We know of pioneering women singers, instrumentalists and dancers. But who was the first woman to run a Sabha? The honour on that count should go to Alamelu Jayarama Iyer. A well-known personality in the classical arts world of the first half of the last century, she helped run several organisations that supported fine arts.
Born in 1893, Alamelu was married to noted lawyer K.S. Jayarama Iyer, who specialised in the criminal side of the law in the High Court of Madras. The family residence, Sri Nivas, which stood on East Mada Street, was an atelier of sorts, where artists came, stayed, practised music and were supported in several ways.
Many years later, noted singer and painter S. Rajam would reminisce that there were three houses in Mylapore that were always open to artists – his own when his father Mylapore Sundaram Iyer was alive, the residence of Alamelu and K.S. Jayarama Iyer, and that of C.K. Venkatanarasimham, who was Jayarama Iyer’s junior in law and later set up successful independent practice.
The 1920s and 1930s were when Sabhas proliferated in Madras. The Music Academy, the RR Sabha and several others such as the short-lived Vainika Gayaka Sabha, the Sangita Shala and the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha came up then. Mrs Jayarama Iyer was among the founding members of the Music Academy. It was however in the 1930s that she came into her own, organising music performances independently for some Sabhas.
The first of these was the Indian Fine Arts Society, which came up in the early 1930s as a fall out of the Music Academy’s decision to bar T. Chowdaiah from its stage chiefly on account of his continued espousal of the seven-stringed violin. He in turn got the Telugu and Kannada speaking eminences of Madras and formed the IFAS. Though it had B.V. Gopalakrishna Rao as its founder, he being a minor functionary in the Corporation of Madras, it was the Arya Vysya community in the city that provided the financial support. Alamelu and Jayarama Iyer were patrons of the Sabha and in that capacity made sure it had the blessings of the higher ups in the Government, industry and the music world.
The patronage of IFAS continued even as Alamelu remained an active member of the Music Academy! This was despite the two organisations being at loggerheads till at least 1939. It was also in the 1930s that she founded the Muthialpet Sri Venkatesa Bhakta Sabha. Inaugurated in December 1935, it had its offices at the Nataraja Girls School on Thambu Chetty Street, George Town.
The Sabha had just one objective –providing a platform for young talent and remunerating them well. It also had a rather unique business model – it would get senior artists to perform free and from the sale of tickets for their concerts would generate funds to pay young artists. While Alamelu was president, she was actively supported by C.S. Nageswara Iyer as secretary. Between them they managed to rope in around 180 members within the first month of the Sabha’s inception. Patron members had to pay Re 1 per month while Special Members were charged 50 paise. Ordinary members paid 25 paise.
The Sabha held a concert each month and most of these were at the YMCA auditorium on NSC Bose (China Bazaar) Road. The press of the day praised the initiative but it appears that the Sabha did not survive beyond 1938. It is quite likely that the war years, which saw several music organisations suffer in the city, also swallowed up the Sri Venkatesa Bhakta Sabha.
Though not involved in running Sabhas thereafter, Mrs Jayarama Iyer, who was known as a fine singer in her own right, was much sought after for her knowledge. She and her husband were known for their renditions of Jayadeva’s Ashtapadi and many including composer D. Pattammal learnt them from her. It was said that Kalki Krishnamurthy consulted her regularly when it came to clarifications he needed while writing his weekly column Aadal Paadal for Ananda Vikatan .
In 1941, Mrs Jayarama Iyer was an attendee of the Tamil Isai Conference held at Devakottai and was a signatory to the declaration that demanded that Tamil be given importance on the concert platform. She was involved thereafter with the Tamil Isai Sangam. In 1947, she actively assisted Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer in the organising of the Swati Tirunal Centenary Celebrations in Trivandrum.
Alamelu Jayarama Iyer died in 1966. Rather interestingly, the house where she and her husband had lived and held court was sold to the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan.
It today houses an auditorium where music performances are held practically every day. During December, the place becomes home to several Sabhas. The erstwhile owner would no doubt be happy that this is so.