One wouldn't be surprised if one were informed that for seven days starting from 6th to 12th January, not a single note of good music was heard anywhere in the world other than in the gracious courtyard of the quietly magnificent Puthen Malika Palace, nestling close to the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple in Thiruvananthapuram, home to one of the great musical composers the world has ever seen - Maharaja Swati Tirunal Rama Varma (1813-1846). The Goddesses of the seven notes seemed to have taken up permanent residence here for a week, dancing in the corridors, peeping through the windows, the sound of their laughter transmitting itself to lesser mortals like us through the voices and instruments of some of the finest musicians our country has ever produced. The ambience never fails to leave one breathless, even if one has had the pleasure of having attended numerous concerts here before. Something ethereal seems to permeate the very air itself. The musicians as well as the audience seem to be equally affected by it.


This year, the festival commenced with a truly scintillating concert by Sanjay Subrahmanyan. I have had the pleasure of listening to him on many occasions and have always been impressed with how he copes with his at times less than co-operative voice, his strictest adherence to the glorious tradition established by the great masters of my youth and childhood as well as the obvious amount of sincerity and commitment he puts into his métier. His concert a few months ago for the Navaratri festival had been memorable too. So it was a pleasant surprise to see him kicking off the proceedings once again. He was accompanied by Balu Raghuraman (Professor of Violin at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, London) on the Violin, B Harikumar on the Mridangam and Anil Kumar on the Ghatam. Sanjay started off with the evergreen Mamavasada janani (Kanada), followed by a neat and crisp volley of swaras two counts after the beat as opposed to what one normally hears, which added just the right dose of pep to the swara exchange with the violinist. The next piece was Jaya Jaya Padmanabha in Sarasangi sung with one of the lesser heard Charanams. Sarasangi sounded just like Sarasangi, and not like a combination of Sankarabharanam and Mayamalavagowla, which is what happens much of the time. A completely refreshing Deva Deva Jagadeeswara (Poorvikalyani) followed, with a charming session of neraval and swaras, replete with originality and manodharma in the best sense. Each time the artist sustained the Shadjam in the higher octave, his voice shone literally like a silver thread.

 The surprise of the evening, however, was Palaya Deva in Bhairavi, which I have heard probably only once in my entire listening career of more than six decades, perhaps sung by GNB. But the memory is buried so deeply in the sands of time that I could easily be wrong. The raga alapana was expansive and satisfying; the piece itself crisp and the swaras showed the years of hard training this young man has obviously put in. After Bhairavi, Bhogindra Shayinam (Kuntalavarali) gleamed like a little jewel in Sanjay's capable hands with the most enchanting little touches of creativity here and there, putting a smile in the heart of every discerning listener. The main piece of the evening was a neat and well proportioned Atana (Sri Kumara Nagaralaye), followed by the competent Tani Avartanam by the percussion duo. The concert wound up with Reenamadanuta in Behag, again a rare and refreshing treat, and Visweswar darshankar (Sindhubhairavi).

The second day saw the organiser himself delivering the goods. I have noted that normally in almost all his concerts Prince Rama Varma goes for lesser heard compositions by great composers, but today he surprised everybody by sticking to a completely unexpected middle-of-the-road selection of songs. But it was an eye opening experience for a hardened listener like me that even the most popular compositions can be interpreted completely afresh by someone with the necessary  combination of competence, individuality, aesthetics and conviction. Sarasijanabha in Kambhoji flowed into the audience like an indolent tsunami, with the same set of accompaniments sounding completely different now, velvety and mellow, perhaps because of the lower pitch, or perhaps because of the nature of the music itself. Paripalayamam followed, reminding the listener of M D Ramanathan as well as the Prince's love for him, though the swaras that followed were mischievously Madurai Mani Iyer like. The third piece, Pahi Sripate Mohana Murtte (Hamsadhwani), started off unexpectedly from the Anupallavi with a lot of surprise swaraksharas (a speciality of  Prince Varma's illustrious ancestor himself) thrown in for good measure. The swara singing that followed was dazzlingly brilliant and completely original. Devi Pavane (Saveri), which followed, moved the listener to tears because of the emotional intensity brimming so palpably in it. I often wish more people would sing the Navaratri kritis in normal concerts too.


Kripaya palaya shaurey (Charukesi) followed, with the words falling out like a stream of pearls from the  mouth of the singer. Each time I hear Prince Rama Varma I am stunned at the improvement in his voice tone and in the clarity of pronunciation, perhaps as a result of his close association with Dr. Balamuralikrishna. This was true in his diction during his charmingly  personal and extremely complementary introductions of the other artists during all the other days of the festival too. Things proceeded languidly into the most expansive and relaxed Gangeya Vasana Dhara Padmanabha (Hamirkalyani) I have ever had the good fortune to hear. By this time the four artistes on stage had fused into a single moving spirit and the result was pure bliss. The singer, the composer, the raga, the song, the audience, the surroundings and God, all fused into a perfectly harmonious and etherial whole. And the percussion duo (the word percussion itself seems altogether too harsh to describe what the two artistes did that day) continued the spirit of the singer and the song in an equally tranquil and harmonious manner. Balu Raghuraman's Hamirkalyani was also particularly noteworthy this evening. The concert concluded with a Bhajan Japata Japata Hari Nama in Ragamalika.

The third day witnessed one of the most outstanding concerts of the series by Ranjani and Gayatri, who opened with a Varnam in Kamas (Chalamela). They briskly went on to sing Paramananda Natanam making one long for M D Ramanathan in his prime. The swara singing that followed was crisp, and full of the unique flavour of Kedaram. The violinist of the day H N Bhaskar, though undoubtedly competent, seemed to flounder much of the time in Kedaram. Surprise after surprise followed. Palayamaam in Nayaki, Parvati Nayaka in Bowli and Pahi Sada in Mukhari, all rare and precious gems. The already upbeat concert broke all the speed limits with a super-fast Amritavarshini which left the listeners breathless. At the end of it, one of the young ladies made the slightest musical slip, which seemed to affect her obviously perfectionist nature to the very core. And for the next fifteen to twenty minutes, every single sensitive parent in the audience must have longed to pat her on the cheek and ask her to forget it, cheer up and move on, because she was so obviously brilliant in any case. These two violinist-turned-singers display a playfulness and fragility almost like that of two newborn kittens tumbling around happily. But the grip of their voices on each note is like steel, rendering even the super-fast phrases too unusually clear and pleasing to the ear. Bhogindra Shayinam, which was one of the few songs repeated during the course of the whole series, appeared and disappeared in a flash. Then came the real feast of the evening, a magnificent Sankarabharanam shared fairly by the twosome followed by the ever so grand yet almost unheard of Kalaye Parvati Natham which transformed the whole atmosphere into one of utmost dignity and grandeur. The Tani Avartanam was by Manoj Siva, (a practitioner of the Palghat Raghu style of Mridangam playing, who was obviously on home ground in Misra Chapu Tala) and Haripad Sekhar. The latter was competent enough but seemed to have a slight problem with the sruti. The tukkadas which followed (Bhaja Bhaja Manasa, Smara Janaka Subha Charita, Kantanodu Chennu Melle and Sankar Giri Nath Prabhu ke) were each a treat. I found Smara Janaka and Sankar Girinath particularly brilliant, with the perfect dash of North Indian touch, which made things authentic without making them sound like a mimicry of Hindustani music.

On the fourth day, the stage was filled to capacity with veterans Parur M S Anantaraman, M A Sundareswaran and M A Krishnaswami, accompanied by Prof. Trichy Sankaran (a rare treat for those of us in Kerala who don't get a chance to go to Madras for the Music Season in December) from Toronto and Udipi Sridhar. M S Anantaraman made a touching speech at the beginning of the concert informing the crowd how the Parur family owed everything to the Travancore royal family, and how his father, the legendary Parur Sundaram Iyer used to eat at the Oottupura of the Padmanabhaswami temple some eight decades ago. A rare and noble gesture from this great vidwan indeed! The concert began briskly with the Kambhoji Ata tala Varnam with Anantaraman generously and vocally encouraging all the other artists on stage, particularly Prof. Trichy Sankaran. This was followed by the sweetest little alapana in Mayamalavagowla by Anantaraman himself, showing the finesse of his technique and the freshness and originality of his spirit. The quality of his touch evoked images of butterfly wings and angel kisses. Deva Deva Kalayami followed predictably. Then came a dignified and sober Srikumara nagaralaye (Atana), and Kripaya palaya (Charukesi). Kalayami in Begada, a masterpiece popularised by GNB, came as a welcome surprise, with M A Krishnaswami taking over now. This was followed by a Kamavardhini alapana where M A Sundareswaran suddenly seemed to have become possessed by some slightly malignant spirit. I was surprised to see the normally chaste and sedate Sundareswaran almost saw his instrument in half with enthusiasm. Sarasaksha Paripalaya was subjected to more of the same treatment, followed by a brisk session of swaras in the trade mark Parur style. The main piece of the evening was the Navaratri kriti in Sankarabharanam Devi Jagath Janani, which was rendered with commendable flair by the trio. This was followed by a scintillating Tani Avartanam by the percussion duo, Sankaran and Sridhar. The concert wound up with Mamava Sada Janani (which I have never heard placed at the end of the concert till now), Visweswar in Sindhubhairavi and the Dhanasri Tillana.

While the South Indian musicians keep changing every year, the Asthana Vidwan from the North, Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty, makes more than welcome visits year after year. This time, we were treated to a soulful, expansive and mesmerising Jog, followed by a composition by the Maharaja. He followed up with a composition in Behag and Bhopali (the latter being a request from a member of the audience), where he did a brisk and breathtaking ragamala by changing the Shadjam from Sa to Ri, Ga, Pa and Dha and getting Megh Malhar, Malkauns, Durga and Dhani respectively. This was followed by a leisurely Thumri (Miliye Sham) in Khamaj and Bhajath Murali Murari in Kappar Gowri. The final piece was Ramachandra Prabhu in Sindhubhairavi which never fails to impress in Panditji's unique sophisticated style. The accompanists were capable, but not brilliant (Yogesh Samsi on the Tabla and Sanatan Goswami on the Harmonium).


The most eagerly awaited concert of the series was the Jugalbandi by doyens Dr. M Balamuralikrishna and Pandit Ajoy Chakraborty. Dr. Balamuralikrishna made a speech at the beginning pointing out that they were highlighting the similarities between North Indian and South Indian classical music and not the differences. The words were followed by the deed itself in the form of three hours of bliss, mutual respect between the artistes, breathtaking voice control, subdued and subtle competition, the finest aesthetics and all-round magic. The duo started out with Pannagasayana in Hamsadhwani, followed by Sarasiruhanabha in Deshakshi, where the violinist of the evening young Attukal Balasubramaniam from Tiruvanantapuram stole the show with his perfect little alapana which echoed the very essence of what the two musicians had sung. The main piece of the evening was Rama in Hamsanandi/Sohini. The very heavens must have reverberated with the thundering voices of the twain that blessed us with their magic. The Tani avartanam was a one-sided affair, with Dr. G Babu playing with his heart and soul on the Mridangam and Badamikar looking rather lost altogether. Then came two Balamurali vintage favorites, Jamuna Kinare Pyare and Aaj Aye Sham Mohan. Not a single person moved when the concert ended, although it was well over three hours by then! Finally, Dr. Balamuralikrishna had to dispatch the spellbound audience to their homes with a brief and conclusive "Thank you!"


The final day saw one of the mega-stars of the younger generation, Bombay Jayashree Ramnath doing puja to the Gods with her distinct soft touch. She opened with the Nata Varnam in Adi tala (Sarasijanabha) followed by Narasimha mamava bhagavan in Arabhi. This was followed by an extremely competent and elaborate Kedaragowla alapana suffixed by Tavaka namami, which was a totally unexpected gift for us who had decided that the song would be Jalajanabha! Attukal Balasubramaniam of  Deshakshi-fame seemed a bit out of sorts on this day. A very elaborate Gowrimanohari followed, with Sarasasama mridupada. After a brief Pahi jagatjanani in Hamsanandi the artiste plunged whole-heartedly into Bhairavi with Janani mamava as the main piece. The percussionists of the day Ganapatiraman and Sekhar were in their element. The fact that Jayashree used not one but two Tamburas in this day and age was commendable. But the fact that the two young Tambura artistes looked completely bored and disinterested was a little sad, as was the fact that the Tamburas never seemed to be as perfectly tuned as their counterparts from the North at any point in the evening. The concert wound up rather abruptly with Saramaina in Behag and Chaliye Kunjan Me. And of course Bhujagasayino in Yadukulakambhoji, the Mangalam for the concert as well as the whole series.


The listeners, whose numbers keep increasing in amazing proportions year after year left with full, yet heavy hearts. Another year, another festival! I can easily say that this must be one of the best festivals that I have ever had the privilege to have been a part of. The evenings seem empty now and the soul longs for more such enchanting evenings, where the dreams of Maharaja Swati Tirunal are finally being realised nearly two centuries after his tragically short life on this earth. The consolation is that all the concerts are being telecast almost in their entirety from 6 am to 7 am on the Kairali Television Channel with commendable camera work. Most people can't seem to digest the fact that the public gets to listen to such sterling concerts entirely free of cost. But that is the fact. I have already started counting the days till the next year's festival on January 6, 2004!

Ramanathan Iyer,


Posted on January 22, 2003.

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