Friday Review

Melody on the Marina

The Jeypore Block that reverberates with music; the library; veena session in progress and a rare book on muscial instruments. PHOTOS: R. RAVINDRAN  

Wooden steps lead up to the music section of the college library, which, is stunning. A book published in 1945 which has hand drawn illustrations of musical instruments, a book on voice training published in 1924, Sangeetha Sudhambodi (Telugu) published in 1917 and Murugan Madura Kirtanai by Mayuram T.R. Viswanatha Sastri published in 1940 are some of the old books that I find in the first women’s college in Chennai - the 103-year-old Queen Mary’s College.

“Music was offered as an elective in QMC from 1917, but no theory was taught,” says Dr. K.R. Seethalakshmi, an old student and later head of the Music department. In 2010, 250 students had chosen music as an elective.

“Music without theory is offered for undergraduate and post-graduate students with other subjects as their major, and they get credits for the elective,” says M.A. Bhageerathi, current Head of the department.

The history of how a full-fledged intermediate course in music began is interesting. In 1924, at a meeting held in Nagappa Chetty Pillaiyar Vasantha Mandapam and presided over by Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar, a resolution urging the University of Madras to include music as a subject for an intermediate course was passed. A similar resolution was passed at a meeting held by the South Indian Teachers’ Union at Pachaiyappa’s College.

The resolutions were sent to the University of Madras, which set up a syllabus committee, of which Professor Sambamurthy was a member. Some members of the Committee asked whether there was any theory to be taught in Indian music. But a vote from Prof. Fyson of the Botany department, who was the principal of Presidency College, fell in favour of the resolutions. But why did Fyson favour the resolutions? A slight digression here becomes necessary.

Mandell Creighton, the Bishop of London, was a great scholar, and also the first editor of The English Historical Review. His wife Louise was involved in the Suffragette movement. Beatrice Creighton was their daughter. In 1914, Bishop Whitehead of Madras set up St. Faith’s House, for the uplift of indigent Englishmen and women in Madras, and Beatrice Creighton became the Deaconess of St. Faith’s. She arranged a series of lectures on Indian Music by Prof. Sambamurthy, at her residence. Fyson attended these lectures, and so was able to assure the syllabus committee that a theory of Indian Music could be taught.

A syllabus to teach music was put in place, and Queen Mary’s College became the first to offer a two-year intermediate course in Indian music in 1928, with the first batch consisting of 17 students.

Prof. Sambamurthy was appointed the first lecturer. The examiners were Sabesa Iyer and W. Duraiswamy Iyengar. Principal Dorothy de la Hey was generous with funds and Prof. Sambamurthy bought musical instruments, a gramophone and 78 rpm records.

Classes were held in the room on top in Capper House, which was originally the residence of a Colonel, and later a hotel, before it became a part of the college. The room was remodelled to meet the needs of a music room, but when the work was finished, it was damaged by a cyclone in November 1930, and had to be rebuilt. This was also the year in which the Music department started B.A. in Indian Music.

When the undergraduate course was offered, Raghavachariar and Bhavani Swaminathan, a veena player, were appointed as additional faculty. The Indian Music Association of the college, which was started in 1931, set up an orchestra and also organised concerts by top ranking artists such as flute Mali, DKP and Dandapani Desigar.

Musicologist Dr. Ritha Rajan, old student and later head of the department, says there was music in QMC wherever one turned.

“Principal Dr. Irawathy was very fond of music and she knew some rare Garbhapuri kirtanais such as ‘Koniyadi Tarama’ (Vakulabharanam). After dinner, around 10 p.m., she would send for students of the music department, staying in the hostel, to come to her residence on the campus and sing for her. She would sing sahitya for sarali varisai, janta varisai, etc., published by Vina Ramanujayya in the 19th century. She taught us to recite the entire ‘Nama Ramayana’ starting with ‘Suddha Brahma Paratpara Ram’ with a classical tune,” says Ritha.

“The college song took shape in 1974, the Diamond Jubilee of the college,” continues Ritha. “It was composed by Periyasami Thooran and was set to music in four ragas by vidwan T.K. Govinda Rao.

The College’s ensemble of Brass Band musical instruments was also started in 1974. It was the second women’s band then in the whole country, the first being from Rajasthan. Some of our music students were amazing players. S.P. Gauri, daughter of vidwan A.S. Panchapakesa Iyer was a wonderful trumpet player; Renuka from Srilanka played the trombone and one Chitra from the Economics Department played the huge Euphonium!

“The college band was trained by professional coaches from the police band, and took part in the Republic Day Parade every year and also in important Government functions,” recalls Ritha.

Ritha remembers the visit of veena Dhanammal’s grandson T. Sankaran, who listened to many of the rare 78 rpm records, including a tanam played by Sembanarkoil Ramaswamy.

Course for a Master’s degree was started in 1993 followed by M.Phil and Ph.D in 2006.

“External examiners from foreign Universities evaluate the theses of our candidates. Dr. Radha Ramji was the first doctoral candidate,” informs hageerathi, who has guided 15 doctoral candidates so far.

Eminent persons such as Balamuralikrishna, Nithyashree, B. Krishnamurthy and Bharadwaj have been present at the thesis defence sessions.

The department has planned a series of concerts and lec-dems for the students to mark the centenary.

Dr. Abiramasundari and Dr. Shanti Mahesh are faculty members, and Dr. G. Karpagam and Dr. S. Satyavathy are guest lecturers.



Nurtured many stalwarts

The following are some of the old students of the department: vocalists N.C. Soundaravalli, Charumathi Ramachandran, Subhashini Parthasarathy, Radha Bhaskar; violinists M. Narmada, M. Lalitha, Hemalatha, Parur Harini Srivatsa; vainika Vidya Sankar; academicians Premeela Gurumurthy, Rajshree Ramakrishnan, E. Angayarkanni, Mythili, N. Padma, Komatil Janaki (vocalist Unnikrishnan’s grand-aunt), Sister Margaret Bastin, Suvarnangi and Syamalangi from Ceylon, to name a few.

Former professors of the department were: Bhanumathiamma, Parvathy, Dr. Lakshmi Bai, Dr. S.R. Jayasitalakshmi and V. Nagarajan. “Vidya Sankar learnt many rare Syama Sastri kritis from Bhavani Swaminathan, who was a member of the experts committee of the Music Academy,” says Ritha. “The music section in the library had the first edition (1893) of Chinnasami Mudaliar’s ‘Oriental Music in Staff Notation,’ and the old music magazine ‘Sangita Abhimani.’” In 1942, Tamil knowing students of the college staged a play ‘Kannagi,’ at R.R. Sabha. Most of the songs in the play were from Silappadikaram, and these were set to tune by Papanasam Sivan and his brother, with director K. Subrahmanyam helping with costumes props and lighting.

Don’t miss it



Centenary celebrations of the department begin on September 20, 10 a.m., in the Assembly Hall of the college.

The function will be presided over by Bombay sisters- C. Saroja and C. Lalitha.

This will be followed by a concert of A. Kanyakumari, an alumnus of the department, and Sangita Kalanidhi designate.

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