'Madras Week’ celebrates a city that historically has attracted artists, poets, dancers and musicians.
‘Madras Week’ (August 18-25) is here once again and brings with it waves of nostalgia. I want to chronologically show how the place attracted poets, artists, musicians and dancers, who were also welcomed into its fold.
Indians are known for migrating, scenting out new pastures as they are always eager to better their lives. There are even jokes about it. One goes like this: “Even on the moon an astronaut will be welcomed by a Malayali tea-shop owner serving ‘cha’ and nendra pazham.”
In the past, the conservative people of the South - who never travelled beyond their villages - would comment about a person going to Madras with awe and sometimes scorn – “Avan Pattanam paakka porana?” Pattanam was the short form of Chennapatnam, obviously a Telugu name - according to my research - as is Machili-patnam or Visakha-patnam. So the declaration that ‘Chennai’ is a Tamil word is not correct. This piece of land near the sea coast with its salubrious sea breeze used to be Chennapatnam in the past.
It has been said that the land was sold or given to the British by the Nawab of Arcot.
But, as I say, the land near the sea was always there. Tirugnanasambandhar, the Tamil saint came here to the Kapali temple and performed a miracle by resuscitating Poompavai from the dead with his sacred songs.
Many temples in and around Madras were eulogised by the saint composers. Muthuswamy Dikshitar passed through Madras on his way to to Kasi - before he became a composer. On his return he went to Tiruthani, got the divine power of composing, came back to Madras, visited the Triplicane Parthasarathy temple and sang his beautiful song, ‘Sri Parthasarathi’ in Shuddha Danyasi. After that he visited Kanchi and other centres.
Tyagaraja swami came here and composed kritis at Tiruvotriyur, Kovur and other spots. The song in Shudha Saveeri, ‘Darini Telusukonti,’ is about Goddess Tripurasundari (Vadivudaiamman) of Tiruvotriyur. He crossed Madras and went to Kanchipuram to meet his Guru Upanishad brahmam.
Prof. Sambamurthy - the great music scholar who was the first to write music theory books - has recorded in his writings that Tyagaraja swami stayed at a house in Bunder Street in George Town and sang the raga Devagandhari continuously for eight days. In fact it was in that building that Sambamurthy housed his music book shop in later years.
Raja Ravi Varma, the noted painter of Kerala, received recognition for the first time by winning the Governor of Madras’ prize - a gold medal - in the annual art competition convened by the British Governor in Madras. In fact, even before that he used to get his oil colours, brushes and water colours from Madras. Some of his lovely works are now in the Madras Museum.
Patnam Subramanya Iyer - who had his musical lineage from Tyagaraja – had ‘Patnam’ affixed to his name as he moved to Madras and made it his home. He was also known as Begada Subramanya Iyer as he sang the raga Begada beautifully.
The Maharaja of Travancore, a trained vocalist, not only came here in the 20th century, but also built a palace and a beautiful temple for his ishta devatha - Padmanabha Swamy in Adyar.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, temple dancers and musicians from Thanjavur moved to British Madras in search of concerts and tuitions. Most famous among them was Veena Dhanammal and her children, a large extended family of musicians and dancers or ‘sadir’ artists. Veena Dhanam was respected by musicians and rasikas alike. The Friday soirees at her residence, where she played the veena and sang, were famous and people such as TTK, Ranga Ramanuja Iyengar and others went there to listen to her. There would be interaction after the chamber concerts.
Artists were supported by staunch art lovers such as businessman Ramaniah Chetty among others. The British also invited many artists for formal Government functions.
The javali composer Dharmapuri Subbarayar used to visit Madras often and stayed with Veena Dhanam and family. On one such occasion, he composed a superb javali, ‘Smara Sundaranguni,’ about Veena Dhanammal.
Tiruvavaduturai N. Rajaratnam Pillai (TNR), the nagaswaram vidwan, visited Madras often for sabha and wedding engagements. During his train journey back to his village, he used to tie Rs. 200 to the emergency stop chain in the compartment. He would pull the chain at Aduturai station (where the train did not have a scheduled stop), get down and walk home.
When Rukmini Devi Arundale started Kalakshetra, she brought a number of gurus from other States to teach dance and music there. Among the notable were Mysore Vasudevachar (from Mysore), M. D. Ramanathan from Kerala, Pandanallur Meenakshisundaram Pillai (natyacharya from Pandanallur) and Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal (gottuvadhyam from Budalur).
D. K. Pattammal shifted from Damal near Kanchipuram to Madras after her marriage to pursue her career.
But the story of M.S. Subbulakshmi is most riveting. Anxious to avoid an imminent marriage arranged by her mother, Madurai Shanmugavadivu wrote a farewell note, took her small suitcase and reached Madras one early morning by train. She was supported in her adventure by some of her well-wishers and T. Sadasivam, who was her admirer and supporter, whom she later married. Madurai’s loss was Madras’s gain. Her illustrious career culminated in a Bharat Ratna.
The brilliant and fiery poet, Subramania Bharathi or Bharatiyar, came to Madras from Kadayam near Ettaiyapuram, where his poetic escapades, free behaviour and eccentricity were not accepted or understood by the conservative society. When he composed poems on freedom, the British got after him and he fled to French Pondicherry. Much later, he settled in Triplicane and while seriously conversing with a temple elephant (he was known to talk to animals and birds), the pachyderm attacked him and he was fatally hurt. He was very young.
So in the past, Madras was a magnet to artistic and creative people. Now the second invasion is on, by Americans, Koreans and Italians who represent Samsung, Hyundai, Ford and other companies. They come here not to colonise the natives, but for commerce.