Achyuta Sankaran Nair, an electrical engineer by qualification and a person whose professional interests are not in music (I am not sure of what he does, but his work is related to the Observatory in Trivandrum and so I presume that he is a scientist) gave a powerpoint presentation on the above subject.
It was a very factual presentation, which was the aspect that I enjoyed most. The speaker looked more at Swati Tirunal the king and less at Swati Tirunal the composer/musician though that facet of his life was also covered adequately.
S Balachander, during the great Swati Tirunal controversy of the 1980s had even questioned the existence of such a ruler. This presentation laid that claim to rest.
Some of the proofs offered:
1. The Asiatic Society elected the Rajah of Travancore as its member in 1843. (His name is not mentioned as Swati Tirunal).
2. Col.Welsh, an Englishman, had met Swati Tirunal when he was a young prince in 1825 and had penned his reminiscence of that meeting which was published in 1830.
3. In all this music controversy, the role of Swati Tirunal as a patron of science is forgotten. He built an observatory in Trivandrum. A description of this observatory was given by a John Caldecott Esq. (slide of his writing was shown) in 1839. The observatory itself, which is where coincidentally Mr Achyut Sankaran Nair works now, has a commemorative plaque placed when the foundation of the structure was laid in 1837. This clearly states that the observatory was built by the Rajah of Travancore and among other titles includes Swatee Rama Rajah Bahadoor.
4. The Rajah’s signature obtained from the Royal Asiatic Society London, was shown. Curiously, he signed in three languages – Telugu, Persian and English but not in Malayalam! This was questioned by Dr N Ramanathan at the end. The speaker said that the king may have followed a fashionable trend then prevailing (it does so now also. How many of us sign in our native languages?). BM Sundaram questioned the speaker on why the king did not compose in Tamil which was the mother tongue of so many of the court musicians. Though I am not sure of what the speaker said in reply, my theory is that Tamil was not considered a musical language then. Even the Tamil speakers composed only in Telugu. Mr Nair also pointed out that the king did not compose in Malayalam either (songs such as Taruni gnyan and Kanakamayam are in Manipravalam).
5. The document regarding the election of Swati Tirunal as a Honorary Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society was shown. As an aside, the speaker mentioned that Subba Row, who was a guide to Swati Tirunal, was a disciple of Elias Schwartz. Was this the same as Frederick Schwartz, Sarabhoji’s Guru?
6. A page from Swati Tirunal’s work Muhanaprasa Antyaprasavyavastha, which lays down the rules for composing, was shown. The speaker said that Swati was clearly influenced by the early composer Margadarsi Sesha Iyengar and had even lifted whole songs from the latter, changing the sahitya a little and made them his own. In Swati Tirunal’s defence, the speaker said that we must not forget that he was only a young man and given his musical interests, he may have found nothing untoward in doing so. (I can also add that the Carnatic music community did not chastise Papanasam Sivan, when several of his early songs had sahitya written for earlier tunes (Nal Vinay Tarum for Ammaravamma’s tune, Kanagam Edu Swami for a Purandara Dasa song, Sriraman Ravi Kula Soman for Sriramam Ravikulabdhi Somam, Theril Erinan for Intati Kuluke, Karunai Seivai for Raghunayaka etc))
7. Old manuscripts pertaining to Swati Tirunal’s songs are in existence in the Kerala University and are available for inspection. Several varnams of the king are in a raga called Khanda (could this be Ghanta?)
8. His Hindustani compositions were first written in his own lifetime and the watermark of the paper has the legend Newton 1837 in it indicating the London based supplier and the year. Interestingly, none of the Hindustani songs are sung today in the ragas stipulated.
9. The lyrics of the song Jagadisa Srijane in Shuddha Saveri were translated into English in the 1860s.
10. According to T Lakshmana Pillai (1864-1950), Sarasija Nabha is not a composition of Swati Tirunal but is of Vadivelu. Vadivelu incidentally earned more salary than the Chief Judge of Travancore. He died a few months before Swati Tirunal and though they were estranged, his death is said to have hastened the kings end also.
11. Two books, one in 1892 by T Appaswami Pillai (Sangita Gunadarsanam) and Sangita Kritis by K Sambasiva Sastry list several songs of the king and the raga Mohana Kalyani is clearly mentioned. This clearly indicates that this raga was not used by Muthiah Bhagavatar to set the songs of the king in the 1930s. However, the speaker conceded that all songs of the king sung in Hamsanandi and Kharaharapriya were tuned by Muthiah Bhagavatar and others.
12. Among all the songs of Swati Tirunal, the one mentioned by all early writers is Sarasasamamukha in Khamas. According to the speaker this became famous because it was adopted for playing by the Police Band of Travancore and the band master wrote its notation in English. It is apparently still played in Trivandrum and its sounds nowhere near Khamas!
13. When Swati Tirunal fell ill, he apparently got a quack remedy from London known as Holloways Pills and Ointment for treatment. An advertisement from the London Times was shown. The king’s obituary appeared in The Times on 8th December 1946. The Trivandrum obit, with a verse in the kings praise by his cousin Iraviamman Thampi in Malayalam was shown. In Australia, the Maitland Mercury and Hunter River General Advertiser reported the death of Swandee Rama Rajah of Travancore.
14. Swati was singularly unfortunate to lose two wives and all his children even in his short life. His third wife, a woman from Tanjavur appears to have survived him. Interestingly, both the speaker and the author RP Raja(New Light on Swati Tirunal) have taken great pains to emphasise that the second and third wives of the king were not Devadasis but ‘high-caste Mudaliar girls’. I disagree with this. They were both well-versed in dance and were disciples of Vadivelu. They used the surname of Pillai (Janaki Pillai was one), which was a common Devadasi surname and there were no Mudaliar women who danced in public. That wa s a Devadasi right. So why rob the king of two Devadasis? Their being his women does not tarnish his name. I pointed this out in my comments at the end of the speech.
My other points were:
1. Too much was made by S Balachander of the absence of the name Swati Tirunal in contemporary writings. When we accept the Nizam of Hyderabad, the Wodeyar of Mysore and Bhaskara Sethupati for just about any Ramnad Raja, why should Swati Tirunal not be referred to simply as Kulashekara Maharajah of Travancore?
2. One more reference to Swati Tirunal is found in “Southern India, Its History, People, Commerce and Industrial Resources” by Somerset Playne (1915). He clearly states that the ruler Swati Tirumal (sic) ascended the throne in 1829 at the age of sixteen and that his brother succeeded him in 1847.
Ultimately, there is no doubt on the existence of Swati Tirunal and that he composed. But as to how many songs are his, how many of his songs have music by others, and how many songs of others are now palmed off as his, this may always be a matter for debate.