“If I had to choose between music and laughter, I would choose laughter,” these are the words of Carnatic vocalist and Vainika Prince Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma or simply Rama Varma of the Royal Family of Travancore. Through these few words one gets a glimpse into the mind and life of one of India’s most celebrated musicians of our times.
The need of the hour is simply music and laughter for a threat looms large over mankind; divisive forces have robbed man of his compassion and hatred has cast a pall of gloom over this world. As we grapple against this catastrophe that will soon wipe out any humanity that remains within us, the need of the hour is indeed more music and more laughter. Rama Varma, the protagonist of this story is a man who has made this the purpose of his life by spreading love and peace through his concerts and classes worldwide, literally “breaking barriers and building bonds” as the title of a book of tributes brought out by his fans on his 50th birthday aptly reads.
He believes his journey in music commenced right from the time he was born, when he would quietly listen to whatever music was played by his father, sister or great grandmother. It could have been 'Semmangudi Mama' singing live at his Palace or an LP record of Bert Kaempfert called "The Swinging Safari" or hits of Mukesh or perhaps the latest hits of the 70s and 80s. His trajectory in music as a performer spans over two decades and is laced with challenges, failure, success, hope, perseverance and talent – the regular condiments that go into the making of a highly successful musician, however, he candidly states that being a member of a royal family simply meant more hurdles to jump, more knots to untie and certainly, more rules to break. There was also a time when he was written off as a musician as people believed that the concerts he was invited to were only because he belonged to the Royal Family of Travancore - one of the greatest patrons of art in the Country.
Much has been written about how a frustrated and depressed Rama Varma took off to Europe one day and finally emerged, free from royal fetters to become the ace musician the world has come to adore and love in different ways. Today the person one encounters is not the archetypal royal but a man who in many respects, is both unconventional and traditional, a nomadic musician who travels from town to town, crossing countries and continents, traversing various cultural landscapes, learning, performing and teaching carnatic music to thousands of students, both young and old.
If the man is different, so are his concerts where he interacts with the audience by explaining the meanings of the lyrics of compositions, sharing anecdotes and opinions, cracking jokes, often smiling appreciatively at his accompanists and the result is that there is never a grave or dull moment; an experience they seek again and again!
Akin to an abstractionist who gives form and body to what can neither be seen nor touched, Rama Varma manifests great masters and their musical creations, in all their dimensions and grandeur, giving them a new lease of life -be it the innocence in the lines "Chandamamanu jochi” by Sri Kaiwara Amara Nareyana where the poet asks, “shall we go see the full moon and come?" or the oscillatory effect of Sri Thyagaraja’s “Vara Leela Gaana Lola", or the pangs of separation in Maharaja Swathi Thirunal’s “Kanthanodu” Padam, the supplication in the lines “Tap Sankat Harane Aayo – Soh Hamaaro Tum Haro” from the song Aaj Aaye Shaam Mohan, again by the Maharajah himself, or the passion in Jacques Brel’s “Le Plat Pays” that he renders astutely like a French man.
Sit at his concert and one cannot but help wonder how he beautifully demolishes the gravity of a serious business as Carnatic music and how he brings various emotions into palpable range of the audience invoking sighs of appreciation from them; the reason is very simple – his mastery over different languages and specifically the lyrics of every composition helps him bring the composition within the proximity of the listeners' mind and heart. The lover of literature says, “it is a crime to mangle lyrics and to remain insensitive to them”.
Rama Varma has a puissant lineage by way of his illustrious ancestors Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, the musician King and Raja Ravi Varma the artist prince; musically speaking as well, with four legends as past gurus, namely Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer, Veena Venkataraman, K.S. Narayanaswamy and Balamuralikrishna, he has a great Guru Parampara that traces itself back to Sri Thyagaraja himself. While he considers this to be a privilege, he also feels it is a huge responsibility to live up to the parampara that he represents. As a musician open to all sorts of positive influences from other strains of music, he says that he has tried to imbibe the best of whatever he finds beautiful, from whatever style that attracts him and this includes instrumental influences like M.S. Gopalakrishnan’s Violin, Nikhil Bannerjee’s Sitar and a whole lot of vocal influences of M.D. Ramanathan, Madurai Mani Iyer, T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Kishore Kumar, K.L. Saigal, Ajoy Chakrabarty and others. He believes that over the years, all these influences have blended together nicely resulting in a style of his own that listeners have begun to notice and enjoy.
In 2006 octogenerian Smt. Parassala Ponnammal became the first woman to perform at the Navarathri Mandapam Festival that happens annually during the Navaratri Festival. This movement was spearheaded by Rama Varma who could never come to terms with the barring of women at a festival that celebrates a female diety. Coaxing Smt. Ponnammal from a wholly retired life, he launched her into the galaxy of world musicians and she soon went on to become a hugely sought after musician both in India and abroad and finally in 2017 the Padma award was conferred upon her!
Another phenomenal discovery he made is the young and vibrant Amrutha Venkatesh who was the second woman to perform at the Navarathri Mandapam Festival and is today a familiar face at the Swathi Sangeethotsavam.
A story on Rama Varma would be largely incomplete without talking about the Swathi Sangeethotsavam - a musical tribute to Maharaja Swathi Thirunal that takes place soon after New Year at the Kuthiramalika Palace in Trivandrum every January. This is yet another world class Indian music festival organized by Rama Varma that draws music lovers from different corners of the world. At the time this story is being written, things have still not changed in the Carnatic music world and musicians still 'apply' for 'chance' to sing at various festivals and sabhas and here too Rama Varma demonstrates his uniqueness as an organizer by not accepting applications instead going in search of talent, known and obscure alike, inviting them to perform at his Festival that takes place at the historically consecrated venue. He also ensures that at least 60 new songs of the Maharaja are sung each year contributing to the freshness of the Festival.
Sometime in the first half of the 2000s, when YouTube revolutionised the world of music throwing open many possibilities, a channel called "musiquebox" took a smaller world of Indian Carnatic music by a storm offering on view videos of Rama Varma's concerts thus bringing him closer to lovers of his special brand of music and today with more than 1.2 crore followers, this channel is a one stop place for not just students of music but also for those who wish to treat themselves to rather educative and enlightening concerts packed with music and laughter. He says, "I owe my life to musiquebox"!
In a world of complex individuals masquerading as simpletons, he stands out for his genuine simplicity, humility and the unconventional traits in his personality. He is a man with little complaints about this world, yet somewhere in between his many layers, trapped between the various roles of a teacher, musician and organizer, there is a revolutionary thinker who likes to add elements of surprise in everything he does, a little silliness occasionally. One day, you find him blowing soap bubbles with his tiny students, another day you find him learning to play UNO with his older students and then yet another day, you find him showering love upon the pet dog of a host perhaps.
One never seems to get enough of this musician who is always on the move for travelling is a necessity for him just as are comedy and literature. His music bears imprints of his travels, the people he has interacted with, the experiences he has had, the different sorts of food he has savored and so on. He adds, "Just travel by itself need not widen one's horizons, if one is not endowed with an open and curious mind plus an exploratory nature"!
The journey from a shy and intense, young prince to the seasoned musician with a major following across the world is synchronous with his musical journey from within the four walls of a Palace in little Kerala to some of the most venerable venues of world music and this transformation reads nothing less than a traveller's chronicles!