Landmark History & Culture

Centre that fostered Tamil bhakti literature

Balasubramania Baktha Jana Sabha found stalwarts engaging in debates, discourses and teaching

In the colonial period, many Indians thought that a mastery of English was the apogee of education. Caught up in this craze for English, Duraisami, Parthasarathi, Ekambaram and Kalyanasundaram (later to become famous as Thiru Vi Ka), students of class nine in Wesley school, Royapettah, Chennai, set up a Youth Association to help students improve their English diction. The association, founded in 1901, functioned in Amman Koil Street (now Srinivasa Perumal Sannidhi Street), in the house of Kandasami Mudaliar.

Centre that fostered Tamil bhakti literature

Later Thiru Vi Ka described his desire to learn the Queen’s English as a ‘demon.’ This demon was exorcised by Yazhpanam Sathavadani Kadiravel Pillai, who was only 27 years old, when he joined Wesley school as a Tamil teacher.

Centre that fostered Tamil bhakti literature

Pillai instilled in his students such a love for Tamil, that English was forgotten, and the boys now threw themselves heart and soul into enjoying the beauty of Tamil literature. On September 30, 1903, the youth association became Balasubramania Bhaktha Jana Sabha, a name suggested by Kadiravel Pillai, who became its first president. Thiru Vi Ka’s elder brother became the secretary.

The sabha initially operated at Kuthambakkam Appasami Mudaliar’s house in Muthu Mudali Street, Royapettah. In 1904, the sabha moved to Kandasami Mudaliar’s house in the same street. Thiru Vi Ka led the morning prayers and in the evenings taught students Tamil literature.

In Ammayappa Mudali Street, there was an Advaita Sabha, where Vedanta was taught by Subbaraya Chettiar. Often the classes turned out to be criticisms of Tamil Saiva canonical texts and of Kadiravel Pillai. Thiru Vi Ka and other members of the Balasubramania Bhakta Jana Sabha would not let this go unchallenged. Every Sunday, they assembled in Sundareswarar temple, where they unleashed the full fury of their oratory against detractors of Tamil bhakti literature.

Centre that fostered Tamil bhakti literature

Centre that fostered Tamil bhakti literature

The sabha functioned for some time in Sachidanandam Pillai’s house, and then went back again to Muthu Mudali street, this time to Sivasankara Mudaliar’s house. Sivasankara Mudaliar, class mate and a close friend of Thiru Vi Ka was unhappy about the sabha not having a permanent address.

So he decided to approach his relative Balasundara Mudaliar, who owned a little over three grounds of land on Mowbrays Road (now TTK road) in Alwarpet. Balasundara Mudaliar was prepared to part with it, if Sivasankara Mudaliar stood guarantee for a loan that Balasundara Mudaliar planned to take from a bank. Sivasankara Mudaliar agreed, and a part of the land was given free to Balasubramania Bhakta Jana Sabha and that is where the sabha has been located since then.

Centre that fostered Tamil bhakti literature

The foundation for a small hall, which was to be named Guhananda Nilayam, was laid on February 24, 1905, by Pamban Swamigal. The building was inaugurated on September 22, 1915, by Justice Sadasiva Iyer.

Centre that fostered Tamil bhakti literature

A Thanjavur painting of Murugan on a peacock, with His consorts, and a picture of the Nalvar seen in Guhananda Nilayam, date back to the foundation of the sabha.

Thiru Vi Ka and his friends took care of arrangements for the annual day celebrations of the sabha. Elders living in Royapettah were proud of the initiative of the youngsters. The night before the annual day, no one in in the neighbourhood would go to sleep, writes Thiru Vi Ka. Everyone was caught up in the excitement. Festoons and flower decorations, banana trees in front of every house and colourful pandals would go up, making the whole of Royapettah look auspicious. Buttermilk, panakam and fruits were served to everyone who came to the celebrations. In the morning, the picture of Murugan would be brought in a procession from Sundareswarar koil to the sabha, with musical accompaniments and Odhuvars chanting Thevaram. Whenever the procession stopped, there would be a small discourse by Kadiravel Pillai. When the celebrations came to an end, Maaheswara puja would take place. In the afternoon, there would be lectures by Kadiravel Pillai.

After Kadiravel Pillai passed away in 1907, Vandipalayam Rasappa Mudaliar became head of the sabha. He was a man so committed to Tamil that he could not tolerate anyone reading anything in English! Once when Rasappa Mudaliar was engaged in preparations for Kandha Sashti at Guhananda Nilayam, with Thiru Vi Ka helping him, someone handed a copy of The Hindu to Thiru Vi Ka. Rasappa Mudaliar snarled, “What? Are you reading an English paper?” And he ran towards Thiru Vi Ka to snatch the paper from his hands. Thiru Vi Ka ran out, checked how many years of imprisonment had been handed down to Lokamanya Tilak, and ran back to Guhananda Nilayam.

In 1919, the whole of India erupted in protest against the Rowlatt act, and on April 6, bhajan goshtis in Royapettah and others marched to the office of Desabhaktan, a journal which Thiru Vi Ka edited. Subbaraya Kamath, one of the assistant editors of Annie Besant’s New India, and founder of Desabhaktan, was also a part of the crowd of protesters. By noon, the procession reached Guhananda Nilayam. Thiru Vi Ka noticed that poet Bharati had joined the procession. He asked him to compose a song on the occasion, and Bharati sang ‘Muruga, Muruga, Muruga, mayil meedinile, vadiveludane varuvai’ (One stanza of this song was sung by a visually challenged child in ‘Kappalottiya Tamizhan,’ as part of the ‘Odi vilayadu pappa’ song. Playback for the child was by Gajalakshmi).

Thiru Vi Ka records that when Bharati finished singing the song, it seemed to him as if the deity started moving out of the picture with a martial mien. Many in the crowd had tears in their eyes. Thiru Vi Ka writes, “Bharati’s verses were a perfect match for the picture.”

For some years, Thiru Vi Ka ran a centre called Nakkeerar Kazhagam in Guhananda Nilayam, to promote a love for Tamil literature. Justice Sadasiva Iyer, who was a close friend of Thiru Vi Ka., when he presided over one of the annual day celebrations, told the audience that Thiru Vi Ka wanted to build a hall in the open space. But the idea was torpedoed by other members of the sabha. In 1920, Thiru Vi Ka became the president of the sabha. In 1922 and 1923, U.Ve.Sa presided over the anniversary celebrations.

In 1934, the sabha was in a rather shaky position, and members requested Thiru Vi Ka to help, and vested him with full powers to take decisions. Thiru Vi Ka felt that selecting members by election had ruined the atmosphere. He therefore hand-picked the office-bearers himself. Yet, he sensed an aura of unpleasantness in the sabha. Jnaniyar swami suggested that Thirumurugatrupadai and Kandar Anubhuti be recited for 40 days in the sabha. Every day, the recitation was followed by Thiru Vi Ka’s discourse on the two works. Thiru Vi Ka records that gradually, he could sense the lifting of the clouds of negativity that had been hovering around the sabha.

Thiru Vi Ka died in 1953, the fiftieth year of the sabha. In 1954, Rajaji laid the foundation for a mandapam in the open space, an idea that had been shot down in Thiru Vi Ka’s time. It was decided to name the mandapam Thiru Vi Ka Mani Mandapam. Among those who collected funds for the mandapam were Kalki, Sachidanandam Pillai, K.A.P. Viswanatham and Kamalakanna Mudaliar The building, upon completion, was inaugurated by Chief Minister Bhaktavatsalam in 1961. The portrait of Thiru Vi Ka was unveiled by Chief Minister Kamaraj, in 1963.

Many scholars have given discourses in both Guhananda Nilayam and the Mani Mandapam. In 1958, Sri Chandrasekharendra Saraswati, 68th head of Kanchi Kamakoti Pitam visited Guhananda Nilayam. Ganesan, the current President of the sabha says that the mandapam was let out for functions and the rent used for maintenance and to pay speakers who gave lectures. But for the last three years, there have been no takers for the hall. “The complaint is that there is no parking space, and no air conditioning. With no rental income, it is difficult to maintain the sabha,” says Ganesan. A sabha that saw informed debates, discussions and discourses on Tamil bhakti literature is now in dire need of a helping hand.

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 7:57:59 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/a-centre-that-fostered-tamil-bhakti-literature/article29972042.ece

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