Swati Tirunal lived for only 33 years, (April 16, 1813 – December 25, 1846) but what he accomplished in that time was quite remarkable.
Swati Tirunal Rama Varma was the maharaja of Travancore, the throne having come to him by right even before he was born; hence the appellation 'Garbha Sreeman' - the king in the womb.
His vision as a ruler and administrator was wide-ranging and ahead of his time. That is interesting material for another time. Let's look at his musical accomplishments and influence.
He is known to have composed about 400 songs in Carnatic music, and these span almost the entire range of compositions - varnam, kriti, keertana, padam, javali, tillana, bhajan, shlokas, and upakhyanas. There are group kritis such as the Navaratri kritis, Utsava Prabandham and Nava Vidha Bhakti.
One of the distinctive features of his compositions is his use of swaraksharas, especially in the varnams. The swaraksharas keep recurring continually, which give the lyrics and music an added dimension.
Swati Tirunal could read and write about 10 languages, including Malayalam, Tamil, English, Hindustani, Sanskrit, Persian and Telugu. And it was not just a working of knowledge of Malayalam and Sanskrit that he possessed, as is evident from his musical compositions and writings.
His descriptions in Sanskrit are evocative and his prosody is accomplished. It is in his Malayalam and Manipravalam (mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam) songs that his use of language and poetry comes through more immediately. In padams like Theliviyalum Mukham, Taruni Jnaan and Alarshara Paritaapam, the beauty of the lyrics and the music complement each other perfectly, feeding off each other, to provide an experience that is second to none. The Utsava Prabandham suite, which is also in Malayalam, also shows up the simple but effective charm of the language and the music.
Swati Tirunal, like entire lineage of Travancore kings, was a devotee of the deity of Lord Padmanabha at the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram - in fact the kings called themselves 'Padmanabha Dasas' and ruled as representatives of the lord. Most of his compositions, with the obvious exception of the Navaratri kritis, are on Lord Padmanabha; in his padams, too, have the lord as the naayaka.
Of course, it was not just Carnatic music that interested Swati Tirunal. The king, highly artistically inclined and sensitive that he was, also trained in Hindustani music, and has quite a few compositions, including dhrupads, khayals and tappas. He was also instrumental in fostering a culture of musical patronage and excellence in his court. He had musicians from all over South India in his court. Swati Tirunal was also responsible for the resurgence of the graceful Mohini Attam and in its later position as the preeminent dance form in Kerala.
As with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, it can only be conjecture as to what Swati Tirunal would have accomplished in the field of arts and letters if he had had even an average life span rather than his paltry 33 years. However, the body of work that he has left behind and the influence he has had, is still substantial, and his legacy continues, not least in the Navaratri Mantapam concerts and the Swati Sangeethotsavam that are held in Thiruvananthapuram.