George Town of the 19th Century saw the mushrooming of pioneering organisations devoted to the arts, promoted by businessmen. The Tondaimandalam Sabha will go down in history as the first institution that thought of ticketed concerts.

Madras that is Chennai completed 370 years on August 22 this year. The egalitarian nature of the new city, which did not have a ruler who could support the arts, ensured that several businessmen filled the breach and soon sabhas became the norm.

Towards the last decades of the 19th century, sabhas began developing in the city. The metro was still largely defined by George Town and this was where most of the organisations devoted to the arts came up. These may have been founded by the well-heeled but they were meant to cater for the common people and provide them with a means of entertainment.

During that period, Harikatha was preferred over Carnatic music and so the Bhakti Marga Prasanga Sabha was begun in the 1880s to host performances by one artiste alone – Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar, the father of the modern Harikatha format. When he was not available, the Sabha would rather reluctantly scout for other talents.

Audience was king

An organisation that had more to do with music was Tondaimandalam Sabha that took its name from the Tondaimandalam School from where it functioned. In later years, it was almost completely identified with its dynamic secretary C. Muniswami Naidu, who collected funds for the Tiruvaiyaru Tyagaraja Aradhana.

The sabha in later years came to be identified with a rough but extremely knowledgeable audience that could taunt and also at times punish artists. On one occasion, the mridangam player who slipped on the beat, was made to remain standing for the rest of the performance.

The Tondaimandalam Sabha will go down in history as the first institution that thought of ticketed concerts. This was a revolution in an era when concerts were of the “all are welcome” variety with remuneration for the artists coming out of plate collections at the end of the performance.

The big star of that period was Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan and the sabha first experimented with tickets for a performance of his. On reaching the venue, the artist found several of his fans walking away as they had not brought any money with them. Incensed, he cancelled his performance and moved immediately to the Parthasarathy Temple in Triplicane where he gave concerts for three successive evenings.

The plate collections far exceeded the probable gate collections at the sabha. But Sivan, ever the generous man, donated most of it to charity. The Tondaimandalam Sabha may have learnt its lesson the hard way when it came to tickets, but that was later to become the norm.

Competition for composers

Another sabha that operated in the George Town/Park Town area was the Muthialpet Sabha. In 1911, this sabha organised a competition among composers to come up with songs on King George. V. Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar effortlessly created ‘Satatamu Brovumayya’ in Todi, fashioning it as a prayer to Lord Rama to protect the king.

Not to be outdone, Tirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer managed to get a lyricist to create a composition for which he set a delectable tune. When he performed it, everyone applauded until someone asked for the lyric.

Despite the poor choice of words, Krishna Iyer was also given a gold medal, considering his status in the music world. Today his song is lost, while that of Poochi Iyengar survives.

The Muthialpet Sabha in later years functioned from Jaya Mansion, which having begun life as the hostel for the Madras Medical College students, became a hotel called Everest Lodge, run by Sundaram Iyer, a patron of the arts.

The sabha functioned on the terrace of the building perhaps making this organisation the first roof-top sabha of the city! One memorable night, Tiger Varadachariar, inspired by the full moon, launched into a ragam tanam pallavi in Poornachandrika.

From the travelogue/diary of Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, we come to know of a sabha called Gana Manohari Association which functioned in the early 20th century from the first floor of a building on Ramaswami Street, George Town. Bhatkhande attended a performance by Bangalore Nagarathnamma at its premises.

Yet another institution about which nothing is known was Sarada Sangeeta Sabha. The Saundarya Mahal on Govindappa Naicken Street was the venue for many sabhas. Its owner Salla Gurusami Chetty was a noted patron.

Inspired by these pioneers, sabhas were set up in other parts of the city such as Triplicane, Egmore and Mylapore. Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha was founded in Triplicane in 1900.

Sri Krishna Gana Sabha founded by Valadi Subramania Iyer was another institution in the same area.

The earliest one in Mylapore was Mylai Sangita Sabha that functioned between 1915 and 1929. Then came Rasika Ranjani Sabha. And so on, till today when Chennai has sabhas in almost every postal district.

(The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com)