On December 22, 1885, M.E. (later Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone) Grant-Duff, Governor of Madras, attended a performance of “native Indian” music. That was at the Pachaiyappa’s Hall, China Bazaar (now NSC Bose) Road. A veritable who’s who of the city had assembled there that evening at 4.30. The Madras Branch of the Poona Gayan Samaj organised the event. They may not have realised it, but it really marked the beginning of the sabha culture in this city and, therefore, of the Music Season as well.
The event was delayed by 15 minutes as the gubernatorial party took its time to arrive. Grant-Duff was a last minute stand-in for Lord Reay, Governor of Bombay, who was then visiting the Madras Presidency. The Poona Gayan Samaj established in 1874 was an influential body in the world of fine arts in Reay’s territory. Its hardworking secretary Bulwunt Trimbuck Sahasrabudhe had managed to get the Europeans interested in the Samaj, which had done some serious work in getting Indian music to be understood by Westerners.
In 1883, the Madras branch of the Gayan Samaj was inaugurated on August 18th. Calling itself an Oriental Philharmonic Society, it was inaugurated by Sir Charles Turner, Chief Justice of the High Court of Madras. After a long speech by Sir Charles, “four native musicians then ascended the platform with their instruments, which consisted of two violins, the vina, the tamboor, the sarbat and a drum, and played a few airs.” (The Madras Mail, August 20th).
Thereafter, the Madras branch began organising music performances. The first of these happened on January 21, 1884 at Lakshmi Vilas, the Luz residence of (later Sir) V. Bhashyam Iyengar. This was attended by Sir Frederick Roberts (later Lord Roberts of Kandahar), the Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army. A sprinkling of local worthies including several Indian businessmen was also present. “The musical fare provided was particularly interesting,” wrote The Madras Mail on the 22nd. “In addition to performances by professional musicians like Messrs Shankar Row and T Singara Charlu, and distinguished amateurs like Professor Sheshigiri Sastri, vocal and instrumental expositions of high merit were given by various pupils of the schools. One little boy in particular excited great enthusiasm by his brilliant performance on the violin.”
The next meeting was in November that year, which took place at the Pachaiyappa’s Hall. Sir Charles Turner presided and Sahasrabuddhe read the annual report. The branch had made commendable progress in the intervening year. Prince Alfred, the Duke of Connaught (the Queen’s younger son), had consented to be its patron and shortly thereafter the Maharajahs of Mysore and Vizianagaram and a Princess of Tanjore had added themselves to the list. Scholars such as Capt. C.R. Day and Suryanarayana Sastry Pandit (Parithimal Kavignar) had enrolled as members. Ten entertainment meetings had been held and the Samaj had received as a gift a manuscript copy of the Sangita Ratnakara, one of the earliest treatises on Indian music. Two schools for teaching music had been begun, one in Triplicane and the other in George Town. The students comprised “government servants, graduates, undergraduates and others prosecuting their studies in schools and colleges.” The students were fifty in number and the instruction was by T. Singaracharlu and his brother. They published a series of textbooks for the schools, all of which are landmark publications in the world of Carnatic music even today.
The meeting witnessed a performance by a B.N. Natekar playing on the “the bin, the satar and the sraotha” (probably veena, sitar and sarod). This was much applauded and the event concluded with the National Anthem sung in Sanskrit (a version of God Save The Queen?) by “Papaya Sundra Iyer, Singara Charlu and his brother.”
Which then brings us to the event from where we started, the performance on December 21, 1885. Lord Reay could not make it at the last minute owing to his being unwell. Grant- Duff, accompanied by Lady Reay, officiated. Sir T. Muthuswami Iyer, Judge of the High Court, read a paper on Hindu music. This was reported in full in the Madras Times the next day. What is of greater interest is the musical programme that followed and very little sense can be made of it today. From what can be understood, several artistes came forward and performed individual ragas. The list reads as follows:
CR Krishna Row, TA Murthei Iyer and M Seshachella Naidu – Vocal (ragmalika or a chain of ragas, viz- Pratab-Chintamani, Abhaj and Poorna Chandrika).
N Shanker Row – Vocal (Kalanithi)
N Visvanatha Row – Instrumental (Khaffe)
B Soonder Iyer – Vocal (Athana)
Venkat Ramaya – Vocal (Kalyanee)
Messrs Singara Charlu & Brother – Instrumental (Kuntal Varalee)
Professor Shashagiri Shastri MA and his brother Mr Venkatesa Shastri – Instrumental (Yinjotu Eishmanohari)
Back home in Government House, Grant-Duff updated his journal which would later be published as Notes from a Diary, Kept Chiefly in Southern India. And this is what he had to say:
“With Lady Reay to an entertainment, given by a Society for the encouragement of Indian music. The songs and other performances said to me just nothing at all. More interesting was an address by Muttusami Iyer. In contrasting our music with theirs, he remarked: The dominant factor in the Hindu system is melody, and that in the European system is harmony.
Lady Reay repeated to me a saying of Kinglake’s, when he had been listening for some time to the zither: I like that music; it is almost as good as none at all.”
So much for Grant-Duff’s understanding. The Gayan Samaj, however, kept at it. In 1887 it changed its name thanks to the Maharajah of Vizianagaram to The Madras Jubilee Gayan Samaj in commemoration of Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee. It faded away in the 1890s but not before laying down certain powerful precedents – explaining to a largely Occidental audience the nuances of Indian music, the setting up of schools to propagate the art, getting aspiring artistes to perform to an invited audience and, finally, getting a Chief Guest who had no feel for the art to inaugurate its events!