“Last night I dreamt I was in Alapana again”. If I had been the nameless central character of Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”, I would have probably begun thus. Whenever I think of Sruti’s old home, “Alapana” on J.J. Road, I feel nostalgic.
For a long time it was only the address of a magazine that I read as I grew up. Years later, when I settled down in Madras, I would frequently pass by the private road that led to the house. I knew that “Sruti” came from there, but I never had the occasion to visit. Then in 1999, www.sangeetham.com happened and my life became filled with music, in more ways than one. That was when I made friends with people like S. Rajam and Randor Guy, both of whom contributed to the site and with regular browsers of the site such as K.V. Ramanathan. V. Ramnarayan did a story for The Hindu about the site and became a close friend and V.A.K. Ranga Rao, into whose ken websites have still not swum in, but who kept himself abreast of that world, became an advisor and critic. Sanjay Subrahmanyan and I interviewed Gowri Ramnarayan for the site. Lakshmi Devnath was contributing content to an American site and we got to collaborate as well. All these people had had something to do with Sruti in one way or the other and so it was but natural that I too would get pulled in. And in any case, Sruti was a major source of content for our site too!
My first visit to Alapana happened when Sanjay suggested I do an interview with N. Pattabhi Raman (NPR) for our site. So I called the number. It was engaged. I called again, after an hour or so, it was still engaged. I called a couple of hours later. Still the same. Later I would get to know that the telephones in Alapana would always be busy, especially when the Editor-in-Chief was around. He liked to talk for long on the phone, but he was never dull or boring. In fact the conversation would regularly be punctuated with laughter, though many of his jokes were unprintable. At times, I am told, depending upon who the caller was, the Chief would change his voice and reply that he was the office boy, and assure the caller that he would pass on his/her name to the Chief!
When I did get through, Pat Raman or P. Orr or Ram Aslesha or Narayanan Pillai or Manirangu or N. Pattabhi Raman or NPR (was he Anami too?) was affability itself. He had seen our site he said and would be most happy to talk. But he warned me that the conversation would continuously veer towards Samudri, which was by then his pet project.
I reached the private road at the appointed time and my first recollection is of seeing Janaki leaning out of a balcony rather like the Blessed Damozel (who if you recollect did the same only she used a gold bar from heaven) and asking me to step in. Alapana was really artistic. Even the watchman cum gardener, Jothirlingam, was an expert in bhajans and had been a stage-artist in his time. After greeting him and admiring a stone Nandi and a Yali, you walked down a narrow passage which led to a stone mandapam with a Ganesha idol in it. This was duly washed and decorated each Friday by Balu, who was and is Sruti’s man of all work. Halfway to this mandapam you turned left into the main entrance of the house. This was fronted by a pair of grille gates which were invariably locked and you banged on them to gain someone’s attention. On being ushered in to a verandah of sorts with an arched entranceway, the first thing that struck you was a series of square panels high on the walls, each of which had one of Vishnu’s ten avatara-s done in stained glass. Perhaps this was Pattabhi Raman’s throwback to his maternal grandfather’s home Sri Baugh in Luz which had ten entrances, each of which had a painting depicting one of the Dasavatara-s. On the ground level, there was a tap, where you were expected to wash your feet before you went in. I must confess I never adhered to this rule.
There were wooden chairs on either side. An ornate oonjal (swing) as wide as a table was the centrepiece of this verandah, spruced up on either side with crotons. During the Chief’s heyday this was, rather as in Shah Jahan’s Red Fort, the most that casual visitors managed to penetrate Sruti’s office. They were entertained here and then sent on their way. Those who knew the Chief or his deputy (in Mogul times she would have been the Wajif Dar) a little better were allowed into the drawing room.
From the verandah at the entrance if you turned left, you entered the drawing room. If you turned right there was an enormous dining room (with a large dining table) which had a huge Tanjavur painting of Ganesas in it. Pattabhi Raman was obsessed with the elephant headed god and often conducted special pooja-s to propitiate him. Sruti has played host to many birthday parties, Sruti staffers get-togethers, Christmas and New Year celebrations in the dining room. These were occasions when the Chief’s exquisite crockery including Wedgwood, Royal Doulton and Spode would be on display. Beyond this dining room were the domestic offices of which I never got to see much. The Chief’s wants were few and were ministered to by some domestics, none of whom apparently matched up to Rajammal, a legendary figure whom I never met. She had once been in the service of the chief and then there had been a misunderstanding of sorts and had flounced off never to return. This too was a frequent occurrence with the chief.
The drawing room as I said was on the left. This was a large square and had two entrances from the verandah. The far end of this room had the stairway leading upstairs. To the left of the staircase was a long cupboard fronted with wooded doors all of them richly carved. Behind this cupboard was the music room where the chief’s spool tapes and discs were stored. Behind this room was the “computer room” where Sudha, our long suffering and patient page layout-in-charge worked on a worn out, slow and outdated PC with probably some equally old software. She was invariably the one who heard the doors being banged by someone requiring admission and would let us in. There were two more PCs in that room.
The drawing room had a set of comfortable sofas, an oonjal converted into a table, a drum seat, and some excellent Tanjavur paintings, but its striking features were some of the chief’s collection of bronzes, including Bhuvarahaswami, the model for the Whispering Gallery’s masthead. His positioning was appropriate, for this was the room where those that leaked the secrets of the Music Academy (the mandarins of the Meccademy in Anami-speak) and other establishments of the music world came after sunset, polished off the chief’s whiskey and poured their tales into Anami’s eager ears. If you looked up you could see the whispering gallery itself, rising over the wooden beams, for the ceiling of the drawing room rose to the full height of the house and halfway through it a gallery ran around the entire room, on the same level as the first floor. The drawing room had seen many animated discussions on music and dance, on Sruti, Samudri and a few chamber concerts as well and it was perhaps for the last named that the room’s layout was most appropriate. It had echoed to the melodious music of T. Viswa, Lakshmi Shankar, Rita Ganguly, S. Rajam and Vellore Ramabhadran; and presented a perfect foil to the abhinaya of Lakshmi Knight, and dancers of Shree Bharatalaya. It was also in this room that the interview with D.K. Pattammal, which appeared in the first issue of Sruti, was recorded. Over the years, many famous personalities had added to the aura of this hall.
On climbing the staircase you reached the whispering gallery. Once again, during the Chief’s reign none bar a few very close associates really got this far. This was the Diwan-e-Khas. But in KVR’s time this rule was relaxed. En route, on the first landing, a big Nataraja icon and a beautiful Mysore painting of Vishnu greeted you, sharing the space. The gallery housed more bronzes, some Tanjore and Mysore paintings and the chief’s collection of masks. The walls here had cupboards let into the wooden panelling and this was where the Sruti library of books was housed. Surprisingly for a man of refined tastes, the chief also stored some hideous awards that he had received over the years and they seemed most out of place in the setting.
When I first interviewed Pattabhi Raman, we conversed in the drawing room and so I never ventured upstairs. We became friends and he would often call me over the phone and we did meet up a couple of times later. It was after his death that KVR, who took over as editor in chief, asked me to write for Sruti and it was then I got to see the editorial sanctum and beyond.
This room was on the first floor and was on the right as you came to the gallery. It was wall-papered and had some fine rosewood furniture, a console table that had the phone on it being particularly handsome. The chief’s desk was a huge piece in rosewood with drawers on either side. This table had one PC (an old model of course) with two keyboards! — one for the chief and the other for Janaki who sat on the opposite side. Their swivelling chairs were made of rose wood as well. There were a few wooden chairs for the contributing editors and writers who called on them. Behind the chief’s chair was an interesting chest with innumerable small pull-out drawers which housed a collection of photo negatives, cassettes, visiting cards and other odds and ends. There was also an exquisite roll top desk. Visitors sat on chairs or on a long spring sofa. The Sruti files were neatly arranged in rows inside two ingeniously designed wooden closets with sliding doors and built in shelves beneath. This was the room from where Pat Raman planned the Sruti issues, inspired Anami and others to write, waged wars over phoney Ph.Ds or poisonous dissertations, baited the Academy and Semmangudi (behind the chief’s chair was a photo of Semmangudi with his mouth wide open), pondered over the finances of the magazine and puzzled over the fact that despite his best efforts and some of the finest English, people preferred to borrow Sruti over buying it. This was also where he must have consulted his senior editors and writers such as KVR, S. Rajam, T. Sankaran, S. Krishnan, V.S. Sundara Rajan, Mohan Khokar and received colleagues like Sethuraman (Aruna Sairam’s father), Manna Srinivasan and Sunil Kothari. A large and comfortable chair in the corner was T. Sankaran’s perch during the discussions and was also used by the chief during his unending telephone calls.
This was also where Janaki retyped almost everything we sent in by email! In the Chief’s time this was needed because he gleefully “mauled” beyond recognition whatever people sent in. But by the time I came in this was because Sruti used some outmoded DOS based software which could not take in Word!! Across the gallery and above the dining room, were the bedrooms. All the rooms had numbers. These were reached through a small passageway that had skylights. The walls of this passage had some exquisite Ravi Varma prints and some lovely photographs clicked by Pat Raman. There was one big bedroom with a four-poster bed and this was the guest bedroom! Persons like T. Sankaran, B.M. Sundaram, Vincent Warren, Janak Khendry, who would talk well into the night and stay over. The other bedrooms, including the Chief’s (which was distinguished by a stone bed) were so tiny that they could accommodate only one person. The size of the rooms probably explained why the Chief was a night bird who rarely slept and invariably began his discussions after nine at night. These would be animated and raucous (though not as booming as Pat Raman singing in his bath every morning according to an ASS (a Sruti Staffer). Tara and (Hindu) N. Murali once told me that they could often hear every word from their house which was across the garden. One of these rooms was converted into “the email room” where on yet another outmoded PC, a lethargic dial up connection accessed email. This was from where Sruti’s e-mail contacts were established and maintained, and the Sruti website sruti.com was updated, this process sometimes taking days given the speed of the net connection. This PC was home to many viruses and would often collapse leading to complete suspension of Sruti work till it had been ministered to and revived. But there never was a disruption in the publication of Sruti in all these years.
A flight of stairs led you up to the air-conditioned “dark room” where audio and videotapes, rare books and photographs were stored. Another flight of stairs led you to a half-closed terrace which had a roof garden. This is where on one side, the archival files of Sruti/Samudri were stocked in bureaus. I was told that on top of the Chief’s office room there was an open lawn with an adjoining terrace garden covered with a sunshade, which was the venue for an occasional New Year concert by the likes of Vani Jairam. I never got that far. Taken all in all, it was a strange house, planned in a unique fashion to suit the Chief’s tastes and perhaps ideally suited only for a specialised magazine!
Spread out as the rooms were at Alapana, the Sruti team or Sruti parivaar as its better known, had no intercom and communication was by means of a trumpet! This was stationed in the Chief’s sanctum and Janaki was the one who blew on it. One long note meant the person was wanted in the Sruti office upstairs; two short beeps indicated an incoming phone call; and three notes signalled it was time for tea! Most of the time the staff hollered out. Despite the Chief’s insistence none dared call him by name and as he detested the term “Sir” messages for him went out without any noun or pronoun like this – “Please come at once” “Ready for an edit?” etc.
By the time I got to know the place well, Alapana was a ghostly mansion (wo)manned by Janaki, Sudha and Vasundhara (the archivist), with Nandakumar, Balu and Jothirlingam helping out. KVR would come in almost every day in the morning. In the last few years at Alapana, after the chief’s passing, Manna Srinivasan too was a regular visitor as he spent more time in Chennai after his retirement in Delhi. He always kept the mood upbeat with his unfailing cheerfulness and continuous conversation. There was only one problem. When Mannaji visited, the phones got even busier!
One aspect of the team (leaving aside KVR) was that they would almost always be munching on something or the other. The ‘norukku teeni’ standards were high and if it was not chocolate biscuit it was bhujia or dry fruits or mixture (ahhhhh! That South Indian term) and tea was almost always available on tap. Considering that Sruti in those days rarely paid contributors and kept its staff on low salaries, it did well in the light snacks department — that was because the tasty snacks were brought from home! And yet everyone on board was thin!
During the chief’s time, Sruti had its mascots in the shape of two endearing Labradors Haseeb and Kutti, which were housed in an enclosure adjoining the house. They would at times wriggle out and run up to the Sruti office to chew up whatever papers were carelessly left on the ground, much to the discomfiture of the Sruti staff. After the Chief’s time Sruti had its office cat, a small black one which often curled up on chairs and had to be cajoled to move out when visitors called and needed to be seated. This was a later entrant after the chief’s passing and considering that she often lorded over his chair, I had my doubts about her previous birth. Jillu as she was called, was ever hungry and always demanded her share of the eats. She was also remarkably fecund and produced a litter every year all of whose members were fed and cared for by Sruti. There are unconfirmed rumours that there was a move to show Jillu and her descendants as Sruti employees when Sanmar took over Sruti but a hawk-eyed Chartered Accountant saw through the deception. I hope Jillu and her Jillites are doing well wherever they are now. There was also a koel that resided in one of the large trees in the private garden. This would trill lovely notes, in keeping with the musical nature of the place and could be heard when you called over the phone (that is if you ever got through).
In the final months before the happy shift to Sanmar, Pat Raman’s heirs began listing and disposing off his bronzes and the paintings. I wonder where Bhuvarahaswami has gone. Whose house is he gracing now? Does he reflect on all the secrets that he overheard and smile and say “Adi okka yugamu”? But a small part of Alapana survives with me! Knowing my admiration for Pattabhiraman’s desk, chairs and console table, Janaki ensured I could purchase them. They adorn my study and I write sitting at the same desk. <>