‘First-ever’ Graphic Biography of Swathi Thirunal to be Released - The New Indian Express

‘First-ever’ Graphic Biography of Swathi Thirunal to be Released

Published: 07th April 2014 10:14 AM

Last Updated: 07th April 2014 11:19 AM

Can the story of Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma, the musician-king of Travancore whose contributions in life and controversies after death have filled several volumes, be told in a few pages? And that too in comic book format? The answer can be had this week with the launch of “the first-ever graphic biography of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal”, as its creators put it.

“It was obviously no easy task compiling such an extraordinary legacy into 24 pages,” said the book’s author Lakshmi Devnath, a Chennai-based Carnatic music researcher. “The project took many months of research and my notes alone covered well over 300 pages.”

These notes - referenced from various sources including works of R P Raja, S Venkatasubramanya Iyer and P Shungoony Menon, old government records and journals of the Music Academy in Chennai - have now been compressed into roughly 140 picture panels that tell the tale of the “rare gem that adorned the throne of the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore.”

Starting with the state of affairs that prevailed before Swathi Thirunal’s birth on April 16, 1813, the book takes the reader through his life, focusing on his contributions both as king and as composer.

It is the graphic detail in the frames that has caught the eye of Achuthsankar S Nair, head of Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics, Kerala University, who himself has researched extensively on Swathi Thirunal and whose articles have also been referenced by author Lakshmi Devnath.

“For example, there is a panel on the wedding of Swathi Thirunal in 1830 with Ayikutty Narayani Pilla. It shows Swathi Thirunal offering a ‘pudava’ to Lord Padmanabha while the bride places a gold ornament in the shape of a lotus at the deity’s feet. This is as has been documented,” said Achuthsankar.

In some cases, a single frame brings out several details known about the king’s life. One panel, for instance, shows Irayimman Thampi singing the famous lullaby ‘Omana Thingal Kidavu’ even as the queen coos over her ‘Little Ummini’, her pet name for Swathi. Other aspects portrayed in the book include Thanjavur Subba Rao being chosen as his tutor, Madras Governor Col Lushington’s visit to test the young king and scenes from Swathi’s time as ruler such as the appointment of Cunden Menon to draw up Travancore’s first formal code of laws, the setting up of Maharaja’s Free School in 1836, the construction of the Karamana bridge and Kerala’s first Observatory.

But it is to the king in his musical avatar that half of the book has been devoted. It is, after all, as part of her effort to bring out more material on Carnatic music for children that led Lekshmi Devnath on this venture.

“How do you talk about ‘swarajatis’ and ‘varnams’ and ‘tillanas’ to children without sounding pedantic?” asked Devnath.  And the book does try to go light on otherwise heavy subjects. For example, when stating that Swathi Thirunal can “sing in six speeds”, the picture alongside shows a person imagining a tortoise, a snail, a worm, a cow, a hare and a cheetah.

Again, while stating that the king composed ‘Kuchela Upakhyanam’ and ‘Ajamila Upakhyanam’, the picture panels show him imagining these stories.

 In the final panels, Devnath has touched upon the controversies that arose in the 1980s, mainly initiated by veena maestro S Balachander, questioning whether Swathi Thirunal had indeed created all the compositions in his name. The refutation to these claims by scholars has also been shown subsequently.

 This book, edited by Shreya Devnath with art by Ajay Krishnan, is the sixth in a series ‘Pictures of Melody’ which aims at providing literature on Carnatic music that caters to young readers. Priced at Rs 125, it will be released on Wednesday at the Department of Music, behind Women’s College, Vazhuthacaud.

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