An irony and an emergence

December 15, 2011 10:07 pm | Updated July 26, 2016 08:30 pm IST

FR: Chowdiah

FR: Chowdiah

The second oldest Sabha to celebrate the Season is the Indian Fine Arts Society, for it was begun in 1932, just five years after the Music Academy. It is therefore in its 80 year. It made the Season a multi-Sabha attraction, for, prior to its founding, the annual celebration of music was entirely a Music Academy affair. Rather ironically, the Music Academy, could take the credit for the founding of IFAS.

R. Rangaramanuja Iyengar in his ‘Musings of a Musician,’ writes of how this happened. The Academy in its early years had a tendency to pass resolutions on issues concerning music and one among these was a censure motion of T. Chowdiah’s seven-stringed violin. “A ban descended on Chowdiah,” wrote Iyengar. “He answered the challenge by engaging Gokhale Hall for a whole season to propagate his seven and twenty-one stringed violins, as well as a single- stringed one!”

Chowdiah’s close friend in Madras was B.V. Gopalakrishna Rao, a functionary of the Corporation, and it was through him that the Indian Fine Arts Society was formed. Rao became its founder-secretary and through his good offices, senior Government officials, rich businessmen and judges of the High Court, almost all of them Telugu-speaking, were made members. And by 1933, the IFAS was ready to celebrate its music season. Its venue was the Gokhale Hall, on Armenian Street, and at a time when the Music Academy was still vacillating between the compounds of bungalows and open public spaces, this by itself was considered a show of strength.

Timing its conference to coincide with that of the Music Academy, the IFAS began its season on December 24, 1933, with Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar inaugurating it. Presiding over the conference (an honour that was to later become synonymous with the title of Sangita Kala Shikhamani), was W. Doraiswami Iyengar, the manager of the publishing house of Longman Green (later Orient Longman and now Orient Blackswan) and a respected musicologist.

If the Music Academy called its series the Madras Music Conference, IFAS aimed for a bigger stature and titled its festival the South Indian Music Conference. The Hindu , though its sympathies clearly lay with the Music Academy, reported on IFAS’ first conference in detail. On December 28, 1933, it carried a large advertisement announcing the concert of Miss. M.S. Subbulakshmi of Madura, accompanied by her mother, Miss. Shanmuga Vadivoo on the veena and Mr. Gururajappa of Mysore (brother of Mr T. Chowdiah) on the violin. This was held at the Saundarya Mahal on Govindappa Naicken Street, as the Gokhale Hall management frowned on performances by women who came from traditional families dedicated to the arts. The concert was sponsored by industrialist C. Rajam. This may have been M.S. Subbulakshmi’s first public concert in the city.

The conference concluded on December 31, 1933, with the last day being dedicated to instrumental music. The Bala Kokil, a new instrument, was demonstrated. And after that it was over to Chowdiah, who dwelt at length on his seven-stringed violin. The Hindu reported this in detail on January 3, 1934. Chowdiah based his argument for the seven-stringed violin, on the lowering of the pitches of the male musicians, following the widespread use of the microphone. “Unfortunately, in the present day, the tendency among leading vocal musicians is to sing with a very low shruti, which is very rarely higher than 2 ½ swarams on the harmonium. The difficulty of making himself heard well and far on a low shruti is a very great obstacle in the way of the violinist. The seven-stringed violin vibrates stronger and longer keeping alive the jeeva swaram of a particular note which accords nearest to the human voice, very often making people mistake its note for the human voice.” Chowdiah did not say it, but it was perhaps this very feature that most singers disliked.

Unlike the seven-stringed violin which fell into disuse with the passing of Chowdiah and a couple of his disciples, IFAS survived and prospered. Like any Sabha it had its ups and downs but that it has continued for 80 years is itself a commendable record. It was kept going in its early years by several of the Komati Chetty families of North Madras and the contributions of the V. Perumal Chetty family, in particular, has been consistent right through. Patriarch V. Emberumanar Chetty was president of the Sabha for years, and now his brother V. Sethuram continues the tradition. The Sabha moved from the Gokhale Hall to Vani Mahal, the Nadigar Sangam and later to the German Hall where it hosts its concerts now. It is still a place where good music can be heard and that is perhaps its greatest achievement.

ACHIEVEMENT A censure motion and a strong reaction resulted in the birth of the Indian Fine Arts Society. The sabha is into its 80 year.

( The author can be contacted at

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