Autumn symbolizes change which is sacrosanct to the idea of living itself, for it is only change that is constant. Coinciding with early autumn is the Navaratri Festival in honour of Goddess Durga who vanquished Mahishasura; it is also believed to be a festival that commemorates the return of Rama after defeating Ravana in the battle. Many legends abound, the 9 days of Navaratri when the Goddess is worshipped in Her different forms on each day, represent the victory of good over evil.
For the people of Thiruvananthapuram, the arrival of the three Navarathri Idols namely the Goddess Saraswathy idol, Kumaraswamy idol and Munnootty Nanga idol in a procession from Nanchinadu in Tamil Nadu and the ceremonial welcome accorded to these idols by the royal family of Travancore marks not just the beginning of a festival that holds spiritual significance but also one that negotiates a spirit of warmth and cultural harmony between the two states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It was in 1839 that Maharaja Swathi Thirunal initiated this tradition accompanied by the ritual of singing krithis in praise of the Goddess, for which he composed nine different krithis in nine different ragas, systematically coded for each day. Today, nearly two centuries later, this practice is still followed in Thiruvananthapuram and countless musicians from different parts of the Country are invited to perform at the Navarathri Mandapam, an opportunity that is considered a divine calling. Some of the greatest names in the Carnatic music world who have long passed over into the other world left behind imprints of their brilliant musicality at this venue, festival and in the hearts of the listeners; and in this day and age as well, many more musical luminaries continue to pay obeisance to the Goddess of art and learning with the purest notes of carnatic music.
A direct descendent of the late Maharaja, Prince Rama Varma, who curates both the Swathi Sangeethotsavam and the Navarathri Mandapam Festival is rich with the experience of more than four decades as a member of the patron family, as a listener, an organizer and a performer. Digging into a treasure trove of fond memories laced with the radiance of prodigious musicians, he talks about MD Ramanathan’s amazing voice booming like thunder, Palaghat Mani Iyer’s awe inspiring presence, T.N. Krishna’s honey like renditions of Ragas, Semmangudi’s Pankaja Lochana, the way TVG made his Mridangam sing, the way the entire gathering stood up silently and deferentially when Balamuralikrishna walked into the Mandapam and, “the list goes on and on”, he says!
Each performance is an offering and there are rules to be adhered to. Male singers sing shirtless and female singers wear sari. Concerts begin at 6pm and must end by 8.30pm and applause is strictly prohibited. Until 2006, women were barred from entering the premises as performers and/or listeners – a practice that Rama Varma questioned for years. In 2006 however, for the first time in history, 82 year old Parassala Ponnammal performed at the Festival and women were permitted to enter as listeners as well. Rama Varma who fought silently for decades to make the Festival female inclusive spearheaded the movement for he could never come to terms with the ideology of forbidding women, both as listeners and performers at a festival in praise of the Goddess Herself. Since then, many noted female musicians have been performing at the Mandapam, year after year.
This year once again saw stalwarts like Sanjay Subrahmanyan, Parassala Ponnammal, Amrutha Venkatesh, the Carnatica Brothers, Thamarakkad Govindan Namboothiri, Prof T.V. Gopalakrishnan, Sudha Raghunathan, Prof K. Venkataramanan and Prince Rama Varma make offerings of their chaste music to the Goddess, accompanied on instruments by equally brilliant instrumentalists.
The Navarathri Mandapam Festival has a very unique appeal, beginning from the ambience to the strict discipline in practice and needless to say the sterling concerts staged here. But Rama Varma explains why this Festival staged in the dim light of oil lamps, soaked in the fragrance of flowers, is not only a very different sort of musical experience but also a historical testimony. Nearly 200 years have gone by since the first Navarathri Mandapam Festival and this is perhaps its greatest milestone, for, in a world swathed in transience, where good things come and go in no time, there is no greater exceptionality than the staunch defiance of the laws of nature, the play of time and circumstance. As this article is being written yet another Navarathri Mandapam Festival has ended and the wait for the next one has begun. For the members of the Travancore royal family, the Navarathri Mandapam Festival is more than a musical celebration; in essence it is a tradition that has been intimately and immaculately woven into their life and system; an extension of chaste values that they have strived to uphold since centuries!