Royal legacy continues

Royal legacy continues

Royal legacy continues

Growing up in the Travancore royal family, and as the descendant of Swathi Thirunal, it was but natural that Rama Varma would take to music. It is also no surprise to music connoisseurs that he has emerged as one of the most accomplished Carnatic musicians and respected music teachers of today.

The Travancore royal family has had a long and admirable tradition of patronising classical musicians and dancers of merit. Outstanding artistes were invited to perform in the palace as also the temples of the state. Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (1813-1846), the Maharaja of the state of Travancore in Kerala, was also schooled in the classical arts.

He became a skilful vocalist well-versed in the Carnatic and Hindustani music traditions. He also played the veena, mridangam and a now-extinct instrument called Swarabat. He also has around 400 compositions to his credit.

Musical childhood

With so much great music and dance vibrating in the atmosphere in which he grew up, Rama Varma imbibed music even as a child. “I was a late starter though,” he confesses. Urged by his great-grandmother, he began music classes. “She and my great-uncle, the last Maharaja of Travancore, Sri Chitra Thirunal Rama Varma, gave me unconditional love during my growing-up years,” he reminiscences.

His gurus in succession were Harihara Vechoori Subramanya Iyer, Trivandrum R Venkatraman, K S Narayanaswamy and finally, M Balamuralikrishna, the musical giant under whom he has been training for the last 19 years.

Rama Varma is also a proficient veena player, having learnt the art simply because the violin which he fancied did not have any teachers around his home at that time.

However, in the past one-and-half decades, he has been veering more towards teaching and learning, and consciously reducing the number of his performances. “I find teaching highly satisfying. I am particular about shruti shuddham, clear enunciation of sahityam, and also that word by word meaning of the songs is understood,” he adds. He has only one direct student Amrutha Venkatesh.

The rest of his teaching is done at workshops across India and abroad, and much of that has been free of charge. He also teaches music to the students of Veenavadini School of Music in Perla, Karnataka. “In the last six years, I have taught them 160 compositions, including Tagore songs,” he reveals. He does not charge the school for the teaching, or for his travel.

Moreover, Rama Varma’s forte as a teacher is lesser-known compositions. So he teaches the not-so well-known lyrics of the following composers –– Thyagaraja, Dikshitar, Swathi Thirunal, Annamacharya, Purandaradasa, Bhadrachala Ramadasu, Sadasiva Brahmendra and Balamuralikrishna.

As also the compositions of lesser-known composers like M D Ramanathan, Yedla Ramadasu, Mallekonda Ramadasu and Prayaga Rangadasu who is his guru Balamuralikrishna’s maternal grandfather.

Unearthing old gems

He explains: “The famous lyrics have been rendered for generations by countless artistes. I too could go on singing and teaching them. Instead I chose a different path.” He resolved to explore the not so well-known lyrics, bring them back to public memory and preserve them for posterity through his renditions, recordings of the same, and teachings.

Rama Varma is a soft-spoken and unassuming person and keeps a low profile despite his royal ancestry, famous family background and own achievements as a musician. He laughs at this observation of mine. “Well, that is the way I am. Like some people are attracted to celebrity, I am attracted to anonymity.”

With an exploratory frame of mind and eclectic influences on his life, Rama Varma has learnt several languages and also listens to music from around the world. He is especially fond of old Hindi film music and loves vintage melodies. “I was the first to upload Saigal’s songs on YouTube. I love the songs of Saigal, Suraiya, Pankaj Mullick, Kannan Devi, Devika Rani, K C Dey, etc. Though Saigal and Kishore Kumar are my top favourites, I also like Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar, Talat Mehmood and Manna Dey.”

This Hindi-film music aficionado observes: “Pre-1947 Hindi film music had the singers singing at their usual shruti or normal pitch. After 1947, with the advent of Lata Mangeshkar, especially when she sang under Naushad, the pitch went up exponentially. She set the trend which continues till today — singers render songs in Hindi films at a higher-than-normal pitch.”

Rama Varma holds that music is the greatest unifying force in the world. “Music integrates people across classes,” he says. He cites the example of the song “Madhuban Mein Radhika Nachere”, brought to life by an all-Muslim team –– singer Rafi, lyricist Sultanpuri, music-director Naushad and actor Dilip Kumar. “Isn’t that a beautiful example of harmony? Only music can achieve that.”

He was recently in Bangalore for the bi-centenary celebrations of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, organised by the IGNCA SRC and the Indiranagar Sangeeta Sabha.