Memories of Madras – Rhythm of an era gone by

Padma Subrahmanyam on the riveting plays of Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai, watching Martha Graham perform live and savouring potato chips from the mobile canteen near the beach

July 27, 2010 06:28 pm | Updated November 08, 2016 01:42 am IST



Is it any wonder that I found my calling in art? The sprawling house (the present Dominic Savio School) on Santhome Road where I was born and grew up had a creative buzz about it, as it constantly played host to actors, musicians, dancers, theatrepersons and poets. The famed Travancore sisters Lalitha, Padmini and Ragini stayed with us for a few days when they moved to Madras.

There was also abundant inspiration around the house — legendary vocalists G. N. Balasubramaniam and Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagvathar were our neighbours. My elder brother would often visit their houses to listen to their singing.

Initially, I went to the Rosary Matriculation School located behind our house. Unlike other students who entered through the main gate, I used to jump over the fence. During the lunch break, I would again take this shortcut to eat hot food at home and get back to school the same way.

School was fun with equal stress on education and extra-curricular activities. The delectable ice fruits, two for one otta kalana (a coin with a hole in the centre) sold outside the school, added to our joy.

Opposite our house was the Mysore palace, nearby was the Santhome church, and the Marina was just a few yards away… it was a lovely ambience! The classic Tamil film “Thyagabhoomi” was shot in our house.

My father, well-known filmmaker K. Subrahmanyam, was keen that besides learning Bharatanatyam, I should be exposed to every art form, and so would take me to various performances. I have watched the internationally-acclaimed dancer-choreographer Martha Graham and renowned ballerina Maya Plisetskaya perform when they visited Madras in the 1950s.

Theatre had a great following and everyday a play would be staged at the Ottravadai theatre on Walltax Road. I have watched many of them. Nawab Rajamanickam Pillai's productions impacted me greatly. His plays drew a full house for months together. But the one that earned him immense recognition and the title ‘nawab' was “Bhaktha Ramadass”. As the remorseful nawab, he tugged at the audiences' heartstrings when he called out aloud on stage “Ramsingh”, “Lakshmansingh” (referring to Rama and Lakshmana).

My lawyer-turned-director father was a man of multifarious interests. In 1942, he started Nrithyodaya on Kennedy Street in Mylapore to make the classical arts accessible to all. The school offered free training in various dance forms and the hostel attached to it free boarding. Teachers for Kathak, Kathakali and Manipuri were invited from outside Madras — a pioneering effort then.

The artist fraternity endeavoured to make culture a way of life, investing art with high values. Political leaders too had an aura about them and influenced people deeply with their commitment to the Freedom Movement. To help around 1,000 soldiers of the Indian National Army who had come to Madras, my father raised funds by getting the dense woods on what is now the Congress Grounds in Teynampet cleared and putting up an exhibition.

My father owned quite a few cars such as a Baby Austin, a Ford and a DeSoto. There was a mini-service station in our backyard. I remember how thrilled I was to see Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru travel in my father's favourite DeSoto that had an open top during one of his visits to the city. He even stopped by our house and I presented him with a bouquet made by my mother with the jasmine flowers from our garden.

In 1954, we moved to Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, and were one of its first residents. Gandhi Nagar was then like the woods — dark and deep — but there was nothing to fear. For a year I attended the Besant School and would cycle to school. Sometimes I would take my friend Padmini (granddaughter of Sir C. P. Ramaswamy Iyer) pillion to her dance class at Kalakshetra and would be drawn to the tinnai where maestro Karaikudi Sambasiva Iyer would conduct veena classes. I enjoyed pounding betel nuts for him while watching him teach students in a relaxed manner.

I learnt important lessons in music while waiting to pick up my sisters from the Music College at the Bridge House in Adyar. But the best part was getting to share the hot dosa s that would arrive for Musiri Subramania sir (the then Principal) from his house.

When Durgabai Deshmukh, who was a dear family friend, started the Andhra Mahila Sabha, my father shifted me to the school there and I had mami s twice my age for classmates. After school, I did P.U. (pre-university). The curriculum in those days included a whole lot of subjects — physics, chemistry, botany, zoology, world history, geography and more.

College or outing, we were dressed in pavadai-dhavani . Entertainment meant watching music and dance recitals or plays. Eating out was savouring the sundal sold on the beach and the potato chips from the mobile canteen nearby. Deepavali was about getting a suitcase full of firecrackers for Rs. 5. The rhythm of life was different.

BIO PADMA SUBRAHMANYAM: Born in 1943, she is an eminent Bharatanatyam dancer, teacher, composer, choreographer and author. A recipient of several awards including the Padma Shri, Padma Bhushan, Sangeet Natak Akademi and Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize, she will be conferred honorary D.Litt by Sastra University on August 14. Padma did her doctorate on ‘Karanas in Indian Dance and Sculpture' as seen in the temples of Chidambaram, Thanjavur and Kumbakonam. She revived the Marga technique common to the entire Indian subcontinent and even beyond. Based on her research, she refers to her dance performances as ‘Bharatha Nrityam'. She designed the sculptures of the 108 Karanas of Siva and Parvati for the Nataraja temple at Satara in Maharashtra.

I REMEMBER I was part of the children's delegation that was taken to the Raj Bhavan in Madras to interact with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. The interaction was recorded for the Children's Film Society. I remember asking Pandit Nehru which fine art he liked the most. And he said, ‘I don't know if you will understand the significance of my answer now, but living itself is the greatest fine art'. As I grew up, his thought-provoking reply kept coming back to my mind and still does often.

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