Abraham Pandithar organised Sangam in 1921 and this was the blueprint for all music conferences that were to follow.

May 27, 2012, marks the completion of 100 years since the hosting of the first Carnatic Music conference in the modern sense of the term. That event was not held in Madras but rightfully in Thanjavur, the heartland of South Indian music and hosting it was a Christian practitioner of native medicine – Dr. Abraham Pandithar.

Born in 1859, Abraham Pandithar had qualified as a teacher and he, along with his first wife Gnanavadivu Ponnammal, joined the Lady Napier School in Thanjavur. By 1890, the couple had quit so that Pandithar could pursue the first of his two great passions – native medicine. Purchasing a large tract of land outside Thanjavur, Pandithar converted it into a farm for growing medicinal plants.

Named by him as Karunanandapuram, it was referred to as Pandithar Thottam by the locals. At his residence in Thanjavur, Pandithar opened the Karunanidhi Medical Hall; patients flocked the place. His Gorosanai pills in particular became extremely well known not only in India, but also in the then Ceylon, Burma and the Strait Settlements. His pioneering work in the area was recognised by the Government which conferred the title of Rao Saheb on him in 1911, the year he married for the second time, his new wife being Bhagyammal.

In 1912, the Governor, Lord Carmichael, was visiting Thanjavur and a reception was hosted at the Pandithar Thottam.

Pandithar's second passion was music and he had learnt it formally from Dindigul Sadayandi Bhattar. Consequently, the reception to the Governor saw the attendance of several musicians such as Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Tirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar. To this august gathering Pandithar placed his proposal that a formal music conference (a sangam as he called it) ought to be held, to clear the air on various confusions concerning the theory of music. This was readily accepted and with the Setupati of Ramnad, the Sangita Vidya Mahajana Sangam as it was called, was all set to begin.

Detailed report

The inauguration took place at the Karunanidhi Medical Hall. The Hindu reported the event in detail. “Our enterprising citizen, Rao Saheb M. Abraham Pandithar deserves to be congratulated on his taking efforts to advance the cause of Indian music as the first practical step in which direction he had managed to hold the first Conference of some musicians today” began the report which was published on May 28, 1912. The meeting took place in the new press-room of the Karunanidhi Medical Hall. The press had been specially brought in thanks to Sir Harold Stuart, Member, Governor's Executive Council, Madras Government, for the purpose of publishing the deliberations of the conference.

“A few minutes after the prescribed hour of 9 a.m., there were prayers in Sanskrit offered by Messrs Panchapakesa Bhagavadar of Tanjore and Muthia Bhagavadar of Tinnevelly…” continued the report. Abraham Pandithar then went on to make his speech in which he listed the objectives of the Sangam – “to promote an academic interest in and to diffuse a knowledge of all that was best in the science and practice of Indian Music; to correct all conflicting motions in regard to Ragams and determine the precise and scientifically correct methods; to concert measures to the advancement of Indian music.”

Mayuram Veena Vaidyanatha Iyer, a disciple of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan,was asked to chair the sessions. After the morning session, “the conference adjourned for the members' dinner and was to meet at 3 p.m.”

The afternoon session saw another unique development – a group photograph was taken by “Messrs GPN Chandra & Co.” Pazhamaneri Swaminatha Iyer, “musician and violinist”, presided over the second half.

The Sangam met six times, the last session being on October 24, 1914. Its deliberations were compiled and printed at Pandithar's expense as the monumental ‘Karunamirtha Sagaram'. Pandithar's pioneering effort was to reach the ears of Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao, Dewan of Baroda, who, in 1916, organised an All India Music Conference under the chairmanship of the Gaekwar of Baroda. Pandithar was an honoured invitee along with his daughter, Maragathavalliammal.

Abraham Pandithar passed away in 1919 and was buried in his beloved thottam, next to the grave of his first wife. His second wife's grave was to come up on the other side later. The garden was to become Muthiah Bhagavatar's summer camp and it was here that he helped A.J. Pandian, Pandithar's son, set several hymns to music. The road leading to the Karunanidhi Medical Hall was named after Pandithar.

Pandithar's Sangam was to lay the blueprint for all music conferences that were to follow, including that of the Music Academy. The pattern is followed even now. The printing machine, on which Pandithar churned out his treatise, has miraculously survived and is today displayed at the Indeco Hotel's artefacts museum in Mamallapuram.

(The author can be contacted at srirambts@gmail.com)

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