Every year for the past 200 years or so, strains of devotion can be heard from the Navarathri Mandapam at Thiruvananthapuram during this time of year. The concerts held every evening during the nine days of the Navarathri festival draws in not only devotees, but followers of Carnatic music too.
And each evening’s concert is devoted to a particular raga. Maharaja Swathi Thirunal, who was a passionate musician, composed nine songs in the ragas Shankarabharanam, Kalyani, Saveri, Thodi, Bhairavi, Panthuvarali, Shuddha Saveri, Nattakurinji and Arabhi specifically for the nine evenings of the Navarathri. An artiste performing at the Mandapam during the fete, can only perform keerthanams composed by the Maharaja.
This year however, because of the current pandemic, although the Mandapam resonates to the sound of musical offerings by well-known Carnatic musicians, the hall is sadly empty. Instead, listeners are tuning into the concerts via All India Radio Thiruvananthapuram as the organisers have imposed a no-entry policy into the Mandapam because of the pandemic.
The concerts at the Mandapam begin at sharp 6 pm and a gong sounds the end of the concert at 8.30 pm. The recording is however relayed on AIR at 9.30 pm.
Says Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma, the organiser of the event and a Carnatic vocalist: “Timings are strictly observed during the Navarathri concerts. The sanctity of the timing has its origins traced back to the era of Travancore Radio during the 1930s when the concerts were relayed live. Although there is no live broadcast now, portions of the concert, especially the main Navarathri piece sung that evening is broadcast daily on All India Radio every night.”
According to a programme officer at AIR, who does not wish to be named, these daily broadcasts have a “unique listenership. Not only do you have Carnatic music fans tuning in, you also have devotees listening in to the concert. Listenership has also gone global through the AIR mobile app,” he says.
For violinist Avaneeswaram SR Vinu, who held a concert at the Mandapam on October 19, performing at the Mandapam is an “honour” for him.
“Partaking in the Navarathri concerts at the Mandapam, is my ode to the deity. Whenever I play at the Mandapam, I am often swept into a wave of devotion. So much so that I am often oblivious of my surrounding. Hence, to be honest, I didn’t really notice the empty hall when I started playing the violin at the Mandapam this year,” he says.
Mridangist Nanjil AR Arul however felt disheartened at the sight of the empty hall. “The Mandapam is always packed during the festival concerts. Except for the artistes performing, there were two others at the most at the venue this year. It was a tad upsetting to see the empty seats.”
Strict protocol is observed during the concert with the artistes donning masks until the start of the concert. Each artiste is given a separate mat to sit on and social distancing between the artistes is maintained on stage.
According to Rama Varma, although he wasn’t really in favour of holding the fete during the current pandemic, it was held to honour his ancestor Swathi Thirunal’s promise that the Goddess Saraswati would be worshipped and the Navarathri festival held in her honour every year at the mandapam. “I will however, most likely call off the annual Swathi Sangeethotsavam, celebrating the compositions of Swathi Thirunal that is held in January due to the pandemic,” he says.