It was always The Music Academy where maximum heat and dust was generated

“With S.Y. Krishnaswami to watch the proceedings of Music Experts in Conference, discussing Raga Nata. Lively business, when each vidwan is at the others' throats.” Thus wrote N.D. Varadachariar, lawyer and indefatigable diarist as his entry for December 24, 1938. He had been to The Music Academy's morning session and had come away with this impression.

Musicians in 1938 had, it must be admitted, taken to the art of lecture demonstrations rather well. It had been a rather quick transition from earlier in the century. In 1912, at the first ever music conference, organised by Abraham Pandithar in Thanjavur, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, on realising that he had been invited for a discussion on music and not a concert, opted to go home. In 1929, Veena Dhanammal had derisively enquired as to what this place called The Music Academy was, where they “talked on music”. By 1938, lecture demonstrations or lec-dems were flourishing. The Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society were both conducting them during the Season. But somehow it was always the Academy where the maximum heat and dust was generated.

One of the reasons for this was the presence of the acerbic C.S. Iyer, brother of Sir C.V. Raman and Accountant-General of the Railways. Iyer had set views on music and defended them with an acidic tongue. Equally vitriolic were his opponents. R. Rangaramanuja Iyengar referred to him as being a “megalomaniac obsessed with his own knowledge of music who gave frequent demonstrations of his violin play. He distributed leaflets studded with fractions and similar arithmetical abstractions.” Iyer was particularly critical of Chowdiah's seven-stringed violin and the two were to clash repeatedly, once even reaching a situation in 1942 when Chowdiah, brandishing his violin like a club, rushed at Iyer and had to be restrained. Such physical attacks were admittedly rare, but verbal barbs were par for the course. Legend has it that in the 1940s when a speaker dared to slight Tiger Varadachariar's music, a Mylapore matron ticked him off in no uncertain terms, using colourful Tamil language to illustrate her point. Legend also has it that this was when the general public began viewing lec-dems as interesting events.

Scoring points

Lec-dems were also occasions when rivals could score points off each other. In 1944, musicians jealous of GNB's rapid progress engineered a debate on shruti and graha bheda which he took delight in exploring in his alapanas. Similarly, in the 1950s, Palani Subramania Pillai, in a lec-dem at the Academy played the syllables of a song on the mridangam as was done by the Thanjavur school and said that this was not acceptable in percussion. The following day, Ariyakkudi performed at the Tamil Isai Sangam with Palghat Mani Iyer on the mridangam. Halfway through the performance, Ariyakkudi wondered aloud if what Mani Iyer was performing was not percussion.

Lec-dems were watered down somewhat by the 1960s and this situation could have continued had it not been for S. Balachander who from his citadel at the Indian Fine Arts Society, riled several. The subject could be anything, but he always managed to bring in his pet peeves — the new ragas controversy, the Swati affair or the biased reviews written by critics. Audiences thronged his lec-dems, as much to listen to the music as to his diatribes.

Compared to Balachander, Semmangudi was the epitome of diplomacy. But he too, on one memorable occasion in 1977, converted a lec-dem that someone else was doing, into a personal monologue attacking the veteran critic Subbudu. In an era when the cell-phone was far into the future, news still managed to spread and vast crowds descended on The Music Academy.

Matters subsided in the 1980s to a low decibel level. What little colour there was, was provided by B. Rajam Iyer, who could, on occasion, be stirred into speech. In 1990, D.K. Jayaraman was the Sangita Kalanidhi designate and on January 1, 1991, he, along with his students sang the Panchalinga kritis of Muttuswami Diskhitar in chorus at The Music Academy. Rajam Iyer was asked to felicitate the speaker and he instead opined that these songs were better not sung in groups. DKJ, ever the soul of simplicity, was hurt. But the audience sprang to his defence and peace was made with effort. Rajam Iyer was once again to repeat this act in 2006 when, during the customary Open House on the last day, he lashed out at several musicians for unspecified reasons. A written reprimand from the president of the Academy followed.

Even now, lec-dems manage to become colourful and a couple of young turks in the world of music promise to liven things up. Watch this space in 25 years time for more on the subject.

(The author is an entrepreneur, writer and historian of Chennai. Email: srirambts@gmail.com.)