ananthapadmanabha Swamy Temple. According to the belief whatever falls inside the temple belongs to Padmanabha, and Sri Rama Varma recalls he loosing a gold ornament during his childhood. Whenever a new born is turned 6 months, in the Royal family, he is offered to the Padmanabha, and since then they become ‘padmanabha dasa’.

Compositions on other Temples and Deities.

Swathi Thirunal used the mudra padmanabha in all his kritis. However, he has written kritis on all deities. In his kritis every one of them have related to Padmanabha in some way. Devi, is addressed as ‘padmanAbha sOdari’, Ganesha as his nephew, Shiva as his ‘brother in law’.

Maharaja has written krithis on deities from Kanyakumari to Kashi ( visweswar darshan karO). Similar to the kritis of Dikshitar, who has written kritis on almost every temple from North to South of India. They become the reference for travellers who is taking pilgrimage from South to North. The difference is that Dikshitar travelled to all these places and composed, while Maharaja remained in Trivandrum and composed his kritis.


While taking up the Swathi Thirunal krithi, paramAnanda naTana in kEdAram, he diversified into the music of MDR. Kedaram supposed to have been a master piece of MDR. There are many instances when a kriti is more associated with the singer, to the rasikas mind, than to the composer, or certain Ragams to a musician.

Being a great fan of MDR, when he joined BMK for learning, some of his friend thought he ditched MDR and joined BMK. He says, this is the issue with form and content. He is interested in the content, while the so called fans seems to have been focusing on the form. Forms can only help you in imitating the mannerisms. Its like the difference between caricature and portrait. Once, seeing him imitating MDR, his earlier Guru Vechoor , told him that its ok to sound like him, but for heavens sake do not look like him.

3. paramAnanda naTana – kEdAram

the anupallavi of this kriti ‘drukata tom tom’ are jatis and are suited for dance.

Navarathri Compositions and Nava vidha Bhakti compositions

9 kritis written for singing for the 9 days of festival, is now being performed every year. However, we do not know the original version as they are composed. Sri Musiri Subramanya Iyer tuned the kalyANi, sAvEri and nAttkurinji kritis. Similar to Dikshitar, Maharaja also composed kritis in nava bhakti format. There is one with ‘sahya bhAvam’ ( God as friend). Many composers have used derogative forms of bhakti ( I’m worthless – sort of), including Thyagaraja. However, there are no such composition ( in derogative form) of Swathi Thirunal.

One of such kriti is in Mukhari, bhavati viswAsom mE’. Referring to Krishna AvatAra, which supposed to have been for ‘giving wisdom contained in Gita’, where he chooses Arjuna as his worthy disciple , while there are many senior and worthy people in both Pandava and Kaurava team. In this kriti he asks Krishna to have faith in him as he had in Arjuna.

4. bhavati viswasOm mE – mukhAri

Influence of Hindustani Music and Compositions in Hindustani Ragas

There are many kritis of Maharaja composed in Hindustani and many in carnatic style using hindustani ragas. It is believed that Swathi Thirunal introduced behAg in Carnatic Music. There are no known use of behag in carnatic prior to this. his composition smara janaka, supposed to be the first in behAg, which is set to tune by Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar(?).

5. smara janaka – behAg

he demonstrated both the hindustani and carnatic version of this raga. In carnatic version, he said ‘ri’ and ‘dha’ are irrelevant and uses kAkaLi nishAdam ( correct me if I’m wrong !!). He said, there is a recording of Veena Balachander playing this kriti, before he became anti-swathi thirunal. Interestingly, the title of the track did have the mention of Swathi Thirunal as composer.

On the question of creation, invention and discovery he noted the debate between SSI and BMK. SSI was of the opinion that no body can create a raga, it is already there, but one can discover these. This was more towards the BMKs claim of creating new ragas. Even in the case of Swathi Thirunal , it can be said that he named the raga ‘mOhana kalyANi’, which was already present in the hindustani system known as ‘shudhakalyAN’. BMK has used the same chandrakauns and named it Chandrika.

As in the case of every event, there are many alliances and loyalties in the music fraternity. Due to this groupism and related political influences some of the prominent performers of yesteryear haven’t performed at the Navarathri Mandapam. Chembai, BMK and MSG are few names he mentioned. May be due to this, BMK never used to perform Swathi kritis in concerts, except 2 of the hindi kritis , which he set to tune.

Jamuna Kinare was set to tune by K S Narayanaswami , which was more ‘sangeetha pradhanam’ than sahitya.

6. jamunA kinArE – ??

He says the rAga is gauri manOhari in madhyama shruthi with a lot of foreign notes. He sings this in concert, in which he claims it as misra peelu with more misram in it than peelu’.

7. Aj AyE – misra pahAdi

BMK tuned this kriti in beautiful pahadi. He says there are two styles of singing kritis. One is in Veena Style and the other in Nadaswaram Style ( which is now more popular). But he says, this kriti has to be sung in flute style. We need to have the image of flute playing while singing this kriti.

Renowned hindustani singer Sri Ganapati Bhat, sings this kriti in Yaman, which is also beautiful in its own sense ( which is availabel in Youtube)

There is another very beautiful devi kriti by Maharaja in hindustani raga chAya naaT.

8. jaya jaya dEvi – chAya nAt

Ajoy Chakravarthy had tuned the same in Han(m)sadhwani. Chaya naat is not used in carnatic music. BMK sings a tulsidas bhajan in chAya nAt, but used to call the raga as ‘vallabhi’ taking the name from the pallavi line.


Thillana , in carnatic scene was pioneered by Swathi Thirunal, being a dance enthusiast. This would have come from the hindustani equivalent of tarAna, where it was only jathi, but Swathi Thirunal introduced sahitya into it.

Dhanashree thillana was one of the most popular thillana of Maharaja, which was set to tune by Lalgudi Jayaraman. Sri Rama Varma noted that, this reminds more of Lalgudi than Swathi Thirunal. The jatis and kanakku are very typical of Lalgudi.


Lalita, used by Dikshitar and others do not use panchamam. However, Swathi Thirunal uses panchamam, and hence it is called Lalitapanchamam.

9. parama purusham – laLitA panchamam

He says, this krithi can be used as a fast paced filler in krithis with some fast tempo swara singing. He demonstrated this with some brilliant set of swara singing.

Bhoopalam & Revagupti

On a question whether ‘gOpAlaka pAhimAm was originally composed in bhUpALam, he said, one never know. It is now being sung in rEvagupti, but he has heard the bhUpALam version as well , sung by Dr.S Ramanathan and his disciples. The kriti ‘rAma rAma pAhi rAma’ was set to tune by BMK in bhUpALam. Interestingly, the pallavi do not have ‘sa’ and ‘pa’, and it starts at dhaivatham.

10. rAma rAma pAhi – bhUpALam

Interestingly, MDR had composed a kriti in bhUpALam, but he himself sang it in rEvagupti. He said, he had managed to find a hand written copy of MDRs compositions, where the Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam and Sanskrit kritis were written in the respective language by the composer.

11. gOpa nandana – bhUshAvali

Manipravalam kritis

There are many composers written sahitya in manipravalam ( two languages). Kaivara Amara Nayana is one such composer from Karnataka. Maharaja’s manipravalam kritis are mostly in Malayalam and Sanskrit. Most of Swathi Thirunal’s ‘sringAra padams’ are in manipravalam which is almost 60% sanskrit. Rama Varma said, he is not very fond of the malayalam kritis of Maharaja.

12. kAnthanODu chennu melle – nIlAmbari ( started at anupallavi ‘kAtharAkshi)

Ragamalika kritis

Maharaja has composed two kritis in ragamalika. ‘Sanandam kamalA manOhari’ and a padam ‘pannagEndra shayana’. BhAvayAmi raghurAmam, is originally set to sAvEri. Semmangudi retuned this into ragamalika, of its current form. Bhavayami, detailing the story of Ramayana, has to be sung in complete. However, because of the length and the monotonousity of the same raga, people tend to skip the last few stanza. Making it in ragamalika, does help in retaining the interest of the audience.

13. pannagEndra shayana – rAgamAlika.

This kriti is tuned in 8 rAgas denoting the 8 yAma of night. Starting from ShankarAbharaNam, ends with a morning rAga either bhUpALam or rEvagupti. One of the charaNam was originally sung in Ahiri, which now sung in mAyAmALavagauLa. The whole kriti with its sangatis will take 40 minutes to sing, which he compressed to 5-6 minute.

Sri Rama Varma recounted one of his interaction with Leela Omcheri, the renowned dancer, now based in Delhi, on the authenticity of the tunes. He says, according to her Muthaiah Bhagavathar and Semmangudi have ruined the compositions of Swathi Thirunal. Her great great grand mother had learned the kritis from the contemporaries of Swathi Thirunal. She inturn learned the same through her family, which she claims to be the original tune.

14 bhOgindra shAyinam – dhanyAsi (According to Leela Omcheri bhOgindra Shayinam was in dhanyAsi.)

Kannada and Tamil Compositions of Maharaja

There is only one Kannada composition that is known today by Maharaja, which is ‘rAjIvAksha bArO krishNa’. KVG has tuned this in pahAdi style which he finds more attractive.

15 rAjIvAKsha bArO – misra pahADi

As per the general knowledge, there are no Tamil compositions of Swathi Thirunal. However, Leela Omcheri claims that she has a few compositions of Swathi Thirunal written in Tamil, including a varNam. There is no confirmation of this fact.

The Controversy

Regarding the dispute on Swathi Thirunal, triggered by Veena Balachander, he says he does not know in detail. But, there are a few incidents which might have caused this controversy. In the early sixties, two people from Tanjavur came and visited Amma Maharani, saying they have the original manuscripts of some of the compositions written in the traditional palm leaves. They wanted a substantial amount of money for their possession. Amma Maharani wanted to see the documents and verify before committing any money. This did not go well with them.

Similarly, Sri Balachander had come to their house in Chennai to meet Amma Maharani. However, the meeting did not go well to the expectation of Sri Balachander, as he was unhappy over the treatment he received. Later these two joined together to create the controversy which the media took up.

On a question whether the court musicians Sivanandam and Vadivelu would have helped Maharaja in composing these kritis, Sri Rama Varma said, it is possible. However, the use of swaraksharas in the compositions is possible by someone who is proficient in both sahitya and music.

Moreover the romantic padams written by the Maharaja shows the poet and a musician in the composer. T K Govindarao , who complied the kritis of Thyagaraja and Dikshtar in English, once wanted to compile the kritis of Swathi Thirunal as well. He was so shocked by the explicit nature of the sringAra padams of Maharaja, he was worried that its English Translations will cause controversy. Sri Rama Varma says, this was natural at the time of the writing, but the British influenced Victorian Morality and Catholic thinking which came into the Indian Society later,  not able to accept these thoughts.

Composers way of tuning the kriti

Taking on dEva dEva kalayAmi, singing the way Semmangudi sings, he says, he doubt whether Maharaja would have composed the kriti this way. With his knowledge of language, his romantic /erotic padams, knowledge of hindustani music, the use of swaraksharas it is impossible to believe that the Maharaja would have composed in its present form. He had put this question to Semmangudi but haven’t received an answer. Since we do not have any direct reference by way of shishya parampara, It is important to keep in mind the composers would have conceived the kriti.

As is the case with the earlier lec-dem, this too was very entertaining and insightful.


PS : This was prepared from notes taken during the lecture. As it was from a running lecture, I am sure to have missed some points. If there are any factual errors in this, it is only due to my ignorance and will make corrections if notified.


Posted by on September 21, 2010 in Essae Music Foundation, Lec-Dem


5 responses to “Swathi Madhuri – Lecture Demo on the Music of Swathi Thirunal by Prince Rama Varma @ Essae Music Foundation , 19th Sep 2010

  1. RajeshNat

    October 21, 2010 at 9:03 am

    Really nice and great writeup. You have written so well where in one reading I can assimilate . I was always curious on one thing , with ST living just for 34 years , how much is only his and how much is other patrons like TQ who were there with ST. Now after 200 years , it is not going to help us to dig.

    Tx to Rama verma and you in sharing this


  2. M.V.N.RAJ

    September 26, 2010 at 9:12 am

    The 7th.Dhwani-BKF Pt.Mallikarjun Mansur Hindustani Music Festival secheduled to be held on 25th.and 26th.September at the JSS Auditorium,8th.Block,Jayanagar had to be postponed due to the Ban Orders that were issued by the Bangalore Police.This festival is now being held on 4th.and 5th.December 2010 at the same venue.Details can be had at 26661782 (Guruprasad) 984524053

  3. Jayan

    September 22, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Thank you. This was typed during a car journey between Pune and Aurangabad :-), I have to read through again and correct such mistakes.

    You are right with regards to the Temple incident. It got mixed in my notes. Will make the changes in the post.

  4. Raghavan.KSS

    September 22, 2010 at 10:37 am

    Dear Jayan,
    What an exhaustive and good quality write up. Thanks again. I do not know how you manage to listen and retain so much stuff during a lecture. Really great.
    You have mentioned Ravi Verma instead of Rama verma on a couple of occasions (I think under varnam)!
    Also, the tradition of what drops down in the temple is temple property is slightly different as I understood it. There is a particular platform in front of the main sanctum sanctorum and anything falls there (not anywhere in the temple) is temple’s property. He did not drop a coin but his golden waist chain (arai-naaL) as a child on the platform.

  5. Murali

    September 21, 2010 at 7:13 pm

    Jayan, How do i become a member of this foundation and get regular updates. Do you have any contact details.


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