Article by Prince Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma, published in SURRENDER – Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple Renovation Souvenir 2002.

When the 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 the 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 totally, being nearly wiped out himself on more occassions than one but that is another story.

In fact, he wiped out his enemies so thoroughly that the succeeding Maharajahs had very little to do in the defense department, which left them ample time for the finer things in life – Music, for example. Though Maharaja Swathi 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 the Sage Kambar that the Navarathri Festival for the precious Saraswathi Amman would be conducted every year, come what may. This promise has always been kept and the Navarathri Festival is being conducted by the royal family of Travancore to this very day.

This was(and is)easier said than done because Maharajah Karthika Thirunal “Dharma Raja” shifted the capital of Travancore from Padmanabhapuram (Now in the State of 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 Navarathri Festival. An unique feature about this idol is that it is the original idol itself which is taken out of the temple and not an “Utsava Vigraham” as is usually the practice. (when the idol is removed from the shrine a lamp is lit, representing the Goddess and Pooja is done to it.)

The Navarathri 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 gradually faded away leaving music concerts (and to a lesser degree, dance) the most prominent place in the festivities.

The music for the Navarathri Concerts as we hear them now was composed and codified by Maharaja Swathi 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 during the last three days.

The ambience at the Navarathri Mandapam has to be experienced to be believed. The entire lighting is done using oil lamps. The subtle fragrance of fresh flowers, sandalwood incense, camphor fumes ad less-subtle smells of freshly bathed gentlemen waft around in the air. The concerts start at 6.00 PM sharp and finish at 8.30 PM sharp. Believe it or not, nobody is allowed to come late or leave early. (“Can such things be?” one wonders, when one takes a look at audience behaviour in Music Sabhas.)

The concerts are preceeded by the rendition of the Thodaya Mangalam and Ganapathi Sthuthi by the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars. The Mullamoodu Bhagavathars are families of musicians whose ancestry – and musical tradition – dates back to the time of Maharajah Swathi 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 musicains like Dr.Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavathar, Dr.Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and Vidwan Shri. K.S.Narayanaswamy got hold of the compositions of Maharajah Swathi 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 1920’s, this system had changed and eminent musicians from outside were invited to give the main concert and the Mullamoodu Bhagavathars were restricted to singing just the Thodaya Mangalam.

The concerts themselves 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. As a result, there is neither applause nor the sometimes exciting, sometimes irritating and sometimes pathetic phenomenon of the singer and the accompanist trying to outdo each other or trip each other up.

The Navarathri concerts have other unique features too, than the very unique one mentioned above. As mentioned earlier, the main piece for each day is fixed. This is preceded by Raga Alapana and singing of Thanam, accompanied by Mridangam, in which artists like the late Palakkad Shri.T.S.Mani Iyer excelled. Only compositions of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal are sung and the Mangalam is sung only at the end of the concert on the ninth day as a Mangalam for the whole festival. For the past few decades, a portion of each concert has been broadcast by the All India Radio all over Kerala the very 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 danced at the Navarathri Mandapam.

Almost all the great singers have sung here too, with a few very 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 at 6.00 PM and finish at 8.30 PM sharp, when a bell will ring, which reminds me of a story: The late Shri M.D. Ramanathan concluded virtually all his concerts (not just at the Navarathri Mandapam) with the last lines of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal’s celebrated Ramayanam song “Bhavayami Raghuramam.” One year he sang the rarely heard Ashta Ragamalika by the Maharajah, “Pannagendra Shayana”, which he finished at 8.30PM on the dot …. when, sure enough the bell rang.

But, feeling bad that he hadn’t 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 Navarathri Trust who wasn’t particularly well known for his polite, gentle and self-effacing nature gave Shri. Ramanathan a piece of his mind, in front of the people who had come for the concert.

The gist of what he had to say was fairly simple; that at the Navarathri Mandapam, one had to follow Navarathri Mandapam timings and not one’s own timings. But the gentleman in question being a touch pompous – and verbose, it sounded rather like an insult – and MDR, in characteristic simplicity muttered “Appidiya? Aanal Koopida Vendaam!” (“Is that so? Then don’t call me”) and disappeared. 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.

The time restriction puts off quite a few spectators too – as does the fact that one has to sit on the floor and take off one’s shirt. So hundreds of people sit on the steps outside the Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple, giving it a true gallery-look and listen to the concerts through a speaker installed there for their convenience which reminds me of another story. This involves the late Shri.G.N.Balasubramaniam and another musician who shall remain nameless.

This latter musician was passionately jealous of G.N.B – in more ways than one. But he was curious to know how Shri.Balasubramaniam did his job. Eyewitness (who wish to remain anonymous – I asked!) 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, remain hunched up in the car and listen to GNB’s glorious music.

Once Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi (who was largely responsible for the development of music in Kerala during this century) joked with our friend the anonymous – rather, incognito-musician, “You know, today there won’t be any flowers left in the market.” “And why, may I ask?” he inquired. “Because GN is Singing in the evening and the ladies 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 – and some others, worth hearing.”

Palakkad Shri.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 wouldn’t come on radio and the second a relatively uneventful one. “Uneventful,” that is, by Mani Iyer standards.)

One year he decided to miss his Navarathri concert having been invited abroad. All the programmes had been fixed when suddenly 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!”

Which is a sentiment echoed by Palani Shri Subramania Pillai, Musiri. Shri. Subramania Iyer, the Alathoor Brothers, Shri. 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 Navarathri Mandapam crowd and more importantly the Goddess Saraswathy to this day with his evergreen music.

There is a saying that Saraswathy, the Goddess of music and literature and Lakshmi, the Goddess of wealth rarely go together. Unfortunately this is seen to be rather true as far as the Navarathri Mandapam, which is run by a Trust, is concerned. “How to improve things in the Lakshmi department without damaging the existing heights of excellence in the Saraswathy department?” 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, neuclear explosions, cellular phones and the like, it is truly a miralce – and a relief – that a place like this exists, celebrating the cause of Bhakthi, Vishranthi and Classical Music in it’s purest form. In fact, dear reader, next year around, why don’t you come down to Trivandrum and see, hear and experience for yourself the magic of the Navarathri Mandapam? It could very easily become an annual pilgrimage if Shuddha Sangeetham is your cup of tea.