The Navarathri Mandapam Experience 

By Rama Varma 

When Sage Kambar (author of the epic Kamba Ramayanam) knew that his end was nearing, he gifted the idol of Sri Saraswathi which he worshipped, to a Chera King whose name I forget.

This was before the formation of the Venad Swarupam and later Travancore. The state of Travancore was established by Maharaja Anusham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (1729-1758) who had only two options at the time - to kill or be killed. He opted for the former - and ably aided by the genius of his minister ("Dalawa") Ramayyan, wiped out his enemies being nearly wiped out himself on more occasions than one but that is another story.

 

In fact he vanquished his enemies so thoroughly that the succeeding Maharajahs had little to do in the defence department, which left them ample time for the finer things in life - music, for example. Though Maharaja Swati Thirunal Rama Varma remains the most famous musician, composer and patron of arts in the family, there were many others before and after him who have rendered invaluable service to the cause of art and literature in their own way.

To come back to our story, the Chera King had promised Sage Kambar that the Navaratri Festival for the precious Saraswathi Amman would be conducted every year, come what may. This promise has always been kept and the Navaratri Festival is being conducted by the royal family of Travancore to this day.

This was (and is) easier said than done because Maharaja Swathi Thirunal shifted the capital of Travancore from Padmanabhapuram (now in Tamil Nadu) to Thiruvananthapuram while the Goddess remained (and remains) in a small temple in the premises of the splendid Padmanabhapuram Palace. So, every year she is brought to Thiruvananthapuram in procession (on an elephant, no less!) for the Navaratri Festival. A unique feature about this idol is that it is not the "Utsava Vigraham". When the idol is removed from the shrine a lamp is lit, representing the Goddess and pooja performed.

The Navaratri Festival featured music, dance, other arts, vedic chanting, Grandha pooja, Ayudha pooja, scholarly discussions and debates on the puranas, till the first quarter of this century. Though the poojas continue, many of the other activities have been given up leaving music concerts (and to a lesser degree, dance) the most prominent place in the festivities.

The music for the Navaratri concerts as we hear them now was composed and codified by Maharaja Swati Thirunal. He composed nine songs in the ragas Shankarabharanam, Kalyani, Saveri, Thodi, Bhairavi, Panthuvarali, Shuddha Saveri, Nattakurinji and Arabhi respectively, to be sung as the main piece on each day. During the first three days the Devi is worshipped as Saraswathi; as Lakshmi during the next three days and as Durga on the last three days.

 

The ambience at the Navaratri Mandapam has to be experienced to be believed. Oil lamps light up the place. The subtle fragrance of fresh flowers, sandalwood, incense and camphor fumes waft around in the air. The concerts start exactly at 6 p.m. and conclude at 8-30 p.m. Nobody is allowed to come late or leave early. ("Can such things be?" one wonders, when one takes a look at audience behaviour in most music sabhas.)

The concerts are preceded by the rendition of the Thodaya Mangalam and Ganapathi Stuthi by the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars. The Mullamoodu Bhagavathars are families of musicians whose ancestry - and musical tradition - dates back to the time of Maharaja Swati Thirunal. In fact, it is from these musicians, other royal families in Travancore and from the Nadaswaram vidwans at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram that veteran musicians like Dr. Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavathar, Dr. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Vidwan K. S. Narayanaswamy were able to get the compositions of Maharaja Swati Thirunal in their original, authentic, untampered form.

Till the first quarter of this century the concerts were given by the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars themselves, where one musician would "lead the chorus", so to speak and each one took it in turns to do Raga Alapana, Thanam, Neraval and Swaram singing. By the 1920s this system changed and eminent musicians from outside were invited to give the main concert and the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars were restricted to singing the Thodaya Mangalam.

The concerts are more in the form of offerings to the Devi than performances. The musicians sing and play for the Goddess and the listeners join in the worship by listening, "Sravanam" and "Keerthanam" being the first two steps prescribed in the nine ways/levels of worship/devotion. There is neither applause nor the exciting or irritating or sometimes pathetic phenomenon of the singer and the accompanist trying to outdo each other or trip each other up.

 Wooden grill that enables the viewer to see without being seen.

The Navaratri concerts have other unique features too. The main piece for each day is fixed. This is preceded by Raga Alapana and the singing of Thanam, accompanied by the Mridangam, in which artists like late Palakkad T. S. Mani Iyer excelled. Only compositions of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal are sung. The Mangalam is sung only at the end of the concert on the concluding day. In the past few decades, a portion of each concert has been broadcast by the All India Radio all over Kerala the same evening.

On one evening a dance recital is also featured, after the concert and the evening pooja. Almost every danseuse worth her name has performed at the Navaratri Mandapam.

Almost all the great singers have sung here too, with a few notable exceptions - the Great Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar for example, who is the pride and joy of any self-respecting musician from Kerala. The reasons for such omissions, though rather intriguing - and unfortunate - are beyond the scope of this article. Till now the tradition has been to have concerts of male voice, veena and occasionally Gottuvadyam. Whether this will change or not, only time will tell.

There are other restrictions too. Being a temple, entry is restricted to Hindus. The concerts have to start exactly at 6.00 p.m. A bell is rung at 8.30 p.m. marking the end of the concert. The late M. D. Ramanathan concluded virtually all his concerts (not just at the Navaratri Mandapam) with the last lines of Maharaja Swati Thirunal's celebrated Ramayanam song "Bhavayami Raghuramam." One year he sang the rarely heard Ashta Ragamalika by the Maharaja, "Pannagendra Shayana", which he finished at 8.30 p.m. on the dot... when, sure enough the bell rang.

But, feeling bad that he had not sung the usual "Kalithavara Sethubandham" bit from Bhavayami Raghuramam, he rendered it at a brisk gallop though "the bell had tolled", so to speak. The then administrator of the Navaratri Trust who was not particularly well known for his polite and gentle nature gave Ramanathan a piece of his mind, before the audience.

 The Navaratri Mandapam

The gist of what he had to say was fairly simple; that at the Navaratri Mandapam one had to follow the timings and not one's own timings. This was an insult - and MDR, in characteristic simplicity muttered "Appidiya? Aanal Koopida Vendaam!" ("Is that so? Then don't call me") and left. But how could one forget the impact his miraculous voice had in the small, virtually mikeless Mandapam? How could one not help but miss the magic he worked with pieces like "Paramaananda Natanam" in Kedaram, "Mohanamayi" in Yadukulakamboji, "Paripaalaya maam" in Reethigowla, "Padmanabha Pahi" in Hindolam and of course "Bhavayami Raghuramam"? So MDR was invited again and he continued to sing at the Mandapam every year till he passed away.

Restriction on time puts off the audience too - as does the fact that one has to sit on the floor - and bare chested at that. So hundreds of people sit on the steps outside the Padmanabhaswami temple where a loud speaker is installed for the convenience of those gathered there. This reminds me of another story. It involved the late G. N. Balasubramaniam and another musician I shall not say who.

The latter was passionately jealous of GNB - in more ways than one. But he was curious to know how Balasubramaniam did his job. Eyewitness (who wish to remain anonymous) recall that this musician would come in a car with a "chela" over his head, giving him - rather, hoping that it would give him - the look of an elderly Brahmin woman and remain hunched in his car and listen to GNB's glorious singing.

 The temple in which the idol is kept during Navaratri.

Once Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi (who was largely responsible for the development of music in Kerala during this century) joked with our friend, the incognito-musician, "You know, today there will not be any flowers left in the market." "And why, may I ask?" he inquired. "Because GN is singing in the evening and the women would have bought up all the flowers, because they are crazy about him." To which our friend replied sardonically "Yes, some musicians are worth seeing - some others, worth hearing."

Palakkad T. S. Mani Iyer was also a regular at the Mandapam, where he waived his usual conditions which said "No" to microphones, radio broadcast, etc. (The problem of radio broadcast was solved rather strangely, by playing two Thani Avarthanams, of which the first would be the real Mani Iyer vintage stuff - which would not come on the air - and the second a relatively uneventful one. "Uneventful," that is, by Mani Iyer standards.)

One year he decided to miss his Navaratri concert having been invited abroad. All the programmes had been fixed when a telegram arrived from Mani Iyer saying that he would be coming after all. An obliging mridanga vidwan offered to let Mani Iyer play in his place. After the concert Mani Iyer explained "I couldn't bear the thought of missing a concert in this wonderful Sannidhanam." (shrine).

The Goddess arrives on her caparisoned vehicle

Which is a sentiment echoed by Palani Subramania Pillai, Musiri Subramania Iyer, The Alathoor Brothers, G. N. Balasubramaniam and a host of other Maha Vidwans, past and present including of course, the one and only Dr. Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer who continues to regale the Navaratri Mandapam crowd and more importantly Goddess Saraswathi to this day with his evergreen soulful music.

There is a saying that Saraswathi, the Goddess of knowledge and Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth rarely go together. This is true as far as the Navaratri Mandapam, which is run by a Trust, is concerned. "How does one improve things in Lakshmi's department without damaging the existing heights of excellence in Saraswathi's domain?" remains the big question.

Help from lovers of true and pure music might be a solution. During times like these when we are bombarded with sounds from rap, nuclear explosions, cellular phones and the like, it is truly a miracle and a relief - that a place like this exists, celebrating the cause of bhakthi, vishranthi and classical music in it is purest form. In fact, dear reader, next year around why don't you come down to Thiruvananthapuram and see, hear and experience the magic of the Navaratri Mandapam? It could easily become an annual pilgrimage if Shuddha Sangeetham is your cup of tea. 

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