On a recent visit to Thiruvidaimarudur, I was intrigued by a lovely Mahratta structure behind a compound wall. What was visible was the elegant first floor with two jarokha windows, each flanked by stucco figurines in court costume. These openings would have given the residents a fine view of the temple to Mahalingaswami. Temple processions would have passed below the windows. The ground floor was completely obscured by shops. Walking further down, and taking a left on Mahadana Street, I was at right angles to the façade that had enticed me and here was an entrance. A passerby informed me that this was the Mahratta palace. I realised I was looking at Amarasimha’s retirement home.
The year is 1787. King Tulaja II of Thanjavur is dying. His adopted son Sarabhoji is still a minor and the king’s brother Amarasimha is appointed regent till the boy comes of age. The regent has other ideas and on Tulaja’s death, tries to get the adoption declared null and void. But Frederick Schwartz, the German missionary who is Sarabhoji’s guardian, foils his moves and succeeds in getting the East India Company to recognise the boy as the lawful heir. The process takes nine years and in 1797, Amarasimha is exiled to Madhyarjunam or Thiruvidaimarudur, where he maintains a rival court of sorts, funded by a pension. The history books fall silent on him thereafter.
If you look into Carnatic music history, you find Amarasimha recorded as a great rasika and patron, while in power and out of it. In 1785 or thereabouts, he discovered the talents of Ramaswami Dikshitar, father of Muttuswami Dikshitar, during a visit to Tiruvarur. Dikshitar Sr composed Samajagamana, a song in twenty ragas and Adi Tala in his praise and received rich gifts.
While regent, Amarasimha, through his minister Sivarayamantri, invited Kavi Matrubhutayya, composer of the immortal Ananda bhairavi piece Ni mati sallaga, to Thanjavur. Responding to this, Matrubhutayya created the Parijatapaharana Natakamu, a play in five acts, in Yakshagana style. Subbarama Dikshitar in his Sangita Sampradaya Pradarsini also lists Kuppuswami Ayya as a composer who was in Amarasimha’s and later in Sarabhoji’s court.
Retirement in Thiruvidaimarudur meant lesser funds for patronage but Amarasimha appears to have managed nevertheless. That his court at times rivalled that of Sarabhoji’s at Thanjavur is evident from the strict instructions given by the latter that no musician could sing in praise of his uncle. A Devadasi who made bold to do this was fined. Amarasimha did not live long in retirement, passing away supposedly in 1802. In his last years, he extended support to Ramdas Swami, a kirtankar from Maharashtra who like Meruswami and Morkar Bava, did much to popularise Hindustani music in the Thanjavur region.
After Amarasimha’s death, his son Pratapasimha continued the practice of supporting musicians. Ramdas Swami lived on in his retinue. A magnificent personality and a brilliant composer who attached himself to the court of Pratapasimha was Ghanam Krishna Iyer, whose Niddirayil soppanathil eulogises the erotic prowess of the royal patron. Interestingly, U Ve Swaminatha Iyer has it that Ghanam Krishna Iyer was in the retinue of Amarasimha as well, which appears somewhat improbable as Krishna Iyer would have been only twelve in 1802 when Amarasimha is supposed to have passed away. It was while Ramdas Swami and Ghanam Krishna Iyer were with Pratapasimha that Gopalakrishna Bharati came to Thiruvidaimarudur. He learnt music from both and perhaps the Nandan Charittiram and his Vidudi Kirtanais bear the impress of his two Gurus.
What happened thereafter to the Tiruvidaimarudur branch of the Thanjavur Mahrattas is a mystery. Perhaps Pratapasimha died without issue or maybe the annexing of Thanjavur by the East India Company in 1855 cut off the income stream and reduced the family to indigence. There is no mention of this line after Pratapasimha in any book.
Having ascertained that anybody could walk in albeit at personal risk owing to dilapidation, I made bold to enter Amarasimha’s palace. I stepped into an arcaded entrance hall, with a high ceiling. After the blinding sunlight, the darkness here was overwhelming. A television set was blaring for squatters have taken over the structure. Beyond the hall was the ruin of a vast pleasure garden with a pond. I could make out a few steps leading to nowhere and a patterned border for a flowerbed. The rest was all wild growth. The ornate and seemingly solid façade and the entrance hall were the only survivors of what was once a grand palace. What of the rest? All gone I was told. Fields flourished where Amarasimha and Pratapasimha may have listened to Ghanam Krishna Iyer. I was in a sham palace, its grand walls enclosing emptiness. I suddenly realised that Amarasimha must have felt the same about his retirement and pension.
This article appeared in The Hindu under the Friday Features Column on 3rd January 2014