Artistes based out of George Town responded with great zeal
The newspapers are full of how 2011 marks the centenary of King George V's imperial coronation durbar at Delhi, which also saw the capital shifting to that city from Calcutta. It also marked the inauguration of the building of New Delhi as a planned capital city for the country. But what of Madras, our very own Chennai?
Celebrations happened here too. Black Town, the oldest part of the city, was renamed George Town to commemorate the earlier visit of the king, when he was Prince of Wales, in 1905. The world of performing arts, which was then largely located in George Town, responded in its own way to the coronation. It must be remembered that in 1911, the thought of freedom was still gaining ground and most people, our artistes included, were happy to be under the imperial yoke.
The best song?
The Muthialpet Sabha, announced a competition for the best song to be composed on King George. Entries came in from several artistes. The winner was Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi' Srinivasa Iyengar, for his Satatatmu brovumayya chakravartini (in Todi), which prayed to Lord Rama to protect the King-Emperor. A gold medal was the prize. Tirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer too claimed to have composed a song. Not wishing to offend a senior violinist, the Sabha decided to give him a medal too. When asked to perform the piece, Krishna Iyer played it on the violin and everyone was impressed with the score. It was only when someone asked for the lyrics that it transpired that Krishna Iyer had ‘subcontracted' that part of the song and it was a very mediocre creation. The medal was still given nevertheless. Over the years, Krishna Iyer's song has vanished but Poochi's creation has survived, though only in books.
Tableaux and concerts
The Suguna Vilasa Sabha, which did much to create an interest in theatre in the city, organised a set of tableaux depicting historic moments from Indian history at the Gymkhana Club Grounds. All over Madras Presidency, a series of grand coronation concerts was organised. It was at a celebration held in Tanjavur in 1912 to commemorate the durbar that Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer had his big break. The public acclaimed him as ‘Chinna' Pushpavanam, the junior version of Madurai Pushpavanam Iyer, and his name was made. It is doubtful if in faraway Delhi, the King-Emperor would have known that his coronation was to have such an impact on a Carnatic musician's career.
The honour of actually performing before the King and Queen went to Veena Seshanna of Mysore. There were of course Hindustani artistes who also performed — the most noteworthy being Gauhar Jan of Calcutta and Janki Bai of Allahabad. The one who almost made it there, albeit by proxy, was Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar's uncle Lakshmana Suri, the great Sanskrit scholar. Largely at the behest of the famed lawyer and noted patron V. Krishnaswami Aiyar, Suri created the George Deva Shatakam, a set of 100 verses in praise of King George. V. Krishnaswami Aiyar took the work with him for presentation to the King at the durbar. But tragedy struck en-route when a pin pierced him. Heavily diabetic, he fell ill and returned to Madras where he passed away shortly thereafter. It was left to Lakshmana Suri to compose an exquisite elegy in Sanskrit on Krishnaswami Aiyar.
Composing songs on royalty was of course not new in Carnatic music. An ode to Queen Victoria had been composed in the 1880s under the auspices of the Madras Jubilee Gayana Samaj. Much earlier, in the 1820s, Ghanam Krishna Iyer had composed a song on Sir Thomas Munro, Governor of Madras. But King George was to have perhaps had the largest number — at least three, taking into account the two pieces by Poochi Iyengar and Tirukkodikaval Krishna Iyer and a mangalam Jayajaya sarvabhouma George Nama which is published with notation but no raga indicated, in P.S. Ramulu Chetty's book for music on the harmonium.
King George was to also have more than his share of statues in the city. One stood near the Port Trust and was recently removed. A bust of his stood in Panagal Park fronting the statue of the Raja of Panagal, after whom the park is named. In recent times, the bust has vanished and the Raja of Panagal has moved rightfully to the centre. Yet another bust is said to have been inside Flower Bazar Police Station and later shifted to the Rashtrapati Bhawan.
The one statue that still stands is next to the Flower Bazar police station. Rather interestingly, this was put up in 1914 to commemorate the coronation durbar and also the renaming of George Town. Today, it is a rather forlorn figure, its base a convenient urinal. The king is positioned in such a way that he appears to gaze on George Town, which also, rather like the ruler, is shorn of its premier status.
(The author is an entrepreneur, writer and historian of Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)