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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XX No. 22, March 1-15, 2011
A Home for ­Music
(By Sriram V. )

An enjoyable concert of Sanjay Subrahmanyan was drawing to a close at the vast Swami Vivekananda Centenary Hall of the Ramakrishna Students Home in Mylapore. It was part of the Navaratri series. In attendance was a large audience, which included students of the Home, several monks of the Ramakrishna Order, and the music-loving public. It struck me that what I was witnessing was part of a great Mylapore tradition, for the Navaratri series tradition at the Ramakrishna Mission goes back to 1921. The portrait of C. Ramanujachariar, the man who initiated it, hangs by the side of the stage, facing the audience. He would have been delighted with the series, for he loved music and theatre.

C. Ramanujachariar.

C. Ramanujachariar was a bureaucrat who rose to the level of Under Secretary, Department of Law and Education. He was very knowledgeable about Carnatic music. The Navaratri series became a high-profile event from its first year. All the big names of Carnatic music performed at the Home. No tickets were sold and no funds collected. Musicians received the proverbial tengai moodi, but the presence of Ramanujachariar and the atmosphere of the Home made up for that.

Later, when the Vivekananda College came up in the premises, the concerts were shifted to the Abdul Hakim Ward – one of the several dormitories in the Home – named after the donor who made the construction possible. The Abdul HakimWard had a problem. It could accommodate only about 50 people. Loudspeaker arrangements were, therefore, made whenever a star artiste was performing and people would congregate in the open spaces around the building and listen.

While kutcheri-s were the norm on Navaratri evenings, Harikatha and upanyasam were conducted in the mornings on all the nine days in the library of the Home.

A landmark in Madras

The Ramakrishna Mission Students Home is a landmark in Madras. It was begun in 1905, when C. Ramaswami Iyengar (Ramu to everyone), a clerk in the offices of the Madras and South Maratha Railways, found four boys looking rather forlorn under a tree. They had come all the way from Guntur to ­Madras. Ramu took them under his wing. He was an ardent follower of Swami Vivekananda’s teachings and approached Swamiji’s disciple Swami Ramakrishnananda, then heading the Madras branch of the Ramakrishna Mission, for advice. Sashi Maharaj, as he was known to all, gave his blessings for the beginning of a home for boys. Thanks to help from munificent donors the Home ­became a reality.

It moved from place to place in Mylapore for several years. Then, in July 1915, S.G. Srinivasachariar, a District Munsiff, gifted it 15 grounds that he owned in Mylapore. Land adjoining it was purchased thanks to further donations and on May 10, 1921, with the handsome premises completed, the boys moved in.

As the number of boys steadily rose it was decided to begin a residential high school. The Nattukottai Nagarathar funded the construction of the school premises and it was named after them. This is today a part of the Vivekananda College ­premises.

In 1930, Ramu decided that students needed practical ­experience in technology and this saw the beginning of a ­Technical Institute which is today the Polytechnic College. Ramu was afflicted with paralysis in 1926 but that did not deter him in his quest for making the Home financially stable. Before he died in the Home in 1932, he handed over the responsibility of running it to his cousin C. Ramanujachariar, which he ­fulfilled till he passed away in 1956.

Ramu’s statue stands just outside the Home.

To collect funds for the Home, Ramanujachariar adopted several measures. In 1932, he got the permission of the Maharaja of Travancore to conduct Srijayanti concerts in Trivandrum and Nagercoil.

In 1936, the birth centenary of Sri Ramakrishna was celebrated all over Madras for a week. Ramanujachariar was the chief planner. Processions were taken out in various parts of the city with top-ranking nagaswara artistes in attendance. Harikatha performances were held at various places.

Ramanujachariar also floated the Secretariat Party, a dramatic society of amateurs who were all employed in the Madras Secretariat. This was an all-male group, assisted by the boys at the Home. Among the talent discovered in the Home was that of R. Ganesh who, encouraged by Ramanujachariar, decided to seek a career in films. He became a star and is remembered as Gemini Ganesan. The Madras Secretariat Party too scaled great heights, and functioned for twenty years. The plays invariably had a strong bhakti element.

The Secretariat Party staged plays regularly in Madras at the Walltax Theatre. It also travelled to important towns in Madras Presidency and beyond. It also staged performances in Rangoon and Colombo. Over a period, the Secretariat Party contributed more than five lakh rupees towards the corpus for running the Home, ensuring its financial stability. Those championing other causes were quick to solicit its help and the Secretariat Party put up plays for the war effort and relief efforts following natural disasters.

After his retirement, Ramanujachariar’s influence over the Secretariat Party waned and, in 1945, he promoted the Ramakrishna Kripa Amateurs, with membership open to all those wanting to help the cause. This group rehearsed all its plays at the Home and through its performances added three lakh rupees to the corpus. Its biggest hit was Kalki’s Sivakamiyin Sapatham.

Ramanujachariar was a strong proponent of the idea that Carnatic music ought to be taught using modern methods. He was one of the signatories to the famous resolution dated January 7, 1926 that proposed an Academy for Music in Madras, which became a reality a year later. He was also, in his capacity as Under Secretary, Department of Education, involved with the setting up
of the Annamalai University where he helped in particular with the conceptualising of the Music College, the first of its kind in modern times.

As age advanced, Ramanujachariar, like Ramu (C. Ramaswami Iyengar) (see box), spent time increasingly at the Home. In the last years of his life, he began working on his magnum opus – the translation of the lyrics of Tyagaraja into English. He completed the work and entrusted its presentation and publication to his close friend Dr. V. Raghavan who brought it out in 1958. Ramanujachariar did not live to see the book in print as he died on November 4, 1956. But the work Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja is still in print.

The Navaratri series continued till the 1970s thanks to Kolathu who, as Principal of the Ramakrishna Mission School, kept it going. But in the 1980s the practice was discontinued. The Abdul Hakim Ward became dilapidated and was pulled down in 2005 to make way for the new Centenary Block. That year, several old students decided that the tradition established by Ramanujachariar ought to be revived. The new hall was rectified for better acoustics and a search began for a sponsor for the Navaratri series. Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, who personally knew Ramanujachariar, came forward gladly and began underwriting the concert expenses and the Navaratri series has been taking place for the past six years. – (Courtesy: Sruti)


In this issue

Secrets of Tamil Nadu's Archives
No photographs, please, this is Chennai
Bins of cruelty
New uses for old buildings
A Home for ­Music
Masters of 20th Century Madras science
Why does Tamil Nadu keep failing?
Other stories

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