Nixon, Anderson and India

 Dec 1971 - On a precarious precipice

An American typist who had spent some years in India, a muckraking high-flying reporter, a president who hated him to the core, a wily bureaucrat, a game of war being fought on two fronts, the baying press, an alarming prospect of WW III, and potential for a nuclear confrontation. These scenes are not a work of fiction or part of a well-structured novel, but real images from the last days of 1971. Would you like to know what this was all about? Read on…

Impeachment is a word on every lip these days after the chaotic scenes at the US Capitol two weeks ago and we will probably see the twice impeached Trump on trial soon. But this one goes back to the Nixon years. Most people would quickly connect the title to the infamous relationship between Nixon and Indira Gandhi during the 1971 Pakistan conflict and the the liberation of Bangladesh. Yes, in a way it is indeed correct since Nixon and Kissinger, two individuals who misread so much and supported the wrong side, who said all the wrong things and earned the displeasure of a multitude of the world’s population did have a huge tiff going with India’s Indira Gandhi. The battle of nerves between the nervy POTUS and the firm Indian PM almost resulted in WWIII, ending with Indira emerging triumphant, and pushing Nixon down the slippery slope, towards impeachment.

Some years ago, I wrote about the key role played by Dr Crane in helping India along with her freedom movement with a fortuitous leak about Churchill’s duplicity, to the newspapers. This one dates to the 70’s and only some parts are well known in India. What led to the press disclosures on the inner workings behind the whole sordid affair and how it all snowballed to almost starting a nuclear conflict, is not well understood.  

I first read about the Watergate scandal detailing the Nixon misadventures through the reporting of the brilliant journalists Woodward and Bernstein, many years ago. Like all others, I read about the Presidents fall from grace, but until recently I did not really know about the connections between India, the journalist Jack Anderson and Nixon, how it resulted in Anderson going after Nixon, how the White House even decided to do away with the pesky reporter and how the whole sordid mess escalated to Watergate, in Nixon getting the senate boot and getting eventually impeached. What did India have to do with it? It is truly fascinating a story, something which happened in my school days.

It tail-ends my previous story, where I introduced Dr Crane, India’s friend. In that I also told you about the larger-than-life journalist Drew Pearson, who used journalism as a weapon and wrote all kinds of inside stories connected to the swamp – a.k.a. Washington DC. Well by 1971, Drew had passed on and the hard-nosed journalist and one-time Mormon missionary Jack Anderson, the muckraker had taken over the column from his onetime protégé.  Writing for the Merry-go-Round column, the hardnosed reporter whose glacial relationship with Nixon dated back many years, decided to release a series of exposés. The subject of the exposé not only ridiculed the presidential handling of a critical issue in the world stage but potentially threatened the chances of Nixon’s reelection in 1972. It also impacted the competence, position, and standing which the popular and powerful Henry Kissinger, then Nixon’s National security advisor, had on the world stage.

A little background will explain the reasons for the stormy relationship between Anderson and Nixon. Anderson, of Mormon background, started out as a journalist and after serving in various capacities in WW II, joining Drew Pearson’s Merry-Go-Round and a radio show (which had an astounding 40 million combined readerships) team in 1947. A keen investigative reporter, Anderson provided many exposés working for and with Drew Pearson, exposés concerning the Mafia, McCarthy, the ITT scandal concerning Nixon, the Hiss spy case, the Parnell Thomas scandal to name a few. Anderson’s reporting of a corruption case involving Nixon almost derailed his election chances in 1952. The ‘Dump Nixon’ move was next, in 1956, but Nixon outwitted him by getting the journalist implicated in a bugging case.

In 1960, Nixon was the Republican Nominee for the Presidential elections, but he lost to JFK. In fact, Nixon’s loss was attributed to yet another corruption exposé by Anderson, the so-called Howard Huges loan scandal involving Nixon’s brother. Drew and Anderson published the details of the VP’s involvement in the whole sordid deal. Just a week before the election and with the evidence from others surfacing, Nixon’s direct involvement was no longer in doubt and - as you can imagine, it cost Nixon the presidency in a super close race. Surely there were other reasons too for Nixon’s loss and JFK’s win, but look at the parallels today, the difference was one-tenth of one percent! For years Nixon believed he was the real winner. And Anderson became Nixon’s number # 1 enemy. Now you the reader must note that Anderson was not a perfect knight, nobody in Washington’s political circuit is. Critics may recall that Anderson was also embroiled in a case involving contributions to his paper by a businessman and a corrupt regime in Africa. Life went on, and then JFK got assassinated in 1963.

Drew Pearson passed away, in 1969 and Anderson took over the Merry-go-round, renaming it Washington-merry-go-round. Not only did he go after Republicans, but also democrats and for a while even Martin Luther King. He was the ultimate Washington snoop and he had this habit of reporting first and if it was wrong, he would apologize. He was the biggest weapon for any politician and also, their worst fear. Now, if you wanted a pen picture of the man, read on - Hair combed downwards to cover a receding hairline, baggy trousers, an ample waistline, terrible ties, colorful socks, a toothpick in his mouth, sometimes holding a hairclip to pick his ears, mostly socks off at the office and picking his toes. If you thought this boastful specimen of a human was a pushover, you’d be mistaken for there was nobody more tenacious and nosier.

He did well with his acquisition and over 300 newspapers were his clients. Exposés and scoops continued, as corruption turned waters murky in Washington. It was, as Trump termed it recently, becoming a putrid swamp. As the Vietnam war under Nixon’s tenure dragged on, Anderson continued his revelations, the excesses and the administration’s duplicity in it. The white house was alarmed that Anderson had access to so much confidential information. Nixon decided to start surveillance on Anderson and started investigating leaks because by then, Anderson’s column appeared in about 1,000 newspapers with 45 million daily readers, at a time when few other reporters actively sought to uncover government wrongdoing.

A little introduction to Henry Kissinger is needed to complete the background. A naturalized American citizen, the German origin Kissinger was the National security advisor in the Nixon administration. While many books have been written about the man and his accomplishments, what we will observe now is a brief period where we see him at his worst, especially his role concerning India, in 1971.

I know you are impatient, and I am still meandering through the protagonist Anderson and the adversary Nixon. What on earth had India to do with either of them?

The connections start with a Yeoman (clerical staff) in the US Navy named Charles E. Radford. The 27-year-old Chuck Radford before his arrival in Washington had been stationed in New Delhi since 1967 and was then handpicked by Admiral Robinson as his Private Secretary. Radford, a lanky, mustachioed, devout Mormon half American Indian, married Toni, the daughter of a US navy officer in New Delhi, and had already fathered two children while in India. Soon he was Washington bound, with his young family, to become an associate of Robinson. Interestingly, the Radford’s had come across Jack Anderson’s parents in Delhi and had hit it off as they were also fellow Mormons, in fact, Radford helped them get visas to travel from Delhi to Ethiopia. Little did Radford know that this chance meeting in Delhi would turn his whole world topsy turvy, some years later. In the spring of 1971, Admiral Welander replaced Robinson who was killed in a helicopter crash, as Radford’s boss.

While Nixon was getting the brickbats for prolonging the Vietnam war, his involvement with the Pakistani carnage in East Pakistan – Bangladesh today, was not known until Anderson got wind of it. Anderson’s role was instrumental in exposing the involvement of Nixon and Kissinger in the war politics played by Yahya Khan, the further involvement on India in support of the West Bengali’s, the support for India from Russia, and the sly game which China wanted to play or almost got involved with. This unnecessary involvement, due to prodding from Kissinger and Nixon almost brought the world to the brink of a nuclear war.

The Awami league headed by Mujibur Rahman won 1970 elections and was in control of East Pakistan, much to the disgust of the West Pakistani’s. Yahya launched Operation searchlight with his ruthless dictum – kill 3 ½ million of ‘em Bengalis and the rest will eat out of our hands’. In the resulting genocide, millions perished and others (close to 10 million) took to flight, towards the Indian border. India supported the resistance movement and the Mukti Bahni, a story which I will get so soon while talking about the RAW agent who spearheaded it. Martial law, systemic rapes were part of the genocide unleashed by the Pakistani army on hapless Bangla civilians.

Nixon and Kissinger threw their lot with the dictator while badmouthing Indira Gandhi in the vilest terms. While the personal equations were key to a lot of friction, the geopolitical set up being planned and nurtured by Nixon and Kissinger was the primary reason. Nixon planned to restart friendly relations with China using Pakistan’s help in order to form a counter to Russia. That said, Nixon supported Pakistan and their dastardly actions in the public sphere, and simply refused to condemn the atrocities being wrought in East Bengal. Yahya then ramped up the rhetoric accusing India of direct support and launched a propaganda campaign ‘crush India’. Indira Gandhi who wanted to stop the genocide quickly was informed by Gen Manekshaw that it was not yet opportune due to various tactical and other reasons. As the water was getting to a boil, Russia warned Yahya not to go to war. China was expected to support Pakistan and one reason why Manekshaw delayed his counter was to stop the Chinese with the snow and ice-clad Himalayas in December. War was inevitable. Armies were amassed at borders; the Taj Mahal was camouflaged.

In Dec 1971, Pakistan preemptively attacked Indian airbases, the world quickly condemning the attack, while Nixon demurred stating staunch neutrality and non-involvement. However, that was only in public, for in secret he decided to help Yahya, in spite of a congressional ban on any form of aid to these warring countries. Iran, Jordan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia were contacted and asked to stealthily assist Pakistan by transferring fighter planes and armaments.  Indian forces countered the attack with massive well-coordinated air, sea, and land assaults on Pakistan from all fronts. The Pak navy was decimated and soon enough the submarine Ghazi was sunk, a story I had written about some years ago.

After the initial attack, the Pak air force went into a defensive mode. Despite state department warnings and objections, Nixon issued more directives to support Pakistan. In fact, following up the indirect actions, Nixon ordered the seventh fleet of 8 warships, a hundred bombers, many thousand marines, and nuclear weapons, into the Bay of Bengal, ostensibly to rescue a handful of Americans in East Bengal (actually they had been evacuated by Dec 12th). He wanted to throw a royal scare onto Indira Gandhi, to needle the Soviets who were planning to support India, and to show them all that he was the tough guy.

But well, not everybody would take it lying and there was one brave bureaucrat who decided to do something about it, just like Dr Crane did some decades ago. He decided to contact the one person who could blow the lid off the cauldron, and well, that person would be Jack Anderson. Meeting him surreptitiously at a drugstore, he outlined the situation and Nixon’s deceit, and Kissinger’s support for it. But Anderson was wary, he had no intention in jumping into the fire without good reason and insisted on proof which he could stand by, if questioned.

Reluctantly, the source, in a second clandestine meeting handed over many envelopes filled with incriminating material of the actions by Nixon and his cohorts and Andersson started publishing details of the machinations. The rest of the press and the public were not too interested, but the White House was and they decided to deny it all. That was when Anderson decided to make the next article sensational, using quotes from official records and informing about the illicit movement of planes and arms to Pakistan, just when Nixon launched the ‘Tilt to Pakistan’ posture. He then informed the world about the tilt and the movements of the task force 74 – the seventh fleet and the dangerous turn such a move could take, of WW III. White House tapes later revealed the conversations – 12 Jordanian planes have moved to Pakistan; the Saudis and Turks were willing to pitch in. Nixon asking if the Chinese could move some forces or threaten to move some forces and later on asking if the French could sell some planes to the Paks? As China continued their military preparations (53rd and 157th infantry) at the Himalayas to carry out ‘urgent missions’, Russia contemplated a preemptive strike at Sinkiang to wipe out some of Chinas missile launchers

The Soviets who had signed a treaty with India, sent out convoys and a submarine armed with cruise missiles, sailing towards the Bay of Bengal while Kissinger was worried that Russia might move against China. Andersson upped the ante and laid the blame directly on the administration and finally, the rest of the press took notice, seeing the wealth of sources and papers Anderson was starting to flaunt. He even gave retyped copies of some of his source material to the NY times which started to excerpt these.

The only way now for the administration was to attack the messenger and so a hunt was launched to find out the leaker was, in the name of national security. As that was going on, the national press joined in and soon they were up in arms against Nixon, even in late-night comedy shows. Kissinger and Nixon could no longer hide and the 1972 presidential campaign was in a quandary. George Bush senior, then the UN ambassador naively called on Andersson to name his source while national security advisor Kissinger’s stock and standing nosedived as his rants and moods swung back and forth, reaching breaking points.

The war was going on between Pakistan and India and it was then that Nixon, in order to support the flagging Kissinger, agreed to the planting of a story in journalist Alsop’s column stating that India was out to crush and dismember Pakistan, the information apparently supplied by a leading Indian politician and a bitter enemy of Indira Gandhi (S Hersh) or a source close to the PMO (Anderson). Years later, it became clear that the information supplied was completely wrong. But at that time, it was fortunately disregarded and nobody really took notice.

The war would not go on much longer, Pakistan’s forces were destroyed in East Bengal and they formally surrendered within two weeks. Bangladesh was formed, Yahya resigned in disgrace and went into house arrest. Nixon and Kissinger maintained the sorry stance that supporting Pakistan was important in order to court China and took the line that India offered a cease-fire only due to Nixon’s gunboat diplomacy. Belligerently Nixon tried to shift blame to Kissinger and then declared that India will come around, still not admitting to his mistakes with foreign policy. Well, India did,  two years later, by accelerating the nuclear program and detonating a test device in 1974 in Pokhran, a remarkable story, that I had detailed earlier

Anderson’s fearless exposure of the scandalous manipulations by Nixon and Kissinger and his reporting of American policy decision-making during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 resulted in his receiving the Pulitzer Prize in 1972. Does the story end there? Of course not. In fact, the whole story can be read in much greater detail in many of the referenced books, and the twists and turns it took, the threats, counter threats, intrigues and the missives launched at and by Nixon, the machinations of Kissinger can all be fodder for many months of concentrated reading.

But how did Anderson get the material? Who leaked it? Well, the White House plumbers were tasked to get to the bottom of it. Very soon they found that one of the memos was made only in 5 copies and with that, they zeroed in on the suspect, the very person we had read about a few paragraphs back – Navy Yeoman typist stenographer Charles Radford. Investigators turned over diplomatic files and human resource material to discover that Radford had served in India, and was friendly with Anderson’s parents. In fact, he even had dinner with the Anderson’s at a Chinese restaurant, the day prior to the first exposé! Radford was according to them, preferential to India and was aghast when the seventh fleet was rushed to its waters! He had to act… or so they thought. His then superior Admiral Welander decided to question him and Radford replied to him with a straight face that he had NOT passed on any papers to Anderson. But Nixon hearing about Radford’s involvement, judged – Oh, he is pro-Indian? Well then, he did it!!

Welander reported to his superiors and Radford was picked up and interrogated, subjected to many polygraph tests, cajoled, abused, threatened and cross-examined by experts. Radford though distraught and nervous to the extreme, simply maintained his story, not wilting. After the initial interrogation, Radford contacted Anderson, for support and Anderson coached him on not confessing and getting into further problems. The investigators continued to work on Radford, trying to get him to confess that he had passed on the papers to Anderson, while Nixon tried to cast Anderson and Radford as deviate gay lovers, a ridiculous attempt considering that between them the Anderson and Radford had fathered 17 children! Extensive investigations led nowhere, but naturally!

And finally, the dam collapsed, when Radford revealed that he had been making copies of the papers for the Pentagon Joint Chief of staff, who distrusted Nixon and Kissinger. In fact, for the ‘backchannel’, he had copied well over 5,000 classified documents, once even on Airforce One, directly swiping papers from Kissinger’s briefcase. It came to light that he was working for Admiral Thomas Moorer, with Admiral Welander’s help! Now Nixon was in a right royal mess, what could he do? There was no way this could be made public! If they went after Radford, Anderson would tell the public that the copying was done at the behest of the Pentagon - A catch 22 situation. All Nixon and Kissinger could do was fret and fume admitting to themselves that all this was a result of their own stupid actions.

Admiral Welander, Radford’s boss, stated then that Radford should be put in jail for his actions, Admiral Moorer, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said that Admiral Welander should be put in jail. Kissinger wanted Moorer in jail, but well, nobody went to jail. “Our best interests are served by not, you know, raising holy hell,” concluded President Nixon. And so, Nixon dropped the whole affair and had Radford transferred far away to the west coast, in Oregon with a huge threat of criminal charges hovering over him. The Moorer Radford affair was successfully covered up. But then again, our question still remains unanswered, how did the papers get to Anderson? Did Radford do it?

Anderson continued to taunt and expose Nixon and his team at every given moment. Nixon countered by sending the CIA to spy on him, again flaunting rules which prohibited them from domestic spying. Anderson’s phones were tapped, but pretty soon Anderson caught up to the game and together with his children decided to make a mockery of the CIA snoops. He and his girls caught them in the act and wrote about their antics. Months later, a plan was discussed - to assassinate Anderson, the pesky journalist, with a massive drug dose. WH plumbers Howard Hunt and Gordon Liddy discussed it at length, but it did not get off the ground, and the two agents were eventually diverted to do something else, bug and burglarize the Democratic headquarters at Watergate. And well, you know the rest of the story of the Watergate scandal, how it all came to light and how Nixon was impeached.

But again, who gave the papers to Anderson? When Radford was being implicated, Anderson mentioned that he always got his inputs from well-placed individuals like Admirals and Generals, not lowly stenographers. Was he trying to protect his friend? It could be so, for as soon as Radford reached Oregon, he called Andersons’s parents and himself, talking in basic code and requested some monetary support, which Anderson worked out in a very roundabout way, by buying some land owned by the Radford’s in a remote California location, through a friend, for $9,000. Anderson had the last laugh, for neither did Nixon, nor all his men, find out about this. It also appears that Radford was in touch with the Andersons and he had called Anderson to congratulate the latter for the Pulitzer Prize.

But did Radford give Anderson the papers? Or was their relationship nothing more than a friendly family relationship? Anderson did admit feeling guilty about Radford getting caught due to his publishing those papers, but he never admitted that he got them from the Yeoman. Though many still feel Radford was the man who gave the envelopes to Anderson, nothing has ever been proven and Anderson rightly protected his source, to the very end. The Senate hearings absolved the Pentagon, concluding that Radford might have perjured and agreed that Anderson did wrong in publishing over 70 classified documents.

Nixon got impeached for Watergate and resigned in 1974, Kissinger’s reputation got soiled, maintaining that Anderson had no idea about the significance behind the WH actions, Moorer continued in his post till he retired in 1974, Welander retired in 1975, Hunt and Liddy the plumbers became famous with their memoirs, and as for Radford, he continued to work for the Navy.

George Bush, UN ambassador, who became the president later made an interesting aside to Kissinger – He said, ‘I want a transfer when this (Indo Pak War 1971) is over, I want a nice quiet place like Rwanda’!

Anderson, ah! That fearless newshound continued to do what he always did, taking on the high and mighty, and passed away in 2005. All through his career, he angered many a powerful man, and in most cases, came out the winner. His strategy was simple, as the NY Times stated in its 1972 headline - The Anderson strategy: We hit you‐pow! Then you issue a denial, and‐bam! ‐we really let you have it…


The Anderson papers – Jack Anderson, George Clifford
The Anderson Papers – Vinod Gupta
Nixon, Indira and India – Kalyani Shankar
Poisoning the Press – Mark Feldstein
The Blood Telegram - Gary J Bass
The Silent Coup – Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin
White House Years – Henry Kissinger
The Price of Power - Kissinger in the Nixon White House - Seymour M. Hersh

Research papers by Christopher Van Hollen, Geoffrey Warner, Ankit Agarwal, Shankar Jha

Crane, The Phillips affair and India 

Pics – Wikimedia, Jack holding the Indo-Pak papers (AP Photo/HWG, Thanks to Megan Day). Nixon with Indira –



Irayimman Thampi (1782-1856)

Life and times of a poet extraordinaire…

You can only understand the magic of Thampi’s works if you spend a while and listen to lovely renditions of his poetry in the mellifluous voices of KS Chitra and Sreevalsan Menon. As you let the lullaby Omanathinkal Kidavo caress your mind and take you to your childhood with the memories of your mother or an aunt humming that very song to put you to sleep, the notes of Karuna Cheyvan enthu will make you recall one or more of those trips with your family for a wedding or otherwise to Guruvayur. And as you linger longingly on the memories of a liaison in your youth, you might recall the sensuous poem Prananathan enikku Nalkiya, or perhaps, as you slip into a forlorn mood, you might recall Thampi’s Arodu cholvene Azhalullathellam, a tune wallowing in sadness, with a tear or two at the corner of your eye.

Some years ago, we talked about this great poet’s signature poem, the lullaby written to herald the birth of Swati Thirunal. Though we had a hurried glimpse of the poet and his times there, he surely merits a more detailed writeup. Interestingly, this uncle of the Swati Thirunal was already thirty-one years of age when the king was born, but outlived him for a decade.

Before we get to know more about him, we should understand the structure of the royal households in Travancore, which were quite different from those in Malabar. The royal consort or consorts were titled as Ammachis and bestowed with palatial homes called Ammaveedu’s as well as vast tracts of lands to live a comfortable life, though living a fully shielded life, away from the royal palace. Thampi was born to Aandiyirakathu Puthumana Ammaveedu Parvathi Thankachi and Cherthala Naduvil Kovil Kelaru Kerala Varman Thampuran (Ummini Thampi was a member of this household) in 1782. Parvathi was the daughter of Makayiram Thirunal Ravi Varma (younger brother of Dharma Raja).  Thampi was named after his grandfather, and though formally named Ravi Varman Thampi, was always known by the shortened version Irayimman Thampi.

It was in Kizhake madom that he grew up, and his early tutorship after his father, was under Moothad Shankaran Elayathu covering areas such as grammar, linguistics and Sanskrit literature. One blessed with poetic skills, a poem written when Thampi was 14, pleased Karthika Thirunal who playfully titled him Sastri Thampi and he was soon bestowed with a position in the royal palace, which stretched through a long career until his death while serving four kings and two queens who followed. Through the period he served under Dharmaraja, Balarama Varma, Swathi Thirunal and Uthram Thirunal as well as two queens, Gouri Parvathy Bai and Gouri Lakshmi Bai, he excelled in creating a vast volume of Carnatic, semi-Carnatic, folk and manipravalam poetry which now enriches the treasure trove of Malayalam literature.

While he was not always credited as the primary creative genius in the palace, he was always considered as the main part of that golden era in Travancore when music and dance rose to a high position and spread to the masses. We will get to a precis about his compositions a little later, most of which will just look like a dreary long list to readers who are plain music listeners, so I think it will be more appropriate to talk about how his life intertwined with the various royal patrons, especially Swati Thirunal and how their association resulted in Travancore becoming a destination for many great musicians from afar, to the court of Travancore.

RV Poduval explains that devotional music was initially formalized thus - Saivite hymns with the Tevaram and Tiruvachakam styles, and the Vaishnavite hymns of Nalayiraparbandham and Tiruvaymoli in their specific styles during the 6th-9th centuries. From this evolved th Sopana sangeetham which we covered earlier. The combinations of Pan (Janaka ragas) and Thiran created tunes which were popular then. In the 14th and 15th centuries, the influence of Jayadeva’s Gita Govinda was huge and many padams were introduced. This is the time when we see the development of music around Krishnattam (another topic which we had covered earlier). After this Ramanattam developed in Kottarakkara and this morphed into the Kathakali we know today. Attakatha is the poetic composition used for these classical dances, especially Kathakali.

Tunchath Ezhutatchan, from the 16th-17th century is credited with ushering the modern usages of Malayalam by fusing Manipravalam and Pattu variations into a single language pattern of the modern Malayalam. It was supposedly following Ezhuthachhan that the outburst of the dance drama Kathakali resulted in many poetic Attakatha creations, as we will soon see.

Let us step back a bit and see how the music scene in Travancore developed until the time of Swati Thirunal. Virakerala Varama of Kottarakara modeled his musical compositions around the Ashtapati and following him was Dharmaraja Karthika Thirunal who authored many Kathakali compositions and who we saw was on the throne as Thampi was born. During this period the Prince Aswati Thirunal was also considered a notable composer, so also the great Unnayi Variyar. Iriyamman Thampi grew up with these legendary composers and surely picked up a lot. One biographer mentions that he was quite close to Vadivelu Nattuvanar of the Tanjore quartet and Palghat Parameswara Iyer during the Swati Thirunal epoch.

Kunchan Nambiar, a great tullal (Ottanthullal) poet and satirist well known to Malayalees was one of the early geniuses who drifted in search of patronage from Palghat to Travancore in the early decades of the 18th century, to serve under Marthanda Varma and later the Dharma Raja at Travancore. After his retirement and demise in the 1770’s, there was a lull in the poetry department. European influence was being felt, many versions of Keralolpathi were being released in Malabar, so also works by Christian missionaries. English was being taught and the concept of formal education was starting to reach the masses - changing from the early gurukulam method which was available only to the upper classes.  All of this was happening in Travancore as well, just as the young prince Swati Thirunal came to the throne. But as well all know, Thampi shot to fame during the birth of the prince, with his most popular composition, the lullaby Omana Thinkal Kidavo, which we explored a few years ago.

Poduval sums up the brilliance of Thampi in simple words - Swathi Thirunaļ Rama Varma Maharaja, the great musician and composer, was the father of modern music in the state and whose reign may aptly be called the Augustan age in Travancore. Not only were local musicians and composers encouraged and patronized by His Highness; but talented singers from outside the state, particularly from Tanjore and Palghat, were invited to his court and liberally helped.

One of the greatest of Travancore musicians who adorned his court was Irayimman Thampi whose compositions evince a rich musical tradition and possess melody of priceless merit. There is a variety, richness and depth in the sweet concord of his sounds. All the musical material that could be assimilated by a genius into a mature art, he vitalized in his own way, and he had no imitators in rhythmic and melodic organization. What gives a remarkable impressiveness to his high standard is his delicate ornaments and choice of rhythmic words indicative of a slow pace in singing and a noble stream of melody. Though he did not possess much musical scholarship and erudition, he was a past-master in the perfect fusion of untranslatable emotion with every beauty of musical design and tone. His in short is a classic example of what flawless musical form can be.

Even though a senior in age, the uncle Thampi and the nephew Swati Thirunal formed a great bond throughout their life and collaborated often, not only with music composition, but also with Thampi providing poetry and music for the Mohiniyatam events and dances by the many court dancers. This was the time when the Tanjavur Quartet arrived at Travancore, so also other Carnatic exponents such as Sharadkala Govinda Marar, Maliyakkal Krishna Marar, Palghat Parameswara Iyer, Meruswami and so on – a collection of geniuses who together with an equally gifted and brilliant patron Swati Thirunal provided Thampi with the impetus to excel, and excel he did, going on to create a large number of excellent works, purportedly numbering to around 500. He was one of the Asthana vidwans (scholar poets) had been awarded a virashringala, one of the highest palace honors of that time.

That they had a special relationship unlike the others is clear. Thampi was quite close to Swati Thirunal and could afford to take more liberties than the other virtuosos in the royal court and we can see an example in the incident where Thampi once used a short poem with dual meaning verse to explain his predicament to his patron Swati Thirunal, in a subtle way, showing his genius at wordplay.

mahIpatE bhAgavatOpamANam, mahA purANam bhavanam madIyam ….

nOkkunnavaRkkokke viraktiyuNTAm, arttha”n”aLillennoru bhEdamuNTu …

Meaning:  Oh King! My house is very very old (purANam) just like the Epic bhAgavata purANam; those who glance through it will have immediate detachment (virakti), just like the feeling you get when you read the Epic; but there is one small difference - my house has no artham (monetary value) whereas the epic is deep in artham (meaning). The King immensely pleased with this poem, approved the renovation of Tampi’s house!

We are also given to understand that Swati Turunal would show his compositions first to Thampi and seek his opinion about them, and we have also heard rumors of his personal friendship and involvement in the affairs of the heart concerning Swati Thirunal, such as the case of the song Prananathan Enikku Nalki composed by Thampi for Swati Thirunal.

Let’s now take a look at the involvement of Thampi in the area of Attakatha’s. As some of you may be aware, the first of the Attakathas, were the eight plays dealing with the Ramayana, known as Ramanattam, composed by the prince of Kottorakkara around the mid-sixteenth century. Though their texts are still available, only three of them, Sita Swayamvaram, Bali Vadham and Thorana Yudham are enacted these days. The next Attakatha composer was the Raja of Kottayam (Malabar) who wrote four plays, Baka Vadham, Kirmira Vadham, Kalyana Saugandhikam and Kalakeya Vadham in the late seventeenth century. Those were days when Kathakali had not attained a set pattern even in the matter of dress and make-up of the actors. The brilliant Nala Caritam composed by Unnayi Variyar was followed by the three plays of Irayimman Thampi, namely Kichaka Vadham Uttara Swayamvaram, and Dakshayagam, all deservedly popular for their fine music and literary merit.

Most of Thampi’s compositions are in Sanskrit, but he also used Manipravalam judiciously which combined the best of Malayalam and Sanskrit. Sometimes he used rare ragas such as Manji, Jhingala and Kakubha. Because he had the same mudra i.e., Padmanabha used also by Swati Thirunal, many of his compositions are sometimes mistaken to be Swati Thirunal’s, such as Seve Syanandur esha and Bhogindrashayinam. Veena maestro Balachander was one who felt that Thampi was the composer of many of the songs attributed to Swati Thirunal, since Padmanabha was actually Thampi’s mudra. I will get to that story another day, as to how it came about and how it resulted in a complex and needless polemic which destroyed Balachander’s career and also sullied Swati Thirunal’s legacy for a while.

Thampi’s everlasting contribution was of course Omana Thinkal Kidavo, a lullaby created when Swati Thirunal was born, just in time to ward off a British takeover of Travancore. Uncle Irayimman Thampi, the learned poet of the family was entrusted the task of creating a royal lullaby which he did in inimitable fashion, in the tradition at that time, in Manipravalam (mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam) the Malayalam poetic fashion, rather than pure Sanskrit. Paravathi Bayi could hum this song for her son, unfortunately, only for two years for she passed away in 1815. But the song left its mark on the young boy who rose to become a musical prodigy.

The people of Kerala agree that it is the most beautiful and melodious composition of the times to date and is more a people’s lullaby rather than just the royal lullaby. As you hear it today, it continues to strike the same tender chord in one’s mind and the feelings are testimony to the clarity, purity and brilliance of the composition. Avid listeners would have noted that the lullaby does not ever mention anything about sleep! Unlike other poems which simply provide superlatives of the human, this composition compares the young regent to various lovely aspects of nature and goodness.

As one review extoled the piece - Generations of children have been lulled asleep by its soothing notes. Sung by generations over centuries the strains of this lullaby have been dyed into the warp and woof of the Malayalee’s cultural repertoire. Evoking intense nostalgia for a bygone phase of one’s life filled with tender affections and motherly care, the lullaby also thrills one with a sense of dejavu.

Prananathan enikku nalki - is a padam from the pen of Thampi, a work of love with ample doses of sensuous text. As the story goes, Swati Thirunal and his consort had a lover’s tiff, following which they did not talk to each other for some time. Sugandhavalli, the consort finally decided to ask Irayimman Thampi for ideas to break the ice, and of course the learned man who knew his nephew very well, provided her the poem to explain her ecstasy and joy from the union between the two on an earlier occasion. As the story continues, she danced to it and well, that broke not only the ice, but brought them together again.

While many would place Omana Thinkal on the highest pedestal, in my opinion Thampi’s most noteworthy gift to us is the simple composition, the keerthanam - Karuna Cheyvan enthu thamasam Krishna. Originally composed in Sriraga, it is nowadays sung in Yadukula Khamboji. Legend has it that it was a favorite of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar and the story goes that he once suffered major problems with his voice which no doctor could remedy. In despair, he prayed to Guruvayurappan, the deity invoked in this song, after which he not only recovered his voice, but recovered it with a new clarity and brilliance.

VRP Nayar tells us that Thampi wrote this devotional song in praise of the Lord of Guruvayur at a time when there were no quick means of transport to Guruvayur from Travancore (one had to go by boat to a port near Vanchi or Chettuwa and then by cart), that sacred shrine was physically and also mentally far from the poet’s place of residence, that too at a time when the King Swathi Thirunal had not traveled beyond Alappuzha!

Nayar adds - The term Raagamaalika is quite common in the domain of classical Carnatic music: it is all about rendering in different raagas the same text or its different sections. Thampi has gone farthest in experimentation of ragamaalikas as well by setting different sections of the same song not only in different ragas but also to suit different taalas and has, indeed, met with commendable success as in the case of the wrestling scene (mallayuddham) in Kichaka vadham.

From the presently available Thampi collection we find some 33 kirtanas, 5 varnas, 22 padas all in the Carnatic format, the three attakathas - Kichaka Vadham, Uttara Swayamvaram and Dakshayagam. For his attakathas, Thampi used ragas mainly used only in Kerala such as Kakana Kurinji, Indisa, Maradhanasi and Samatha malahari. He also worked with Kanthara, Padi and gopika vasantham, all rare ragas. Also, among his compositions can be found many lullabies or cradle/thottil songs. Thampi has to his credit a kriti in Tamil ‘kanchamizhiyaala koncham un mele’ in ‘Devagaandhari’ raga set to Chempata taala. The famous ‘kummi’song, ‘Veeravirada kumara vibho,’ which remains an inevitable part of Thiruvathira to this day, was penned for the women folk of the palace by Thampi.

He also did a Navarathri Prabandha (on the festival of 1835), a musical work in four cantos describing the Navarathri festival and associated processions. The description of the procession of Saraswathi Devi being started from Padmanabhapuram and ending at Navarathri Mandapam at East Fort in Trivandrum form the theme of the prabandham. Each canto starts with a poem followed by songs in Panthuvarali, Yadukulakambhoji, Nadanamakriya and Punnagavarali respectively.

According to SV Iyer, Thampi was the only composer other than Swati Thirunal to compose Varnas in Travancore – The ones on Amba Gauri as well as the varna on the Attingal goddess are considered to be fine pieces. The rest are in praise of Swati Thirunal. It is said that his passages on Ekalochanam in Uttara swayamvaram puts any dance artist’s ability to severe test - by forcing him to look with one eye in one direction and the other in another, showing anger in one and sorrow in the other, but at the same time keeping both feelings subservient to love!! I can’t imagine the Kathakali artist’s situation!

Ayyappa Panikkar sums it all up very well - Thampi has an unerring ear, and for sheer verbal felicity, his attakkathas have few rivals. He was a master of words and melody. The famous dandaka (long stanza) in Keechakavadham reveals Tampi 's exquisite artistry with words; it describes in graphic and dramatic terms the response of Draupadi to the queen who had asked her to go to Keechaka's palace with his food.

Thampi was married to Kalipilla Tangachi, the daughter of his maternal uncle and among their seven children, their daughter Lakshmi Kutty Pillai Thankachi proved to be a gifted composer and perhaps her father’s only disciple. Kutty Kunju Thankachi (1820–1914) as she was popularly known, continued her father's artistic and poetic legacy. She composed a number of beautiful compositions on various deities besides some Attakathas and musical narratives like Thiruvathirapattu.

Sharat Sundar Rajeev who writes often on Travancore matters tells us that Indira Bayi Thankachi, the last Durbar Dancer to the Travancore royals was a member of this illustrious family. Her father Narasimhan Thampi had started the first Swati Thirunal music school even before the Swati academy of today was founded. ‘Chitramezhuthu’ Kizhakkaemadhom Padmanabhan Thampi was the son of Kutty Kunju Thankachi and Kunjunni Thampan.

Perhaps time to heat to youtube and listen to a few of his lovely compositions (see links below)


Music in Travancore – RV Poduval

Iriyamman Thampiyude Attakahtahkal – Kerala Sahitya Academy

Iryiamman Thampi and his royal lullaby – PP Narayanaswami

Malayalam Poetry— A Kaleidoscopic View - G. Sreedharan

Iryiamman Thampi – Dr S Venkitasubramonia Iyer (Glimpses of Indian Music)

Contributions of Travancore to Carnatic music - S. Bhagyalekshmy

Iryiamman Thampi – VRP Nayar

Tracing the life of an artist of yore – Sharat Sundar Rajeev (Hindu May 6th 2014)

This is the house where Irayimman Thampi was born – Reshmi Radhakrishnan

Maddy's ramblings - Related articles

Maddy's Ramblings - Sopana Sangeetham 

Maddy's Ramblings - From Krishnattam to Kathakali 

Maddy's Ramblings - Omana Thingal Kidavo 

Maddy's Ramblings - The King and the dancer 

Some of Thampi's mellifluous compositions

Nandini singing Chentarsayaka (starts at 3:38)

Nandini singing Enthu njan ihacheyvu

KS Chitra Omana Thinkal – the definitive version 

Sreevalsan Menon  - Omana Thinkal Kidavo 

KS Chitra - Karuna Cheyvan  


Wishing all of you a better New year, happier, healthier and less stressful…