What do Buxar, Wandiwash, Talikota and Elambore have in common? They were all venues of battles. They are all pretty obscure spots, not normally in the forefront of day to day existence and yet they are remembered for what happened on a particular day in their vicinity. Similarly, Madhava Perumal Koil, Mylapore, as far as musical history is concerned, is a minor shrine, a comma in the book of music. Yet, on an unspecified date in the closing years of the nineteenth century, it played host to Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Patnam Subramania Iyer, Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar and Mayuram ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer. Akin to the coming together of several celestial bodies it was an event of unparalleled magnificence, which had interesting fallouts. This incident is recorded in the biography of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer as told by his disciple Vasudevanallur “Pallavi” Subbaiah Bhagavatar to his son VS Gomathisankara Iyer, vainika and later Head of the Department of Music, Annamalai University. The biography was published in two volumes titled “Isai Ulagil Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan” in 1971.
By the 1890s, Madras had emerged as a music centre of importance. Concerts were frequently held at various locations and musicians such as Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer frequented the city. Patnam Subramania Iyer was a resident of the city, living in the George Town area, teaching music to several women including the Enadi Sisters- Lakshminarayani and Rangamma, the daughters of Salem Meenakshi- Pappa and Radha, and T Rajalakshmi, elder daughter of Veena Dhanammal.
Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar (1832-1924/ 1840-1926) was a stalwart singer of the times. A disciple of Appukutty Nattuvanar (who was once defeated by Syama Sastry in a musical duel), Iyengar became an expert in laya related matters, handling complex pallavis with ease, earning the word “Pallavi” as a prefix to his name. The raga Kedara Gaula was said to be his forte. He lived for many years in Srirangam and taught many disciples including the Madurai Brothers (of whom Sangita Kalanidhi Srirangam Iyengar was one), Umayalpuram Kalyanarama Iyer, Namakkal Sesha Iyengar and Sattur Krishna Iyengar. He was also guru to Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar before he moved on to learning from Ramanathapuram ‘Poochi’ Srinivasa Iyengar. Narasimha Iyengar was also a composer of songs. The Karunamritha Sagaram of Abraham Panditar speaks of him as a “scientific singer of Ragam and Pallavi”. In his reminiscences (translated into English and published under the title of Cameos), Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, while appreciating Iyengar’s music states rather acidly that Iyengar had a coterie of admirers who made it their main activity to visit various places and speak disparagingly of contemporary musicians in order to enhance their idol’s reputation.
Mayuram ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer was a disciple and close associate of Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer. Described in the Karunamrtha Sagaram as a “distinguished player on the Veena (who) possesses good laya gnanam (and) is a great vidwan in singing Pallavi”, it is to Soolamangalam Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar that one must turn to get a good pen portrait of this artiste. According to Bhagavatar, he was the uncrowned king of his times in playing the veena in the traditional style. He was a close friend of Gopalakrishna Bharati and became proficient in playing the latter’s songs on the veena. He and Tirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer often teamed up together to perform veena violin duets. He was the asthana Veena Vidwan at the Tiruvavaduturai Mutt and there used to perform voco veena duets along with Tiruvalangadu Tyagaraja Dikshitar. Vaidyanatha Iyer aspired to become a vocalist but did not have a good voice. He became an expert in laya matters and in pallavis. He also concentrated on making his son Sabhesan a great veena virtuoso.
Once ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer and Namakkal Narasimha Iyengar were both in Madras and their respective fans indulged in their usual pastime of speaking disparagingly of the other musician’s skills. This soon led to bad blood between the vidwans themselves and they decided challenge each other’s skills in a musical joust. The venue was the Madhava Perumal Koil and the judge was Patnam Subramania Iyer. The conditions of the contest were that each vidwan was to sing a pallavi in turn which the other was to try and reproduce. The one who did so without errors would be adjudged the winner. Patnam was rather reluctant to take on this task, for his easy going nature abhorred conflicts.
A large crowd gathered at the temple (perhaps in the twenty pillared hall) on the appointed day. Veena Vaidyanatha Iyer was asked to start by presenting his pallavi. He had worked hard at a tala called Lakshmisham in which Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer had once set a pallavi in Ananda Bhairavi and won accolades at the court of Sakharam Saheb, son in law of King Sivaji II of Tanjore. The pallavi, comprising the words “Shambho Umapate Pahimam, Viswesvara Virupaksha Mam Pahi” had been set in Kalyani raga by ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer for the competition.
The tala was new to most of those gathered there and Patnam did not know of its existence. He therefore asked Veena Vaidyanatha Iyer to stop it and render a pallavi in a more familiar tala such as Adi with the beginning at the “mukkal edam” (three quarters of a beat away from the start). Patnam held that the tala Lakshmisham was a creation of ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer just for the purpose of the competition and was therefore unfair to the competitor.
Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer having come to know of the duel between his disciple and Narasimha Iyengar had decided to come along and attend. Perhaps, he, an old war horse when it came to competitions, was better suited to be the judge as compared to Patnam. He came in just when Patnam had delivered his judgement. On seeing him, Patnam made way for him and asked him for his point of view. Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer then explained the structure of the tala and established beyond doubt that it was indeed a tala based on proper music tenets and could therefore be used for pallavi rendition. ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer was allowed to continue. When he had finished, Narasimha Iyengar tried to sing the same pallavi and failed miserably.
But ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer’s comeuppance was just around the corner. When it came to his turn, Narasimha Iyengar took up the raga Bhairavi and after an elaborate raga and tanam session, embarked on the pallavi “Tirumal Marugan, Arul Seididum Paraman” set to the tala Trayadvayam. Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer agreed that this too was a tala suitable for pallavis and when ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer tried it out, he bit the dust.
The competition ended with Maha and Patnam declaring that both musicians were equal in their strengths (and weaknesses?). Subbiah Bhagavatar concludes his narrative by saying that Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer gave a lecture to all concerned on the futility of such duels before they dispersed. This if true, was contrary to the musician’s nature. For he had indulged in such duels all his life and was to continue to do so till the year before his death.
The fallout of this event was a lasting feeling of ill will towards Patnam in the mind of ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer. When Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer died, his brother Ramaswami Sivan brought out the Maha Vaidyanatha Vijaya Yatra Sangraham that spoke gloriously about its subject and decried just about everyone else. Patnam countered this with a “Khandanam”, which in turn was countered by a “Mandanam” released by ‘Veenai’ Vaidyanatha Iyer. Evidently the Madhava Perumal Koil incident had rankled in his mind long enough.
Perhaps Madhava smiles even now, thinking about that particular day when His shrine played host to so many stars. Perhaps not much music is heard in His sanctum today, but He must definitely be getting to hear a lot of it from the nearby Tyagaraja Vidwat Samajam.
Footnote: In his brief reminiscences, Papanasam Sivan states that Kirtanacharya CR Srinivasa Iyengar used to conduct music concerts at this shrine. There are however no further details available.