Carnatic legend Prince Rama Varma’s tribute to Belgian singer Jacques Brel

Learning an alien language can spark an interest in understanding your own, a little better. Aswathi Thirunal Rama Varma, better known as Prince Rama Varma of Travancore, learnt this nearly two decades ago, when he picked up his first Jacques Brel CD.

The legendary veena exponent was in town to perform at ‘Belgium Goes Carnatic’, as part of the annual Belgian King’s Day celebrations in honour of the country’s seventh king, Philippe, by the Consulate of Belgium, at Taj Coromandel, Nungambakkam. The night shone a light on the cultural relations between Tamil Nadu and Belgium. “Last year, we had a Belgian group of dancers giving a European twist to Indian numbers. This year, we got Prince Rama Varma, as he considers the Belgian singer Jacques Brel a huge inspiration,” said Mark Van de Vreken, Consul General of Belgium in Chennai.

Prince Rama Varma recalled how one of his French friends introduced him to the works of Brel. The Belgian singer is considered to be one of the masters of the modern chanson, and his songs were translated to English and recorded by other greats such as David Bowie, Ray Charles, Nina Simone and Frank Sinatra.

“When I first heard Jacques, I wasn’t greatly moved. But then I got my hands on a French-English dictionary. Once I understood the lyrics, that’s when it really hit me,” he said. Varma was taken by the passion in Brel’s lyricism as well as performance, whether it was the mad desperation of unrequited love in ‘Ne me quitte pas’ or the playful but cutting scorn in ‘Ces gens-là’.

“If I could appreciate the lyrical beauty of an alien language, then how could I not learn the meaning of what I was singing in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi and all these other languages?” he exclaimed. Thereon, Varma, who is fluent in Malayalam and English, started paying attention to the lyrics of the couplets in other languages.

“Take Thyagaraja’s Telugu song, ‘Bantu reethi koluvu’. For years, people have been singing it as ‘Bantureeti kollu… viyavaiah’. The break there doesn’t make sense because the word is ‘koluvu’! That is how we have been butchering songs,” he said.

Understanding the songs better also led him to try and share his learnings with his audience. Here at Taj Coromandel, Varma presented a strange sight as he rendered Brel’s earthy solo, ‘Ne me quitte pas’, in his traditional veshti. The song was interjected in the middle of Bharatiyar and M Balamuralikrishna compositions. “It is worth learning French and Tamil purely to savour the poetry by Bharatiyar and Brel,” he said, to huge applause.

He also demonstrated connections between the Classical music of the two areas by rendering an ode to the goddess Kamakshi. The couplets in Sanskrit were set in a very familiar tune — the classic ‘Ode to Joy’. Each performance was preceded by an explanation of the song’s history.

“Talking in between performances in sabhas is not traditional, but eventually people accepted it,” he said.

Out of the box

But then, sticking to tradition has not been Varma’s nature. Not only did his Royal Highness jump full time into the performance and teaching of Carnatic music, but he has also been very digital-friendly, contributing regularly to the YouTube channel, musiquebox.

However, there is one trend he is still not on board with: and that is fusion music. Which is why he has not yet tried mixing Jacques Brel influences with his Carnatic roots. “I know that’s where we are headed, and everybody is doing it. Maybe I will too, in future, but for now… I like my dosa and chutney, and I like my chocolate mousse. Doesn’t mean I’ll be having them together.”

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