Sabhas From 1887 onwards, the nascent venues for Carnatic music, provided a floor for legends to perform.

In 1887, the Madras branch of the Poona Gayan Samaj formally registered itself as the Madras Jubilee Gayan Samaj. This year, 2012, therefore marks the 125th year of what can arguably be considered the first of Chennai’s Sabhas. Since then we have had several. Some have survived and others have long passed on. Of the latter, we get some fascinating glimpses in the writings and reports of the past. There again, some such as the Mylai Sangeetha Sabha and the Sarada Gana Sabha have already been featured in some detail in this column and elsewhere. Let us therefore see what information we do have of some of the others.

In his landmark survey of the Tyagaraja Aradhana, serialised in Kalki in the 1950s, Gottuvadyam Duraiyappa Bhagavatar states that the Bhakti Marga Prasanga Sabha was founded in Madras in 1895. It initially held a meet only when the father of Harikatha, Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar (1841-1903), came to the city. Later, it began hosting Harikatha performances of other artists as well. Over the years, it also conducted music concerts during festivals such as Gokulashtami and Rama Navami. As to where it met and when it folded up, there is no information.

Another organisation was the Bhagavat Katha Prasanga Sabha. As it met at the Tondaimandalam Tuluva Vellalar School on Mint Street, it was popularly known as the Tondaimandalam Sabha. Its secretary was C. Muniswami Naidu and it was he who, in the late 1880s, first hit upon on the idea of selling tickets for concerts. Prior to this, organisers of Sabhas pooled their resources to pay musicians. In addition, a plate would be passed among the audience for voluntary tokens of appreciation.

On 18 November 1904, Hindustani maestro Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande attended a concert hosted by the Ganamanohari Association, Ramaswami Street, George Town. The singer’s name was Nagarathna and she was from Bangalore. Seating was on the floor. According to Bhatkhande, the “Bai had a dignified mien unlike the courtesans of Bombay. She had a deep voice and she specialised in the elaboration of ragas.”

In the phrases that are often used in today’s reviews as well, he recorded that the “Violinist played very sweetly and the percussionist provided able support.” It is also noteworthy that the audience liked precisely what the critic in Bhatkhande did not. He found her attempts at voice modulation unimpressive but wrote that it was precisely at these points that the audience broke out in exclamations of praise!

In his Memoirs of a Mediocre Man, S.Y. Krishnaswami, ICS, writes of the Triplicane Sangeetha Sabha, which functioned from Venkatachala Mudali Street. The Valadi Brothers, owners of Valadi Stores in Triplicane, ran it. SYK noted that profit was the main motive and, “The premises was a cowshed of sorts, and cleaned for the occasion, not very scrupulously. Everyone sat on the floor, and as the concert proceeded, the first and second class members got mixed up and the dividing rope did a disappearing trick.” It was in these uncongenial surroundings that SYK first heard legends such as Palladam Sanjeeva Rao, Veena Seshanna and the Harikatha exponents Panchapakesa Sastrigal and C. Saraswathi Bai.

Fighting for sitting space

But that was not all. During “season,” which then did not mean December but sometime in July just after the High Court reopened post-summer, the Valadi Brothers arranged special concerts at the historic Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street. The duo “always sold more tickets than the Hall could accommodate and quietly disappeared before the concert began. There was serious in-fighting among the audience for sitting space, but when the artists emerged from the tuning chamber, somehow order came to be restored and when the concert commenced, there was a hushed expectation, which was always rewarded.” It was at this venue that the Brothers introduced Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar to Madras audiences. Most members of the audience could not get in, but fortunately Chembai’s voice could be heard in the street.

What of the Sri Thyaga Brahma Bhakta Sabha founded in 1931 by Gujaratis, the lead being taken by Mr and Mrs Balakrishna Davey? (No surprise needed, we also had a performing Gujarati percussionist – Pitambar Desai). It initially functioned from 5, Hanumantharayan Koil Street, Park Town, and later shifted to NSC Bose Road. There was another organisation with a similar name – Tyagabrahma Sabha founded in 1924. Manathattai Doraiswami Iyer, who was from the direct disciple lineage of Tyagaraja, was its founder-president. Prof. P. Sambamoorthy was its secretary. This Sabha conducted concerts every month on Bahula Panchami day. Both sabhas wound up. In the long history of Carnatic music, these can be considered the foot soldiers who fought valiantly for the art. That the music survives and flourishes till now is in no small measure due to these Sabhas from the past.