Among the vintage concert recordings that abound, there are at least three where the performance is pierced by a shrill whistle. Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar must have clearly given instructions for a complete halt when that happens, for next we hear the huffing and puffing of a railway train. The concert resumes once the train recedes into the distance. In a Musiri Subramania Iyer concert, the whistle is aligned completely to his high pitch. And in a Mali concert, he imitates the whistle on his flute, much to the amusement of the audience.
A concert interrupted by a whistle invariably meant a performance at the Perambur Sangeetha Sabha (PSS), one of the veteran music organisations in North Chennai. In fact, it is one of only two survivors from what was once the very hub of Carnatic Music, the other one being the Tamil Isai Sangam.
Perambur owed its growth essentially to the railways and the nearby industrial areas; the composition of its population therefore being middle and lower middle class. Those interested in the arts had to travel to distant George Town, Triplicane or Mylapore. The Perambur Sangeetha Sabha was therefore founded in 1933, to bring the arts closer home. The organisation’s live wire was S.G. Subramania Iyer, its secretary and the venue of its concerts was the historic Dharmamurthy Rao Bahadur Calavala Cunnan Chetty High School just off what is now the Gandhi Park.
The settings were simple to the extreme, a thatch shelter being the best that the Sabha could afford, but such was the deep knowledge of music of its members that artists from all over South India considered it an honour to perform under its auspices. Soon making a mark at the PSS was as important as creating an impact on the aristocratic Mylapore venues.
In 1950, the Sabha was to render what can be considered its greatest contribution to Carnatic music. It brought the veteran vainika Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer from Tirugokarnam to Madras. This was thanks to Subramania Iyer and his son S. Sethuraman, who was to succeed the former as Secretary of the PSS. Thanks to this, Madras and the larger cultural world came to know of the great artist.
Sambasiva Iyer moved to Perambur and became the President of the PSS. This was to greatly enhance the Sabha’s stature. The presence of the greatly revered figure was to bring several artistes to perform in Perambur. Among those who came was Mysore Vasudevachar, then in his eighties. Another artist who became a regular was Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar. Sambasiva Iyer would make it a point to attend all the concerts and if an artiste particularly impressed him, he would make a speech at the end of the performance. One among these was M.S. Subbulakshmi about whom Sambasiva Iyer remarked that she carried the veena in her throat.
In 1952, Sethuraman and other members of the PSS were to convince Sambasiva Iyer to accept the President’s (now the Sangeet Natak Akademi) award, in the year of its inception. Arrangements were made for the party to break journey en-route to Delhi so that Iyer’s daily worship would not be disrupted. In Delhi, Sambasiva Iyer was convinced to record for AIR. It was a first for Iyer and a major achievement for the radio. Sambasiva Iyer was to remain president of the PSS till 1954 when he moved over to Kalakshetra. Dr. K.N. Karunakaran, leading physician of the area, succeeded him to the post.
Such was the reputation of the PSS for providing the best music that people from all over the city would attend its concerts. The PSS was known to be ever in dire straits financially and it was only the persuasive skill of Sethuraman and the love of the local audience that kept bringing the artistes back. The erratic Mali was known to beg for concert opportunities here and be on his best behaviour while performing. On one occasion Ariyakkudi was greeted by Sethuraman with a packet of idlis. Rather taken aback Ariyakkudi asked as to what it meant whereupon Sethuraman burst into tears and said that that was the remuneration. Ariyakkudi in his witty fashion wondered why Sethuraman was shedding tears, when it was he, Ariyakkudi, who ought to be doing so for having to sing for a mere packet of idlis!
Times have changed and so has the arts scenario. But what is heartening is that the Sabha still functions, from Sankaralayam on Meenakshi Street. Run by local aficionados, it provides a platform for young talent. Its platinum jubilee was celebrated a few years ago and the Tyagaraja Aradhana is a regular feature. It is organisations like this that keep the flag of Carnatic music flying.