Once a cultural nerve centre, today, music seems to have long departed the longest street in Chennai
It is said to be the longest street in Chennai, if not in all Asia. But be that as it may, Mint Street, so named because it once housed the East India Company's mint in a now threatened heritage building, is definitely one of the oldest streets of the city. It runs from north to south through George Town, a much neglected and congested area, but at one time the business and cultural heartland.
Not many of the Carnatic music sabha-hopping season crowd would care to go there, but Mint Street, for the heritage enthusiast is replete with musical memories.
Near the northern end of Mint Street, in Veerasami Street, a lane off Barracks Street, is the house where the savant Ramalinga Swamigal lived. It still houses a memorial for the man who far ahead of his times worshipped God as light and love. His verses, the ‘Arutpa', are now an integral part of Carnatic music, the most famous perhaps being ‘Orumaiyudan ninadu malar adi', a viruttam favourite and also immortalised in the film ‘Konjum Salangai.'
This was composed in praise of the deity at Kandaswami Temple, which is on Rasappa Chetty Street, off Mint Street.
In Mint Street stand two historic schools. The first is the Tondaimandalam Tuluva Vellalar (TTV) School, founded in 1854. This was home to one of the earliest music sabhas – the Tondaimandalam Sabha. It was here that in the 1880s, an attempt was first made to sell tickets for a concert, the artiste being Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan. The earlier practice was to circulate a plate among the audience for voluntary tokens of appreciation. So incensed was Sivan at the thought that his art was being commercialised by the sale of tickets that he called off the performance. To compensate, he sang for three successive evenings at the Parthasarathy Swami temple in Triplicane. The Tondaimandalam Sabha was later known for its rough-and-ready but musically sound audience. A young Kanchipuram Naina Pillai, later to become a star at the same venue, noted with horror a mridangam vidwan slip on tala and being forced to remain standing for the rest of the performance. It was at a meeting of this Sabha at the school in 1905 that a galaxy of musicians present decided to celebrate the Aradhana of Tyagaraja in a grand manner at Thiruvaiyaru. The Secretary of the Sabha, C. Munisami Naidu, was to be a major source of funds for the aradhana, for he solicited donations from the rich Komati and Beri Chetties of Town. When the musicians organising the Aradhana split later into two groups, Naidu aligned himself with the Periya Katchi (larger faction). It was he who first got Bangalore Nagarathnamma involved in the aradhana, thereby making history. The other educational institution, The Hindu Theological School (1889) was where in 1909, C Saraswathi Bai, gave the first ever public performance of Harikatha. It was held in the teeth of opposition for it was unthinkable then that a woman from an upper-caste family could take to the stage. Bai was a success and showed the way.
Carnatic music was largely nurtured by the bhajan tradition for it not only encouraged congregation but also brought in several rhythmic variants such as the ‘chapu talam.' Mint Street housed bhajanai mandirams and at least two still survive. The first is a tiny one, now locked most of the time. The second, has metamorphosed into a temple. Called for some mysterious reason as the ‘Sumai tangi' (load-bearing) Rama temple, it has two exquisite Thanjavur paintings of Rama and Narasimha, which must have been the original objects of worship, prayer being largely in the form of song. Later these have been superseded in importance by stone idols. Worship is now formal and music non-existent. In a talk that Tiger Varadachariar gave over the All India Radio, he was to recollect that it was at the Ramar Bhajanai Mandiram on Mint Street that the Tachur Singaracharlu Brothers, composers and music publishers in their own right, organised bhajan sessions in the 1890s. Tiger was a regular and enthusiastic participant.
Mint Street has several temples dedicated to Ganesha. According the Tumilan, the biographer of T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai, it was at the Veda Vinayakar temple on Mint Street that the nagaswaram maestro gave his first performance in the city. Today there does not appear to be a temple of that name on this street, but there is a cul-de-sac with the name Veda Vinayagar Street. Could this have been a temple that later made way for a street? George Town is full of surprises like that, several tiny temples having become paan shops for want of patronage.
Music too appears to have long departed.
(The author is an entrepreneur, writer and historian of Chennai. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)