Sri Swathi Thirunal Maharaja


That Swati Tirunal was a genius, a genius who assumed almost the proportions of a prodigy no one can deny. The range, variety and wealth of the knowledge and skills he acquired even in his nonage are something phenomenal-second only to the boyhood achievements of the other great son of Kerala, Sri. Sankara, who many centuries earlier, in a slightly shorter span of life, had astonished the world by mounting the highest pinnacle of wisdom and philosophical enlightenment. However much you may search the galaxy of the great men of the world, you will not easily find many whose interests were so ardent and omnivorous or whose talents were so rich and versatile as Swati Tirunal's. His profound scholarship in Sanskrit and mastery of many languages and subjects, his great and vast achievements in the fields of literature and music-as poet, song writer, composer, musician and musicologist, and the extensive and unflagging patronage, as discerning as it was generous, which he extended to all arts- literature, music, dance, painting, sculpture, even sleight of hand and magic- the cumulative splendour of all this has in a sense tended to conceal from the admiring world his greatness and brilliance as a ruler. He was a ruler who dared to look far ahead of his times, and saw clearly what would bring lasting good to his people. Law and justice, modern education, modern medicine, engineering including irrigation, printing press, public library, observatory, marketing-the first firm foundations of every one of these were laid by this imaginative and far-sighted prince. He was proud of the noble traditions of his royal family and of his loyal people. He had great dreams about the little kingdom whose destinies had fallen into his hands. He wanted to make it a paradise of unimpaired prosperity and plenty and all the happiness that intellectual and aesthetic pursuits could vouchsafe to man. And he would certainly have fulfilled his dreams if only the Fates had not wantonly willed it otherwise. Of that presently.

In any case, even as it is, his achievements are a marvel alike in their range, quantity and quality. And all this was packed into the short span of hardly 18 years ! Here indeed was a human miracle.

What has impressed me most in this extra ordinary Prince is his remarkably wide and progressive outlook and his readiness and capacity for synthesis and assimilation, so characteristic of the genius and culture of India. I have already referred to the omnivorous nature of his interests. He was always reaching out as it were, for far off things, for new things, for rare things, and even rare men ! Besides people from various parts of India, it is said that he had in his court Arabs, Turks and Negroes and Nepalese and Chinese. Of course each one was proficient in something or other, and was expected to make his distinctive contribution to the good of the State, for which he would be amply rewarded, very often beyond his wildest expectations. Here was the ruler of a small State who deliberately wished and worked for her mental and spiritual expansion so that she could take into herself all that was good and beautiful in the whole of India and even from beyond.There was nothing narrow or parochial about him. Again like Sri Sankara, he saw India as one and undivided,and considered the rich and varied culture of India as the birthright of every Indian. He wanted to take in and absorb everything and every one that was good from anywhere in the world. It was thus that he gathered into his court some of the best specimens and exponents of art and culture from all over India. Here was cultural and emotional integration in a measure and intensity seldom attempted before or after.

Why did he attain scholarship in many languages at a time when few other princes took pains to master even one ? Why did he compose songs in most of them ? Why did he invite great artists and scholars from all over India to come and settle down in his court ? Why did he experiment with various forms, patterns and techniques of literature and music ? Why did he go in for modern engineering ? The answer to all this is one and the same. He was not satisfied with the old, the existing, the known, the immediate, only ; he stretched his arms out, and went in for new things, distant things, for the mediate, the unknown, the perfect.

There is something in Swati Tirunal that has considerably exercised my mind, as it must have the minds of many others who have tried to study and understand him, viz., Swati Tirunal the man. We do know many things about him besides his extraordinary gifts and untiring industry, which are too well known. We know of his nobility, goodness, generosity, his deep sense of justice and correctness, his unbounded solicitude for the welfare of his subjects, his insatiate love for music and dance and all other forms of art. All this we know. But do we really know him ? Do we know all about the inner life and personality of Swati Tirunal ?

To me he has always remained wrapped in sombre mystery. Inspite of all his poetical and musical effusions and his free and constant mingling with innumerable scholars and artists, I somehow cannot escape the impression that this great man had been lonely all along, that he had built for himself a cell in the innermost recesses of his soul into which he retired, occasionally even in the earlier years, continually later on, and almost completely in the last phase of his life. He would not take any body into his confidence. He retired into the privacy of that inviolate cell not only from his heartless and notorious tormenter, Resident Cullen, but even from his own Dewan, may even from his own devoted brother and loving aunt who had mothered him from his infancy. And at the time of his death there was no one about him except his ultimate protector and refuge, Sri Padmanabha to whom he had dedicated the majority of his beautiful compositions and the entirety of his noble but afflicted soul. What led him to this spiritual self-incarceration ?

It was with feelings of genuine fear and mistrust that the East India Company watched the reign of the sixteen year old royal stripling; especially since they had not yet fully recovered from the terrific shock that the patriot and martyr Dewan Velu Thampy had administered, through his heroic and historic, though ill-fated, battle for freedom. But even on close examination they could not find any fault in the young Maharaja either as man or as administrator. In fact they were compelled to acknowledge his extraordinary talents and attainments and his very good intentions. He belied their suspicions, disarmed their opposition and won their admiration. He was only sixteen then!

The start was surprisingly good. Swati Tirunal went ahead with confidence and hope to improve the Governmental machinery and promote the welfare of his people in all possible ways. It was smooth sailing for the first eight years, and he was able to do much good within that short period. But then an ill wind began to blow and it grew steadily in strength, till at last it began to blight the buds of promise and wrap and stunt all progress.

An evil Fate found in Mr. Cullen, the new Resident, an effective instrument for thwarting the noble aspirations of the young ruler and permanently embittering his entire life. Cullen seems to have been the last word in rough-shod arrogance and mulish obstinacy. He began to interfere constantly in the internal affairs of the State, even in the affairs of the palace ! It is said that he even went to the outrageous length of himself pronouncing judgements in cases pending in the appeal court ! The Maharaja was harassed, baulked and humiliated at every step. He lost all faith in British justice and fair play. Proud, fearless and self-willed by nature, he tried to resist these wholly unjustifiable inroads into his legitimate freedom and powers. But resistance was of no avail. His helplessness and sense of utter frustration embittered his entire life, gave a sad twist to his super-sensitive nature and undermined his health. He began to lose interest in administration, in all worldly things- of course he attended to his duties, but in a spirit of cold detachment. He turned more and more to the solace of the spirit. He clung more and more devotedly and desperately to the lotus feet of Sri Padmanabha.

I often ask myself: What was the nature of his inner life in those dark days ? How did he react to that purgatory which he so jealously concealed from inquisitive eyes ? What bearing had it on that gorgeous world of literature and music and dance and painting that he built around him ? If only we had sufficient factual evidence to co-relate chronologically and psychologically the varying moods and tones of his songs and their ever-increasing tempo of devotional fervour with the stresses and strains and pangs and sorrows of that mysterious world, what a grand, Promethean drama of endless acute suffering and silent, heoric struggle and victory might it not unfold ! Was his world of artistic beauty an escape, refuge, from the secret horrors of the other, or a proud challenge flung at its grinning face -a converse, compensatory fulfilment ? Would he have left us even a fraction of this invaluable and imperishable heritage if Cullen had been sympathetically helpful and co-operative and not doggedly antagonistic and obstructive as he was ? I wonder. I for one am disposed to believe that Swathi Tirunal's tragedy was his triumph, that it was because he burnt himself into a cinder in that secret furnace that he shed such glorious lustre about him ; that it was the crown of thorns that Cullen and a cruel fate set on his kingly head that kind Providence transmuted into the imperial diadem of the world of music.

Swathi Tirunal, the one time Maharaja of Travancore is no more, though he is still remembered for the many good things that he did for his people. But even that may fade into oblivion in course of time. Be that as it may, Swati Tirunal, the undisputed monarch of music, will live and reign for all time, and generations after generations of music lovers will pay homage to him, as you and I do today, in profound gratefulness and reverence.


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