In its 375th year, Madras that is Chennai can happily look back on an awesome record of encouraging great Carnatic music composers. Of course, the ancient villages that made up the city have a music history going back to the Nayanmars and the Azhwars. But the story from 1639 is no less illustrious, with the 18th and 19th centuries in particular making it a composing hub.
The Sarva Deva Vilasa of the 19th century, which is the first authoritative though incomplete work on Madras, gives us a fascinating description of the performing arts scenario in the city.
Composers were welcomed on elephants, soirees happened at coconut groves and accomplished women artists were in the retinue of dubashes. The work mentions a Doraiswami who was honoured. He has been identified by Dr.V. Raghavan as Pallavi Doraiswami Iyer (1782-1816). The deity at the Chidambareswara Swami temple in Choolai was his chief inspiration to compose songs.
Both Arunachala Kavi (1711-1779) and Marimutha Pillai (1712-1787) came calling on Manali Muthukrishna Mudali, the Chief Merchant of the East India Company. The Kavi has left behind a verse on Muthukrishna Mudali who honoured him with a shower of gold. Marimutha Pillai too was encouraged and it is said that during his visit to Madras, he composed on the Mylapore and Tiruvottiyur temples. Arunachala Kavi was also feted at the residence of Devaperumal, the son of Linghi Chetty, mint master to the East India Company.
Muthukrishna Mudali’s other contribution was to get the family of Ramaswami Dikshitar (1735- 1817) to move from Tiruvarur to Madras. It was here that Ramaswami Dikshitar’s eldest son Muthuswami met his mentor, Chidambaranatha Yogi. It was also here that the family, thanks to Mudali, acquired a fresh copy of the Chaturdandi Prakasika of Venkatamakhin, which was to form the basis of the musical output of Muthuswami Dikshitar. There are songs on deities at the Tiruvottiyur and Tiruvallikeni temples attributed to Muthuswami Dikshitar but these do not find mention in the compilation by his grand nephew, Subbarama Dikshitar.
The longest song in Carnatic music, ‘Natakadi Vidyala’, set to 108 ragas and talas is by Ramaswami Dikshitar and is in praise of Muthukrishna Mudali’s son, Venkatakrishna Mudali, also known as Chinnayyan. Ramaswami Dikshitar also used his patron’s name as his mudra.
Tyagaraja (1767-1847) came to Madras at the invitation of his disciple Veenai Kuppayyar, who was in the retinue of Kovur Sundaresa Mudali, another dubash. Tyagaraja composed five songs each on the deities at Tiruvottiyur and Kovur.
In the era succeeding that of the Carnatic Trinity, several musicians either passed through or settled in the city. One of ‘Veenai’ Kuppayyar’s songs is on the Goddess at Tiruvottiyur. Subbaraya Sastry stayed in Madras for some time when he visited the Triplicane Parthasarathy Temple and composed a song on the deity there. Similarly, Mysore Sadasiva Rao (c 1800-1870), a noted composer, visited Madras and dedicated a song to Sri Parthasarathy. Yet another musician composer was Ghanam Krishna Iyer (1790-1854) who dedicated a song to the Lord in Tiruvottiyur.
By 1870, Madras was a must on the concert itinerary of such singers as Ghanam Krishna Iyer (1790-1854), ‘Maha’ Vaidyanatha Sivan (1844-1893), Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer (1816-1889) and ‘Patnam’ Subramania Iyer (1845-1902).
Ghanam Krishna Iyer composed a song in the praise of Sir Thomas Munroe while visiting the city. ‘Patnam’ Subramania Iyer, who was from Tiruvayyaru, was invited by Salem Meenakshi, a noted Devadasi of the city, to settle in Madras and teach her daughters Pappa and Radha music. Iyer’s prolonged association with the city got him the prefix Patnam. Subramania Iyer composed a few songs on the city’s temples as well. The savant Ramalinga Swamigal (1823-1874) was to dedicate his verses to shrines here when he stayed in George Town.
Late in the 19th century, when thanks to correspondence in The Hindu, Subbarama Dikshitar (1839-1906) came to Madras to collaborate with AM Chinnaswami Mudaliar, he composed a song in praise of Parthasarathy at Triplicane.
The 20th century was to only see the corpus of songs expanding with composers such as Papanasam Sivan and Koteeswara Iyer adding to it. Since then, Chennai has been more a performers’ hub, moving the art form into its next stage.
Some prominent names…
Pallavi Doraiswami Iyer
Ramaswami and Muthuswami Dikshitar
Ghanam Krishna Iyer
‘Maha’ Vaidyanatha Sivan
Kunrakkudi Krishna Iyer
‘Patnam’ Subramania Iyer