Guru Karaikkudi Mani on life in the Theosophical Society, the once-deserted Besant Nagar and performing under a thatched structure in the Music Academy

As a young man, in the early 1960s, I lived on the Theosophical Society premises for a year or two, with my sister and brother-in-law Krishnamurthy. He was in charge of the Theosophical Society dispensary and would take care of the medical needs of the people who lived there.

It was a rather lonely place. People who came to see the banyan trees would enter through the main gate via the old Adyar bridge (that was the only way then; the new bridge came later when traffic increased). It was densely wooded and full of snakes. My brother-in-law was very fond of snakes… if anyone saw a snake in their house, they would call him, and he would go and pick it up by hand!

The road from Avvai Home to Besant Nagar was very narrow, full of potholes and deserted. One felt scared to even walk on that path because of the semi-wilderness on either side. There was nothing there; there was no Besant Nagar as we know it now. The only structure visible in that area was the old Schmidt Memorial on the beach. Occasionally, some foreigners went to swim in the sea; so, temporary cottages had been set up on the beach for them to change. There were no other houses. You never saw people walking around, and hardly any cars went by.

The surrounding area was full of burial grounds. Several last processions came by that route. In fact, when people began to dig up the area later for development, they would keep finding bones and skulls. People said things such as: ‘If you build on burial grounds, nothing good can come of it'. Of course, now it is one of the poshest places in the city!

Karpagam Avenue back then was just a paddy field. All you saw were farmers tending the fields with their oxen and wooden ploughs. Beyond that was the Krishnamurti Foundation School, and then, Kalakshetra. It was later shifted to Thiruvanmiyur .

Once, when I was practising at the Theosophical Society (we were not supposed to make any noise within the grounds, but I was given special permission to play for two hours a day), Rukmini Devi came by and asked who was playing. When Krishnamurthy told her it was me, she asked me to join Kalakshetra. And, so I was there for five or six months. Budalur Krishnamurthy Sastrigal, Vittal Iyer, and other greats used to be at Kalakshetra, because Rukmini Devi would invite these senior artistes and give them quarters there to stay. I gave my first kutcheri at the Music Academy in 1963. In those days, what is Kasturi Srinivasan Hall now was just a thatched structure. There, in the morning, you would have demonstrations, followed by a kutcheri at noon or 1 p.m., then another at 3 p.m. or 4 p.m. There would be huge crowds. The main hall would have kutcheris at 5 p.m. and at 7 p.m. Everything else was outside in that thatched structure. It was a very rare experience.

There was another sabha in Perambur, with one Mr. Sethuraman as secretary. He had a remarkable bhakti for music. In those days, Perambur was just overgrown woods, with hardly any houses. Perambur meant the railway area, railway quarters, and nothing else. But somehow, he would organise huge kutcheris there with the likes of G.N. Balasubramaniam or the Alathurbrothers. We would feel scared while coming back from the kutcheris in the dark. But, we still attended regularly, for the love of music.