Swathi Tirunal – a Consummate Composer

Indian Music and in particular Karnatic music is universally
cherished as a consummate art form. Karnatic music has a rich and glorious
heritage and stands out nourished and healthy and vibrant. It’s not an archival
subject to be looked up to in the archives of a library etc. Its contemporary
value and relevance can be assessed – among other factors – like its study being
in the curriculum of universities like the Cleveland State University. The
annual Karnatic Music Festival held during the Easter Holiday time at this
university is also termed as the ‘India Experience at CSU’. One wonders what exactly constitutes the mystery of the magic in the Indian
Karnatic music – its exquisite blend of a scientific system, intangible esthetic
music of Bhava, Laya, Mysticism, religious fervor, and lyrics.

Well, among myriads of many unfathomable-contributing factors, the rich
musical compositions of great Composers like Saint Thyagaraja, Muthuswmy
Dikshidar, Shyama Shastry, Maharaja Swati Tirunal and many others have an
amazing impact.

In this essay a humble effort is made to look at with marvel at the amazing
splendor of the compositions of Maharaja Swati Tirunal and the Man.

Swati Tirunal hails from the Royal Heritage. He is known to the world as the
King of a state, Travancore in Kerala. His life can be equated to the life of a
“lily” in the words of William Wordsworth. He led a worthy life of not only an
able king but also a benevolent king, a patron of art and literature.

Swati Tirunal lived only for a short span of 34 years, i.e., from 1813 to
1847, but he proved the purpose of his incarnation of life through the
meritorious contributions towards the state, especially, towards the Indian
Music in multi languages. He was a distinguished linguist.

Blessed was his soul, it is rarity to find such wealth, richness clubbed with
virtues. Along with his rich and royal heritages; he had imbibed the traditional
ritualism and a spiritualism of high order.

In history, Indian Classical Music of the 18th century displayed a Golden
Age. The Tamil Nadu gave the great Trinity- saint Tyagaraja, Sri. Muthuswamy
Deekshitar and Sri Syama Sastry all at the same time were born and lived at
Tiruvarur in Tanjore District.

The state of Travancore did not lag behind. At that time was the birth of
Swati Tirunal and a great Hindu philosopher; Adi Sankara Bhagavat Pada was born
at the village of Kaladi in Kerala. Adi Sankara rose to the peak in Hindu
Advaita philosophy, a religious leader Maharaja Swati Tirunal raised to eminence
not only as a King, but also as a versatile composer, musician and a patron of
art and literature. As a benevolent ruler he is described as Dakshina Bhoka.

The mystic environment proves our illustrious personality’s emergence. The
British regime tried to impose their dictatorial attitude of annexing the
intestate property of the heirless royalties in which the kingdom of Jhansi and
Satara were annexed. At this juncture the state of Travancore witnessed
precarious state, the ruling king had expired, but the Queen had conceived but
the child was yet to be born. Even before his birth he was declared a legal heir
for the throne. This indicates the greatness of the soul, which had its halo
effect even before it was born. The child got educated and developed mastery in
various languages, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, English, Hindi,
Persian and Arabic.

Swati Tirunal had his rigorous music education from veteran musicians like
Karamana Padmanabha Bhagavathar, Suchindram Harihara Bhagavathar and the family
Guru Meru swamy from whom he adopted the Marathi style of singing Abhang, and
Dandi. From him he developed the Marathi language skill also.

He developed mastery not only in vocal music but also in playing string
instruments – veena, percussion instruments, which made him an adept in playing
Rhythm pattern and this was due to Vidwan Harihara Iyer. The association with
Tanjore Quartet, the eldest brother Vadivelu made him learn the technique of

He as a king patronized Hindustani vocalists and instrumentalists. His court
patronized illustrious artists of all fields. Haridas from Bengal, Sachidanand
from Pune, Vasudeva Sastri from Pune, Pandit Narsa from whom he learnt
Hindustani Classical singing and developed his knowledge of singing Kheyal,
Dhrupad, Tarana, Tappa, Tumri, Bhajans. He also patronized Ustad Allaudin Khan
and Ramanujam.

He nurtured classical dancers at his court. Vadivelu and Sivanandam from
Tanjore, Ayodhya Sukhdev were employed for Kathak dance. He brought about
universality through Fine Arts; blend of all traditional arts. Pitchu
Bhagavathar was also patronized for Nattuvangam.

Thus he could bring out beautiful structural edifices in his compositions
that suited for semi – classical Hindustani Musical forms, like Kheyal, Thumri,
Tappa, Bhajan etc. These musical forms are commonly used in concerts as well as
traditional arts, like Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam and Kathak.

The true devotion to the deity enshrined in Thiruvananthapuram, Shri
Padmanabha swamy, the adoration to Classical Music, traditional art; his
passionate desire to bring his emotional outpourings, Swathi had tried to bring
about the universal integration by bringing music as a medium through his varied
linguistic compositions.

We find his versatility in his style rich lyrics, varied compositions and a
wide range of musical forms due to which he stands unique not only in the state
of Kerala but also in the field of composers of Indian Music.

Having been born in a royal family with illustrious background, Swati Tirunal
had every opportunity to acquire his musical knowledge along with training in
other branches, right from the childhood. At a fairly early age, he learnt many
Indian & foreign languages like Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam,
Persian, Arabic, English & Marathi.

He produced three literary pieces viz. Bhakti Manjari, Syanandurapura varnana
prabhandam, and Padmanabha satakam. In the short span of his illustrious 34
years he had composed more than 200 compositions which included all the
varieties like – Swarajati, Varnam- Padavarman and Tana Varnam, Kritis. Padam –
Javali and Tillana. His Group Compositions – the Navaratri Kritis – nine
compositions in nine ragas which are religiously sung even now in Kerala during
the Navaratri festival and the navabhakti Kirtanas based on the nine kinds of
Bhakti – Devotion , like Shravanam, Kirtanam, Vandanam, Arcganam, Dasyam, Sakyam,
Padasevanam and Athmanivedanam are some of his spectacular worthy contributions.

His contributions towards Dance Janre like Jati-Swaram, Padavarnam, Padam,
Javali, and Thillana in Malayalam and Manipravalam languages are again popular
features in his repertoire.

In the next issue the special features of his musical compositions, his
contribution to the enrichment of Karnatic music, his literary achievements etc
are brought out with stress on his works as versatile composer, lyricist,
linguist and musicologist. It’s an interesting study to see him as
Swati as a patron of musicians
Swati as a composer
Significant contribution of swati to Music
Swati Tirunal’s contribution in Hindustani Ragas and Compositions
Swati’s contribution to dance musical forms
General appraisal of swati’s works

We could examine in detail about his various types of musical
compositions, in different languages, and their distinctive features. Swati
Tirunal gave up his checkered life in 1847. It is astonishing to see his
achievements within the short span of 34 years. Considering his contributions to
enrich the Karnatic music in different languages, styles and structures, we can
safely place him on equal status with the musical Trinity of Karnataka Music.

Tiger Varadachariar said that of Swati Tirunal “The Royal Composer combines in
his style the elegance of Thyagaraja with the grandear of Muthuswamy Dikshither”.
J.A. Brown has recorded “the Maharaja has acquired fame all over India
because of his interest in education, his cultured mind and his ability to
compose songs and also because of proficiency in several languages
”. As
Bhartrihari says ‘poets who are the fountains of rasa have neither obsolescence
nor death” Truly, Swati Tirunal’s, name will live as long as music lives.

[1- Swati Tirunal, 2- Vasanthy, author of the article].

Author: Jorg Infante