Varadachariar spoke about Colletpet, in a 1940 radio talk, where the Kalyana Varadarajaswami temple was a cultural hub.

Colletpet, or Kaladipettai as it is referred to now, is a neglected suburb of Chennai. It is a small but historically significant settlement that is located between Tondiarpet and Tiruvottriyur. In Carnatic music it is significant because Tiger Varadachariar was born here.

Historically, Colletpet owes its existence to Joseph Collet, who was Governor of Madras from 1717 to 1719. Central to it is the Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple. It was till recently, fronted by a gopuram now demolished. The temple inside is a curious amalgam of some wonderfully graceful stonework and hideous modern disasters that have been grafted on to it.

The Sannadhi Street is no longer a quiet thoroughfare with tile-roofed houses, as it was during the second half of the 19th century. It was a weekend getaway for wealthy Komati Chetties of Madras, chief among them the Calavala and Chimata clans. The former are known for their charities in the city, while the latter founded and still run Curzon & Co. These were artistically inclined families and according to the late Tiger Varadachariar, the place breathed music. In a radio talk in the 1940s, Tiger waxed eloquent on the musical atmosphere of Colletpet.

“It was said that even the pillars of my house could sing,” Tiger said. His elder sister was renowned for her repertoire of songs and if there was any wedding in the neighbourhood, she would be pressed into service.

Next in line was an elder brother, Ramanujam, who was, “proficient in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and very good in music. He could play on the veena and the sitar”. Tiger recollected that he provided vocal support for his elder brother’s Harikatha performances on themes such as Nandanar Charittiram. Yet another brother of Tiger’s was Krishamachariar. He mentioned that it was thanks to the sponsorship of that great patron, Dharmamurthi Rao Bahadur Calavala Cunnan Chetty, that this sibling could train in music under ‘Panchataleswara Pritankita’ Veena Nilakanta Sastry. Strangely, Tiger did not mention his other equally talented brother, K.V. Srinivasa Iyengar, who within a short life-span published several music books.

Navaratri was a time for music. Tiger recalled that the initial attraction during this festival was the prasadam – comprising sundal, sweets and fruits. But after a couple of days it was the music that attracted him.

Music lessons

The songs of Tyagaraja, pieces from Arunachala Kavi’s ‘Rama Natakam,’ lullabies and dance songs filled the air and Tiger said that it was here that he learnt his lessons on ragas such as Bhairavi, Mohanam, Todi, Khambodi and Darbar.

The temple of Varadarajaswami was the hub for fine arts. Here Tiger feasted his ears on the music of Kakamma, a woman “who could sing over 500 to 600 songs beautifully. My sister and I would follow her in an attempt to grasp her style. Even the nagaswaram artists of the temple would listen to her closely.”

While festivals here attracted nagaswaram artists from outside, the local troupe was no mean outfit apparently, for Tiger remembered that “Parthasarathi and his son Narayanaswami could do raga alapanas and play songs and ragam-tanam-pallavi suites with complete adherence to tradition”. The percussion players were of great quality and Tiger recollected the skills of tavil artists Vadivelu and Muthiah Pillai.

On the days that the deity went around in a procession, the Nathamuni Band of Madras would be in attendance. The star of this troupe was, he said, “Clarinet Abbayi, who on one occasion played the Balahamsa raga for four hours and topped it off with the song ‘Ninnu Basi’.”

Dance was another feature. Tiger stated that many women were attached to the temple and that they organised dance and music performances, comprising all-woman ensembles. One of them could play the mukhaveena very well.

According to Tiger, he heard the best Yadukulakamboji, Sahana and Huseni here. Equally unforgettable was the abhinayam performed for the padam ‘Telisenura’ by one Rukku during the float festival.

Harikatha was the third element. Tiger recollected a performance of the famed Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar at a house-warming ceremony in the neighbourhood. The legendary Narayanaswami Appa provided mridangam support. “Krishna Bhagavatar,” said Tiger, “performed on four evenings. Two evenings were dedicated to Nandan Charittiram and the rest to Sakkubai and Ahimahiravana Charittiram.”

If all this was not enough, there was music outside the temple as well. The local bhajana mandiram had group singing on all auspicious days and on one occasion, Tiger said, “My elder brother wrote and directed the performance of the play, ‘Indra Sabha.’ I had an important role in it”. Street theatre was popular too. Tiger reminisced about the performances of Kuchipudi and Gangapuram troupes, where the music was largely based on pentatonic scales. He remembered the plays to be ‘Jalakridai’ and ‘Sarangadharan’.

Today, music or any form of fine art would be the last thing you would associate with Colletpet.