The Swathi Music Fest is put together by Rama Varma, a descendent of the legendary Swathi Thirunal, and begins on January 4.

The sound of music Meet Rama Varma the man behind Thiruvananthapurams Swathi FestivalAll pictures are from
Features Music Friday, January 04, 2019 - 18:01

January evenings in Thiruvananthapuram’s Kuthiramalika Palace are yellow and full of music. The streets outside would still be loud and noisy with the many travelers of the Fort road. But you step inside, shutting invisible doors around you to reach this yellow-lit haven that Kuthiramalika turns into for ten days of January every year. Somewhere above, you’d find a banner or a label – Swathi Sangeethotsavam. The music festival that turns 21 this year, quietly growing on the side of the much popular tourist attraction, the Padmanabha Swamy Temple, begins on Friday, January 4.

Rama Varma, a descendant of the legendary Swathi Thirunal, the king who loved music and dance and anything that’s art, has been conducting the music festival in honour of his ancestor since year 1999. The many krithis that Swathi Thirunal has composed in Carnatic and Hindustani, several of these in the very Kuthiramalika Palace, would be sung on ten days of the festival.

An old picture of Rama Varma posing as his ancestor Swathi Thirunal

Rama Varma, a carnatic musician himself, begins his search for new talents as soon as one Swathi Festival is over, fixes the dates and coordinates everything, while he has own kutcheris to attend to. “Each year has been special in its own way, really. While a few truly outstanding concerts keep happening every year, the number of concerts that did not go too well has been coming down year after year,” says Rama Varma in an interview.

He remembers one year when it rained so much that hardly anybody came for the concerts. That’s when he decided to put up a pandal, under which the audience can sit to enjoy the concerts. “It is an eyesore, but it’s just there for practical reasons,” says Varma. But then it was in pouring rain that Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty gave an extraordinary concert and there were just 10 to 15 people in the audience, Varma recalls.

There are no tickets to the festival. The concerts begin exactly at 6 pm and go on till the artiste wishes to continue. There are no rules either – people can come to the kutcheris at any time and leave when they wish to, unlike the Navarathri Mandapam music festival, another yearly fest that Rama Varma puts together during the Navarathri season. The latter concerts happen at the Navarathri Mandapam in the Padmanabha Swamy Temple and begin strictly at 6 pm – those who wish to attend should come before that and they cannot leave until the kutcheri is over. Varma created history at the Mandapam by inviting a woman musician to sing – a practice previously not encouraged at the venue – in 2006. Parassala Ponnammal, who would go on to find fame and tour the world afterwards, became the first woman to sing there.

Parassala Ponnammal with Rama Varma

He also brought there his student Amrutha Venkatesh in 2009. Amrutha has since been a regular at both the music festivals. This year, Rama Varma is happy that she is bringing her students too. “This year, I feel doubly blessed and feel like a grandparent, because my student Amrutha Venkatesh is planning to present her students in a full, three hour concert of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal's select compositions. They have meticulously chosen compositions from various categories like his Navarathri Krithis, Nava Vidha Bhakti Krithis, Ragamalikas, Hindi Bhajans, Malayalam Padams, Telugu Javalis, Kuchelopakhyanam, Ajamilopakhyanam and so on and have been painstakingly preparing the presentation, with the students' locations ranging from Thiruvananthapuram to Chennai to Bengaluru to Mysore to New Jersey!” he says.

Amrutha Venkatesh

Varma explains the importance of parampara or lineage in classical arts. “The blessed few among us can trace our lineage back to people like Thyagaraja or Dikshitar for example. One of the sweetest and proudest moments for any ideal Guru, is to see their disciple doing well,” he says. Possibly something the late veteran Dr M Balamuralikrishna would have felt, watching his student Rama Varma grow from the shy young singer that he was to becoming a master of many. 

Rama Varma with late Dr M Balamuralikrishna

He discovered Amrutha in a kutcheri in Chennai, where he heard her singing Swathi krithis seriously. Varma was always on the lookout for new talents, for, as he describes in his page, the Swathi Sangeethotsavam “also aims at developing and sustaining interest in classical music in the young budding musical talents of today.”

This year, he has found a young musician called Somashekar Jois, who does konnakol or vocal percussion all through the concert and not just for the Thaniyavarthanam. “I discovered him by chance when he was giving a lecture demonstration at Bengaluru.”

Somashekar Jois's Konnakol

He also spends time on YouTube, discovering new wonders. Varma makes sure that undiscovered talents like Ponnammal get the fame they deserve by uploading concert videos on the internet, from where they can get picked up by connoisseurs of music, who may then invite the musicians to perform in foreign countries. This is how Ponnammal, in her 80s, got to see the world.

There is a promoter for Varma too, an anonymous person, who goes by the YouTube name of musiquebox. This person religiously puts up all Varma videos online, from where it reaches classical music lovers across the world. “My eternal thanks go to my YouTube buddy Musiquebox, for putting both the festival and me on the map. The one crore plus views that this channel has gathered, have resulted in my getting invited to places like Australia, Japan and Dubai during the past few months, and I feel very happy that many listeners are planning to come for the festival, from these locations too.”

Last August, when Varma turned 50, friends, fans and well-wishers got together and brought out a book of tributes for the humble musician. He was overwhelmed, he says. Copies of the book too would be available at the venue of the Swathi fest.

A young Rama Varma with his Veena

But despite “certain numbers hitting us hard” as he says, Varma will continue to put together his two beloved music fests. For music has a huge, huge responsibility. “With religion, politics, language, social status and everything else trying to divide people more and more and succeeding much of the time, I hope that music will always continue to bring people together.”

This year’s lineup:

January 4 , Friday

6 PM to 7:20 PM

Smt Surabhi Pustakam Narasimhan     -  Veena

Nanjil Sri Arul                                            - Mridangam

Adichanaloor Sri Anilkumar                   - Ghatam

7:30 PM to 9 PM

Sri Akhil Anilkumar Vazhappally      

Mavelikkara Sri Pradeep                       – Nadaswaram

 Selam Sri  Venugopal

Thidanad Sri Anu Venugopal              - Tavil

January 5 , Saturday

Prince Rama Varma                         - Vocal

Avaneeswaram Sri S.R.Vinu                - Violin

Sri B.Harikumar                                     - Mridangam

Dr S.Karthick                                          - Ghatam

Payyanur Sri Govindaprasad             -  Morsing

January 6 , Sunday

Ms Amrutha Venkatesh and students – Group presentation

Avaneeswaram Sri S.R.Vinu                  - Violin

Sri S.J.Arjun Ganesh                               - Mridangam

Payyanur Sri Govindaprasad                -  Morsing

January 7 , Monday

Mysore Brothers

Mysore Sri M.Nagaraj and Dr.Mysore M.Manjunath – Violin Duet

Sri B.Harikumar                                - Mridangam

Sri G.Guruprasanna                        - Kanjira

January 8 , Tuesday

Bangalore Sri S. Shankar               -  Vocal

Mysore Sri M.Nagaraj                   -  Violin

Sri H.S.Sudhindra                          -  Mridangam

Udipi Sri Sridhar                            -  Ghatam

January 9 , Wednesday

Sri Vishnudev Namboodri          -  Vocal

Trivandrum Sri Sampath            -  Violin

Dr G.Babu                                     -  Mridangam

Manjoor Sri Unnikrishnan        -   Ghatam

January 10 , Thursday

Smt Nisha Rajagopalan              - Vocal

Trivandrum Sri Sampath           -  Violin

Palghat Sri Mahesh Kumar       - Mridangam

Adichanaloor Sri Anilkumar     - Ghatam

Tirunakkara Sri Retish               - Morsing

January 11 , Friday

Sri Amith Nadig                           - Flute

Sri S.R.Mahadev Sarma            - Violin

Nanjil Sri Arul                             - Mridangam

Vazhappally Sri Krishnakumar – Ghatam

Sri Somashekhar Jois                  - Konnakkol

January 12 , Saturday

Tamarakkad Sri Govindan Namboodri – Vocal

Idappally Sri Ajithkumar                         - Violin

Chertala Sri Krishnakumar                      - Mridangam

Vazhappally Sri Krishnakumar              – Ghatam

Tirunakkara Sri Retish                            - Morsing

January 13 , Sunday

Sri Sanjay Subrahmanyan                   - Vocal

Sri S.Varadarajan                                 -  Violin

Neyveli Sri Venkatesh                        - Mridangam

Perukavu Sri P.L.Sudheer                  - Ghatam


Also read: Of dance and deities: The history of North Chennai's Thiruvottiyur Thyagaraja temple

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