The doors of Navarathri Mandapam open again

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The audience will be back at the Navarathri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram to attend one of the country’s oldest music festivals

The audience will be back at the Navarathri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram to attend one of the country’s oldest music festivals

Music is central to any celebration in our country, and Navarathri is no different. During those nine days, apart from prayers, Shakti is invoked through music and dance. The otherwise quiet and desolate Navarathri Mandapam, adjacent to the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram, transforms into a venue for one of the oldest music festivals. It’s the only time when this famed heritage structure is open to public.

The festival dates back to approximately 1250 AD, when the king, who then ruled the region, received an idol of Saraswati from ‘Kavi Chakravarthy’ Kambar. Centuries later, the king’s descendants established the Travancore kingdom, and Maharaja Swati Tirunal Rama Varma (1813-1846) shifted Travancore’s capital from Padmanabhapuram in Thuckalay, near Kanyakumari, to Thiruvananthapuram. The Navarathri concerts have since been taking place without a break at the mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram. The concerts are a way to keep up the promise made by the king, who was given the idol, that his descendants will continue the Navarathri festival tradition. On the few occasions, when the king was not in Thiruvananthapuram during Navarathri, the idol was taken to the place he was travelling to for the conduct of the festival.

Unique feature

The most challenging and daunting task was keeping it going through the pandemic. But my family members managed to. There was no audience, yet the musicians performed in the glow of the oil lamps. One of the most unique features of the mandapam is the absence of electric bulbs. The ambience is just perfect for music.

Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram
| Photo Credit: S. GOPAKUMAR

Keeping our ancient tradition and heritage alive is a wonderful thing. But following anything blindly is not a good idea. The Navarathri Mandapam followed the rather unfortunate tradition of banning women from stepping inside, both as performers and listeners. For years, I questioned it, till it was done away with in 2006. Parasala Ponnammal teacher was the first woman to sing here, while the second woman to perform was Amrutha Venkatesh, who was barely out of her teens then. In 2020, during Navarathri when there was a lockdown, she recorded all the nine Navarathri kritis by Maharaja Swati Tirunal and posted them on YouTube. Apart from singing them, she has also provided details about each song, the history of the festival and how concerts were presented earlier at the mandapam and more. (check www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLG_ Yzqd_RqR2Jg7ss_ WOF9N0RnjA-WdXw) Though the Maharaja was a devotee of Padmanabhaswami, his nine compositions on Devi occupy a valuable place in the compositional history of Carnatic music.

Concerts in physical format

After three years, the doors of the Navarathri Mandapam will open again to music lovers. One of the star performers of the festival, Sanjay Subrahmanyan, who sang on the ninth day last year, will open this year’s edition on September 26.

Like in many temple, non-Hindus are not allowed inside the mandapam. There are also other restrictions such as no clapping and a dress code for musicians and rasikas. Only time will tell how many of these traditions will continue. Meanwhile, let the music begin!

The writer is a well-known Carnatic musician, and a member of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore.

This year’s Navarathri festival will be held from September 26 to October 4, from 6 p.m. to 8.30 p.m., at the Navarathri Mandapam, adjacent to Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram



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