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February 28, 2014

Mylapore — Musical hub of Madras

Reminiscences of S. Rajam 

Mylapore — Musical hub of Madras

My life has revolved around music and art. I have seen and heard most of the stalwarts of the ‘golden period’ of Carnatic music. I have been fortunate to have moved with them closely. In the early decades of the last century, Mylapore was at the centrestage of musical developments, with concerts within a stone’s throw of one another. And living in Nadu Street from the time I was five years old, I was in the middle of it all!

There were well known musicians,and many dedicated teachers of music, whose services have largely helped in the growth of Carnatic music. Most of them may not have succeeded as performers, but their pathantaram was authentic, and teaching music was their main source of livelihood. This army of unsung teachers was the repository of a huge repertoire. If we were to compile their combined repertoire we would get a thousand compositions! They spread the knowledge of music to a wide range of people, and thus contributed to keeping the tradition alive.

Many vidwan-s lived in Mylapore at that time. Mylapore was a hub, humming with musical activity not seen anywhere else in India. We can proudly say that it continues to be so to this day.

Maddala Narayanan Teru

There were many musicians living on this street. It used to be called Mitthai Kadai Teru, after the sweet shop situated at the corner of the street, but it was named after Narayanan who played the maddalam during the Kapaleeswarar temple festivals. Wasn’t it Lord Narayana who played the maddalam during pradosham for Siva’s celestial dance! The 30 to 40 houses on that street fetched a monthly rent of five or six rupees each. A composer, teacher, or musician of good calibre lived in almost every other house.

I am talking about the time when I was between 10 and 16 years of age (1929-1935), studying in P.S. (Pennathur Subramaniam) High School. Only the High School had a building at that time; the Elementary classes were held in makeshift structures. K.V. Krishnaswami Iyer was one of those who shaped the Madras of that period, contributing his time and energy to the Music Academy, and P.S. High School. He devoted his life to public causes in spite of his ailing body.

Among the musicians of Maddala Narayanan Teru, was my first guru, Ganesa Iyer. He was Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s sishya. He had learnt Tevaram along with M.M. Dandapani Desigar. There were many musicians from Madras who later moved to Bombay, and Ganesa Iyer was one of the first to do so.

Ariyakudi had a tambura in every city, every town that he visited; they were given for safe-keeping to a trusted sishya in each of these places. In Madras, it was my guru Ganesa Iyer who had the privilege of looking after Ariyakudi’s tambura. Ariyakudi used to come in a jatka (carriage), tune the tambura, and use it whenever he was here.

The Pattamangalam brothers, Easwara Iyer and Sambasiva Iyer, were vainika-s. Both the instrument and the artists had a special place in the musical firmament in those days. In later years, the veena lost its pride of place. Some efforts are now being made to revive it.

Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer, a vocalist, and his violinist brother Umayalpuram Rajagopala Iyer, were grandsons of Umayalpuram Swaminatha Iyer of Harikatha fame. These musicians were not masters in the art of performing, but had a sound knowledge of music, which they imparted to many disciples. Their pathantara was authentic.

Maruthuvakkudi Rajagopala Iyer or Gopu had a large repertoire. A sishya of Swaminatha Iyer, he was blind in one eye and had this habit of holding the watch close to the good eye to see the time. He was a good singer, and he put his heart and soul into teaching. No one could fault Maruthuvakkudi Gopu’s tutelage.

Papanasam Sivan was also a resident of this lane. He later bought a house in Mandaveli and shifted there. He taught me during the years 1928-30.

Turaiyur Rajagopala Sarma’s father gave discourses on the Ramayana and was known as ‘Ramayana Sastrigal’. Rajagopala Sarma was a good singer and his music had method and beauty. He sang in lieu of M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavatar in the production of the 78 rpm records of some of his film songs. He was attached to Kalakshetra. He wrote the songs with swara notation that used to appear on the back page of Swadesamitran, a Tamil magazine. Another musician who lived here was Panchanadam, a good singer.

Melakkaveri Ramamurthy, grandfather of Melakkaveri Balaji (a present-day artist), was a good singer with a ringing voice. He lived for some time right behind my house. His younger brother Kalyanaraman (Kalyanam) who worked as an advocate’s assistant, was a khanjira player. Many musicians would consult them to clear their doubts on musical matters. The brothers were reserved and kept to themselves.

‘Adam Street’ Venkatarama Iyer was a violinist. He was a disciple of Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer. He would ride a bicycle to the houses where he taught music. He was quite short and needed a raised platform or a step to climb on to or alight from the cycle! He conducted Tyagaraja utsavam on Panchami tithi every month. It was famous as “Adam Teru Venkatarama Iyer Panchami” and musicians from far and near regularly came to perform, without expecting any remuneration because Venkatarama Iyer was quite poor, but totally dedicated to music. Tiffin, coffee and meals were served to everyone who attended the utsavam. Somehow money for all this would pour in through collections from the general public and the musicians; and at the end of it not a pie would remain in Iyer’s hands. His music was not very impressive, but his devotion to music was truly praiseworthy.

Tirupparkadal Srinivasa Iyengar (father of violinist Tirupparkadal Veeraraghavan) was Naina Pillai’s disciple and would accompany his guru on the violin. He was a staunch Vaishnavite. He wore a yellow ‘naamam’ on his forehead, not red, and had a small tuft of hair which we called ‘appala kudumi’. He never wore a shirt; his attire consisted of panchakaccham, a pocketwatch tucked at the waist and a ‘mel veshti’ or angavastram. He always carried a black umbrella, but would cover it with a white cloth to reduce the heat! He too went to his student’s homes to teach. He was a good violinist in the bani of Naina Pillai. He played for me too, and I learnt many compositions from him.

Parur Sundaram Iyer and Tirupparkadal Srinivasa Iyengar were the senior violinists of that time. They were similar in the way they dressed — Sundaram Iyer wore a dhoti (4 muzha veshti — he wore it raised high), and a jibba. He was quite thrifty. His black umbrella too had a white cloth over it. The only contrast was that Parur Sundaram Iyer always appeared to be scowling, while Srinivasa Iyengar was always smiling and cheerful. I never saw a smile on Sundaram Iyer’s face. His main source of earning was tuitions. He however also owned the house in which he lived, which was considered a very big asset in those days.

Mayavaram Krishnier lived on South Mada Street. He was very handsome but an ordinary singer who rated himself very highly as a singer. On one occasion he taught M.S. Subbulakshmi. He had the habit of adjusting his hair while walking on the road.

Mylapore Gowri Amma was a devadasi, wedded to the Kapaleeswarar temple. She lived in a small lane adjacent to Srivati Stores, where all the property belonging to the temple was. I learnt many padam-s from her when I was about ten years old. She knew as many padam-s as Dhanammal, apart from javali-s  and Tamil songs. I have seen Dhanammal’s daughter and granddaughters and many others coming to her to learn. She taught beautifully. She taught abhinaya to Rukmini Devi, and later to Kalanidhi Narayanan (this must have been about ten years after I learnt from her). She sang very well, displaying abhinaya while she sang. We do not get to hear that kind of bhavam these days. (Rajam sings) Etthai kandu nee icchai kondaai magaley. Kanne, Penne, nee po/ Suddha paithiyakkaran Gangadharan….

In the corner, where South Mada Street and R.K. Mutt Road meet, where Vijaya Stores now stands, there was a tiled house where many vidwans lived. In fact, in those days, Mylapore was full of such ‘oattu veedu-s’ which housed many vidwans.

Sermadevi Subramania Sastri, a veena player, lived here (see Sruti 111). He probably belonged to the Dikshitar parampara. He was a Sanskrit scholar who composed kriti-s in praise of Muthuswami Dikshitar including one in raga Dharmavati. He knew many Dikshitar kriti-s and I learnt from him too. His son was my classmate in P.S. High School.

Here I want to bring out the contrast between two schools of music. I used to attend the Friday music sessions at Dhanammal’s house with my father. The total artistic atmosphere and experience cannot be described in words. You felt you were floating in space — the swahu on Dhanammal’s fingers (to facilitate smooth playing of the veena), the fragrance of nityamalli, her soft singing and veena-playing, the rich silence and pauses making the music so much more poignant. In that intense moment, a delicate sangati, a nuance would ripple out, and get firmly imprinted in our heart and mind. It was ethereal, to say the least.

After this musical high, I had to go to Sermadevi Subramania Sastri on Saturday mornings. Visualise this: Sastri’s huge 4-½ feet long veena against Dhanam’s delicate three-foot instrument; the silver takari inlay on Sastri’s veena as opposed to the fine ivory inlay work on Dhanam’s veena. The metal inlay work produced a harsh, metallic sound; he used a small silver box with ghee that must have been at least three months old as compared to Dhanam’s swahu! It was an assault on the senses in every way, after the still resonance of the previous day. Sastri’s was plain singing, with a lot of head shaking. He was a great scholar but lacked finesse. On T.L. Venkatarama Iyer’s recommendation he played in the national programme of AIR and was also connected with Kalakshetra. I do not mean to deride Sastri or his music, as this is an extreme contrast. I do not think anyone can compare favourably with the one and only Dhanam. Sastri’s pathantaram was solid and his contribution to music was by way of creating many students.

Veenai Raghavan, a good veena player was his disciple.

Another duo was of the Pattamadai Brothers — Sundaram and Krishnan, who were related to Subramania Bharati. Sundaram was a very good singer with a rather soft, husky and pleasant voice. His radio programmes were a treat to listen to. Krishnan had an open voice. Sundaram had more students than Krishnan, probably because the latter was short tempered. But few knew that this façade hid a good heart. Sundaram died before Krishnan.

The brothers strove to popularize Bharatiyar’s poems. To this end, they conferred the title ‘Sangeeta Jyoti’ upon those musicians who sang Bharatiyar’s compositions, and scripted the songs with notation (Krishnan tuned many of them). The brothers spent all their fortune on this. After Sundaram’s demise, Krishnan continued with this practice until he passed away about four years ago.

Totadri Iyengar was another musician with good musical sense. He was quite short, and had the appearance and mannerisms of Tiger Varadachariar. He shook his head from side to side before even beginning to sing. Being an artist I have always observed these quaint characteristics of anyone I meet. Totadri lived near Chitrakulam in Mylapore. He was one of those who would often be seen at Mayavaram Krishnier Hotel!”

As told to GAYATRI SUNDARESAN

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