P.S. Narayanaswamy on how cultural events were a forum for bonding, pedalling many miles to concerts and Mylapore, the place he calls home
In 1947 when I first came to Mylapore, I established an umbilical connection with this abode of Kapaleeswarar, kutcheris, vidwans, vakils, crispy dosais and crunchy vadais. Its distinctive milieu inspired composers such as Papanasam Sivan to pen odes. Walking with him around the mada veedhis singing bhajanai on Margazhi mornings is a cherished chapter in my Mylapore memoirs.
Cultural events were not just about promoting the arts; they were more a forum for bonding, forging new friendships and encouraging the exchange of ideas. I was part of a big group of Mylapore-based musician-friends, which included R.S. Mani, V.R. Krishnan, Tanjore Kalyanaraman, Thiruvengadu Jayaraman, Sirgazhi Jayaraman, T.K. Govinda Rao, Kumbakonam Brothers and Vellore Ramabhadran. Every year we would look forward to the aradhanai organised by the Thyagaraja Sangeeta Vidwat Samajam in Mylapore that had at its helm stalwart-musicians such as Parur Sundaram Iyer, Mannargudi Sambasiva Bhagavathar and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. Weeks before the aradhanai, we would go around the streets singing (unchavrrti) and collecting rice. The singing culminated in lunch at the house of one of the residents of the area. The rice collected was used to serve food to those who attended the aradhanai. Every evening there would be kutcheris. For my friends and me, the samajam became our temporary home till the day of the aradhanai.
Most artistes, when not performing, could be spotted at concerts. This was the best way of mastering the art. Walking was common, but we would cycle to late evening concerts and far-off sabhas. Pillion riders were not allowed. If you were caught by the police riding a bicycle without a light, you had to pay a fine of Re. 1. The lights were either battery-operated or lit using kerosene. Trams though slow were fun to travel on. They plied from Santhome Church to Luz Corner and to town. Buses were rare; there were no autos or cycle rickshaws.
For my performances in the nearby sabhas, I would travel by a hand-pulled rickshaw taking my tampura along with me. My co-musicians and I would hire a taxi for kalyana kutcheris, as most marriage halls were located in town. Though we did not earn much, there was contentment and peace of mind. The Rs. 75 we were paid after our 3 o'clock concert at The Music Academy would be immediately spent on buying tiffin for friends at Mani Iyer's canteen in the Academy. A dosa cost one anna and an idli half-an-anna. The canteen in-charge would joke, inniki yaar bali aadu (Who is the sacrificial goat today?).
There was bonhomie and team spirit among musicians. Flute vidwan N. Ramani and I have been friends since age 10. I have sung at his poonal (thread ceremony), while he has performed at the weddings of my daughters.
There was so much rapport between the main performers and the accompanists that they would rehearse at each other's house and discuss the line-up for the concerts. So was it between guru and sishya. They were like family.
I was completely at home in my gurukulavasam at Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer's house in Trivandrum when he was the principal of the Swati Tirunal Music Academy. Later, when he returned to Madras, I followed suit.
Though a medical practitioner, my father encouraged my interest and talent in music. We lived in Konerirajapuram near Kumbakonam. Every Margazhi, he would drop me at a relative's house in Madras so I could listen to kutcheris. Even on my first visit, I won a prize at the music competition held by The Music Academy at the National Hindu Girls High School. It was judged by stalwarts Palghat Mani Iyer, Valladi Krishna Iyer and ‘Bharatam' Narayanaswamy Iyer. The prize helped me as a 13-year-old to decide that music was my future.