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Royal musical treat

Aswathy Thirunal Rama Varma says the Swatisangeethotsavam at Kuthiramalika Palace, which begins on Sunday, is an ideal way to pay homage to Swati Tirunal.

Photo: S. Gopakumar

Torch-bearer: Aswathy Thirunal Rama Varma on the premises of the Kuthiramalika Palace in Thiruvananthapuram.

Come January 6, the heritage Kuthiramalika Palace in Thiruvananthapuram comes alive with melody and rhythm as the annual week-long Swati Sangeethotsavam gets under way. The nine-year-old festival has built up a reputation as one of the best for musical fare offered and the elegant ambience of the palace, said to be designed by Swati Tirunal himself.

On the eve of the festival, the organiser of the fete, Aswathy Thirunal Rama Varma, a descendant of Swati Tirunal and a singer and veena artiste himself, explains that the significance of the festival lies in the fact that it is the best tribute to pay Swati Tirunal who is perhaps the only one to have composed in both the Carnatic and Hindustani styles of music. Hence it is befitting that the festival, which revolves around the compositions of the Maharaja, be held on the premises of his palace.

“Tyagaraja aradhanas are held all over India and abroad. But the one in Tiruvayyar is special. The Government of Kerala used to conduct the festival in Kuthiramalika till a few years back. But then they decided to hold it in different places all over Kerala. While the thought behind the move was laudable, it was a pity that it was at the cost of the festival being discontinued at Kuthiramalika. So, although there were only two weeks to go, I managed to organise the festival in 2000 and keep it going,” he says.

He admits that while the initial response to the festival was poor, over the last few years, the place gets filled to capacity.

“There were occasions when people had to stand and listen to maestros such as Dr.M.Balamuralikrishna, Sanjay Subrahmanyam, Ajoy Chakrabarty, T.M.Krishna and so on. The feedback from musicians has also been encouraging. Many of them enjoy the ambience and the opportunity to sing to a discerning audience. There is no time limit and it is just music that reigns,” he adds.

Popularising Swati kritis

Rama Varma says his aim is to popularise compositions of the royal composer that are yet to be discovered or are rarely sung.

“Over the years, some of the Maharaja’s compositions have become very popular but there are so many more. My aim has been to present some of these rarely heard compositions every year.”

Agreeing that his experience as a singer definitely helps, he says: “I network with the participating artistes and try to ensure that repetition is avoided. Although more than 60 kritis are sung each year, less than three or four are repeated. Moreover, I make it a point to listen to each of the singers who are participating in each festival. Attention is paid to the acoustics, accompanists and so on.”

He also feels that it is important for musicians and singers to understand the meaning of the lyrics and pay attention to diction and pronunciation to do justice to a composition.

“While I prefer to give brief explanations during my concerts, it is not the norm for the festival. I leave it to the musicians to choose but I feel that a brief explanation enhances the level of appreciation for rasikas who may not know the meaning of the lyrics. It can do a lot to remove the misconception that classical music is something exclusive.”

Over the years, the fete has introduced singers who were relatively new to Kerala. Ganapati Bhatt, Venkatesh Kumar, the Malladi Brothers (senior), Kalyani Sharma, Kaushiki Chakrabarty, Bombay Vamanan, Sukanya Prabhakar and so on were not very familiar names in Kerala when they sang at the Kuthiramalika.

The fete has an eclectic mix of performers and styles and bears the stamp of the organiser. Although a vocal exponent of world music, Rama Varma is a staunch traditionalist when it comes to Carnatic music. He feels that youngsters must first be thoroughly grounded in the fundamentals of Carnatic music before they venture into vocal jugglery of any kind.

“This is what disappointed me in a Carnatic music-based reality show. Though I am against competition in the arts, I participated in such a show as I was given the impression that the contest would be based purely on Carnatic music. But I came to know that there were rounds devoted to light music, jugalbandhis, dance-based renditions, fusion and so on.

“I feel that making young contestants participate in such rounds can only mar their grounding in music. One should indulge in such experimentation only after one is firmly grounded in the fundamentals of music.”

He feels that attempts to play to the gallery would only pull down the standards of musicians and Carnatic music.

“Instead of dumbing down the music, one has to make an attempt to raise the level of awareness of listeners,” he avers.

* * *

The concerts

Sanjay Subrahmanyam (January 6), Aswathy Tirunal Rama Varma (January 7), Manasi Prasad (January 8), Parasala B. Ponnammal (January 9), Master M. Bala Muralikrishna (January 10), Venkatesh Kumar (January 11), Lalgudi G.J.R. Krishnan and Vijayalekshmi (January 12) and Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna (January 13).

S.N.

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