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(ARCHIVE) Vol. XVIII No. 9, august 16-31, 2008

A Mylapore concert of yesteryears

(As told to Gayatri Sundaresan)

(Continued from last fortnight)

I remember a typical concert in old Mylapore. One side of the auditorium was reserved for ladies, with a rope demarcating the sides. Admission was free; ticketed programmes came later. Children sat on the floor in front of the stage, and I was one of them. Electricity was still unknown and, after sundown, gaslights lit up the hall. Everyone carried visiri-s (hand fans made of palm leaf).

Narikuravas brought the gaslights in at about 6.30 p.m. The lights made a hissing noise and emitted heat. An army of insects swarmed towards the lights and the hand fans came in handy to ward off the pests. Though the kurava-s belonged to a tribal community, they became rasika-s by habitually listening to concerts! A kurava once appreciated T.N. Raja­rathnam’s nagaswara playing with a ‘Besh’! It is said TNR cherished that as a big honour!

The artistes were offered soda costing ¼ or ½ anna during the performance. Coffee was not served, but the artiste could have any number of sodas. A small packet containing pepper, sugar candy, raisins and cloves was also offered at times. Naina Pillai used to chew ‘vaal milagu’ (a bitter spice which cleared his throat and made the voice smooth) and spit it out.

A kutcheri normally lasted three to four hours. With no sound amplification, the voice of the musician had to be strong and majestic. Most concerts made an impression right from the start. The accompanists generally played a role subordinate to the main singer’s. In return for a half anna soda, they gave music worth sixty lakhs!

The beginnings of the sabha-s

Mylapore Sangeeta Sabha in Nadu Street was the leading sabha of the time, holding weekly music and Harikatha kalakshepam programmes. The concerts were held every Sunday at the Vanniyar Sangam School as the sabha did not have its own auditorium. The secretaries were an Iyengar and a Lala, who did not know the ‘sariga’ of music! They, however, consulted those who did, and the sabha, therefore, was very successful. A sabha run by those who know music could suffer from their prejudices. An organisation should cater to public taste and not be motivated by the personal preferences of the office-bearers. In the early thirties, Rasika Ranjani Sabha (R.R. Sabha) was formed under the leadership of A.K. Ramachandra Iyer (music lover, munificent patron and owner of Midland theatre) to compete with the Mylapore Sangeeta Sabha. Harikatha, drama and music (vocal and instrumental) concerts were orga­nised. Nagaswaram concerts came later. In course of time, it was felt that organising concerts was not enough. With a view to expanding the scope of the sabha, a school for music was started by the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in 1940. A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer, who was the treasurer of the sabha, ran the school, assisted by Lalgudi Halasyam, an average singer. When the Music Academy was formed, it operated from Thambu Chetty Street. Dr. U. Rama Rao’s clinic was the venue for the concerts. The good doctor was the first President of the Academy, which later shifted its programme venue southward to Mylapore’s R.R. Sabha. All these institutions were at first started on a small scale. They then grew steadily to become ­major players in catering to the cultural needs of the people.

The calibre of the music ensured that it would linger in the mind long after the concert. The musical image created was so vivid that it was as if we could visualise the persona of music. Nowadays we listen to some music and instantly forget all that was sung. I consider it a great blessing that I was in the midst of that great music.

When I talk about the typical concert and ambience of those days, it is important to mention the rasika-s of those times. Whither kutcheri-s without rasika-s? My father was a leader among rasika-s. The very presence of my father with his four ‘soul-mates’ in the front row either put a singer into a cold sweat, or inspired him to give of his best! The Fearsome Five were Vissu, Thambu, Pattu, Appu and my father, Sundu.

It was a surprising coincidence that most of the connoisseurs and patrons of music were lawyers. The main reason for this might be that as lawyers did not have to work long hours, they could come home after attending to a case or two. They had time on their hands which they put to good use by promoting the fine arts.

Viswanatha Sastri (Vissu) lived in Triplicane. The first Secretary of the Music Academy, he was a great fan of Tiger Varadachariar. Wherever Tiger sang, Vissu would surely be present, even foregoing a case if need be! He was the grandson of Sarabha Sastri, a king of the flute. Sarabha Sastri was blind.

Sastri once attended a concert and at the end rushed forward brandishing his walking stick. He almost stumbled and fell, so overwhelmed was he by the music. When he asked who the musician was, quietly came the answer: “I am Dhanam”.

The second member in the front row was T.V. Rajagopal, known as Thambu. He was T.R. Venkatarama Sastri’s son and lived in Mylapore. He did not sing, but was very knowledgeable about music.

Swaminatha Iyer, whose nickname was Pattu, was the third in the group, also a ‘vakil’. He lived in Kosapettai opposite the present Tannitorai market. He promoted D.K. Pattammal.

Appu or K. Chandrasekaran was the second son of Dharma Daata V. Krishnaswami Iyer. He was himself an artiste and a connoisseur of all the arts. He was one of the founders of Kalak­shetra and the Music Academy where, as its secretary, he was all-in-all. His word was law at the institution.

Sundaram or ‘Sundu’, my father, would be seated in the middle, holding his cane. He wrote reviews of concerts for the dailies. He called himself V. Sundaram, without the ‘Iyer’ tag. His reviews were a very fair judgment of the musician and his music. If at times the review was strongly worded, his friend ‘Hindu’ Srinivasan asked him to modify it, but my father had the liberty to have the final say. He had the courage of his conviction.

I would say that these rasika-s were doing what we were doing at AIR – albeit unknowingly – that of directing the show, with suggestions, and by their very presence!

I remember Palghat Rama Bhagavatar’s first concert here. He broke into a cold sweat in the first song and then the prominent members in the audience told him to relax. It is well known that he later became a respected musician of repute.

Musicians gave total concentration to their profession. Their aim was to work for the cause of music, the art, and not for any personal benefit. The guru-s took care of their sishya-s as their own sons; on concert tours they would first check if the sishya was comfortable.

That was the way old sangeetam was. Times have changed now, but I do not mean to say that there is degradation of music. Music has grown in many ways now. Musicians make bold to tread new paths. This should happen, as art has to change and evolve and not remain stagnant.

Old is gold, of course. All we need to do is to keep that in mind and apply it in today’s music. At times flotsam may float on the top along with the lotus flower on water, but the art will not die.

Mylapore continues to be the centre of musical activity even today. The annual utsavam-s at the Kapaleeswarar temple, the accompanying nagaswara and other musical and dance programmes, and the numerous sabha-s that have sprung up, translate into performances every day of the year. Siva being the original ‘Koothaadi’, the Master of Music and Dance, the saying “Mylaiye Kailai, Kailaiye Maylai” is very apt now. (Courtesy: Sruti.)



Kalaivanar’s centenary

Even as the birth centenary of Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan (November 29, 1908) draws near, an auditorium named in his honour – Kalaivanar Aran­gam – faces the wreckers’ hammers.

T.A. Mathuram and Kalaivanar N.S. Krishnan

A new auditorium in his honour is promised, but somehow that does not sound right. Be that as it may, the proposed wrecking forces remembrance of the earlier leading comedian of the Tamil stage and screen.

N.S. Krishnan (NSK) started his career as a villupaatu artiste, before becoming involved in Tamil theatre. At one time, he owned his own touring drama company. When cinema became popular, he entered the Tamil film world to become its leading comedian. He generally wrote his own comedy dialogues and expressed them on stage and in films in such a way that the message was put across, but the subject for whom it was intended was not offended.

He acted in nearly 150 Tamil films. In many of them he teamed with T.A. Mathuram (later his better half) and they would bring the house down. He was also a talented singer.

During the mid 1940s, he and M.K. Thyagaraja Bhaga­vathar, the melodic matinee idol of Tamil Cinema, were arrested on charges of killing Lakshmikanthan, a publisher of scandal sheets. After a prolonged trial, the jury, much to the dismay of many, found MKT, NSK and four others guilty.

Appeals heard by a bench of the High Court were dismissed. MKT and NSK filed an appeal in the Privy Council, London, which was then the highest court of appeal. The internationally famous British Barrister D.N. Pritt appeared for them. The Privy Council referred the case back to India for a fresh appraisal.

The appeal came up before a bench of two judges, Mr. Justice Happel and Mr. Justice Sahabuddin (who migrated to Pakistan in 1947 and retired as Chief Justice of Pakistan). V.L. Ethiraj appeared for MKT and NSK and argued that the judges had not properly directed the jury and that evidence of doubtful nature had not been properly assessed. The judges agreed with Ethiraj’s arguments and acquitted MKT and NSK. One of the judges who heard the appeal remarked in Court that the knife produced as evidence could not kill even a rat! The judgement was given a few months before India became free.

MKT, NSK and the other four came out of prison after thirty months’ imprisonment. Experts and laymen feel that the truth about the real killers of Lakshmikanthan has still not come out and that MKT, NSK and the others were unfortunate victims of a frame-up.

NSK resumed action in movies, but his jail term and fight for justice had made him penurious. His hard-earned wealth was lost in fighting the case and so was it with MKT, who once ate off silver and gold plates and was the first super-star of Indian cinema.

Kalaivanar, known for his rational views, was an active member of the Dravidian movement. ‘Kalaignar’ Karunanidhi, when once asked by a journalist about who the non-political hero in his life was, answered it was Kalaivanar. Kalaignar knew him well and also worked in some of his film projects. (Courtesy: The Tamil Chamber of Commerce journal.)


Post-imperial ­fusions

(Pico Iyear

The assault began as soon as I set foot in India. “If aggrieved,” said the sign in the Mumbai customs hall, “Please Consult Asstt Commissioner Customs”.

Aggrieved mostly by that extra “t” in “Asstt”, I proceeded into the merry mayhem past a sign that informed me gravely, “Please ensure that your drawers are locked properly”. My underwear in place, I stepped outside and into an ancient Morris Oxford. A “Free Left Turn” was to the right of us and a “Passenger Alighting Point” to the left. India’s anarchy was in full swing, buses saying, “Silence please” on their sides, the mudguards of trucks responding with “Horn OK please” and my own little car making its contribution with a sticker on the back window: “Blow Your Horn/Pay a Fine.”

India is the most chattery country in the world, coming at you in almost 200 languages, 1,652 dialects and a million signs on every hoarding, car hailer and passing shop. Yet the signs are just familiar enough to seem completely strange. We passed a Textorium as we jangled into town, and a Toilet Complex. We passed the Clip Joint Beauty Clinic, the Tinker Bell Primary School and Nota Bene Cleaners of Distinction. One apartment block advised all passers-by: “No Parking for Out Siders. If found Guilty, All Tyres will be Deflated with Extreme Prejudice.” A sign in front of a decaying Dickensian manse announced: “Yogic laughter is multi-dimensional”. Beside it, between pictures of movie stars, a board advised that “Dark Glasses Make You Attractive to the Police”. Perhaps they had been fashioned by a proud graduate of the course I had seen advertised in a national paper: “We make you big boss in English conversation. Hypnotise people by your highly impressive talks. Exclusive courses for exporters, business tycoons.”

It might seem imperious, taking note of English misplaced in translation, or imperfectly learned. After all, my non-existent Hindi would provoke more than multi-dimensional yogic laughter. Yet all the miscegenated signs in India speak for something more than just linguistic mangling: they clutch at you with the plaintiveness of a child of a secret union that neither of its parents will acknowledge.

I am entirely Indian myself, by blood, though born in England. I never saw the incong­ruous merging of those cultures in their prime, or the protracted divorce that followed. But even for me, and even 50 years after what is known as “independence”, a large part of the romance of India lies in the culverts and civil list houses, the cantonments and canteens that still dot the hill stations and tropical valleys of the subcontinent. In their day they stood for occupation, even oppression. But now, standing for a liaison that neither party sought, they speak for something more wistful, to do with the coloniser colonised. And language, the words that startle and bewilder on every side, hints at something that historians and politicians overlook. As you walk past an “Officers Mess,” across from a sign for the “Bombay Colour Sergeants”, you are somewhere unique, not quite past and not quite present – the realm of Indlish, or Englian, or Hinglish (the language of Zee TV news broadcasts). More Indians speak English than there are English people, but I came to feel that the one companion who had been with me all my life, the English language, had stolen away and come back in a turban, a finger to its lips.

The hybrid forms of this unlikely tongue first came into being when the merchants and adventurers of the East India Company arrived in the 17th Century. Soon Shakespeare and the Bible were being recited around India. And yet – such is the logic of empire – the more the seeming invaders held on to India, the more India held on to them. By the middle of the 19th Century, up to 26,000 words had travelled from the subcontinent back to Britain, and many of them referred to goods as indispensable as your pyjamas or your punch. Mother England stocked up not just on cashmeres and mangoes and loot, but the words for them too.

Words are how we see the evidence of cultures flirting and stealing into one another’s chambers. The signs of India – “Causeway and Crowded Locality Ahead,” “Poultry Care Clinic” – show how each was haunted by the other, and how a sense of rich and poor was challenged and upended. Any Briton who reclined in a sense of superiority over the natives had, in Emily Eden’s apt words, the assumption “jungled out” of him.

In an ill-lit office in New Delhi, I found a mildewed copy of Hobson-Jobson, the great lexicon of British India.

The cobwebbed book showed how foreignness, and its opposite, danced so close together that soon it became hard to tell one from the other. “Home,” it says in one of its more poignant definitions, “in Anglo-Indian and colonial speech ...means England”. I was put in mind of Englishman Fowler, in The Quiet American, telling a Frenchman that he’s going back. “Home?” the Frenchman asks. “No. England,” Fowler replies, quickly.

These days, I suspect, every Englishman – every tycoon or pundit or thug (all the words come from India) – knows what a guru and a mantra is and has possibly consulted one himself. India began by sending its verandas to England, its bungalows and juggernauts, and very soon was following up with its avatars, its notions of karma and nirvana.

And though that has the ring of agitprop, it reminds us of one way in which the conqueror got taken over. Jane Austen has been embangled and set down in the drawing rooms of Calcutta in the work of Vikram Seth; Dickens has been given a spin and moved to a dusty Bombay apartment block in the novels of Rohinton Mistry. The empire never left, it is tempting to conclude, it just settled down in a back street in Madras, and started to tell its story from the other side.

As I went up into the Himalaya, past mouldering Anglican churches, I was reminded of my duty at every turn. “If Married Divorce to Speed” or “Do Not Nag While I am Driving.” Some injunctions were simply incomprehensible –“No Dumping on Berms”, “Watch for Octeroi”. Even when you can follow the words, they seem to bite their own tails by being placed in sentences that do everything they can to undermine their own solemnity. Indian English comes at you with the tinkle of an advertising man who’s got his hands on the ten commandments. There’s a trace of sententiousness in it, and yet the loftiest sentiments are placed inside the jingly singsong of a children’s ditty. A decade before, travelling across my stepmotherland, as I think of it, I’d been struck by the signs that said, “Lane Driving is Sane Driving” or “No Hurry, No Worry,” but now they have been joined by half a hundred others, trilling, “Reckless Drivers Kill and Die, Leaving All Behind to Cry”. And the majesty of such slogans (“Thanks for Inconvenience”) is only slightly diminished by the fact that 500m Indians cannot read a word of any language, let alone the Hinglish along its roads.

It is as if a language has been dreamed up by a clergyman in cahoots with a mischievous schoolboy, drawing their inspiration from Lewis Carroll and pledging themselves to turn V.S. Naipaul on his head. Never use one word when 30 will suffice. Never use a simple locution if a complicated one will serve. Honour your “felicitations” as if you were an “affectee”.

And when I opened the Times of India, I found a whole section devoted to “matrimonial notices”, in which prospective brides were glowingly described as “homely” and “artful” and “wheat-coloured” (which, in the logic of Indian English, means domestically minded, culturally inclined, and fair-skinned).

In this cheerful mingling of proportions, a country of the poor makes the things of the rich its own. In the poor parts of Mumbai, ramshackle huts call themselves “Marriage Palaces” and old buses have “Semi-Deluxe” written on their sides as if words still had a sympathetic magic, and just to invoke a quality was to bring its blessings down among us.

In Kolkata’s bookshops the bestselling author is P.G. Wodehouse, and the faded glory of his diction confers a gay Edwardian tilt on the most every­day transactions. The young may “air-dash” to a “Mega Exhibition Showcase of Ideal Lifestyle” but everything else proceeds as if nothing had changed, as if everything is in the hands of far-off gods who cannot always be relied upon. The sign that every foreigner comes to dread in India’s airports, stations and hotel lobbies is “Inconvenience is Regretted”.

The literature of English these days is ever more in the hands of those who may be regretting the inconvenience. They took the words that empire brought, and kept them going, much like those coughing Morris Oxfords, and even made them new. “Devotees are warned,” says the sign in a Hindu temple in Mumbai, “that to sit on the rocks much deep in the sea water away from the sea shore is not only encroachment on government property but is also dangerous to their lives, including valuable ornaments”.

We start by laughing at the follies of another culture’s misappropriations. We move towards bewilderment, as we sense that we’re not quite in the culture we left, and yet not in the one we think we’re going to. And we end up somewhere completely different, not quite irony and not quite romance. As I prepared to fly out of New Delhi last year, “Be Like Venus: Unarmed”, instructed the sign at the airport beside me. I began to wonder how far I was really going. “Blightly,” after all, is the Hindi word for “foreign”. (Courtesy: Connecting, the jour­­nal of the British Council.)

Pico Iyer is the author of Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home (Bloomsbury).

This article first appeared in the October 2003 issue of Prospect magazine (www.prospectmagazine.


Recalling two nature walks

Members of the Madras Naturalists’ Society assembled at the OTA campus and, guided by an escort from the Officers’ Training Academy Meenambakkam, recently followed a nature trail on the campus. Within a short while, they spotted more than a dozen birds. After crossing the Adyar River, which was quite covered with water hyacinths, some insect enthusiasts spotted damselflies, butterflies and dragonflies. Except for a lone mongoose and a few squirrels, no animals were seen, but a few members of the group spotted a water snake. Some of the birds spotted were: ashy prinia, hoopoe, kingfishers – white-breasted, small blue and pied – bulbuls, pied bushchat, grey partridge, red winged bushlark, coucal swifts, purple-rumped sunbird magpie robin, pied crested cuckoo. Waterbirds seen were moorhen, little cormorant, pond heron and egrets.

Arvind Venkatraman

Birding at Pallikaranai:

Looking down from the road bridge near the Vela­cherry MRTS station, in a small waterbody and reed-spotted marsh below were birds going about their business unmindful of the buzz of activity around them. A pair of pheasant-tailed jacanas swimming, and a couple more flying in were seen. There were five birds in all, but were not in the breeding plumage (when they will have the characteristic sickle shaped tail). Coots, little grebes, Indian moorhens, purple moorhens and cormorants were the other birds in the jheel. But the bird of the day was the normally shy and rather rare cinnamon bittern which landed in plain view in front of us. We could even see the markings on the neck. It also obliged us by flying towards and over us, leaving us admiring the beautiful sight of this bird. And also wondering how long this little haven in the midst of the city will last?

K.V. Sudhakar


The Grass­Yellow of Chennai

(Preston Ahimaz)

English Name : Grass Yellow

Zoological Name : Eurema hecabe (Common grass yellow)

Wingspan : 40-50 mm

Description: Smallish, very similar-looking butterflies, bright yellow with a black border around both wings on the upperside. The body is yellowish.

Behaviour: These are very common butterflies in Chennai and can often be seen fluttering close or moderately to the ground, perching frequently on a blade of grass or small flower. They usually rest with the wings closed above the back, thus making the back upperside wing-borders difficult to spot except when in flight. – (Courtesy: Madras Naturalists’ Society.)


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