I took the accompanying photograph with a digital camera sometime in 1997. I was not so aware of heritage or the necessity for preservation then and much regret that ignorance today. Had I been better informed, I would have braved the risk of the building falling on me and taken some more photographs. As can be seen, the structure was already in a state of collapse then. A few years later, it was completely demolished and made way for a car park. With that, it swept into history a landmark not only for the city’s past but also Carnatic music.
This was Manali House, the town residence of the famed Manali Mudaliars. It stood on Govindappa Naicken Street, George Town and in its heyday must have been a striking building as is evident from the half-collapsed arches in the photo. The patriarch of the family was Manali Muthukrishna Mudali, the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company. From Love’s Vestiges of Old Madras we learn that Moody Kistna was appointed Company’s Interpreter in 1749 and from then on remained at the top of his profession, rising to the peak of his powers when Pigot was Governor (1755-1763 and 1775-1776).
The family became very rich and influential. They had a palatial home in their native village of Manali, which was known by the name of Meddai Thottam, and had all the mod cons of its time, including a swimming bath! Not many details are available about the home on Govindappa Naicken Street but it must have made up in length what it lacked in width. It was from here that Muthukrishna Mudali must have stepped out for his daily duties at Fort St George. It was also here that he must have mulled over the ways and means by which he could become the trustee of the Triplicane Parthasarathy Temple and get his favourites, the vadakalai sect of Vaishnavites to dominate over its proceedings, all of which is documented in Kanakalatha Mukund’s book, the The View from Below.
It was also Muthukrishna Mudali who ensured that the Town Temple of Chenna Kesava Perumal was rebuilt where it stands now, at the intersection of Devaraja Mudali Street and NSC Bose Road, when it had to be demolished at its earlier location for security reasons. Muthukrishna advanced in 1777 pags 5,202 out of a total subscription of pags 15,652 collected for the reconstruction. The Company, no doubt, at his prodding, donated pags 1,173, no doubt as compensation for acquiring the earlier site on which the temple had stood. He also ensured that the twin temple of Chenna Malleeswara was constructed alongside and endowed both shrines with space on the outer periphery where shops could be constructed. These stand even now and bring rental income to the temples.
It was but natural that such a powerful man attracted musicians and dancers to his residence. It was here that Arunachala Kavi, the composer of the Rama Natakam came calling, after he had finished his opera. He had hoped to have it presented to the Rajah of Thanjavur but could not get an audience. Having been a moneylender in the French territory of Pondicherry he approached Ananda Ranga Pillai, dubash to Dupleix who in turn suggested that it would be best that the composer sought an audience with Muthukrishna Mudali.
The meeting must have happened at the residence on Govindappa Naicken Street. On being asked to state who he was, Arunachala Kavi responded in verse. This so impressed Muthukrishna Mudali that he asked for the Rama Natakam to be presented. At the end of it, he showered the Kavi with gold, made him sit on a throne reserved for scholars and conferred on him the title Ramayana Kavignan.
Towards the end of his life, Muthukrishna Mudali embarked on a tour of Thanjavur and its surroundings. There he met up with Ramaswami Dikshitar the eminent composer and induced him to move en-famille to Madras. Dikshitar came, with wife Subbammal, sons Muthuswami, Chinnaswami and Baluswami and daughter Balambal. It is said that the family settled in Thiruvottriyur, attracted by the temple there to Lord Shiva as Tyagesa, just as it was in their native place of Thiruvarur. Muthukrishna Mudali died in 1792 and his son Venkatakrishna aka Chinnaiyya, extended his patronage to the Dikshitar family.
It was thanks to this that the musicians came into contact with Chidambaranatha Yogin, an ascetic who was well versed in music. Muthuswami Dikshitar and his two wives accompanied the yogi to Varanasi and that proved a turning point in the composer’s life. Today he is recognised as one of the Carnatic Trinity, the other two being Tyagaraja and Syama Sastry. While Muthuswami Dikshitar was away, Chinnaiyya got young Baluswami Dikshitar to learn the violin from a Mr Brown who worked at Fort St George. That marked the introduction of the instrument into Carnatic Music. It was also at this time that Chinnaiyya Mudaliar played host to Govinda Dikshita, a descendant of Venkatamakhin, the 17th century musicologist. Knowing that the visitor had a manuscript copy of his ancestor’s seminal work the Chaturdandi Prakasika, Ramaswami Dikshitar desired to see it. The visitor set a condition – he would hum a raga and the musicians in Chinnaiyya Mudali’s entourage had to compose in it. This was accepted and immediately done by the young boys Chinnaswami and Baluswami. The visitor was so pleased that he parted with his copy of the work. It would become Muthuswami Dikshitar’s principal reference work in his composing activities.
In gratitude for all that Chinnaiyya Mudali had done for them, Ramaswami Dikshitar adopted the word Venkatakrishna as his signature in all his songs. He composed a 108 ragatalamalika in praise of his patron. Another work, in 61 ragas and talas, is still available. Chinnaiyya Mudali also extended his patronage to the composer Marimutha Pillai. The 19th century Sanskrit work Sarva Deva Vilasa, which documents the patronage extended by dubashes of Madras to artists, lists Chinnaiyya Mudali as a principal figure. That there was another and a less desirable side to his personality is evident from a reading of the life of Pachaiyappa Mudaliar and what happened to his will.
The Manali Mudaliars still remain trustees of the Chenna Kesava Perumal Temple. They run a hostel on Govindappa Naicken Street for indigenous students and located in its midst is a platform once known as the Vasantha Mandapam. It was customary for Chenna Kesava Perumal to be brought here on special days but congestion in Town has put and end to that. The family still controls large swathes of real estate, much of it vested in trusts. It is not clear as to why the old house was allowed to collapse. Perhaps these days there is more revenue to be earned from car parking lots than showcasing a part of our heritage.
This article is part of a series on lost and barely surviving landmarks of Chennai. You can read the rest here