The First Sangita Kalanidhi

TV Subba Rao is not a well-known figure in the field of music today. But there was a time when this lawyer turned musicologist was a force to reckon with in Carnatic Music. He holds the record for being the youngest music personality to have ever presided over the Music Academy’s annual conference. He was also the first person to be given the honour. This article is a short record of his life.

Tirupasoor Venkata Subba Rao was born in 1891. His family owned the jagir of Aska and was hence involved in the sugar trade. Coming from an aristocratic background, he was exposed to the arts from very early on. He learnt music from Arantangi Vaidyanatha Iyer who belonged to the sishya parampara of Tyagaraja. Subba Rao graduated in law from the Madras University and enrolled as an advocate in the Madras High Court. Even as he practised, he found time to master the veena and the violin, besides doing in-depth research into the works of Purandaradasa, Kshetragna and Tyagaraja. He also had an extensive repertoire of javalis of modern-day composers.

Subba Rao was one of the founder members of the Music Academy. He had worked hard in arranging the Music Conference of 1927 which had led to the founding of the Academy. He became the first editor of its journal and held that post till his demise. He took active interest in the Academy’s proceedings and when the first conference of experts took place at the Senate House between 29th March and 1st April 1929, he was one of the main speakers. It was but natural therefore, that when the Academy met again at Mani Iyer’s Hall on Raja Hanumantha Lala Street, Triplicane between 18th and 21st April 1930, Subba Rao should be called upon to preside over the first day’s proceedings. He was only 39 and yet he conducted the proceedings with dignity, the presence of many senior vidwans not intimidating him in the least.

Subba Rao lobbied hard with the University authorities in Madras and with Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar to ensure that music was taught in colleges. This led to the introduction of music as a subject for the BA degree course in Madras University in 1928, with the Queen Mary’s College becoming the first educational institution to offer it. The same year, a music college was set up in Chidambaram by Rajah Sir Annamalai Chettiar which later became part of the Annamalai University. Subba Rao’s efforts also bore fruit with the Andhra University. In 1932, when the Madras Music Academy set up its Teachers College of Music, Subba Rao was the natural choice for Principal, a post which he held till his death. In 1942, when the Music Academy instituted the award of Sangita Kalanidhi, he along with all past Presidents of its Annual Conferences, received the same.

Subba Rao was an impressive personality, always clad in shirt, coat, dhoti and turban, his handle-bar moustache and his flowing locks of hair adding to his majesty. His home, on Royapettah High Road was open to relatives, musicians and friends and several noted performers such as Tiger Varadachariar and Mysore Vasudevachar stayed with him when they came to Madras. Once knowing full well that Tiger was sleeping inside within earshot, Subba Rao persuaded a visiting Vasudevachar to imitate the way Tiger sang. Unbeknownst to Vasudevachar, Tiger was listening in to the performance and later all three joined in the laughter.

In 1940, Subba Rao presided over the Music Section of the All-India Oriental Conference held at Tirupati. He also served as Vice-Chairman of the Southern Panel of the Music Audition Board of the AIR. He was made honorary Reader at the Madras University and was also Member, Music Board of the Annamalai University.

Subba Rao remained busy right through life, writing and presenting papers on music, several of which were published in the Journals of The Music Academy, Madras. His full-length articles on certain kritis of Tyagaraja such as alakalalla, giripai, ma janaki and etavunara are delights to read, so much is the wealth of detail they contain. He also penned portraits in words on Veena Dhanammal, Tiger Varadachariar and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar. Some of his writings were compiled into a book titled Studies in Indian Music, which was brought out by Asia Publishing House in 1961. Sangita Kalanidhi, Justice of the Supreme Court of India and by then Chairman of the Law Commission, TL Venkatarama Iyer wrote the foreword. Today this book is absolutely impossible to get. It deserves a re-print.

TV Subba Rao passed away in 1958. His vast home was demolished later and his descendants built houses for themselves in the space where the residence once stood. Today the road leading to their houses is called TV Subba Rao Avenue. It is a small tribute to a man to whom music was verily the breath of life.

This appeared in Worldspace’s Shruti Channel in December 2007 –