Chennai's oldest existing sabha, Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, during its 111 years of existence, has moved from place to place and yet has managed to take its rasikas along

Until about a century ago, the performing arts were confined to the courts of the kings and the hallowed courtyards of temples. The sabhas, which began sprouting at the beginning of the 20th century, changed it all, taking music to the public arena.

Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha is today the oldest existing sabha in the city, having completed 111 years since its inception in the halls of Blue House in Triplicane. It was the residence of its founder Mani Thirumalachari, a bank employee hailing from the prosperous Mandyam, who was a great patron of the performing arts.

Today, even though the sabha does not have a hall of its own, it provides the coveted stamp of recognition to all upcoming artistes – such is the respect it commands.

“It was established in 1896 as the Sangeetha Vidwat Sabha. In 1900, it was declared a public institution and was renamed Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, after the residing deity of the temple in Triplicane. Its events were held at the Blue House till 1905. It was a first of a kind institution that introduced several iconic musicians to the public,” says M. Krishnamurthy, who has served as the honorary secretary of the sabha since 1988. “In a journey that has lasted this long, the sabha has seen financial crises and does not have its own hall, but it has never faced the lack of support.”

Naming some of the legendary performers of all time, Krishnamurthy says, “We have had veterans like Sri Krishna Bhagavathar, Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavathar and Panchapakesa Sastrigal performing Harikathas; geniuses like Bidaram Krishnappa, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar and Flute Sarabha Sastrigal from the older generation and legends like Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Tiger Varadachariar, and Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer from the succeeding generation giving regular concerts. We have had Vyjayantimala, Hema Malini and the Travancore Sisters giving dance recitals; and the troupes of Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai, Manohar and ‘Major' Sunderrajan staging dramas that lasted several days.”

The big names built the sabha's reputation. Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar gave as many as 100 concerts for the sabha. And to mark the sabha's centenary celebrations in the year 2000, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer performed for two and half hours. Even during the Second World War, when fears of attack by the Japanese caused widespread panic and evacuation, the sabha managed to stay alive with performances on certain auspicious days like Rama Navami, Thyagaraja Day and Krishna Jayanthi.

Despite its popularity, the sabha never got to own a permanent place to hold its concerts. It shifted a few times within Triplicane itself, where the performances were conducted at the Hindu High School hall and the N.K.T. Kamalamandapam for a number of years. Then, in 1958, the sabha entered into a 25-year long lease with the T.K.K.N. Vysia Charities for a piece of land on Venkatarangam Pillai Street in Triplicane.

“With money from several fund-raising performances by artistes like M.S. Subbulakshmi, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Kamala Lakshmanan and Vyjayantimala, and from the sabha's golden jubilee concerts, we were able to build an open air theatre in 1962,” says Krishnamurthy.

However, the lease could not be renewed, and the sabha had to shift to Vidhya Bharathi, a wedding hall in Mylapore. “No other sabha could have uprooted itself, found another place and continued in the same stead. At our new venue, we not only retained our members from Triplicane but also earned new members,” he says with pride.

The sabha, though, has a small property on T.P. Koil Street in Triplicane where Carnatic music classes, tutoring for distance-learning students of music and workshops are regularly conducted. According to Krishnamurthy, the members are trying to acquire property to construct the sabha's own auditorium.

“Finances continue to be our major woe despite the heavy patronage. Donations by rasikas are the major source of funding apart from a few corporate sponsorships. Unlike other sabhas, we don't have hall rents to supplement our finances,” says Krishnamurthy. There is, according to him, another concern: to identify passionate members from the next generation who could lead the sabha into another 100 years of existence.

Quote Unquote Once upon a time, the bus stops would be situated near the sabhas for the convenience of the audience. Many a time people would be so engrossed in the performances that they ended up missing their bus and would walk long distances back home.

— Nalli Kuppuswamy Chetty, patron of the classical arts

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