Royal musician

Gifted

For all his royal lineage and achievements, Prince Rama Varma is surprisingly unassuming and modest.

Rhythm divine: Rama Varma prefers singing to playing the veena.

A highly accomplished musician and musicologist, Rama Varma is the direct descendant of famous 19th century king-composer Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, and legendary painter Raja Ravi Varma.

The soft-spoken vocalist and vainika tells us his interest in music was kindled by listening to the great Carnatic vocalist M D Ramanathan and film singer Kishore Kumar. However, his initial forays into music were rather casual and as part of his school choir.

Finally, urged by his great-grandmother, he began formal classical music classes around age 14 under Vechoor Harihara Subramania Iyer. “The classes were held in her room where she lay bedridden. It was her great desire to see me blossom into a musician but she only lived to see me through the basic lessons.”

Other teachers followed — vainikas Trivandrum R Venkataraman and Sangita Kalanidhi K S Narayanaswamy; and finally Dr Mangalampalli Balamuralikrishna.

Today, Rama Varma is widely admired as a brilliant classical artiste. His music is known for its meditative and soulful nature, and technical mastery. He is that musician and teacher who impresses with his scholarship rather than showmanship. He also has the largest repertoire of Swathi Thirunal and Balamuralikrishna compositions. An acknowledged expert on both, he is making available many of his renditions of their compositions — including rare ones — on youtube to reach a wide audience as “edutainment”.

Deep knowledge

He is a gifted veena player too. “My heart was actually in the violin but we had no good violin teachers in town at that time. So, I took to the veena as Venkataraman-sir was coming home to teach my father.”

He says that made a tremendous positive difference to his singing. “I believe when a vocalist learns an instrument it makes for enhanced understanding and better performance. Knowledge of an instrument increases swaragyanam greatly, helps visualise notes and understand the subtleties of gamakas (oscillations). Actually, just by listening to a vocalist, an instrumentalist can tell whether that singer also has knowledge of an instrument or not — so potent is the influence of an instrument’s knowledge on vocal music.”

However, Rama Varma’s veena concerts are rare nowadays. “The instrument is cumbersome to travel with. Also, I like the cadences of lyrics in different languages so I prefer singing to veena playing.” For those who miss his veena performances, get hold of his widely appreciated CD, Thaanam: The Pulse of the Veena. “One day it occurred to me that there was no record of my veena-play. So I went to a studio and performed impromptu for an hour. No accompanying instruments, no digitisation, or later editing/mixing. It is pure, spontaneous veena. Also, music at its simplest — even a beginner can play every phrase.”

Committed disciple

An old Indian saying holds that it requires great good fortune to get a good music guru. However, many maestros say it is equally a matter of good luck for teachers to get good students. In that sense, Balamuralikrishna is highly fortunate. A musical giant who cares little for recording his achievements or even keeping track of them, Balamurali has Rama Varma for doing that and also telling the world about them. Few teachers can claim such a committed disciple who is so deeply knowledgeable about his guru.

Rama Varma has learnt from his guru Balamurali, his compositions as well as those tuned by Balamurali of other composers like Annamacharya, Bhadrachala Ramadas, Sadashiva Brahmendra, Purandaradasa, Jayadeva and so on. Rama Varma teaches these compositions to his own students including a group of children at Perla village (near Mangalore) at Veenavadini School.  “I am fascinated by my guru Balamurali’s genius as a composer. Unfortunately, Balamurali-sir’s phenomenal abilities as a singer have distracted music lovers from this dimension of his.”
Rama Varma is widely admired for being a feminist.

The annual Navaratri Mandapam festival conducted by the Travancore Royal Family had been a male preserve. Only male artistes performed before an all-male audience. Women listened from afar. For the first time, in 2006, Rama Varma brought a female vocalist, veteran Parasala Ponnammal, to perform onstage and also permitted women to be a part of the audience, thus breaking two traditions in one go.

 This musician-prince is also a polyglot — fluent in Malayalam, English, Tamil, Hindi and French. “I pick up CDs of ethnic music in the countries I visit — not only for its music but also because I love the cadences of various languages.” His interests are also eclectic — he listens to and learns from western classical music as much as from Indian classical and film music. Rama Varma is also that rare combination of a successful musician and concert-organiser — he has been organising the annual Navaratri festival and Swathi Sangeethothsavam.

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