With stories, nuggets and wit, historian V. Sriram gift-wrapped the chronicles of sabhas to the audience at ‘Sabhas and Society Mamas’. The talk was part of the Namma Chennai series organised by The Hindu and Sheraton Park Hotel and Towers

Can a historical account of Chennai sabhas evoke surprise, shock, laughter, unease and worry in a matter of 45 minutes? It can, if the storyteller is Sriram Venkatakrishnan, historian, entrepreneur, writer, blogger and witty raconteur. In the latest edition of Namma Chennai talk series Sriram mixed facts, “vumboids”, pictures and an assortment of anecdotes to deliver a delectable plum cake of a speech on ‘Sabhas and Society Mamas', pushing the cocktails and snacks served at Sheraton Park's Arcot Room to an afterthought.

And, they were born...

Fascinating isn't adequate to describe the narration. The concept of sabha was born in Chennai, said Sriram, explaining that the rulers had no interest in supporting arts in this British-built city, and that it was left to the dubashis — translators who made fortunes by quoting different figures to the buyers and sellers and pocketing the difference — to give performing art a public platform. He showed how in an extraordinary sequence of events, sabhas started and sustained by rich businessmen in late 19th Century are now being “sponsored” by corporate houses as part of their corporate social responsibility.

The sabha story, Sriram said, began with the first public performance at the Thondaimandalam High School in the 1880s. With no entrance fee, a salver was passed around and contributions went to the musician. When Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan came to perform, patrons were asked to pay a small amount. Sivan saw several people going away saying they didn't know they had to pay. Fuming that art couldn't be ‘prostituted', he invited his rasikas to assemble at the Triplicane temple for free concerts. After this, artist anger or not, tickets came to stay.

With this flying start, Sriram took the audience through the colourful chapters of the growth and proliferation of sabhas. “There's a whole range now — from tinpot sabhas in street corners to the ones attended by the crème de la crème of society.” He displayed pictures, traced the origin of the major sabhas, and narrated how sabha culture spread from George Town to all parts of the city.

In this setting, he placed the dramatis personae — artistes who threw fits, organisers who broke away to start sabhas to suit their ideas, wealthy music lovers who financed the ventures. He added delightful nuggets on how personal preferences dictated changes in the sabha structure / kutcheri format.

The growth of the canteens was an integral part of the sabha narrative, said Sriram, giving a sketch of the cooking greats who drew crowds with their culinary art. He touched on match-making successes during concerts and the arrival of the NRIs/foreigners.

With witty lines all along, Sriram gift-wrapped the chronicle in a series of wry comments on human behaviour. The result was an absorbing how-to-teach-history lesson.

Sabhas will continue to be supported, said Sriram, but his narrative had a note of regret. “Only those with knowledge of music attend performances,” he said. “Art has become exclusive to this small group.” Bringing in nadhaswaram and thavil will help enlarge the festival.

Chennai offers excellent facilities, and performing here is a matter of prestige.

Will there be coordinated action to promote the “December season”? The answer might lie with the sabhas.

SOME VIGNETTES

* Artistes who travelled from Tanjore and adjoining areas to perform in the city retained their hometown identity by attaching the names to their own (Ariyakkudi, Musiri, T. Dhanammal). They dreamed of going back, but never did, and the next generation of artistes saw no reason to follow this practice.

* Annie Besant, strict follower of the rule that no woman of Devadasi origin should be allowed to perform at YMIA, refused permission to Indian Fine Arts Society to host the concert of a budding singer from Madurai. She, however, sang in the adjacent Soundarya Mahal and became an instant success as MS.

* The Jagannatha Baktha Sabha held its programmes in Veda Vilas, Egmore. During a performance, a woman in the house went into labour. The kutcheri went on, uninterrupted. After half-an-hour, someone emerged to say that she had delivered a baby girl. The child would go on to be known as Mrs. YGP.

* In the 1920s, Mylapore came to be considered a desirable area for starting the Mylai Sangita Sabha. Concerts started one minute before raaghu kaalam, a season ticket cost 25 paisa, goli soda and panam kalkandu were served to the singer. Scorpions inhabiting the thatched roof sometimes dropped down to investigate the sounds below, causing commotion. AK Ramachandra Iyer, known for his outlandish habits (he owned a pet leopard) fell out with Mylai Sangita Sabha and established the Rasika Ranjani Sabha, which initiated major reforms — nagaswaram kutcheris took place as did stage plays, and for the first time patrons could sit in chairs.

* The Music Academy, inaugurated in 1928, is credited with formatting the kutcheri on modern lines — it restricted the accompaniment to one violin / one mridangam, banned the use of snuff and drinks during the performance. One change — no seven-stringed violin — got violin Chowdiah up in arms. In a huff, he gathered the Kannadiga and Telugu rasikas, and started the Indian Fine Arts Society.

* The Tamil Isai Sangam was born to rectify the complaint that concerts had only Kannada and Telugu songs. It had no location, so held its first festival at St. Mary's Cathedral Parish Hall. (“Can we imagine musicians singing on Hindu themes on church premises or vice versa today?” asked Sriram)

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