One of the best known landmarks of North Chennai, this building is synonymous with the promotion of Tamil as a musical language. Strange though it may seem, that was not the view of the scholars and practitioners of Carnatic music till the 1930s. That was largely a circumstance of history, for much of Madras Presidency had, after the Cholas, been ruled by Telugu-speaking Vijayanagar rulers and Nayaks and, after them, the musical heartland of Tanjore came under the control of the Marathas.
When a group of thinkers, writers and musicians tried to set this imbalance right in the 1930s, they met with stiff opposition, especially from the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society (IFAS), the two established sabhas. However, the Tamil lobby had the support of stalwarts such as T.K. Chidambaranatha Mudaliar, Kalki R. Krishnamurthy and the singer M.S. Subbulakshmi. Most importantly, the movement was bankrolled by Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar.
The Tamil Isai Sangam came into existence in 1943 as the vehicle for this cause, the name being given by Rajaji. From its first year, it began hosting a concert season in December, challenging the monopoly of the Academy and the IFAS. The songs performed had to be only in Tamil. A suitable venue proved to be a problem and, for the first few years, it held its programmes in the Parish Hall of St Mary’s Cathedral on Armenian Street. It later conducted programmes at the Museum Theatre.
In 1948, 23 grounds of land at the eastern end of the Esplanade were taken on lease for fifty years from the Corporation of Madras. Work began in 1949, by which time the Rajah had died. The design was by L.M. Chitale and the auditorium was the first of its kind in the city. Closely supervised by the Rajah’s sons, Rajah Sir M.A. Muthiah Chettiar and M.A. Chidambaram, whose offices were located next door to the site, the auditorium rose quickly. The architect in an article also gave much credit for several elements in the design to Sir R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, the first Finance Minister of independent India, who had become President of the Tamil Isai Sangam after the Rajah’s passing.
The Raja Annamalai Mandram, a two storeyed building with constructed space of 20,000 square feet on the ground floor was ready in time for the music season of 1952. It was declared open by Rajaji on October 31st that year. It is a lavishly constructed structure with generous use of fine timber and perhaps one of the first buildings in the city to use mosaic instead of the more traditional granite. It is noteworthy for its combination of art deco with the traditional Chettinad style of architecture, the latter predominating in the woodwork in particular.
The auditorium was designed keeping acoustics in mind and soon became a favourite of performing artistes. The first floor hosts the Sangam’s music college and also a gallery of instruments. The entrance has a statue to the founder unveiled in 1964 by Jayachamaraja Wodeyar, the Maharajah of Mysore, who was the next year to become the Governor of Madras.
Some major modifications were undertaken in 1968, to coincide with the silver jubilee of the Sangam. These were undertaken by S.L. Chitale, son of the man who had designed the original edifice. These changes, largely in the interior, were done to keep out the ambient noise, which had increased sharply in a decade. The seats, 866 in number, were padded and arranged in a circular fashion with enough space between the aisles for the patrons to file in and out. The seats were also fixed on a gradient, thereby enabling those at the rear to get an unimpeded view of the stage. More importantly, the hall was enclosed with sound absorbing material that was aesthetically hidden behind teak panelling. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, provided advice on acoustics and this ensured that the hall still is a delight to attend music programmes in.
The whole building is maintained very well, though it must be said that the seats in the auditorium are now ageing rapidly. The Mandram, whose lease was extended for a further 50 years, today serves as a popular venue for events in North Madras. But it is at its best in December when it hosts its annual festival and confers the title of Isai Perarignar on a senior musician/scholar.
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