A HOME FOR MUSIC - The Ramakrishna Mission Boys Home
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 musicloving public. It struck me that what I was witnessing was part of a great Mylapore tradition, for the Navaratri series 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.
The Home moved into its present premises in 1921 (see box titled A brief history) and ever since then, it became customary to host concerts during Navaratri. Ramakrishna was greatly moved by music and would frequently go into samadhi while it was being performed. Swami Vivekananda was a good singer himself. Music is a part of the worship at the headquarters in Belur Math and the evening arati in particular is musically most moving (see Sruti 311).
C. Ramanujachariar was a bureaucrat who rose to the level of Under Secretary, Department of Law and Education. He was very knowledgeable in Carnatic music. Any concert series organised by him had star musicians and members of the higher echelons of society participating in it. The Navaratri series became a highprofile event from its first year. All the big names of Carnatic music
Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and later Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, G.N. Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer – 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. There were not many sabha-s in Mylapore in the early 1920s and the residents were starved of music. Several came to listen and also, by the way, came to know of the Home and the good work it was doing. Lawyer and indefatigable diarist N.D. Varadachariar noted thus on September 23rd 1925 – “In the night, to Sri Ramakrishna Students’ Home for Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s vocal, Parur Sundaram violin, Dakshinamurthy mridangam. A good performance”.
Old-timers recall early concerts in the Nattukottai Nagarathar building. It could accommodate a large audience and once, during an Ariyakudi concert, some youngsters decided to have fun by making a hissing noise repeatedly while the music was in progress. Ariyakudi stopped singing
and made an announcement. “This is the Ramakrishna Mission,” he said. “I expect people who come here to observe due decorum at such a place”. That had its effect and the rest of the concert was heard in peace. 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 Hakim ward had a problem. It could accommodate only about 50 people. Loudspeaker arrangements were therefore made whenever a star was performing and people would congregate in the open spaces around the building and listen.
Several stories are told about concerts at the Abdul Hakim Ward. People remember Ariyakudi with fondness. His fraternal affection and admiration for the Harikatha artist C. Saraswati Bai was well-known and she was a regular at the Home too. It was said that when she was at his concert Ariyakudi took extra care to ensure that his performance was a success. She, on her part, expressed her appreciation or disapproval of his performance by sign language.
Once, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer was late for a performance at the Home. C. Ramanujachariar was a stickler for punctuality and noticing the young GNB in the audience he commanded him to get on to the stage. Viswanatha Iyer arrived just as the first song was completed. GNB offered to vacate the stage but Ramanujachariar would have none of it. He rather indifferently informed Viswanatha Iyer that everything being well, he could perform the next year. The next Navaratri, Maharajapuram practically camped on the premises. It was a GNB concert and when the artist began, his voice was in poor form. Ramanujachariar, with GNB’s permission, requested Viswanatha Iyer to take over. It was a kind of poetic justice.
Old-timers recall that Musiri Subramania Iyer was practically adopted by the Home. Ramanujachariar could ask him to sing at any time. It also perhaps helped that Musiri lived within calling distance. A concert of Musiri’s at the Home was apparently converted into an exposition of raga alapana-s by Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer who, seated in the audience, repeatedly requested for one raga after another. Musiri was also roped in by Ramanujachariar to go to Malaysia for a series of fundraising concerts for the benefit of the Home (see Musiri in Malaya). In 1936, Lord Erskine, Governor of Madras, visited the Home and Musiri was asked to sing the prayer. Those present remember that Musiri sang a sloka in Anandabhairavi and the Governor stood throughout. He was also sensitive enough to remove his shoes at the entrance.
Another regular at the Home, both as a member of the audience and also as performer, was Madurai Mani Iyer. He, like Musiri, lived a stone’s throw away. Once Mani Iyer was performing
at the Abdul Hakim Ward and as 9 pm approached, several people began leaving. The maestro was losing his vision by then and could not see this. T.S. Vembu Iyer, Mani Iyer’s companion and vocal accompanist, whispered to him that the concert should perhaps conclude soon. Mani Iyer said that he wanted to sing for some more time. Ramanujachariar called out that he would remain in the hall for as long as Mani Iyer sang. The concert concluded at midnight.
Flute Mali was another huge draw at this venue where he performed from a very young age. In the 1930s, a concert by Mali was in progress with Ramanujachariar keeping the tala with enthusiasm. The Ananda Vikatan cartoonist Mali was busy sketching both of them. Ramanujachariar’s attention was diverted and he missed a beat. The young Mali immediately put down his flute and smilingly corrected Ramanujachariar who took it in good spirit. Later Mali would play truant at the Home. On one occasion he called off his concert at the last minute and a notice to the effect was put up outside the Home. As the story goes, those who came to listen to Mali saw the notice and left after having roundly cursed the musician. Standing next to the notice board was a heavily bearded man who laughed uproariously each time someone abused Mali. It was Mali himself, having the time of his life!
On yet another occasion, Mali did not turn up and the crowd grew restive. Ramanujachariar, who was resting in his room, got up and rushed in a car with Jagannathan, an inmate of the Home, to Bazaar Road where Mali was living. They placed him in the car and brought him to the Home. By then, Mali having recovered from the influence of the stuff that cheers, proceeded to give a scintillating performance.
While kutcheri-s were the norm on Navaratri evenings, Harikatha and upanyasam were conducted in the morning on all the nine days in the library of the Home. There were performances by Soundararaja Iyengar, C. Saraswati Bai, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar and others.
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 at Trivandrum and Nagercoil. This got him 3000 rupees for the Home. 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 artists in attendance. Harikatha performances were held at various places. The highlight was a Harikatha on the life of Sri Ramakrishna by Srirangam Satagopachariar. Saraswati Bai’s nephew remembers that she performed on the occasion at the Hindu High School. The crowds were so large that she could not get in. Someone led her to the rear of the building, where having scaled the compound wall by means of a ladder, she managed to gain entry. Music concerts were held too (see box A Carnatic tribute to Sri Ramakrishna).
Ramanujachariar also floated the Secretariat Party, a dramatic society of amateurs who were all employed at the Madras Secretariat. This was an all-men group, assisted by the boys at the Home. Among the talents discovered at the Home was that of R. Ganesh who, at the encouragement of 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 motif and ranged from topics such as Hanumat Sanjeevi to Kabir or Meera. Ramanujachariar was the playwright, music director and coach. He could, at a pinch, act any of the roles. This came in handy when during the staging of Raja Bhakti, the hero was injured by his own sword. Within five minutes Ramanujachariar was on the stage.
The Secretariat Party staged plays regularly in Madras at the Walltax Theatre and travelled to important towns in Madras Presidency and beyond. It also staged performances at Rangoon and Colombo. Ramanujachariar worked hard and 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 by way of its performances added three lakh rupees to the corpus. Its biggest hit was Kalki’s Sivakamiyin Sapatham, the first staging of which was seen and approved by the author. The play was adjudged the best in Tamil at a contest organised by the Delhi Natak Sangh. Ramanujachariar sent the team to Delhi and there the play was staged twice, once officially for the Sangh and the second time to collect funds for the Home.
Ramanujachariar was a strong proponent of the idea that Carnatic music ought to be taught using
modern methods. He was one of the signatories of the famous resolution dated 7th January 1926 that proposed an Academy for Music in Madras, which became 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 conceptualizing of the Music College, the first of its kind in modern times.
As age advanced, Ramanujachariar, like Ramu, 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 for he died on 4th November 1956. But the work Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja (see box) 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. Since then, the Navaratri series has been taking place for the past six years. The response is terrific and once again, while it serves the cause of art, it also helps that a larger public gets to know of the good work being done by the Ramakrishna Mission Students Home.