Discordant Notes

The Swati Tirunal – S Balachander imbroglio

The serene and melodious Carnatic music scene at Madras suddenly found itself in a cacophonic conundrum, when a doyen among them - Veena S Balachander, decided to throw a heap of mud on the face of one of the greatest musical exponents, the Swati Tirunal Maharaja of Travancore, grandly announcing that the latter was no great poet, that he never existed and that the Maharaja’s work was in reality, a hoax, plagiarized from other musicians his court. Accusations flew thick and quick, and battle lines were quickly drawn. Perhaps it was getting a little too cozy and dull in the hallowed corridors of the 1980’s Madras music academy, Carnatic music aficionados were soon avidly following the scandal in the press, for here was a new controversy, which they could now discuss animatedly, sans ragas and meter. Let’s take a look.

We had in past articles studied Swati Tirunal, his birth, his court musicians and, a little bit about his life, so I will only provide a brief introduction of the Raja.  The Mahajara of Travancore, Swati Tirunal Rama Varma (1813-1846), an enlightened and well-educated young man, who led a wary life in his palace, under the watchful eyes of British residents policing his state, nevertheless found time to partake in the study and application of classical music together with the pursuit of administration and other studies such as astrology, astronomy, science and what not. As a music composer, he is credited with over 400 compositions in various languages. Drawing on the lives of the Serfoji’s at Tanjore, Swati Tirunal patronized music and dance, bringing to the fore arts such as the Mohiniyattam, Sopanam and, of course, Carnatic music. His short life is replete with so many achievements, but at the same time, it is also a testament to the friction which existed between tradition and modernity, the imposition of western morality in the region by zealous missionaries supported by British residents, and a lot of palace intrigue, in the background.

Padma Bhushan S Balachander (1927-1990), the self-proclaimed genius and Veena Virtuoso, on the other hand, was a lot of things as well, he was a filmmaker, an actor, dancer, singer and poet, who made his mark and dazzled listeners with new techniques of Veena strumming. A flamboyant character, Balachander believed that he had been blessed and ordained to take the music of the gods and the Vedas to lowly earthlings. Nobody taught him, his traditional skill came from kelvi gnjanam (by keen listening), and he hated fusion music sans purity as well as jugalbandis (instrumental duets), remaining friends only with his treasured Veena. Ever a supporter of tradition, he attacked anything new in the music field, but above all, he was an eccentric who ended up creating a style of his own which some called the Balachander school or the Balachander Bani. As a popular veena player, he tried to bring the Vainika to the same level as the vocalist and got the instrument to mimic the vocals, not just provide supporting tones, getting experts opining that he singlehandedly brought the revered Veena to the fore as a solo instrument not inferior to the vocalist. But naturally, he had following him, after several awards to boot, a large number of ardent admirers, and strong critics. Above all he also held another self-professed role, that of the watchdog of ethics in the musical world, making his colleagues and comrades wary and occasionally fuming at his rabble-rousing and attention-seeking gimmicks.

Balachander was also becoming popular in the press for other reasons, especially his attacks of the music academy and artists associated with it. While Balachander did love to be in the limelight, it was not just that or any kind of regional politics which made him throw caution to the wind and attack the very traditions which he upheld. In his tirades and attacks, not letting the sleeping dogs lie, he found an ally, the press, and he was careful to collect a lot of supporting material and after establishing that he had a case. In some cases, he sailed through, but in other cases, he found adversaries equally proficient and counterattacking. His attack of Balasaraswati who had been felicitated by the music academy, as a Sangeetha Kalanidhi, fell flat when the feisty danseuse counter-attacked with a vengeance. The tirade against Balamurali Krishna and his new raga, conversely left Balamurali and the MMA – Madras Music academy somewhat shamefaced, casting doubts on Balamurali Krishna’s arguments. When both Balachander and Balamurali eventually boycotted the music academy, the mud-slanging fights in the press started taking legal proportions.

But what erupted into a huge scandal was the furor created by Balachander’s salvo at the long dead, and revered Swati Tirunal. What did he hope to achieve other than some press? We will understand all this as we continue on with this interesting story. To get there, we have to see how Swati Tirunal got under the skin of Balachander.

Without getting into too much background, we should start with Sethu Parvathi Bayi, otherwise known as the Junior Rani of Travancore and the mother of the young king Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma.  Though her reign and her relationship with the Dewan Sir CP Ramaswamy Iyer as well as the many years of troubled governance at Travancore have been recounted in other articles, we now focus on one of her great qualities. She was very fond of music, and wanted to regularize its teaching in Travancore. After the king was installed on the throne in 1930 and Sir CP became the Dewan in 1936-37, it was Sethu Parvathi’s aim to bring in the compositions of Swati Tirunal into the teaching syllabus and popularize his music. With Sir CP’s support, she got Muthaih Bhagavathar appointed as the principal of the Swati Tirunal Music academy.

A team went through many of the old records, unearthed many compositions of her ancestor, Swati Tirunal, published them in swara lipi, and polished the music in them. The original sopanam style was done away with on some of them and the compositions were reset into a traditional Carnatic style, from what I could understand. The person who later assisted Muthiah was none other than Semmangudi Sreenivasa Iyer, relocating to Travancore in 1940. The twosome would resurrect Swati compositions, try them out with Parvathi Bayi, and after her approval would formalize and popularize them through the school and through concerts. Soon enough, most of them became popular and well-known Swati Tirunal compositions.

The Swati Tirunal Music academy paralleled the Madras music academy in quality and fame, the music festival became popular and practicing musicians took note. In 1940, the theme at Madras was Swati Tirunal’s compositions and in 1943, the Madras music academy celebrated the birth anniversary of the late King and composer. The MMA also found in the Travancore royal house and Sethu Parvathi Bayi, a reliable patron.

Days went by, Sir CP left Travancore, Semmangudi was advancing in age, and in 1963, he was replaced by GN Balasubramaniam. Around that time, a book extolling the virtues of the King composer, was published by S Venkita Subramanya Iyer titled ‘Swati Tirunal and His Music’ introducing the composer to the larger public. Though he had mainly praise for the king in the book, he did voice some doubts concerning some works of Parameswara Bhagavathar and Irayimman Thampi which he thought were wrongly attributed to Swati Tirunal. He also alluded that the Raja may have been assisted on some of the Telugu works by the Tanjavur quartet, but summarized in the end that the great Raja was more than a musician and perhaps more talented than the revered Tanjavur trilogy of Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, and Sastry.

In 1981, Semmangudi, then the vice president of the MMA, published a book on Swati Tirunal extolling his virtues and especially his skill as a composer, under the auspices of the NBT, the national book trust.

In 1982, KP Sivanandam (with his brother Kitappa), a descendant of the Tanjore quartet family and a Veena player of repute, gave a press interview and published an article where he claimed that many of Swati compositions belonged to Vadivelu, had been translated and formally attributed to the King after adding his mudra Padmanabha. Sivanandam then claimed that the works published by Semmangudi had all been picked up from palm leaves possessed by his family. Following this messy press tirade, Sivanandam was ostracized by the MMA and he was no longer invited for any event.

These were the events that triggered fury in the mind of Balachander. He had after hearing about the scandal, met Sivanandam and studied the case. Deciding that Sivanandam was right, he sent out an open letter as he usually did, to the press, stating that people like Semmangud would soon project that all English and French compositions in the world were also done by Swati Tirunal and that this was an evil propaganda scheme of the Travancore Royal house. But he did not directly state that the king Swati Tirunal plagiarized Vadivelu’s work, he was only unhappy that Swati Tirunal was placed on the same pedestal as the trinity. He also wanted Swati’s portrait (actually painted by his brother Rajam) placed side by side with the trinity, removed from the MMA hall and relocated elsewhere.

The MMA and the Travancore royals ignored Balachander, infuriating him. At Travancore, critics remarked that the accusers were peeved, only because they had not been invited to perform in Travancore. Stronger counter-arguments came from RB Nayar and S Natarajan who took apart Sivanandam and Balachander, implying that Vadivelu and his brothers were refugees in the first place, and would have taken back copies of their palace work (the cadjun granthas) in retirement. They added that Sivanandam had tried to sell some of those palm leaves to the palace for a massive sum, but since the deal did not work out, were disappointed and took umbrage.

Though Balachander received some personal letters of support, his request for a formal investigation by an MMA expert committee, reached nowhere. His arguments were that a book by an expert like Semmangudi cemented Swati’s place falsely recreating history, and that the Travancore palace had provided no corroboration for the originality of Swati’s work, whereas Sivanandam had indeed produced some palm leaves. He also argued that it was simply impossible for Swati to create 400 compositions in slightly over a decade, with calculations to argue it. Demanding that the Semmangudi book be withdrawn from circulation, he listed his 20 questions on the issue which required urgent answers. When he was again ignored by the authorities, he published a booklet in 1985, with all the incriminating information he had collected, sending it to all and sundry, including the president and prime minister of India.

Balachander was by now a man possessed, and stated- The musical image of Swati Tirunal is a mere product of sheer propaganda, a hoax, a myth, a fraud, a planned deception, a fabricated lie perpetrated in this our generation, before our very eyes and ears! The time has arrived to put a stop to this madness, and halt the frenzy forever and to universally expose the sordid and shameful, gigantic scheme of royal and regal proportion.

Semmangudi told the press that Balachander was going bonkers. Balasaraswati who was supporting Sivanandam (many of the prominent Bharat Natyam dancers of that time had studied in the Quartet’s schools) faded away quietly, and Sivanandam too disappeared for a while, only to surface and pick up a Sangeetha Kalanidhi award from the very MMA which had ostracized him. He no longer sported the previous accusatory attitude. Balachander of course plodded on, in his staunch belief and conviction that his rabbit had 4 horns. He teamed up with a proficient Malayali lawyer named Vijayaraghavan and started to analyze old records to establish errors in the name, date of birth of the Maharaja, his years of rule, and so on. But what he did not quite realize was that he was getting lost in the myriad conventions and culture of Travancore concerning naming, calendars, inheritance, relationships and what not.

His major blunder was his next act of declaring that a king named Swati Tirunal never existed. A big press conference was called, in which Balachander spoke for hours and hours, accusing and abusing all and sundry. Pretty soon he was the only one left listening to his voice. The other detractors were gone, so also the cause, and the case itself, got virtually closed by the investigator’s own actions. The Vainka and the lawyer did not give up, they filed a writ petition in 1989 in the Madras high court. Attempts to rally other singers to their side did not work (he even tried hard to get MS Subbalakshmi stop singing Swati songs, but she would not accede). He was, as they said, the last man standing.

All in all, in this egoistic battle, Balachander wasted years and years of his time and a substantial amount of his savings, earning nothing but ridicule in the end. Finally, the stress caught up with him and the brilliant musician passed away in 1990, at Bhilai. After his death, the writ petition was withdrawn by his family, since as an expert S Satyanarayan had provided reasonable clarification on behalf of the NBT which accepted that some of the hyperbole by Semmangudi had been erroneous. The scandal died a natural death though some aspersions on the MMA getting swayed by Travancore patrons, remained. The public felt that money and power could bend rules and averred that the royalty of Travancore had both.

Many answers to Balachander’s questions were finally published 16 years after he passed away, when Dr RP Raja took it upon himself to delve into the issue, perusing a huge number of sources. Let’s see what he had to say.

Understanding the musical scene in Kerala is not so easy, especially since the style of Sopanam, Attakatha and Harikatha are quite different from other South Indian music forms. I had covered this in a separate article, and you can trace therein, the music developed in the region. Needless to state, that the style was used in Travancore by both Swati and his uncle Irayimman thampi. Carnatic music had spread from Vijayanagara to all the neighboring kingdoms, not just Tanjore. Musicians moved to all the regional patrons, and while the Serforji’s were the largest patrons, musicians were also working in Travancore and Ettayapuram, just to name two prominent locales. The biggest problem of the Swati Tirunal music legacy is the fact that as a king, he never had disciples and so his work did not pass down orally, as such. That the court had a large musical and dance ensemble is well known and their collective output spearheaded by the genius Swati Tirunal was, over a couple of decades is perhaps what we should be looking at.

His mastery over languages is attested by a contemporary writer, T Shungooni Menon, who testifies that he was fluent in Sanskrit, English, Tamil, Malayalam, so also, Mahratta, Persian, Hindustani and Telugu. I can only comment that one is usually fluent enough in other languages if only to translate and transcribe, not think in. Even though one’s mother tongue is Malayalam, we publish in English because it has a global readership. Similarly, in the case of musical pieces, perhaps Tamil, Kannada and Telugu were important, so also Sanskrit and Swati Tirunal published pieces in those languages. The granthas which recorded the efforts were copied and passed on to many members of the team, and surely Vadivelu as one of his closest confidantes would have possessed a working draft. A group working with multiple languages in the palace, may have relied on Sanskrit as a common medium, though copies in other languages would have also been used.

Dr Raja establishes that the first published collection of 86 compositions came out as the 1853 treatise Utsava Varna Prabandham. The next 11 came out in Shungoony Menon’s ‘History of Travancore’ published in 1878. The 1917 work Balamritham by Ranganatha Iyer, provides notations for 125 works of the King (interestingly his father excelled as a leading musician in the Kings court). Discounting 15 of the songs, which had already been mentioned in previous works, the Balamritham lists 110 more of his works.

The writer who saw the original script, handwriting in the cadjun leaves was one Chidambara Vadhyar, who set out to find important documents from the heap of granthas lying about in the palace library and list them in his 1916 work. He testifies to seeing himself, about 23 leaves with compositions signed off as Ka Ra – the king’s signature in Telegu and receiving in all, 311 works eventually, copies from various sources. Anyway, as a result of all this, the authorship of some 472 works, can be attributed to Swati Tirunal. From a language point of view, the vast majority were in Sanskrit, followed by over 50 in Manipravalam, and just a few in Telugu, Kannada, and Hindustani, with some musical pieces (Tillanas) and narratives to complete. All of the pieces mention the Raaga used.  However what Dr Raja does not quite detail is if or all of the cadjun leaf collections still exist in the palace, or clarify if those collections were analyzed and transcribed and were used in the polishing efforts by Semmangudi and Muthiah. HM Vaidyalingam who assisted his father Muthiah, stated that they painstakingly collected the many songs from elderly people (Mullamoodu Bhagavathar descendants) who remembered them.

While one can thus trace the authorship of the many sahityas as above, how about the Dhatu or the musical part to establish that he was a Vaggeyakara? This is identified with the large amount of Swaraksharas (letters coinciding with notes, thus embedding music in the text) in Swati’s compositions, which only a musically proficient person can do. It also proves that others did not set his sahitya or text to music, separately. Palace accounts testify Swati Tirunal purchasing a violin and a Maddalam and having a Swarabath constructed, so it is presumed he could play those instruments.

The use of the signature Padmanabha by multiple persons was another argument that Balachander did not quite follow. The Trippadi danam concept itself may have been unfamiliar to him, for the Travancore royals had surrendered the entire kingdom and possessions to Lord Padmanabha. So, the felicitation of the lord in all the songs and its use as a mudra may have been followed by the entire group working on the pieces and especially, both Iriymman Thampi and Swati Tirunal.

It is sometimes difficult to imagine how Swati found time to balance his musical talents and the administrative demands, as a king. At the same time, it can be understood that there was a larger unit at work, just like the music industry today. Surely the many composers and musicians met and collaborated, they discussed ideas and brought out finished work, attributed usually as was the practice, to their patron (any patrons prerogative), the monarch. That is the only way such a large number of compositions of brilliance could be completed in a short period. I don’t believe there was any competition or a need to bring in special protection for their intellectual property. The music was created and used as palace recreational music and temple music, never spread out for general public consumption.

In the Tanjavur scene, it was a competitive situation and with three or more schools competing for royal patronage and fame, it was more important using mudras as well as the methodology of publishing music, albeit orally. Nevertheless, even in those Tanjavur schools, with a Guru and his pupils, there are always elements of work completed by the Shishya on behalf of his guru. Also, there was a wider listening audience in Tanjore, compared to Travancore, with public performances more common.

To answer Balachander, one can say - Yes Swati Tirunal existed, he was the H.H. Maharaja Raja Ramaraja Sri Padmanabha Dasa Vanchi Pala Rama Varma III born on 16th April and he left behind a musical legacy which died for a while as he had no shishyas, but which has fortunately been brought to life by many musically proficient people. His family drew neither copyright nor royalty for his work and we still enjoy the fruits of his labor. So, suggesting that Swati Tirunal was assisted (which he was) but in a derogative fashion, does not reduce his abilities or lower his proficiency.

The Vadivelu descendants do possess a trove of cadjun granthas inherited from the quartet, and it is clear that the Travancore Royals were possibly interested in perusing them, but not to paying large sums in acquiring them. If the family wanted to establish alternate authorship, they would have done it by now, for the leaves are still around in the residence. Also, Sivanandam’s claim that those works were Vadivelu’s compositions translated with the new mudra Padmanabha added in, does not hold water simply because I feel it is not feasible to insert swarakhsharas into such versions at exactly the right places when translating, it can only be composed so in the original language of composition.

From a historical perspective, mentions indicate (e.g., Chinnaswamy Mudaliar - Ragamalika) that Swati Tirunal was known as Kulashkhara Maharaja and his formal name in English records was Sree Padmanabha Dassa Vunchee Baula Rama Vurma Koola Shakhur Kireeta Putee Swatee Rama Rajah Bahadoor Munnei Sooltan Shemshair Jung. Dr Achutashankar S Nair has provided more corroborative evidence of published works soon after the Raja’s demise such as the Swathi Thirunal Ponnu Thampuran Kalpichakkiya Krithikal (1853), Sangeetha Sarvartha Saara Sangraham by Vina Ramanuja (1859), Navarathri Keerthanam by Bhagavathy Pillai (1883), and many more (ref: article - Rare Sources of Information on Swathi Thirunal)

It is quite possible that Sethu Parvathi Bayi used her power, connections and influence to back the promotion of the Swati Tirunal legacy, and surely it was a just and proper cause, for musical experts agree that the work so promoted was of fine quality, just as students agree that they are challenging, and the audience who found and still find them, melodious and sonorous. That is the big picture, the rest, these silly attacks are ‘noise’ which one must learn to filter out. Charisma, personability and power promote popularity, whether you like it or not. But in the end, though we have a song with a name and a signature, what remains and are repeatedly performed, are mellifluous musical pieces that withstand the test of time.


Voice of the Veena - S Balachander - Vikram Sampath
New light on Swati Tirunal – Dr R P Raja
Singing the Classical, Voicing the Modern: The Postcolonial Politics of Music in South India - Amanda J. Weidman
Demystifying Swati Turinal – Dr Achuth Shankar S Nair (Journal of MMA – Vol 80, 2009)
Rare sources of information on Swati Tirunal – Dr Achuth Shankar S Nair


KP said...

Wonderful Maddy!
Enjoyed reading it.

KP said...

Wonderful Maddy!
Enjoyed reading it!

Maddy said...

Thanks KP
Glad you like it!

Blandings Castle said...

A highly readable and well-researched article. Took me back to the days when this fruitless controversy which only brought discredit to S. Balachander eventually. Thank you.

Maddy said...

Thanks Blandings Castle..
Glad you enjoyed it. Yes, Balachander should have focused on his work, instead!