The first Sabha of Madras

One of the earliest attempt to make Britishers appreciate Carnatic music was initiated by Gayan Samaj.

September 13, 2012 06:45 pm | Updated June 28, 2016 09:28 pm IST

Pacchaiyappas College

Pacchaiyappas College

Had the Madras Jubilee Gayan Samaj been around, it would have been 125 this year, though it began at least four years earlier under a different name. That certainly makes it the mother of all Sabhas that have been documented in the 373 years of Chennai.

The Samaj came into existence at a time when the British were taking an active if short-lived interest in Indian music. Books were being written, some of the early works being ‘Hindu Music’ by Captain N.A. Willard, ‘Musical Modes of the Hindus’ by Sir William Jones, ‘Sangeet’ by Francis Gladwin and ‘Oriental Music’ by W.C. Stafford. The absence of any form of documentation and the native methods of notation proved to be a major deterrent. The educated Indians began to seriously work on reducing Indian music to the Western form of notation often referred to as Staff Notation. It was their view that getting their music written in the Western format would encourage the English to appreciate the art form. Among the earliest such attempts were made by the Poona Gayan Samaj, one of the early organised bodies to sponsor music performances.

The Madras Branch of the Gayan Samaj was inaugurated on August 18, 1883, at the Pachaiyappa’s Hall. It had as its patrons, Sir Charles Turner, Sir T. Madava Row, Justice T. Muthuswami Iyer, Dewan Bahadur Raghunatha Row, Gen. Chamier and Col. H. McLeod. The Maharajas of Mysore, Travancore and Vizianagaram funded its creation and as per the desire of the Maharaja of Vizianagaram. it was named in 1887 as the Madras Jubilee Gayan Samaj in honour of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. Soon, Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught and Sir Frederick Roberts (later Lord Roberts of Kandahar), the commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, signed up as patrons. The initial meetings of the Samaj were held at Madhav Baug, the house of Sir T. Madava Row in Mylapore. With the joining of other worthies such as Mr (later Sir) Pitty Tyagaraya Chetty and Arcot Dhanakoti Mudaliar, the Samaj’s coffers swelled and it set up two schools dedicated to teaching music to children, one of which was the Maharaja of Vizianagaram’s School for Girls in Mylapore which later became the National Girls School and still later, the Lady Sivaswami Iyer Girls School.

Closely involved in the running of the school and the training of its students were two brothers, Pedda and Chinna Singaracharlu of Tachur. The brothers lived at No. 3, Tambu Naicken Lane, George Town (the building is located off Govindappa Naicken Street and is today a flourishing plastics market). Both of them were good violinists and the elder was employed as the Telugu pandit at Pachaiyappa’s College.

The brothers began organising performances of promising students under the auspices of the Madras Jubilee Gayan Samaj, which was when it became a true sabha. Attendance by some of the leading Sahibs of Madras was a regular feature. The Madras Mail regularly published detailed accounts of the proceedings. On January 22, 1884, a music concert was organised at Lakshmi Baug (present day Kamadhenu Theatre), the residence of V. Bhashyam Iyengar. Sir Frederick Roberts attended the same along with Justice and Mrs. Brandt, Dr. and Mrs. David Duncan, Mr. Oppert and Mr. D.S. White. On December 22, 1885, Lord and Lady Reay (Governor and First Lady of Bombay) attended a programme at the Pachaiyappa’s Hall along with Mr (later Sir and still later Lord) Monstuart Elphinstone Grant Duff and his wife. Justice T. Muthuswami Iyer read out a paper on Indian music and spoke at length on its features vis-à-vis that of Western music. Grant Duff, who was the Governor of Madras, maintained a diary during his tenure here and the event finds mention in it.

The Samaj also reduced some of its songs to Staff Notation and had the Madras Philharmonic Orchestra render them for Europeans on yet another occasion. In addition, it had Tennyson’s Ode to Queen Victoria translated into Sanskrit, set to music and performed for the benefit of an invited audience.

An active member of the Gayan Samaj was Lieut. (later Captain) C.R. Day who interested himself tremendously in Indian Music and published a book on the subject, the printing of which was funded by the Government. By the second anniversary of the Samaj, its two schools for music had been attached to the Mylapore Native School and Chengalvaraya Naicker School in George Town.

In later years, the Samaj appears to have faded away. How and why it closed is not documented. What is of immense value is a compilation of its proceedings between 1883 and 1888, which was published as a book. It gives us an idea of what the music world was so many years ago.

(The author can be contacted at

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