THIRUVANANTHAPURAM : Culinary similes spice up our conversation on music. Every now and then, the Prince would also morph into people – Abdul Kalam or Balamuralikrishna - who happen to criss-cross the story being narrated. Though his versatility as a singer has been well-acknowledged, Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma, the musician prince of Travancore royal family, has been too elusive for his articulate self to be in public gaze. The man behind Swathi Sangeethotsavam, he has gained the image of an iconoclast – in particular for doing away with the age-old taboo against women performers and listeners entering the forts of Kuthiramalika and for breaking away from the strictures of royalty in general. Excerpts from an interview with
The festival was started on a very impromptu mode, when the state government cancelled the concert which was planned to be conducted at the Kuthiramalika, in honour of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal in 1999. When nobody came forward to take it up, I decided to do whatever was necessary to make the festival happen. The expenses, including the air tickets and accommodation, were very huge and it continued like that in the initial years. The H H Sir Rama Varma Maharaja of Travancore Trust was eventually formed to conduct the festival. Over the years, I have tried to make it an eclectic mix of performances by veteran musicians as well as promising new talents. So this year, you can look forward to listening to Sanjay Subramoaniom, a celebrated professional; Venkatraman, a largely unknown 75-year old musician living in Thiruvananthapuram and the 15-year old G Abhilash from Chennai, a very promising youngster. As a musician-turned-organiser, I also take care to make it an enjoyable blend of a serene ambiance, good audience and also good food.
Music as career
I started learning music quite late, as a 13-year-old. But for a love of the songs of Kishore Kumar and M D Ramanathan from an early age, there was no plan to take music seriously. In fact, it was my great grandmother, Amma Maharani Sethu Paravthy Bai, who made the choice for me. She was a connoisseur of Carnatic music and was very particular that I should learn under a good teacher. She had several reputed musicians audition in the palace before selecting Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer Sir to teach me. He passed away in 1994 and Amma Maharani was also long gone. That left me groping in the dark for a while until Balamuralikrishna Sir took me under his tutelage in 1998. Being at the helm of Swathi Festival has also shaped my attitude towards music.
She and Maharaja Chithira Thirunal are perhaps the most magnanimous persons I have ever known. They were equally comfortable in the company of the most lowly of servants as with the heads of world nations. Amma Maharani used to cook food for family and guests and would wash the toilets herself. But she was also very commanding in matters of administration. I still relish the taste of her exemplary cooking and think that is where the love for food was picked up from.
The descendant of Swathi Thirunal
There is no escape from the tag line. While it is a privilege to be the descendant of the great musician, I must constantly battle prejudices and presumptions. In the initial years, nobody was ready to give me the leeway of being a beginner. People would also write my music off as an undue recognition for my connection with the royalty. On the other hand, the royalty was not happy about someone in the family becoming a professional musician, because, to sing for the public was just not the norm.
Life as a globe trotter
I left for Europe as a very young man and lived in Amsterdam and France and many other places for years. I shared the houses of hosts, learned the languages they spoke and ate what was on offer. These experiences influenced my outlook on life a great deal and helped me evolve as a person. In fact, it is precisely because I broke away from the fetters of royalty that I could find my own voice.
Just to save a sample of my Veena recital, I recorded a CD, ‘Thanam’, with four kritis that blended the Carnatic and the Hindustani. It was never marketed. On meeting Abdul Kalam at the palace, I learned that he was taking Veena lessons. I sent him a copy of the CD when the newspapers reported that he had fractured his collarbone. Impressed, he invited me to perform for him at the Rastrapathi Bhavan - one of the most cherished experiences of my life. Similarly, I played the CD when my teacher Balamurali Sir was a on a visit to my home. After six years as his student, he was still unaware that I could play the Veena and was furious when I confessed that it was mine. He persuaded me to make it a professional record. When the huge stack of CDs arrived from the recording company, I thought I was going to have them piled up in my room forever. Over the years, I have gifted it to people who ask for a copy. They are also made available at the venue of the Swathi Festival. I would never have mentioned this, if not for the joy of seeing the second edition of the CD, stacked up in my room this morning. It is still not copyrighted.