The annual festival of Tamil Isai Sangam begins today.

In recent years, the Sangam’s annual event is marked by a quiet elegance. But in the 1940s, when it was set up to focus on Tamil as a musical language, it was the hub of intellectual activity.

Several felt that Tamil was a non-musical language and an oft-repeated comment was that there were hardly any songs in Tamil. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, stated categorically that “Tamil pieces could only be considered as miscellaneous items. Compositions such as Thevaram, Tiruvachakam, Tiruttandagam and Tiruppugazh are in the form of kannigal (verses) and not of kirtanas with pallavi, anupallavi and charanam."

Perhaps in response to such a stance, the Tamil Isai group, aided by the College of Music, Annamalai University, began building up a repertoire of songs in Tamil. With stalwarts such as T. Lakshmana Pillai, K. Ponniah Pillai, V.S. Gomathisankara Iyer, Tiger Varadachariar and M.M. Dhandapani Desigar among others, work began in right earnest at the college.

The primary task was to compile as many Tamil songs as possible. If the lyrics alone existed, these were to be set to tune by prominent musicians and scholars and the compilations were to be published. Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, in his role as patron for the movement and as Chancellor of the University sponsored the research, editing and publication of the books.

The Raja hit upon another interesting method of building up a critical mass of Tamil songs. In 1941, the Annamalai University Syndicate approved a scheme for the composition of new Tamil songs. A competition was held and among the many entries received, that of M.P. (Periyasami) Thooran was adjudged the best, notwithstanding the fact that he had only created the lyrics. That apart, the Selection Committee decided to publish 46 of the best entries and this was the first publication in the Tamil Song Series of the Annamalai University.

The list of participants in the competition must have been a who’s-who of Carnatic music, for the songs include those of T Lakshmana Pillai, Kivalur Meenakshisundaram Pillai, Mayavaram Viswanatha Sastry, ‘Puliyodarai’ Krishnamachariar (Tiger’s brother) and Papanasam Sivan. It was a tome comprising 403 pages and priced at Rs 2.

From then on, the song books of the series became a regular feature. Even by 1943-44, seven volumes had come out. The second in the series was a collection of varnams and gitams; the third had the compositions of Gopalakrishna Bharati, Achyuta Dasa, Vedanayagam Pillai and Arunachala Kavi. The songs of Muthutandavar were then compiled and released in the fourth volume, with music by Tirupamburam Swaminatha Pillai. As many as 75 songs of Periyasami Thooran, with music by N Sivaramakrishna Bhagavatar, were published as a separate volume.

The absence of a Tamil text-book that would explain the theory of music was keenly felt. The Tamil Isai Sangam which came into existence in 1943 decided to set up an Isai Kalluri in Madras dedicated to the teaching of Tamil Isai. This was to give focus to Tamil Isai which the College in Chidambaram could not do as it focused on music as a whole. K. Ponniah Pillai was a regular visitor to the Kalluri as an examiner and he then reminded the authorities of a book that he had written in 1934. In that year, the Music College in Chidambaram announced a competition for the writing of a text-book on music in Tamil with the prize money being Rs 750. Ponniah Pillai sent in his entry under the nom-de-plume of Mahadeva Manohari. After a detailed examination this was declared the most suitable work but never published. This work was resurrected in 1944 and printed as Isai Iyal.

The enthusiasm with which the Annamalai University team worked was infectious and soon musicians of all kinds, irrespective of matter what be their views on Tamil Isai, joined in. Perhaps the greatest success was the roping of the Music Academy itself, for that body had earlier opposed the idea of Tamil Isai. It kindly lent the services of the Principal of its Teacher’s College of Music, Kalidas N. Nilakanta Iyer in 1948 for compiling the songs of Ramaswami Sivan.

Iyer worked with the lecturers of the Music College and when it was completed, thanks to the intervention of V.S. Gomathisankara Iyer, Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar was induced to write the foreword.

The publications of the Annamalai University continued till the 1970s and stopped thereafter. Most of these books are today difficult to find, except in libraries, the homes of musicians and second-hand book-shops. It would be a great service to the music world if the Tamil Isai Sangam considers reprinting these books, and expanding on the repertoire with new volumes.

(srirambts@gmail.com)

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