Directed by Walter Lang in 1956 the musical ‘King and I’ is a famous classic starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner, where the plot surrounds an English Governess who visits Siam to teach English to the Prince of Siam and other Siamese children but falls hopelessly in love with the King. As an increasing audience watched, listened and celebrated the music of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, falling only slightly short of a musical, this thought embedded itself in my mind. Teaching His compositions to children in Australia in many ways may be no different to the teaching of English to Siamese children and what a coincidence that both for some inordinate reason is a love story that revolves around a King. As the community came together once more to celebrate the life and music of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, at a deeper level however is yet another love story, the love for a homeland, its music and traditions and a need to keep it going.
Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma was considered a child prodigy and his poetry and compositions are a living example of his genius. Born in 1813 to Rani Laxmi Bayi the Queen of Travancore, in Kerala who passed away soon after his birth, Swathi Thirunal was really brought by his Aunt, Parvathy Bayi, who was forward thinking and way ahead of her times. She ensured that the little Prince got the education he needed quickly noticing his immense brilliance and flair for languages. He learnt many different languages and subjects including Persian, Hindi, and Marathi and English. Prince Swathi Thirunal grew up with a great respect for the arts, music, dance, literature, paintings and artists, fostering and supporting them and their works. He had many musicians in his Court, one of particular interest and little known is the presence of a Hindustani musician called Meruswami. Meruswami was also an exponent of “harikatha” a recital of the scriptures as a musical with verbal intermittent commentary. Swathi Thirunal’s appreciation for Hindustani Music saw many North Indian Classical musicians visit his State to present their artform to him. His keen interest in Bharathanatyam also saw Tanjore dancers bring this dance form to Travancore. Many artists left Tamil Nad to live under the reign of this King extraordinaire. Swathi Thirunal composed in at least 106 ragas. Sydney saw many of these compositions presented by a variety of singers come alive in his memory during the celebrations of the Swathi Thirunal Jayanthi recently. A whole day event was a roaring success bringing the community together in music and in thought, not to mention the excellent food prepared by many volunteers. The day finished with the composition of Swathi Thirunal’s famous Thillana ‘Dheem tha Kuniku’ you can see above. One of my favourites is a popular number called ‘Bhogendrashayeenam’ composed in the captivating ragam Kunthalavarali. For more details on Swathi Thirunal visit http://www.swathithirunal.in/linkfiles.htm