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Mired in controversy

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FOCUS Once a premier institution, R.R. Sabha, in Chennai, is caught in a war of ego. Suganthy Krishnamachari

Ask a longtime Mylaporean what the three ‘R’s are, and chances are that he will not reply ‘reading, writing and ‘rithmetic.’ D. Sundaravaradan, whose family has lived in Mylapore, Chennai, for more than 150 years, says, that for many Mylaporeans, the 3 ‘R’s stand for R.R. Sabha, Rayar’s café and Rajaji Seeval stores, which was near Velleeswaran Koil. “Those attending programmes in R.R. Sabha would step into Rayar’s for a Poli, and could often be seen chewing betel and discussing the previous day’s programmes outside Rajaji Seeval, which was run by one Jalal. On Saraswathi puja, the sabha would organise a dance programme, and members would be given a bag of freebies, containing a small sachet of TSR’s sandal powder, a packet of biscuits and even a small bottle of Amrutanjan!” he recalls.

R.R. Sabha (Rasika Ranjani Sabha) was founded in 1929 by A.K. Ramachandra Iyer, owner of Midland theatre (now Jayaprada), M. Loganatha Mudaliar and K. Natesa Iyer. Initially programmes took place in Vanniar School, Nadu street, and later in National Girls High school (now Lady Sivaswami Iyer Girls school), on Sundareswarar Koil street, Mylapore. In 1930, the sabha bought seven grounds of land, on the same street, from Kovur Sundareswarar temple. The hall where programmes were held subsequently was named Sundareswarar Hall.

In 1940, a music school was started by the sabha, and for 30 years from 1942, A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer, brother of Alathur Srinivasa Iyer, was the Principal. He was assisted by Lalgudi Halasyam. “B.Rajam Iyer taught for some years in the school. So did Kumbakonam Viswanathan, who resided then in Kallukkaaran Street, near Mundakakanni Amman temple,” recalls Umayalpuram Sivaraman, whose first kutcheri at R.R. Sabha was in 1953, when he played for B. Rajam Iyer and B. Krishnamoorthy.

For many years, programmes of the Music academy were held at R.R. Sabha. In 1945, The Music Academy and R.R. Sabha jointly organised a week of Syama Sastri celebrations at Sundareswarar Hall. This writer’s father who attended all the concerts, recalled that none of the vocalists who sang on the occasion, including Thuraiyur Rajagopala Sarma, had violin accompaniment. They only had tambura and mridangam.

In 1944, T.L. Venkatrama Iyer spoke at R.R. sabha, criticising those who rushed through kritis at the speed of the Boat Mail, a train that ran from Madras to Rameswaram. In the same year, students of Loyola College organised GNB’s concert at the R.R. Sabha. It rained continuously on the day of the concert, but GNB sang to a packed auditorium. The proceeds of 2001 rupees were handed over to the Corporation Commissioner, for the upkeep of orphanages in Madras. When T.L. Venkatrama Iyer organised Dikshitar day celebrations in R.R. Sabha in 1945, food was served to the audience!

Auspicious venue

R.R. Sabha was considered an auspicious venue for inaugurals and arangetrams. Dr. N. Ramani’s first public concert with his guru happened here, in 1945. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyam who had her arangetram here in 1956 says, “For my arangetram, actor Padmini’s mother tied the actor’s salangai around my ankles, in full view of the audience, which included MKT Bhagavatar, Nagaiah, Sivaji, Gemini and Savitri. My father wanted to start a dancers’ guild. With this in view, he organised performances of Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini, Kamala and Vyjayanthi – all on the same day, at R.R. Sabha! I don’t think all of them danced in the same venue on the same day before or after that.”

If a play had been inaugurated in R.R. Sabha, one could be sure that it was good, for a weak script could never get past Natesa Iyer. With his collarless ‘jibba’ and umbrella, he was a familiar figure in Mylapore. This writer’s father used to recount the grandeur of the sets for ‘Sivagamiyin Sabatham,’ inaugurated in April 1951 by ‘Sri Ramakrishna Kripa Amateurs Troupe.’ The Chief Minister P.S. Kumaraswami Raja was the chief guest. Proceeds went to the Foundation for the treatment of Tuberculosis and also to Ramakrishna Students Home.

Art Ranganna, who did the sets, says, “I did silhouette lighting for the Naarsandhi Natanam. To show horses rushing into the burning fort, we had plywood horses mounted on a rotating disc. Hidden fans rustled red cellophane paper cut to resemble tongues of flame. Kalki wept with joy when he saw the play, and later treated us all to dinner at his residence.”

The knowledgeable and hypercritical Mylapore audience spurred performers on to do their best. During one of her performances at R.R. Sabha, dancer Sudharani Raghupathy’s foot was pierced by a nail, when she did a sarukkal adavu. She didn’t wince, afraid that even a fleeting expression of pain on her face would mar her performance. “I smiled a little more than usual, and at the end of the programme, many said that my smile had become more radiant after the sarukkal adavu,” she laughs.

Sadly, R.R. Sabha has not been on the arts scene for sometime now. Disagreements among members have been rife. When repairs had to be carried out, some members felt a restoration as in the case of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha was enough. But others felt it was better to build a new auditorium, and so the old building was demolished. On September 22, 2002, the governing body passed a resolution for the constitution of R.R. Sabha Trust, which was duly registered on January 27, 2004.

The land, on which the auditorium was to come up, was to be leased to the Trust, which would finance the construction of the auditorium. The plan was to have a main auditorium, a mini auditorium, two halls, one to serve as a library and the other for a music school. There was to be a roof garden cafeteria too. A.R. Santhanakrishnan, who belongs to the family of A.K. Ramachandra Iyer, put in Rs. 1.25 crores.

Stay obtained

Construction began in 2006 and went on in full swing till 2008. A proposal to reconstitute the Trust was taken, the idea being to perpetuate the memory of donors. The proposal was tabled at a meeting of the governing body in 2008, but some members of the body obtained a stay order. Santhanakrishnan and secretary, R. Nagarajan, resigned. Construction came to a halt. Subsequently, N.V. Balasubramanian, retired Judge of the Madras High Court, became the president.

Pramila Narasimhan, daughter-in-law of Sudesamitran C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, who donated Rs. 30 lakhs as the first tranche of payment towards construction of the mini auditorium, has issued a notice regarding the non-utilisation of her contribution. In June 2012, Santhanakrishnan sent a letter to the managing committee raising several questions.

On August 1, 2012, a communication was circulated among members of the sabha by the managing committee. Santhanakrishnan objected to the tenor of the letter. In a letter dated September 21, 2012, he placed on record that some remarks amounted to libel. When contacted, vice-presidents Hemalatha Ramamani and R. Kuppuswamy, said that they had resigned from their posts some months ago. “In the AGM in September, Justice Balasubramanian resigned as president,” says Nagarajan. K.J. Suriyanarayanan and C.H. Ramakrishnan as secretaries and K. Sivaraman as treasurer continue to be in the managing committee. Too many people, too much ego, but all that art lovers want is to see their favourite sabha back on its feet.

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