As Indians we disagree on many things, but one of the few things we seem to agree upon is the popularity of the Venkateswara Temple in Tirupati as a pilgrim destination. Nearly 30
million people visit Tirupati on an annual basis. The interesting thing is that Tirupati has maintained its popularity through the ages, with archaeologists dating the temple’s origins to
300 CE. While many a story is shared about this temple, one of the lesser-known ones is the one behind the final step before the sanctum sanctorum of the temple. The step referred to
as the Kulasekhara padi relates to a story about a 9th century CE King Kulasekhara Alwar of the Chera empire (present day Kerala).
“Prepare the troops for battle.” While listening to a narration of the epic Ramayana at court, Alwar was believed to have become so distraught that he ordered his army to get ready.
Only when the narrator assured him that the story had a happy ending, the king became calmer and retreated from battle preparation. This, and more stories (possibly apocryphal)
show a king torn between his duty to his kingdom and a desire to worship his god Venkateswara. His works, like the Mukunda Mala and Perumal Tirumozhi, are
exquisite poems of piety, some allegorical in nature reflecting his innermost thoughts. The naming of the final step at the temple in Tirupati as Kulasekhara padi emphasises the king’s
stated desire in one of his compositions to serve his god, even if only as an inanimate object at his feet.
If Alwar had little interest outside spirituality even as he carried out his royal responsibilities, later kings such as Swati Thirunal of Travancore (19th century) and Jayachamarajendra Wadiyar of Mysore (20th century) dabbled in a wide range of interests from sports to the classical arts. Starting as students of music, they graduated to connoisseurs and then to composers of Carnatic music.
I wondered if the shared experience of kingship, with its privileges and demands, shaped their compositions or their distance in time and geography lead to different perspectives and
creative output? Historically, rulers of empires or even a locality have been the primary sponsors of the arts - whether poetry, music or visual arts. In fact, we often got to know of
the rulers from the creative output of artistes. So a Kalidasa had his Bhoja, a Kamban his Sadiappan and a Tansen his Akbar. Yet, a few kings turned from being merely patrons to
participants in the creative process.
Certainly the privilege of both time and having courts filled with some of the foremost musical talents of their time could have only helped them as composers. Yet the distinctive voices,
subject matters, the very languages they composed in and the sheer breadth of their musical output highlights their talent and unique paths they each traversed.
“Kanaka mayam AyIDum kamala vAhanam atin mEl kanattOru kAntiyODu gamikkunnatAravanO?” (Who is this approaching in such style seated on a lotus?) These
are the opening lines of a song composed by Thirunal in Manipravalam, a precursor to Malayalam. The song narrates the conversation between two devotees at the
Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum. As the two watch the ceremonial parade of the idol they speculate on its identity. In every verse of the song they wonder if it is Indra,
Chandra, Shiva, Surya, Kubera and after a series of negations, realise that it is none other than Nirajanabha (Padmanabha). Thirunal had a wide repertoire in compositions ranging from
Carnatic krithis to Hindustani bhajans, padams, javalis and tillanas. If Thirunal’s compositions were noted for its variety, Wadiyar ’s works were more erudite in form.
The Mysore royal’s songs in rare ragas such as Bhogavasantham, Shuddhasalavi and talas such as Khanda Jampa, Chathurashra Mathya reveal an acumen that extended beyond that
of an ordinary composer. His songs, many of which are in praise of Chamundeshwari, the deity of the Mysore royal family, and Ganesha are often heard during the 10-day Dasara
or Navratri festival.
While stories, certainly historical and especially of royalty, may always find interest, what separates these three royals is that their work is alive, practiced and performed on Carnatic
music stages across the world. Each one of them brought something unique to the composers table - whether Wadiyar ’s erudite and esoteric songs, Thirunal’s emotive and
eclectic compositions and Alwar’s numinous and nuanced verses. Separated as they were by eras, geographies and languages, these three kings nevertheless created a corpus of
musical compositions, that to this day continue to resonate with both audiences and performers.