Man has always been in pursuit of the Arts and scaling heights as an artist of any kind has been an ambition larger than life. A myriad of human emotions find expression through art and though the concept of art had its inception in the Middle ages, Art and Man have been inseparably linked even earlier. Amongst the various art forms, Music holds a very distinguished place due to its marked influence on the human psyche. However, the enchanting world of music, despite its close proximity with man, has constantly eluded and astonished us with its mysteries and eccentricities. And some of its greatest puzzles are centered on the perception and origin of musical talent. Are legends born or created? What is it that makes a legend? Creativity? Spontaneity? Perseverance? Or Opportunity? Is musical talent, a genetic inheritance or can it be cultivated?
The eternal debate between Nature and Nurture seems most true when speaking of Music. While some believe that musical abilities may be acquired through focused efforts, others insist that this coveted ability can only be inherited. Considerable effort and time have been invested towards mapping the origin of musical creativity, but, despite all efforts to decode its intricacies, the mystery remains essentially the same, completely endorsing the theory that certain inexplicabilities are best left alone. Nevertheless, musical legends who have graced this planet have demonstrated through their exemplary lives that complete unconditional dedication towards music is one of the elements that distinguish a genius from an ordinary exponent of music.
Oodles of this commitment towards Music, is what best defines the Musician, Prince Rama Varma.
History was created on 23 September 2006, when, Smt. Parrassala Ponnammal sang at the Navaratri Mandapam in Trivandrum breaking over 300 years of tradition that forbid women from performing at or attending the famed Navaratri Celebrations of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, in Kerala, South India.
Unanimously selected by the Navaratri Mandapam Trust, Smt. Ponnammal gave a dignified performance marking the beginning of a new era. Breaking a long period of male monotony was the graceful veteran who offered timeless pieces at the feet of the Goddess of Music. Time stood still for music loving multitudes that thronged the Mandapam premises to become one with the historical moment.
The visionary behind this is Prince Rama Varma – A musician, music student, music teacher, musicologist, writer, music concert organizer – all rolled into one.
The August of 1968 saw the birth of Rama Varma into the Travancore Royal family of India – the family that gifted the world, the famous Musician King Swathi Thirunal and the legendary Painter Prince, Raja Ravi Varma. Noted for their patronage of art, the Travancore Royal family is also one of the oldest royal families of India .
Two of the voices that first kindled his interest in music as a little child were those of M.D. Ramanathan and Kishore Kumar. Despite formative years spent in the company of an overwhelming collection of music available at home and listening to the great masters who performed regularly at the Navaratri Mandapam, a career in music was still more than unplanned.
It was his great grandmother Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bai who formally introduced him to music in 1982 under the able tutelage of Prof. Vechoor Hariharasubramania Iyer. Later he went on to study the Saraswathi Veena, first under Trivandrum R. Venkataraman and further under Sangeetha Kalanidhi Professor K. S. Narayanaswamy. Today, as one of the foremost disciples of the iconic Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna, Varma has gone on to become one of India 's most brilliant classical musicians.
Historians talk about tradition rooted India 's many illustrious Maharajahs who were great composers and patrons of music and art in general. But, a royal performing for the PUBLIC was a new concept that drew both, curiosity and flak. The road to success was not paved with roses for the royal musician hailing from a well known family that patronized art extensively. However, timely encouragement received from eminent Professor T.V. Gopalakrishnan, helped him soar despite impediments placed by royalty and Varma presented his first public performance in the year 1990. Since then he has presented concerts all over India and also in a number of countries such as USA , The Netherlands, UK , France , Germany , Dubai and Kuwait . His first CD was released at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, London and some of the most prestigious venues of Europe such as the Zuiderpershuis in Belgium , The Royal Tropen Institute, Amsterdam and The Korzo Theatre in The Hague , have reverberated with his soulful music.
Music, like all other forms of art is an indelible element of the Indian culture itself. Musical and Dance expressions lend Indian celebrations their vibrant hue. Therefore there is little surprise in that India is home to a world of musical talents. What then makes Rama Varma so unique?
A traditional style of singing laced with interesting and innovative elements lend freshness to his performances. Gifted with an exceptionally soothing voice, he transports listeners to a different realm. Pristine clear diction and strict adherence to Shruthi and Thaalam impart technical prowess to his music while a uniquely alluring style of rendering makes him an inimitable musician. An excellent vocalist, he is also an equally gifted instrumentalist. In his CD titled Thaanam – Pulse of the Veena, he demonstrates masterful artistry by weaving an ethereal atmosphere of beautiful notes on the stringed instrument Veena.
Veena Enchantment - Prince Rama Varma during a Veena concert
Be it vocal or a Veena performance, his forte lies in creating music which is a tasteful amalgam of perfection, tenderness and of course beauty.
However, it is teaching music that comes even closer to the heart of this musician. A number of students scattered in different parts of the world take pride in being the disciples of Varma whose classes are a source of constant inspiration. A thorough linguist fluent in English, French, Hindi, Tamil and Malayalam, Varma stresses on the importance of mastering different languages as he believes singing lyrics perfectly is sacrosanct to the entire idea of singing itself. He encourages and trains his students to have a mind open to other musical cultures thereby raising their music awareness and appreciation levels. Essentially a Carnatic musician with an impressive repertoire of Swathi compositions, he is a lover of the nuances of Arabic music and equally of the creations of Mozart and Beethoven and he says, " Suppose you are a Carnatic violinist and you haven't heard Paganini, you would never imagine the scope, the brilliance or the range of the wonderful instrument you are playing. I am not saying that you should play Bhairavi Raga like a Paganini composition but somehow exposure to other composers adds another dimension to your music ".
With concerts that are informative and lecture demonstrations that are entertaining, this musicologist proves himself to be a cut above the rest.
Interestingly, there is more to this remarkable musician besides MUSIC - Books and Travels also fuel his creativity. He is well read and an author himself with a number of good articles bearing his very distinct style of expression. As a widely traveled musician, Rama Varma says “ I don't believe that just practicing 10 hours a day can improve one's musical skills. It is the entire personality that counts. Reading , meeting people, traveling, eating various kinds of food – exposure to different culture influences your musical ability ”
Talking about contributions to the Music world, Rama Varma stakes no claims whatsoever and firmly believes that only time can prove whether he had any contributions at all. It is impossible to justifiably evaluate the contribution of a prodigious musician who aims to teach something new through each concert. The profound lessons he imparts in music appreciation are priceless contributions themselves.
At a time when the Indian society is still haunted by the likes of female feticide and dowry deaths, through the culturally and socially historic move of throwing open the doors of the Navaratri Mandapam to women musicians and listeners, Varma has not only contributed another performance arena to women but has taken their struggle for equal rights onto a different platform, thereby setting an example to emulate.
Classical music has long been thought of as a rather esoteric interest catering to the taste and intellect of a distinct few but by explaining the themes of the pieces and the lyrics, Rama Varma endeavors to break the notion of exclusivity surrounding Carnatic music.
Maharajah Swathi Thirunal is indisputably one of the greatest musicians of the world, whose magnificence remains unfathomable. The tragedy of his untimely demise created an enormous void in the Music world that remains unfilled to this day. Lying buried away under the folds of time and circumstances are priceless pieces that are part of his phenomenal legacy of music.
Maharajah Swathi Thirunal (1813-1846AD) Filling in the boots of such a genius is tough BUT Prince Rama Varma who shares much in common with Maharajah Swathi Thirunal is striving to his very best to make the irresistible music of his great ancestor accessible to the world. Apart from popularizing Swathi Krithis through his very own concerts, his efforts also find fruition in the form of a commemorative festival called the Swathi Sangeethotsavam or the Kuthiramalika Music Festival as it is popularly known, held annually from January 6 to 12 at the Kuthiramalika Palace, when musicians present compositions of the late Maharajah.
Prince Rama Varma at the Kuthiramalika Palace
Every January as the ancient palace gets ready to receive artists and the increasing number of music devotees from all over the world who descend upon Trivandrum , the Swathi Music festival commences literally transforming the sprawling palace grounds into a pilgrimage spot. Hindustani and Carnatic musicians, vocalists and instrumentalists take the stage at this tribute to create seven mesmerizing nights of untainted music – an opportunity that even top-notch musicians of the country consider a blessing.
This year's festival came with a bonus offer – and that was the opportunity to savor one additional Swathi concert coinciding with the 14 th January 2008 Lakshadeepam festival at the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple . Prince Rama Varma explains that the Lakshadeepam festival is the culmination of the Murajappam at the Padmanabhaswamy temple and is a once in six years event when a lakh lamps are illumined inside the temple of Sri Padmanabhaswamy , who is the reigning deity of the Travancore Royal family. This was an event that attracted an enormously large crowd of worshippers and was a spectacular treat for the eyes and mind alike.
The main musicians who performed at the Kuthiramalika concerts 2008 were Sanjay Subramanian on the inaugural day 6 th January 2008 followed by Prince Rama Varma, Manasi Prasad, Smt. Parassala Ponnammal, Master Balamuralikrishna, Hindustani Vocalist Prof. Venkatesh Kumar, Violin maestros Lalgudi G. J. R. Krishnan and Vijayalakshmi at a duet, on the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh day respectively and the grand finale on 13 th January 2008 celebrating the Lakshadeepam was presented by Dr. M. Balamuralikrishna.
The unrivalled Kuthiramalika music fete lasting merely a week and offered free to the public is in essence the result of a great deal of time invested in diligent efforts by an organizing committee which has Prince Rama Varma at its helm. Networking with various artistes and trying to ensure that repetition is avoided, personally attending their concerts, paying attention to the acoustics and accompanists are only 'few' of the 'off-stage' efforts that go behind the success of each year's festival.
Putting a little nook of India onto the World cultural map, transforming many obscure artists into stars overnight, this music festival of seven nights that has a growing attendance has gone on to become a world class musical event under the patronage and professional supervision of Prince Rama Varma and this perhaps is his greatest contribution to the musical fraternity.
Despite rubbing shoulders with the crème de la crème of society, this soft spoken musician is utterly humble, kind hearted and modest. A unique combination of traditional values and modern ideals, with persona as alluring as the songs he sings, Varma draws towards him, people from musical and non-musical walks of life. Among his admirers figures the Ex-Indian President, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, on whose invitation, Varma performed at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan (Indian Presidential Palace) during his tenure.
If the ability to sing is special, the ability to take music beyond time, culture, language and geography is even more awe-inspiring, more so in a world marked by demarcations of all kinds. Enthralling Indian and non-Indian audience alike, taking them to exalted states of joy, with musical ingenuity; Varma proves that Music heals, uplifts and unifies the world. His mystique as a musician is incomparable and his inventiveness and adeptness in an art form that has long been more than his passion, is laudable. As a musician bringing new flavor and fervor to the Indian classical music scene, adding a new dimension to the Indian music world with his openness to other forms of music, he holds promise and there is no doubt that in the years to come, Prince Rama Varma's name will be synonymous with not just Indian classical music but with music in the universal sense also.
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To treat yourself to Varma's music, visit
To treat yourself to Varma's music LIVE, attend the Swathi Festival, from January 6 to 12 every year
Photos courtesy: Internet (The Hindu, Webindia123.com, Carnatica.net and various other websites)
Sources of Information: Personal Research, Internet websites, Newspaper Reports, Concerts and Concerts reviews