More than a century had passed since Baluswamy Dikshitar introduced the violin into Carnatic music, but the exponents of the western instrument in the Deccan had to still fight it out in the 1930s to find a comfortable place on the concert dais. If T Chowdiah is remembered today as a legend, it is because he didn’t bow out when faced with contemptuous statements from the singers, who felt the high-volume sounds from his violin would drown their voices out. Vocalist Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar derisively asked Chowdiah (1895-1967) as to how many more strings he had in his violin-case. The instrumentalist’s acc­ompaniment was like “singing in a smithy” for Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. G N Balasubramaniam jocularly called him “Sound”iah, while Veena Dhanammal borrowed a word from her mother tongue Tamil to dub him “Sevud”iah, hinting that the sound would make ears go deaf.
Surfing over such stories, which stand out in greenish-yellow boxes, alone can amuse and enrich you with south India’s music-related nuggets in this book that is otherwise dense with the track record of the Carnatic idiom in the context of one of its premier institutions based in Chennai. Four Score & More — The History of Music Academy, Madras presents enormous cultural material spanning across 302 pages split into six sections on varied topics. Its authors, Sriram V and Malathi Rangaswami, have chronicled the academy’s eminent activities in the past 80 years, admirably managing to bring the big picture and the micro details simultaneously in this East West publication.
Let’s get back to looking at the tidbits. Ever thought of a dancer being lifted off the podium while performing in full form? That too by another classical performing artiste? Well, Vishnu Digambar Paluskar was so pissed off with Kanchipuram Naina Pillai eating into the time allotted for his concert that the venerated Hindustani musician carried the Bharatanatyam artiste from the stage. “Having dep­osited him among the audience, he returned and started singing ‘Raghupati raghava rajaram’ along with his ochre troupe.” The stunned audience was subsequently treated with a soothing effect, thanks to the musician’s beautiful improvisations!
Equally strange characters feature in subsequent pages. There was this veena player called Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer who the Music Academy conferred with the Sangita Kalanidhi, by far the most coveted honour for a Carnatic maestro — in 1952. The reclusive instrumentalist also won the President’s Award the same year, but he simply wouldn’t accept it — because it would involve travelling to Delhi, which meant a break in his daily rituals. The way a well-wisher of his managed to coax Iyer into accepting the honour is fun to read. A merrier story is from 1931 — about the academy having had to persuade artistes to sing over the radio after superstition led made them reluctant to go on air.
There are tales that are gory, and some that are poignant. The 1944 Margazhi festival came to a tame end when one of the pillars of the Tamil Isai Movement allegedly killed a muckraking journalist. M K Tyagaraja Bhagavatar, also a reigning matinee idol, was charged with the murder of C N Lakshmikantham. The next day, N S Krishnan, another titan in Tamil filmdom, was booked in the same case — and trial proceedings took away all public attention.
Twenty-seven years later, in 1971, music-lovers were to mourn over the death of the academy’s reigning president. T L Venkatarama Iyer, cancer-stricken, had long waited for his disciple D K Pattammal winning the Sangita Kalanidhi. Finally, when it did happen, DKP met TLV at his residence to receive his blessings. The aged man was choked with emotion, and died the next morning.
Lighter tales do find their place. About academy turning out to be the matchmaking venue for a couple in 1950, courtesy also Ariyakkudi; a witty episode relating to disciplining the audience, and so on.
There are also stories about how the academy conceded to the 1929 demand of a fiery orator to terminate the rendition of time-consuming ‘pallavis’ at the concerts it hosted and how its long sabbatical eventually ended in the ’80s. The boxes also speak of musician Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s unsuccessful tirade against Ind­ian Express critic Subbudu: “What began with a bang ended in a whimper. The Press alone had a field day.”
Did you know?
* Queen Mary’s College, Madras, is the first institution to offer an intermediate course n music — in 1926.
* In 1930, when the Corporation of Madras began a radio broadcasting service, it set up loudspeakers at vital public places of the city for the people to listen.
* In 1931, the academy commenced its season with a performance of Bharata­natyam, the first-ever public ticketed show of the dance form, hitherto called Sadir. (Sucheta Bhide-Chapekar was the first Bombayite Bharatanatyam artiste to perform in the academy — in 1974).
* 1933 was the year Carnatic music got its first set of critics — like E V Krishna Iyer, Kalki Krishnamurthy.
* Despite its flourishing in the Madras, Carnatic concerts used to sideline Tamil songs — until the 1930s when stalwarts like Raja Annamalai Chettiar took up the issue.
* The academy was inaugurated in 1928, but its famous venue — TTK auditorium — was opened much later: in 1955.
* The Sangita Kalanidhi awards were first conferred in 1943 — but with retrospective effect from ’29. One had to wait till ’68 to find its first female recipient: the ‘nightingale’, M S Subbulakshmi.