The greatest figure in Kerala's musical tradition who ranks one among the greatest personalities in the history of the Carnatic system of Indian music is Maharaja Swati Tirunal. He wrote eight works, six of them in Sanskrit and two in Malayalam. They are mostly hymns and commentaries. His greatest contribution was in music. His musical compositions are supposed to number over five hundred.
Swati's ambition was to assimilate the best in all traditions and reutilize the native heritage. He invited to his court Kannayya, the disciple of Tyagaraja; the brothers Vadivelu, Meru Swami from Maharashtra; Lakshmana Das from Gwalior and Suleiman and Allauddin who were the exponents of the Hindustani music.
Swati has given songs in Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam. Besides 'Kritis', typical of the south, he has composed Dhrupads, Tappas and Khayals. Several of the compositions are in rare ragas like Saranganatta, Lalita Panchamam, Mohana Kalyani Dvijavanti and Gopika Vasantam. Some of these sacred songs are epitomes in a miniature, of the Ramayana and Mahabharata. One of his brilliant achievement is Ragamala on the ten incarnations of Vishnu. Each stanza is a different raga. In many of his compositions he worked the name of the raga into the lyrical text in such a way that it becomes a word meaningfully fitted into narrative. He managed it in Ragamalas and in one instant, in a ragamala in Hindi. The syllables pertaining to percussion instruments have been skillfully interwoven into the texture of some compositions like Nrityati in 'Sankarabharanam' and Sankara Sri in 'Hamsnandi'. The starting point in his kritis are varied. In Smarajanaka he has used atitagraha i.e. the song starts before the first beat of tala, slow and fast tempi are dexterously interwoven in kritis like Karunakara in Begada and Bhogindra in Kuntalavarali.
This virtuosity reached astonishing heights in the class of compositions known as Varnams. They are longer composition than kirtanas. Here Swati tried to weave the phemomes sa, ri, ga, ma which are the standard notation for the scale notes, into the lyrical text where they become accented and therefore conspicuous phonetic elements of words meaningfully used.
Swati was aiming at some pervasive spread of musical culture. He laid down what ragas should be sung or rendered in instrumental music every day at the Padmanabha temple, Trivandrum. He composed kirtans for this daily service. He composed a Garland of nine gems, nine compositions. One for each day of Dussehra festival. He had cadjan leaf copies made of these compositions and distributed them to other centres in the state as well as outside it.
The stabilization of classical music in daily and seasonal ritual was a historical stop in the evolution of Kerala's musical tradition. Swati introduced the 'Harikatha' or sacred recital from Maharashtra with the help of Meruswami. He invited Meruswami to his court especially for this purpose. The ruler himself wrote three extended compositions for such recitals. He has used Abhangas, Dinders and Chhands which are Marathi song moulds. Swathi used to compose songs in Malayalam and simple Sanskrit.
In every one of his kirtans, Swati preferred to use the name of the family deity, Sri Padmanabha. For him, the human soul becomes the maiden consumed by passionate longing for union with God's love. One of the kirtans expresses the emotions of a love lorn maid as the night deepens and each of its eight divisions goes by without her lover arriving. It is a ragamala of eight ragas. The first raga is Sankarabharanam, the mode usually sung at nightfall and the last is Bhupala, the raga sung at the hour before dawn. The poetic tissue is rich in the familiar conceits of the Sanskrit tradition. Swati also brought in many Bharata Natya exponents from the neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu and contributed to the dance tradition in Kerala by composing fifty padams in Malayalam.
Swathi Sangeetholsavam, a week long music festival, is held in tribute to Maharaja Swathi Thirunal annually from January 6 to 12 at the 'Kuthira Malika' palace complex at Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, India. the festival is organised by Prince Rama Varma, a direct descendant of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal.