Great Composers of  Kerala Desham


Ashok Madhav



When we think of music composers and musicians from Kerala, Maharajah Swati Tirunal is the first person that comes to one’s mind. No doubt, he was a great composer and encouraged music and other fine arts in his court.  However, there are other composers, who may not be as well known but have also contributed significantly to the musical lore of Kerala.


Maharaja Swati Tirunal (1813-1846) was a contemporary of the musical Trinity.As he was precocious, he was taught several languages such as Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, Hindi and Persian besides his mother tongue, Malayalam. He was taught  English and the basic theory of music. He was nurtured  to develop his music skills in his formative years.


Swathi Tirunal’s love of music brought numerous musicians of repute to the Royal Court.  Kannaya Bhagavatar, a direct disciple of Tyagaraja  and the Tanjavur quartette – Vedivelu, Chinnayya, Ponnayya and Sivanandam – disciples of Muthuswami Dikshitar were among them.


Swati Tirunal’s literary contributions include the following – Bhaktimanjari, Padmanabha satakam and Syanandurapura varna prabandham. His musical output has been phenomenol with compositions in various languages and in different genres of compositions like tana varnam,pada varnam,swarajathis, kritis, ragamalikas, javalis and bhajans- some in Hindustani ragas too.


Some of his well known works are –Navaratnamalika,Navaratri Keerthnams,Utsava Prabandham,Kuchelopakhyanam, Ajamilopakhyanam,Ghana raga krits,Ragamalikas and dance compositions. Many of his compositions are dedicated to Lord Padmanabha- the presiding deity of the temple at Tiruvanandapuram. Amazing feat for a person who just lived for 33 years!


Irayiaman Thampi (1782-1856) was a senior contemporary of Maharajah Swati Tirunal. He composed varnams, kritis ,padams,  and a few items for Kathakali dances. He used Malayalam ,Sanskrit and Manipravalam (using both Sanskrit and Malayalam) for his compositions. His famous  lullaby “Omanathingal kitavo” in ragam -Kuranji was specially composed for Swati Tirunal when he was a child. He used “Padmanabha” as his mudra for his compositions and this has led to confusion attributing many of his compositions to Swati Tirunal, who also has used “Padmanabha” and other synonyms like Jalajanabha, Sarasijanabha etc. He was  closely associated with Vadivelu of the Tanjavur Quartette.


Govinda Marar ‘s(1798-1843) birth place is Ramalingam. He was a competent musician and could sing in 6 speeds and was nicknamed “Satkala Govinda Marar’’ He was also a contemporary of Tyagaraja, whom he had the good fortune of meeting in Tiruvaiyaru. ‘Palayamam Parvatheesha’ (Anandabhairavi) and ‘Ksheerasagara vasa’ (Kedaragoula) are his compositions cited  here.


Rukmini Bayi, sister of Swati Tirunal was born in 1810. She was also a composer and she used both  Malayalam and Sanskrit in her compositions. Her composition “Sri Kantesha pahi” in Mukhari is well known.


Noorani (Palghat)  Parameshwara Bhagavatar (1815-1892) was from in Palghat. He was a towering personality amongst Kerala composers. He was adept in composing both in Sanskrit and Malayalam. He was a good musician with proficiency to play on the veena, violin and swarabat  He was also well versed in Harikatha kalashepam and for his Harikathas he could draw a sizeable crowd. He was appointed as known asthana vidwan at Tiruvanantapuram royalty.  He has composed many varnams and kritis.  ‘Sarasijanabha’(Nata) and ‘Sri Mahaganapathim bhajare’ (Nata)  are his often heard kritis.


Kuttikunju Thangachi (1820-1904) the only daughter of   Iraiyaman Thambi  was a scholarly person. She had composed attakathas called ‘Parvathi swayamvaram’ and ‘Srimati swayamvaram’.Works  such as  ‘Tiruvanandapuram sthalapuranam’,’Gajendra moksham’, and ‘Nalacharitram’ are attributed to her creative mind. ‘Katyayani Maam’ (Kamboji) and ‘Samajahare’(Kalyani) may be given as examples of her compositions..


Neelakanta Sivan (1839-1900) born in Vadiveeswaram,  near Nagercoil was not formally trained in classical music, though he had inborn talent  for composing kritis. ‘Somavara Mahima’,’ Lalitha Mahatmyam’,’Nalvar Charithram’are some of his well known works. He was a prolific composer in Tamil and his compositions number 2000. Two of his    kritis listed. ‘Ananda natamaduvar’(Purvikalyani) and ‘Sivanai  ninai’  (Hamir Kalyani).


T.Lakshmanan Pillai (1864-1950) hailed from Tiruvanandapuram.He had the advantage of college education. He was trained in music by the famous vainika-Kalyana Krishna Bhagavatar. He has composed 400 kritis only in Tamil. Annamalai University recognizing his musical prowess conferred titles such as ‘Isai  Kavi Arasu’ ,’Tamil Isai Selvar’ etc. ‘Senthil velavane’ (Pantuvarali) and ‘Thunbam thudithida’ (Bhairavi)  are his compositions cited here.


Attoor Krishnan Pisharody (1867-1960)  born in Attoor,  a village in Trissur Dt. Was respected  as a poet, musician and critic. He is author of “Sangeetha Chandrika” , a treatise on theory of music.


K.C.Kesava Pillai (1868-1914) was known for  prodigious out put of both literary and musical works. His kallipaattu on Ramayanam and Bhagavatham shows  depth of his knowledge in his understanding of musical forms. He translated Narayaneeyam in Malayalam and he was known for his uncanny knack for composing poetry on the spot. He was conferred the title of “Mahakavi” and was nicknamed as “nimisha kavi” He wrote attakathas for Kathakali and several plays like ‘Lakshmi Kalyanam’,’Raghava Madhavam’, ‘Vikramorvaseeyam’ etc. His 2 kritis, ‘Bhajikka Nee Ramane’ (Mohanam) and  ‘Koti Dinakara’ (Dhanyasi) are quoted here.


Kuttumuthu Kunju Kurup (1880-1943) was a native of Kaniyur. His literary and musical knowledge were great. His plays such ‘Devayani Charithram’, Vidhya Sankha Dhwani’ and ‘Balagopalam’ and others are true evidence of his scholarship. He has  composed 300 kritis in his plays, which have been tuned.


Ennapadam Venkatarama Bhagavatar (1880-1961) is another composer of merit. He was  born in Ennapadam,Cochin area and he was a great harikatha expert having mastered narration  in various languages like Sanskrit, Telugu,Kannada, Marathi etc. He traveled to different royalities  of Tiruvnandapuram, Cochin, Mysore, Baroda etc. and showed his skill in Harikatha. He has created several new ragams also.He has composed “Krishna Ashtottara shata nama keerthanas” with 108 kritis in 108 ragas. His two kritis –Guham ashrayami- (ragam-Prakashini) and ‘Matanga mukham’-(ragam-Sumukhi) are cited here


Thamasseri Krishnan Bhattathiri (1890-1963) composed kritis in Sanskrit, Manipravalam (Sankrit and Malayalam) . Two of his compositions  ‘Sri Raghava Paripalaya’ (Begada) and ‘Nanda nandanam Namami’(Anandabhairavi)  are cited here.


CS.Krishna Iyer (1916-98) from Kalpathy was the Prinicpal of Chembai Music College,Palakkad. His was a well known music teacher and composer. KV.Narayanaswamy and Yesudas are his disciples. Two of his compositions are mentioned here –‘Mohanamuralidhari’ (Mohanam) and ‘Samsara bheetyapahe’(Arabhi). 


Lalitha Dasar is the assumed name of  TG.Krishna Iyer born in Tripunathira  is a lyricist primarily. He has composed about 150 lyrics in Tamil ,Telugu and Sanskrit, for which  Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar set music for them. His mudra is ‘lalitha. ‘Pavana guru’-Hamsanandi  and ‘Ananda Natana’- Mohanam are his creations.


Puthucode Krishnamurthy (1923-85 )was a consummate musician and a good composer. Later part of his life, he was a teacher at Kalakshetra, Madras. His compositions are in Sanskrit, Tamil,and  Malayalam. Two of his compositions –‘Sri Hare janardhana’-(Revathi) and ‘Kanuven Kanna’ (Malayalam–Kanada)  are cited here.


M. D. Ramanathan (1923-84) was born in Manjapara, Palakad Dt. He became a disciple of Tiger Varadachari at Kalakshetra. Madras. He has composed over 300 kritis in Tamil,Telugu and Sanskrit.  ‘Tyagaraja Gurum’(Kedaram) and ‘Sagara shayana’ (Bageshri) are some of his popular compositions. He used the mudra ‘Varadadasa’ as respect for his guru.


N. P. Ramaswami (b.1930) of  Cochin is a great grand son of Palghat Parameshwara Bhagavatar. He has composed several varnams and kritis both in Sanskrit and Tamil. Two examples of his kritis are:’Pahi jagat janani’ (Sriranjani) and ‘ Vasudeva sutam’ (Bndavana saranga).


Tulasivanam aka Ramachandran Nair (b.1939) born in Kottayam. He was in the Indian Administrative service. He has composed attakathas for Kathakalis like ‘Parvathi parinayam’,’Bhama Vasudevam’,.’Karthikeya Vijayam’ etc and composed lyrics for 300 kritis  and some of the kritis have been tuned by practicing musicians. Two of his kritis ‘Shiva shankara  pahi’(Pantuvarali) and ‘Bhaja manasa’ (Bahudari) are mentioned here.  


Kilimanur Koyi Tampuran ‘s one composition is mentioned here. ‘Kamala vishikha’- (Chenjurutti) and along with Nagercoil Ammachi ‘s Malayalam padam in Kalyani.


Some of the other modern composers from Kerala are mentioned here:


Dr. Gopalakrishnan –‘Vande vidhataram’-(Saraswathi) and ‘Dhanvantrim ashraye’ (Nattakurinji) are his creations.


PK.Sankaranarayanan has composed kritis in Sanskrit and Malayalam. ‘Devim bhavaye’-(Hamsadhvani) and ‘Sri Mahaganapathim’-(Hindolam) are his compositions.  

Paravur Krishna Bhagavatar is also a noted  composer.  There are several other composers like Palkulam Subbarama Bhagavatar, Karamana Venkateswara Bhagavatar, Varkala Janardhana Bhagavatar, Puliyurkurichi Padmanabha Bhagavatar, Suchindram harihara Bhagavatar, Parakkav Narayana Bhagavatar, Kadayam Kasi Bhagavathar,Tanjavur Kathirkamadasan, T.Srinivasa iyer etc  have made remarkable contributions to the music of Kerala. Unfortunately, information on them is fragmentary. Over the decades, cultural heritage of Kerala has developed well by a large repertoire of compositions from many illustrious composers.