R. Yagnaraman

When the 21st century dawned many of the epoch-makers who had distinguished themselves in their chosen vocations during the last century, and were in their eighties and nineties, were still with us; we could meet and talk to them. Suddenly there has been a marked change in the situation, over the past couple of months. In quick succession, many stalwarts have departed, making us feel the passing of an era. R. Yagnaraman, the legendary ‘sabhanayaka’ — General Secretary of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Chennai — was one such impact-making personality. His work and contribution assume special importance and relevance in the context of the changed circumstances of the last century that required new initiatives and strategies for the preservation and promotion of the performing arts. 

The twentieth century was marked by significant developments like democratisation, urbanisation, and emergence of metropolitan centres as the hub of activities. Following these and the decline of royal and feudal patronage for arts, the concerned middle class had to play an active role in the field, wherever they settled. The ‘sabha’ system became the principal mechanism, for such voluntary effort. The successful functioning of the ‘sabha-s’ depended on dedicated service and committed support. It was here that persons like Yagnaraman proved their worth through pioneering and sustained contribution. A typical Tanjavurian, steeped in the musico-devotional culture of the Kaveri region, Yagnaraman chose to serve the cause of music instead of the legal profession for which he was qualified. He did not wait for the infrastructure to develop to start action. 

What started as neighbourhood ad hoc activity with makeshift facilities and resources raised through personal efforts and guarantees, gradually grew in strength and profile and in the process the ‘sabha’ and its steward gained in stature. Also, the programming was imaginative, varied and purposeful. Within a short period, the Sri Krishna Gana Sabha in Chennai became a pre-eminent institution and a sought after platform for artists seeking recognition. The schedule became more and more packed; in recent years, there were more days in a year with programmes than without (see Sruti 232, January 2004). There was variety and wide coverage, featuring traditional, innovative, and new combinations, and opportunities were provided from sub-junior talent to veteran artists. Chennai’s December Art Festival can be termed as ‘national’ in scope. The sabha’s schedules over the years indicate the ‘who is who’ in music and dance. The Natya Kala Conference, organised annually since the eighties, served a felt need and added a rich dimension to the activities of the SKGS, involving international participation. Similarly, SKGS is probably the only sabha which launched a week-long festival devoted to nagaswara music and tavil, way back in 1987.

On many occasions a ‘galaxy of celebrities’ occupied the stage. One evening, for instance, M.S. Subbulakshmi, D.K. Pattammal, M.L. Vasanthakumari, and Lata Mangeshkar assembled on the SKGS stage to felicitate vidwan Lalgudi Jayaraman. In the new millennium, the infrastructure of the Sabha has improved and the old building has been transformed into an architectural landmark, with the help of benefactors like Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti. To have remained at the helm as the driving force of such a major institution for more than half a century and effectively too, as Yagnaraman has done, was something unique. All these speak volumes for the imaginative steering of the sabha by Yagnaraman and the goodwill that he earned and sustained. He had temperament, tact, passion and dynamism. His equations and interactions with artists spanned generations from Ariyakudi onwards. Even after his ‘satabhishekam’, and despite declining health, Yagnaraman continued to be active as ever, coming regularly to the sabha and guiding the proceedings with care, till the last season.

 At the same time, he was farsighted enough to develop an efficient ‘generation next’ team, now well equipped to carry the activities forward. This has not been the case with many institutions. His identification I first met R. Yagnaraman years ago when I had gone with my cousin M. Krishnamoorti (Arabhi) to Sri Krishna Gana Sabha to listen to a concert by GNB. The sabha then had a thatched roof. It is history now how this enterprising and dedicated secretary of this sabha built it brick by brick, not only structurally, but established it as an organisation whose influence in the field of performing arts was immense. He encouraged young talented artists and helped them flower forth as dancers, vocalists, instrumentalists and dramatists. He also promoted musical discourses, nama sankeertanam, upanyasam-s and nagaswara recitals. One unique contribution is the Natya Kala Conference held in December every year. This conference has drawn together dancers from various genres from India and the world. They come together and learn from each other in an atmosphere of friendliness. This is a major contribution of this sabha to the world of dance made under the stewardship of Yagnaraman. Yagnaraman was fond of Peria Sarada and made it a point to greet her whenever she was honoured.

Both of them belonged to Pazhamaneri near Tanjavur. I went with Sarada to Yagnaraman’s house to greet him on his 80th birthday. Even then Sarada was not very mobile. Yagnaraman and his son insisted that we should come into the house; they placed her in a chair from the car and took her inside. It was a heartwarming sight to see Yagnaraman hold the coffee tumbler to Sarada’s lips. When Nirmalam, the book on Peria Sarada was to be released, Yagnaraman insisted that it would be an honour to hold the release function at Krishna Gana Sabha. He was present on stage to felicitate Peria Sarada at the function held during one of the morning sessions of the Natya Kala Conference. G. SUNDARI with the SKGS was total. Yet, he did not forget to perpetuate the memory of its founder-secretary, Maharajapuram Santhanam, after whom the street has been named. He lent his support to many purposeful endeavours relating to music tradition — he served as Trustee in organisations conducting the Tyagaraja aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru, and the jayanti celebrations at Tiruvarur. Recipient of the Kalaimamani award of the Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram for his lifelong commitment and overall contribution in the field, Yagnaraman richly deserved national recognition. A public meeting to condole his death was held on 15th April at the Nalli Gana Vihar (the sabha’s premises) in Chennai. A number of musicians, dancers, dramatists, sabha officials and members of cultural institutions participated in the meeting convened by Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti.