The Season of 1929 was an unusual one in several ways. For one, it was held in March-April. Second, it lasted just three days - entirely under the auspices of The Music Academy and finally, it witnessed only lecture sessions. But with several experts splitting hairs, sparks flew over many issues, some of them making it to the columns of The Hindu. The biggest among these was the controversy surrounding the Ragam Tanam Pallavi suite in any concert.

It was S. Satyamurti, the patriot who began it all. M.S. Ramaswami Aiyar, veteran musicologist who presided over the third day’s proceedings, reported it in detail in The Hindu dated April 10. “Mr. Satyamurti’s tirade against Pallavi singing, that he delivered on the 3rd day of the Conference, had a telling effect on the minds of the vidwans present, who would surely remember it whenever they came to the pallavi-item of the programme in a music performance” he wrote. “It has degenerated into a piece of jugglery that has rightly excited the wrath of persons like Mr. Satyamurti, to whom it is as ‘unbearable as the Ganges water in the month of December’.”

A later quote also reveals that Satyamurti had suggested that the Pallavi could be safely relegated to the end of a concert and that there ought to be a time limit of “so many minutes” set aside for it.

This elicited a long letter from Prof. P. Sambamurthy, which was published on April 25. “Of late, it has become the fashion of some people to remark both in private and public that the pallavi … is a nuisance to be tolerated.” Such an attitude wrote Sambamurthy, came from an “utter ignorance of the great beauties underlying this branch of musical art.” To condemn the pallavi, said Sambamurthy, “was the height of unwisdom.” He then went on to take up several columns elaborating on what he felt made a good pallavi. He also traced the evolution of the pallavi as could be gleaned from the treatises on music. At the end, he delivered an oblique admonition to Satyamurti. There existed in the temple of Tirumayam, he said, an inscription that was even more ancient than the one at Kudumiyamalai. A later Pandyan king had it erased and superimposed on it a deed of his own, “to please his own conceit.” Sambamurthy did not say it, but the deity in Tirumayam is Satyamurti Perumal!

It was clear that Satyamurti would not take all this lying down. On April 27, The Hindu published his rejoinder. Sambamurthy, he said, displayed confusion of thought and purpose. He had said that a “pallavi was an intellectual treat” and that people had to “learn to understand the musician’s lofty flights” but an average concert opined Satyamurti, was not an intellectual exercise. “It is not a class for higher education in the Art,” he argued and neither was it a “Sangitha Vidwath Parishad.” He also said that in pressing for a time limit for the pallavi, he was only trying to remove what he felt was its taking up a disproportionately large part of a concert. Pallavi singing as seen in an average concert said Satyamurti, was “mere noise and bull-fight with the drummer- in short swaram gymnastics without raga-bhava.”

After this, the matter was thrown open to the general public as it were. Letters poured in. “People have come to regard the Pallavi as an infliction because many of them who attempt it at present, have no qualification for rendering them properly” wrote PS Krishnaswami Aiyar, Advocate, from Calicut on 1st May. He appeared to imply that with the passing of Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Aiyar, the pallavi was as good as orphaned. A Subrahmanya Aiyar of the Military Accounts Department from Bangalore (7th May 1929) felt that if according to Sambamurthy the pallavi was a treat to the initiated few, “why should the uninitiated many be made to suffer from what appears to them a torment or torture?” He felt that the last good exponent of the pallavi was Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan!

The battle continued till mid-May with E. Krishnan, Advocate from Kallidaikurichi sending in a letter (published May 15th) replete with Latin maxims, quotes from the Bible, ancient Tamil and Sanskrit works and a generally flowery style. He appeared to offer a good summing up of the situation and with that the editor of The Hindu decided to apply the guillotine. “This correspondence will now cease,” it was announced and that was that.

The pallavi was unaffected. What is interesting is that none of the protagonists in this battle had ever performed a concert and not once did a musician express his/her views on the subject!

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Mint Street, music and memories December 10, 2011