The Sri Balasubramania Bhakta Jana Sabhai stands on TTK Road near its intersection with Avvai Shanmugam (Lloyd) Road, a route that is my daily beat. Given its close association with the great Thiru Vi Kalyanasundara Mudaliar or Thiru Vi Ka (1883-1953), I would each time resolve to visit the place ‘soon’. But what with the traffic conditions at that corner, I kept putting it off. Last week, I made the pilgrimage on foot, and I am glad I did.
Thiru Vi Ka was many things rolled into one – Tamil scholar, writer, editor, publisher, spiritualist, patriot and labour leader. Royapettah was his base since childhood, for his father ran a wholesale grain shop here. He studied at the Wesley College High School on Westcott Road. Royapettah High Road is therefore appropriately named after this great man.
While at school, Thiru Vi Ka was greatly influenced by the Tamil scholar Jaffna Kathiravel Pillai. Both tutor and student were ardent followers of Pamban Swamigal, a devotee of Murugan. When the Swamigal’s followers banded together in 1903 to form the Sri Balasubramania Bhaktha Jana Sabhai, both Kathiravel Pillai and Thiru Vi Ka became associated with it. It had a peripatetic existence till 1915 when TS Balasundara Mudaliar, a devotee, donated the present site. Pamban Swamigal and Kathiravel Pillai laid the foundation stone that year and the simple structure named Guhananda Nilayam, with a garden adjoining it was completed by 1917.
It is however Thiru Vi Ka who is most closely associated with the building for it was here under his guidance that several meetings were held to discuss literary, political and religious matters. Subramania Bharati was a frequent visitor and on April 6, 1919, at Thiru Vi Ka’s request, he composed a poem on Murugan here. The six verses have been inscribed on the wall thanks to the munificence of Bharati’s granddaughter. As the years rolled by, the Sabha was also home to labour meetings – of the unions of Spencer & Co and the Perambur Railway Workshop in particular, of which Thiru Vi Ka was the leader. It also witnessed heated debates on Tamil language with scholars such as Maraimalai Adigal presiding. It was also here that Thiru Vi Ka ideated on most of his fifty books, wandering around the garden. When he passed away, his body was brought to the Sabha before being taken for cremation.
At the behest of Kalki Krishnamurthy, a fund collection drive was launched to convert the garden into a hall commemorating Thiru Vi Ka. Kalki however died soon thereafter and despite the best efforts of MS Subbulakshmi and T Sadasivam, the building took over ten years to be completed. Its beautiful frontage of art deco pillars is now hidden from view thanks to shops that have come up. The Sabha now lets out its premises for events and also features spiritual discourses, lectures and debates. But the thrust and parry of the time when Thiru Vi Ka held court here are now missing.
This article appeared in The Hindu dated November 29, 2014 under the Hidden Histories column