Favourite haunt of illustrious vidwans, Vasantha Vilas reverberated with music.
(This is the second and final part of an article on a famous family of Mylapore, Chenai. The first part appeared last week.)
Seshachari, whose 150th birth anniversary falls this year, was munificent in his contributions to religious causes. He brought out English translations of Adi Sankara’s commentaries. V. Swaminatha Iyer and Pandit Ganganath Jha, whose son Amarendranath Jha later became Vice-Chancellor of Benares Hindu University, helped with the translations. Religious discourses by Thirupazhanam Panchapakesa Sastri and Sri Ilangadu Chakravarthi Iyengar often took place at Vasantha Vilas.
When the Corporation of Madras wanted to remove the Vinayaka idol at the northern end of Solaiappa Mudali Street, Seshachari fought to retain it where it was. He even obtained a grant from the government and built a temple for the idol.
Seshachari was a close friend of Annie Besant and Colonel Olcott. The International Theosophical year Book (1937) records that Seshachari donated a part of his summer residence in Besant Nagar to the Theosophical Society. Such was Seshachari’s devotion to Annie Besant, that when Sir C.P Ramaswamy Iyer, Seshachari’s student, appeared against her in a case, Seshachari took it as a personal affront.
In 1928, Seshachari suffered a fracture in the hip, and was confined to the first floor of Vasantha Vilas. Kanchi Paramacharya was on his way to the Srinivasa Perumal temple in Mylapore, and on the way he halted at Vasantha Vilas, to show his appreciation for Seshachari’s contributions to Sanatana Dharma. Seshachari insisted that he be carried downstairs, so that he could pay his respects to acharya.
Seshachari had a passion for Carnatic music and was a student of Veena Seshanna. He and his brother were among the many founders of Mylapore Club, and Seshachari used to play the veena at the Club. Seshachari established one of the earliest sabhas in Mylapore-Sarada Gayana Samajam in 1908. Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer and Pushpavanam Iyer performed many times for the sabha.
Whenever Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar or Thirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer came to Madras, they would stay in Vasantha Vilas. The latter became Seshachari’s client. Often the thinnai of Vasantha Vilas would turn into a concert platform for musicians staying there. Once Srinivasa Iyengar was late for a concert at Vasantha Vilas, and Krishna Iyer began to play a solo concert, without waiting for the vocalist. Srinivasa Iyengar arrived, but waited until the violinist finished the piece he was playing. This was an incident Krishna Iyer’s grandson Krishnamurthy often held out as example of the goodwill that prevailed among musicians of the era.
During the Delhi Coronation durbar in 1911, which King George V and Queen Mary attended, Seshachari organised a concert in Vasantha Vilas. Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar sang a song he had composed for the occasion - ‘Satatamu brovayya George Chakravarthy,’ in Thodi. Thriukkodikaval Krishna Iyer both sang and played his own composition for the occasion - ‘Mary George Chakravarthini’ in Begada. Azahaga Nambia Pillai played the mridangam for the concert.
As early as 1895, Seshachari started Margazhi Veedhi bhajanai on the Mada Streets of Mylapore. The Umayalpuram Brothers were special invitees for the inaugural. Bhajanai was followed by the singing of Tyagaraja’s kritis. C. Ramanujachariar, of Ramakrishna Home, who was the brother-in-law of Seshachari, would explain the meaning of the kritis. Sriperumbudur Mudumbai Krishnamachariar and K.C. Adivarahachariar, who was a disciple of Keerthanacharya C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, helped organise the bhajanai. Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma and Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavatar were regular participants. Before he started his own bhajanai group, Papanasam Sivan participated in Seshachari’s bhajanais.
When Adivarahachariar died, his sons took over, and continued until 1996, which marked the hundredth year of a tradition started by Seshachari. In 1996, Swami Namanandagiri wrote a letter to the sons of Adivarahachariar, acknowledging the role played by the early bhajanai group in sowing the seeds for many bhajanai organisations.
In 1957, when Nott Annaji Rao began Margazhi bhajanai, Seshachari’s son V.C. Vasudevan would invite participants to spend the night in Vasantha Vilas. After Vasudevan’s death in 1966, his son Sriram extended the same hospitality to participants.
From 1956 to 1960, Sri Thirukkudandai Kannan Swami, who later became Sri Tirukkudandai Andavan, presented discourses on Thiruppavai and Paduka Sahasram in Vasantha Vilas. The hall where he gave the lectures has now become a commercial centre and is called G.K. Sagar complex.
In 1955, flute Mali was performing at Vasantha Vilas. A surprise visitor was Ariyakkudi, who, not wanting to disturb the audience, used the rear staircase, and took his place behind the flautist. Ariyakkudi’s presence in the hall led to a lot of excitement among the audience, and Mali turning back found the veteran. He prostrated at Ariyakkudi’s feet and asked him to sing. But Ariyakudi gave a brief speech extolling Mali’s genius and asked him to continue with the concert.
Vasantha Vilas reverberated to the sound of music and sometimes the problem of plenty put the family in embarrassing situations. When Vasudevan’s daughter Srikantha’s marriage was arranged, Ariyakkudi offered to sing at the reception. The next day Viswanatha Iyer turned up and said he would sing at the reception! The family was in a fix. Viswanatha Iyer then suggested that he being the senior, would sing first and that Ariyakdui could sing after 9.30 p.m. Ariyakkudi agreed, and invitees had a double treat. The accompanists for both concerts were Lalgudi Jayaraman and Vellore Ramabhadran.
In 1971, Vasantha Vilas served as the office of a sabha called Navarasa, which had S.H.S. Mani, Chairman of Pond’s as president, R.K. Swami and T.T. Vasu as vice-presidents, and Pond’s Bala as secretary. Vasudevan’s son Srivatsan was a committee member of the sabha. The present Chief Minister Dr. J. Jayalalitha, was a patron. Programmes of the sabha were organised in different venues - Music Academy, Mylapore Fine Arts, Madras University Auditorium and Devi Paradise Theatre.
Parveen Sultana and playback singer Kishore Kumar were among the many artists whose programmes were arranged. The drama wing of the sabha was guided by Mouli. Lalgudi Jayaraman and Vellore Ramabhadran were committee members of Gana Rasa - the music wing. Navarasa folded up in the late 1970s.
Vasantha Vilas, where once topics of discussion ranged from law and Visishtadvaita to music, dance and drama, now in its truncated form, still houses the Madras Law Weekly started by Seshachari. But gone is the thinnai, which served as the platform for impromptu concerts. Even if the thinnai were intact, and there were vidwans willing to sing there, who would be able to hear anything above the din of the traffic and the shouts of the vegetable and flower sellers? Madras has moved on, and yet it never fails to unlock a treasure trove of memories, if one searches hard enough.
Recorded on slabs
Sadagopacharlu, Seshachari’s uncle, donated 113 grounds of land in Venkatesa Agraharam, Alamelumangapuram, Abhiramapuram, and parts of R.A. Puram to the Vedanta Desika Devasthanam in Mylapore. A slab recording the contributions of Sadagopacharlu, Seshachari and Desikachari to the temple can be seen in Vedanta Desika Hall, Venkatesa Agraharam. Utsavams are still being held in the temple, under the auspices of Echamma trust, named after Sadagopacharlu’s wife.