By Gowripriya

Silence stretches over the Kuthiramalika today as it performs its other role of being a touristic spot in beautiful Kerala.  Lush nature that embraces the Palace in its pristine folds also has a certain melancholy about it.  The gravity is broken only by careful, inquisitive and searching footsteps of a tourist once in a way.  The pillars and palace corridors struggle to conceal in their stillness the longing to share an ancient story.  Desolation and loss are absolutely palpable.

But, in eactly couple of months from now a magical event will manifest at this very spot. One that will impart a special radiance to the historical Palace! An unbelievable transcendence takes place when the Kuthiramalika Palace gets ready to host a premier festival of Indian classical music. The mystique wound around the sprawling palace grounds is but only one of the condiments that go into the making of the Swathi Sangeethotsavam - an annual musical feat that promises its audience an experience of a life time. 

Every January when the world plunges into the New Year revelry, meditative strains of the Tamburu breathe new life into the non-ornate Palace and its expansive grounds.  On January 6 each year as dusk takes over, dancing strips of plantain leaves called Kurutholas, flickering oil lamps and slender incense sticks wafting divine fragrance create the perfect ambience for a very special offering to the Goddess of Music.  Lovers of music from all over the world descend upon the venue impregnating the atmosphere with anticipation. The caressing whiffs of the wind and the spluttering of oil lamps alternate with inspiring silence and with that the stage is set for yet another memorable celebration called the Swathi Sangeethotsavam.

That Music is the chosen medium of celebration attributes certain distinction to the event. But, why music?  For man these are times of grand disorder and tumult. His world though modern is unfortunately complex and divisive. Disparity, greed and ambition have lured him away from harmonious and peace loving nature. Disharmony with nature is indeed the greatest lethal weapon that man has directed towards himself.  A thousand factors cause disarray and destruction.  But one element with the immense potential to bestow tranquility upon the people of this world, unite them, their values and many voices is Music.  It is nothing short of a miracle that this amazing medium inspires a world of different possibilities.  Notes that invoke feelings of love and those that painfully speak of loneliness are both the same and different in a certain way!  Thus, the undisputed place of music and its many mysteries have been subjects of lectures, contemplation and seminars all over the world since times in recollection. It is an established fact today that music has the unique ability to rise above boulders of differences and nurture love and peace amongst men.  Therefore, what better medium for man to celebrate than Music which is a therapeutic presence in his life?

Music is verily a uniting force in the world today but ironically the world of music has no escape from its very own diversities.   Speaking solely about Indian classical music, one would agree that it is but a microcosm of this universe; divisions and differences are therefore only too ubiquitous here. Indian classical music is divided into Hindustani music and Carnatic music and both reign with their essential similarities and dissimilarities. However, when Hindustani and Carnatic musicians from all over India collaborate at the Swathi Sangeethotsavam in joint spirit to create seven nights of ecstasy it is the power and place of music in bringing men together minus the use of force or dogma that in essence is reinforced.    

The Swathi Sangeethotsavam that takes place each year from January 6 to 12 is an annual tribute to Maharajah Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, an ancient Travancorean king who ruled from 1813 until his untimely demise in 1846.  Swathi Thirunal's role as a patron of arts has often been written about but not many are aware that he was an honorary member of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.  He was proficient in different languages including English, Persian, Arabic, Hindi, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam.  He brought modernity to Travancore as a reformist and laid the foundation for the prototype of various institutions of today such as the Trivandrum Observatory, Trivandrum Public Library, Trivandrum Zoo, The Government Press at Trivandrum, The University College at Trivandrum and the Oriental Manuscripts Library of the University of Kerala.   As an accomplished musician he spent a greater part of his very short life patronizing art and artists and creating extraordinary compositions that have today become the theme of an annual commemorative Festival that draws listeners from all over the globe.  This Festival is organized by a trust called the H.H. Sir Rama Varma Maharaja of Travancore Trust which is exempted from taxes making it possible for music lovers to make financial contributions to the Festival. The Swathi Sangeethotsavam is open to all and attendance is completely free.  During the Festival the centre stage of the Kuthiramalika Palace is adorned with flowers and traditional Kerala oil lamps.  Chairs for listeners are laid out in the Palace compound in a semi circular pattern facing the Palace and the main stage where the musicians perform. 

India is home to a world of festivals.  There are festivals to observe every occassion and season regardless of religion and this complements the secular nature of the country.  It is impossible to eliminate the element of festivity and celebration from the Indian culture.  Likewise, music and dance form integral elements of any Indian celebration.  The Swathi Sangeethotsavam as the name suggests is the celebration of the music of Swathi Thirunal.  From the theme of the Festival to its audience and the manner in which it is organzed, what happens annually at the Kuthiramalika has travelled beyond national boundaries and has created a palce for Indian on the international music circuit.

At the helm of the organizing activities of the Trust is Prince Rama Varma, a descendent of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal.  Needless to say he is a charismatic and inimitable exponent of Indian classical music himself.  Perhaps this is the secret behind the enviable success of this Festival.  Most music festivals in the country are conducted by non-musicians while the Swathi Sangeethotsavam is a music festival conducted by a musician himself.  The sad trend in the classical music circuit these days is that musicians apply for an opportunity to perform at the various sabhas or platforms.  Here, as the organizer of the Swathi Sangeethotsavam Rama Varma strikes a difference and sets an emulative example by approaching his musicians and honouring them with the offer to sing at this Festival.  Various television channels and print media vie with one another to give the outside world a glimpse of this unique world class Festival.  The synergies of a very diligent organizer and many brilliant musicians intermingle with the aura of the hallowed venue creating a hypnotic effect on the listeners. This brings them back year after year to the Kuthiramalika almost like pilgrims.

The Travancore royal family that Varma is a scion of is one of the oldest and richest of Indian royalties.  As a patron of Indian art forms for decades this family has played host to eminent personalities in the music and dance circuit of India.  One therefore wonders if a life dedicated to music was a natural and obvious choice for Rama Varma whose infancy and early childhood were spent mainly in the company of music.  Growing up listening to the evergreen numbers sung by Kishore Kumar and the sterling concerts by stalwarts who performed regularly at the Navarathri Mandapam Festival hosted by his family, taste for good music was already established but a musical career was not even a fantasy.   

A chance encounter with music led him to become a music student of Vechoor Harihara Subramanya Iyer who was handpicked by his great grandmother, Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bai in 1982 to impart music lessons to her promising great grandchild.  Vechoor sir took pains to ensure the formation of a solid base which enabled the development of a bright future musical career albeit unplanned.  Summing up twelve years of rigorous music studies under a true Guru, Varma says of Vechoor sir, "He had to do all the hard work like getting my notes in place, my pitching in place, and my rhythm in place and so on. He painstakingly, firmly yet gently, patiently and systematically introduced me to the world of improvisation.  He never allowed me to record our lessons and I never wrote down even the lyrics of the songs he taught me.  But he would take things so slowly and thoroughly that it was difficult to forget almost anything he taught. I owe most of my subsequent musical development to the rock hard foundation he gave me and the solid repertoire of great compositions by the great masters, not to mention the love, support, patience, blessings and kindness he showered upon me in his understated manner. On the one hand I miss him tremendously even now and on the other hand I feel his presence constantly with me and in me."

Simultaneously he studied the Saraswathi Veena, from 1987 until 1991 under Trivandrum R. Venkataraman and later under Sangeetha Kalanidhi Professor K.S. Narayanaswamy from 1991 until his demise.  From 1997 onwards Varma has been a student of Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna, the celebrated carnatic musician who in his 80th year takes immense pride in openly admitting Varma's exclusive place in a galaxy of students. 

Prince Rama Varma presented his first public performance in the year 1990.  This was the result of great effort on the part of the well known classical vocalist T.V. Gopalakrishnan who catalyzed his liberation from the restraints of royalty through his persistent encouragement.  Expectedly, there was a great deal of uproar and opposition within his family as they strongly believed that it would fall out of royal decorum for their prince to perform for the masses.  But they eventually capitulated to his interest giving the world a young musician who would with time become a vital presence in the world of Indian classical music.  

Since his debut he has been touring all over India to present concerts and has also performed in a number of countries such as USA, The Netherlands, UK, France, Germany, Dubai, Singapore and Kuwait. His first CD was released at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, London.  He has had the honor of performing at prestigious venues of Europe such as the Zuiderpershuis in Belgium, The Royal Tropen Institute Amsterdam and the Korzo Theatre in The Hague.  In the year 2006, Varma performed at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, New Delhi upon the invitation of the President then Sri Abdul Kalam who counts himself as one of his ardent admirers.   Early this year, Prince Rama Varma scored the length and breadth of USA presenting concerts in several American states with his team.  It was a heartwarming scene in America to see a Keralite musician team up with a Tamilian Violinst, S. Varadarajan and a Telugu Mridangist Patri Satishkumar singing Kannada pieces many a times to an audience that comprised of both Indians and non-Indians!   

There are musicians and then there are few very special voices that transcend accepted parameters.  These are the exceptional people that we look up to and call Guru. Scores of music students all over the world take pride in being the students of Varma to attend whose classes they brave weather and strife. There are many elements in his concerts like grace, adherence to tradition and shruthi, richness of his voice, explanation of lyrics etc. that make him stand out in a spectrum of musicians.  However, the hallmark of the musician is his simplicity, exceedingly pleasant on-stage mannerisms, rapport with his accompanists and the ingenuity with which he lends freshness to his music.  For the initiated his concerts are pleasurable moments of technical perfection. And for the un-initiated it is an inexplicably blissful experience when the esoteric nature of classical music wanes and appreciation becomes a tangible affair.  How this balance is attained is a technique that Varma knows best but these are essentially the qualities that make him the most outstanding brand ambassador of India's rich traditional musical culture.   Whether performing for the President of India or for a Sabha audience Rama Varma is essentially the same.  During his concerts a divine unison between the musician and his music takes place and then what remains is nothing but the heavenly music.  

Like his ancestor Varma is a linguist himself who speaks fluent English, French, Hindi, Tamil apart from his mother tongue Malayalam.  As a widely traveled person he has lived and interacted with different communities.  Despite being essentially a Carnatic musician today, throughout his life he has demonstrated immense taste and appreciation for other forms of music such as Hindustani music, Rabindra Sangeet and world music such as Arabic and Western classical.  Interestingly his renditions in Bengali and French are as popular as his Carnatic pieces.  His interactions with other cultures, receptiveness to other forms of music and a world of books he has read have all influenced his personality and musical performance.  

One moment he is found listening to his favourite Arabic songs, another moment captures him performing to a packed audience in some city of the world and then yet again he is found blowing soap bubbles with his little students at Perla!  How someone straddles such different worlds with exceptional ease, equanimity and grace inspires ceaseless intrigue and perhaps this is the signature of the man we have all come to adore and love as the force behind the world class Swathi Sangeethotsavam and the traditional Navarathri Mandapam Festival. 

While the Swathi Sangeethotsavam is a festival flamboyant in its own ways and attracts an international crowd, the Navarathri Mandapam Festival finds its roots in religion, tradition, history and rituals.  It is a 9 days concert series that coincides with the Navarathri celebrations that take place all over the country.  Different versions of the significance of Navarathri are abuzz but in general Navarathri connotes the victory of the good over the evil. 

Rama Varma explains that the Navarathri Mandapam Festival organized by the Navarathri Mandapam Trust of Trivandrum is the keeping of a promise given by one of his ancestors, a Chera King to Sage Kambar the author of Ramayana.  The promise to worship Sage Kambar's Saraswathi idol during the nine days of Navarathri or Dussehra each year is revered by the family to this day.   The idol of Goddess Saraswati is brought to Trivandrum on a caparisoned elephant in a grand procession witnessed by the city of Trivandrum.  Idols of Kumaraswami on top of a silver horse and Munnutinanga, one of Her chief attendants also escort the Goddess. The procession that starts from the Padmanabhapuram Palace four days before reaches the Navarathri Mandapam on the eve of Navarathri. The Head of the Travancore royal family and other members receive the idol of the Goddess. The idol of Kumaraswami is then taken to the Subramania Swami temple in Aryasalai while the idol of Munnuttinanga is placed at Chenthitta Devi temple. 

Sri Padmanabhaswamy is the reigning deity of the Travancore royal family.  During the Festival, the Mandapam which is located towards the East of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple is decorated with oil lamps, incense, flowers, sandalwood and camphor. Concerts are conducted on all nine days of the festival and the compositions that are performed during these days are those that were codified by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal during his time. 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.  The concerts are preceded by the rendition of the Thodaya Mangalam and the Ganapathi Stuthi by the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars whose ancestry and participation may be traced to the time of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal himself.  The concerts commence exactly at 6pm and conclude at 8.30 pm.  However as the concerts are held inside the temple premises certain restrictions apply.   A portion of each concert is normally broadcast by the All India Radio all over Kerala the same evening. 

The Navarathri Mandapam Festival is steeped in tradition but the paradox of tradition is that though it is the Goddess who is worshipped on all the nine days of the Festival, custom demanded the forbiddance of women inside the Mandapam as performers and or listeners for nearly three hundred years.  The origin of this norm is unknown but like many rituals this too was followed devoutly until 2006 which heralded an era of change.  On 23 September 2006, Smt. Parassala Ponnammal performed at the Navarathri Mandapam of Trivandrum.  The 83 year old musician who was mostly retired gave a scintillating performance defying her age which ended an unsubstantiated custom.  The music circle and women in general rejoiced at the achievement that was made possible only through the clear vision and strong resolve of Rama Varma.  What they do not know however is that there were mammoth challenges in the path of Rama Varma and Smt. Parassala Ponnammal en route to the historical moment that today has redefined the norms of the famed Navarathri Mandapam Festival.   

Despite being a member of royalty, Varma entertained the masses by singing in public and also went on to become a musician shunning other professions better suited to the social bearing of his family.  His music whether vocal or Veena bears the stamp of a musician who sticks to the rigors of tradition but he breaks accepted concert formats by explaining the meanings of the compositions and further by sharing humorous anecdotes.  In 2006 he rewrote history by welcoming women into the Navarathri Mandapam of Trivandrum.  While the music world continues to battle copyright issues,   Prince Rama Varma's music has been streaming across the internet into our homes since 2007 through the Youtube channel of a devoted and tireless fan called Musiquebox.  Through this channel his priceless music has been made easily available merely at a click thus creating many virtual students across the world.

Having said this one wonders if there is a persevering rebel within him who strives to bring about reformations.  To this he replies, "I have never seen myself as a rebel, to be honest.  And I have never broken rules or changed traditions purely for the sake of doing so.  I have only followed my heart, which I still do, be it in music or in life and have done things purely because I have believed that they were right"!

Any attempt to chronicle the musician Prince Rama Varma would be largely incomplete without talking about the little children of Perla's Veena Vaadini School of Music.  On the outskirts of Kerala bordering Karnataka a tiny hamlet called Perla set in idyllic surroundings has become one with the heart beat of Rama Varma.  In 1998 a young musical man called Yogeesh Sharma, despite various demands of life, found life's calling in the noble purpose of bringing music into the lives of the little children of Perla. Deserting his very own musical career and equipped with nothing but courage and unflinching love for pure music he set out on the daunting task of establishing with very basic amenities an informal music school at Perla.  Today Perla where Rama Varma teaches music to an enthusiastic bunch of students has become a favourite stopover of international aficionados of classical music. The classes held here by Varma are telecast regularly by the SVBC channel of the Thirupati Thirumala Devasthanam. Varma visits the School four times a year and imparts vocal lessons to students some of whom are below the age of 4 to some who are above the age of 40.  Apart from teaching, the Guru and Shishyas share quality time walking in the woods nearby, lunching together, playing antakshari and not to forget indulging in their most favourite time pass of blowing soap bubbles!   On December 12 2010, on the twelfth anniversary of their establishment, a formal school building will be inaugurated by Prince Rama Varma.  Realizing this dream has been made possible by generous contributions that have poured into Perla in various forms ever since the videos of Rama Varma's unique Perla Camp were uploaded on Youtube by Musiquebox.  As a musician and musicologist who lived for the greater part of a decade in Europe performing and teaching students, nothing comes even remotely close to the pleasure derived from teaching his small and big students at Perla.  Their insatiable quest for music, innocence and purity brings back the royal musician into their midst again and again. 

Looking into the mind of a multi-dimensional individual as Varma and documenting him within the limitations of an article is, as this writer has discovered, a feat impossible; perhaps even a book would do little justice.  His brilliance as a gifted musician and a bold organizer whose values and deeds go hand in hand is amply demonstrated by the two annual festivals that he organizes namely the Swathi Sangeethotsavam and the Navarathri Mandapam Festival. Wearing different hats comes all very easily to Varma but as he surfs seamlessly from one role to another giving each his very best, his audience, students and fans are left mystified as to which defines him best.  Despite being extremely media shy, in recent times one has had the opportunity to read and hear more of this musician through the Youtube channel of Musiquebox, the Rama Varma community of Orkut created by his cousin Smt. Karthika Varma and his official website www.ramavarma.org or www.ramavarma.yolasite.com  which are incidentally the only channels approved by him.

Over the last two decades Varma has grown considerably as a musician and carved a niche for himself in an immensely populated and competitive world such as the Indian classical music field.  However, the inspiration to become a musician was born only out of sheer love for M.D. Ramanathan whose untainted music and persona captivated Varma even as a child.  Today he has risen above barriers set by human nature, perception and tradition but the journey from within the ancient walls of Kaudiar Palace to some of the most venerated concert halls of this world and into the hearts of the masses was difficult and one that was not pre-planned.  But for someone who regards music as not an occupation at all, rather as a part of him, this journey was more importantly a way of self-realization.  Varma puts it this way, "Music is a part of me and not a profession at all.  I would be listening, learning, practicing, and working hard on music even if I were to decide not to sing in public"!  

As the musical fraternity of India and the world lie in wait for the forthcoming Swathi Sangeethotsavam in January 2011, several questions cloud the mind.  Did the great Swathi ever foresee that the Kuthiramalika Palace where he spent much time composing so many timeless pieces would one day attain such an important place in the world of music? Did he ever envisage that a brilliant and passionate successor would one day enliven the Palace corridors silenced by his death? One never knows – but what one knows for sure is that today through the efforts of Prince Rama Varma the Kuthiramalika Palace is once again echoing entrancing strains of Indian classical music as the late Maharajah would have willed himself.

Time is a great preceptor that plays a number of roles in life.  Time's profundity however lies also in the transience that it imposes on life.  As the wheel of time rotates world plunges into change making CHANGE the only constant in life.  Beyond the courtyard of the Kuthiramalika Palace a different world exists, one that time has invaded and remodeled.  However, within the courtyard walls rests a silent witness to these changes that remains unmoved and stands as a great edifice of connection between the past and the present.  Each year as the concerts gain momentum, all powerful time concedes and comes to an illusionary halt transporting the listeners instantly to a lost era. The promise of this bliss is what Rama Varma renews year after year at the Swathi Festival!

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