Madras Musical Association: 125 years of music

March 19, 2018 01:20 pm | Updated March 21, 2018 04:01 pm IST

Two hundred years ago were laid the well foundations of St Andrew’s Kirk in Egmore, a Church consecrated in 1821. Associated with it from 1893 has been the Madras Musical Association, its first baton being wielded by Signor Aloysio, an Italian who directed the Church’s choir. Western choral music initially, later, instrumental music and, still later, musical performances was what the MMA has concentrated on, offering Madras the sound of Western Classical music.

But long before the MMA, the Western choral music tradition was part of the Madras scene, its beginnings in St Mary’s in the Fort where what is now the St George’s School choir has sung for nearly 300 years, from the days it was St Mary’s Charity School (1715). But moving beyond the Church, perhaps the earliest reference to Western music is the Garrison Band, forerunner of the later Governor’s Band (no longer what it was 50 years ago) started by Governor Thomas Rumbold in 1779. By 1790, in a Madras at peace with the world, entertainment began to be arranged for the European gentry. Governor’s Balls were a regular feature and the Governor’s Bands provided the music.

The first reference to a concert of sacred music dates to this period, the Governor’s Lady Oakeley, who fancied herself a singer and organiser of entertainments, arranging it in January 1794 in St Mary’s in aid of the Male Orphan Asylum. It was reported that selections from the Messiah, Judas Maccabeus and Esther were sung. The vocalists included Lady Oakeley, Mesdames Porcher, Gent, Baker, and Johnston and Messrs Lushington (to be a Governor one day), Oram, Baker, Pasley and Hurdis. Michael Topping, founder of the Observatory, was the organist, spelled by John Dieurstedt. Sherringham and Heefke, traders both midst the Civil and Military, together with James Caldwell and Haydn were the violinists. The Rev Benjamin Millingchamp was with the violincello and “clarinets, bassoons, horns and drums were also represented”. A charming footnote stated that the hostage princes of Mysore, Tippoo Sultan’s sons, were among the audience.

I have no doubt that much of this programme would have been repeated by the MMA at its concerts in Senate House, Victoria Public Hall and Museum Theatre under such prominent early conductors as Justice Murray Coutts-Trotter, RJC Martin and a Miss Isles.

A purely Western group of musicians was hit by the Second World War and the MMA began to accept Indian membership. One of the first to join the MMA was Handel Manuel, invited to join the choir in 1939 by the then conductor, Lady Papworth.

Then one day in 1945, conductor Long, in a fit of pique over a rehearsal of Mendelssohn’s Hymn of Praises not going on song, walked out and Manuel was asked to take over. The first Indian conductor of the MMA was to lead it for the next 36 years. He also served longer as organist and choirmaster of St Andrew’s and was the founder director of the Madras Philharmonic and Choral Society.

For the last 10 years, the MMA has been led by Augustine Paul, who came to Madras from Tirunelveli in 1979 to play hockey. His interest in singing, however, led him to the MMA in 1984. Meanwhile, he had, in 1980, met Dr Kalyan Subramanyam, then conductor of the MMA, who introduced him to Ilayaraaja and they have worked together in films since. Paul’s interest in music had him studying deeply in the MMA’s library, which has a collection going back to the early 1900s apart from the Classics. This knowledge quest led him to being appointed Librarian and tasked to enlarge the library. In 1998 he was made the Association’s Associate Director and a decade later its Director, today leading a choir of about 90.

Over the years, the MMA has hosted a heap of talent ranging from Mrs Higginbotham, Ida Lobo and Martha Howie to Rita Saldanha and Sarada Schaffter to the more recent Tanvi Shah and Andrea Jeremiah. Associated with it over the years have been the legendary Indian Conductor Victor Paranjothi who was the first Indian accompanist of the MMA’s choir, and L Subramaniam.

The choir has performed at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, sung for the Pope in 2009, performed at the 2012 Olympics in London, and, in 2016, in Vienna not to mention winning a Gold and a Silver at the 4th Asia Pacific Choir Games held in Colombo in 2017.

The committed leprologist

What do you know of a Dr Robert Cochrane, renowned for his work in Madras, asks Vijee Venkatraman from Boston. Finding an answer, I wondered why my Indian medical history source in Australia, Dr A Raman, had not written to me about him.

Dr Bob, as he was called, a medical missionary from Scotland, was in time to become known as the man who made, it is recorded, “leprosy scientifically respectable”. Committed to a leprosy mission, he spent years in Bengal, Africa and the West Indies before arriving in Madras in 1935 as the Chief Medical Officer of the Lady Willingdon Leprosarium in Chingleput (today, the Central Leprosy Teaching and Research Institute, Tirumani). In 1944, he moved to CMC Vellore for further research and also accepted the post of Director, Leprosy Campaign, Madras State.

While in Madras, he pioneered the use of parent sulfone, DDS or dapsone. This led to worldwide use of this compound in the oral treatment of leprosy. He returned to England in 1951 and there established what is now The Leprosy Study Centre. It became a histopathological reference and teaching centre, holding his phenomenal collection of 16,000-plus series of stained slides. The collection is now in the Hospital of Tropical Diseases, London.

In 1966, Dr Bob returned to Madras State for further studies of the disease and spent two years at Vadathorasalur before moving on to Africa.

There are several institutions in the UK connected with leprosy that today bear Cochrane’s name. I wonder whether there is any such institution in Tamil Nadu.

The chronicler of Madras that is Chennai tells stories of people, places, and events from the years gone by, and sometimes, from today

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