The concluding part of Sister Devamatha’s memoirs as extracted from Days in an Indian Monastery appeared in Madras Musings last fortnight. The link has many other articles and so the extract is provided here:
Feasts & concerts in Mylapore
– as seen by Sister Devamata
(Flipping through yesterday’s pages* by Sriram V.)
*Days in an Indian Monastery by Sister Devamata
(Sri Ramakrishna Math, Chennai 600 004)
(Continued from last issue)
A dinner at Dr. Nanjunda Rao’s …
A leading light in Madras at the time of Sister Devamata’s visit was Dr. Nanjunda Rao, who lived on Brodie’s Road (R.K. Mutt Road) in a house called Sasi Vilas, which still stands. Sister describes a feast at his house:
I remember especially one dinner given by a leading physician of Madras. The poet and orator Sarojini Naidu was also among the guests (her wedding was celebrated in this house). The dinner was served in a central court. As we entered it, water was poured over our hands. Then we were seated on mats spread on the floor along the inner wall of a broad arcade. A large leaf plate was placed before each one of us and filled with rice. A number of little leaf cups were set around this. They contained a great variety of side dishes, mild and pungent, sweet and sour, curries, vegetables and fruits. The lady of the house and her daughters served the guests. They were too jealous of the privilege to allow anyone else to claim it. Their graciousness and sweetness added much to the joy of the dinner. When it was over, water was poured over our hands once more and we went home.
… and a public feast at Tanneer Turai market
The Tanneer Turai market now, alas, a mere shell of its former self and its future yet unknown, was the brainchild of V. Bhashyam Iyengar whose Vembakkam Gardens (today’s Vidya Mandir School and its annexes) was next door. Envisaged as a water-side market to which fruits and vegetables could be brought by boats plying on the Buckingham Canal, it must have been newly built when Sister visited Madras. Here she describes an unusual use to which the market was put:
In Mylapore there were families who made it known that on a fixed day each week they would feed a certain number of hungry mouths. My landlord, a wealthy judge, gave a hearty meal on Friday to any indigent Brahmin who came.
Our religious Order has always been lavish in this form of charity. At the first festival held at the Mylapore monastery after my arrival, we fed eight thousand poor and at the next one the number rose to ten thousand. The food was served in a large marketplace which was built and presented to Mylapore by a philanthropic resident of the community. The market consists of a series of raised cement platforms roofed over, but open at the sides. About six hundred could be seated on these platforms at one time and when that number had been admitted, the gates were closed and ample time was given to satisfy the heartiest appetite. As soon as all had finished they were let out on the opposite side of the market and another six hundred allowed to enter.
The food was distributed by a band of students. When the people were seated, plates made of leaves fastened together by the stem were brought. Then rice brought in closely woven willow bowl-shaped baskets was served, a soup of pulses was poured over this; next a curry was passed around and a dessert of sweet curds closed the meal. The food was of the best and every one was given as much as he could eat. There was no stint in the quantity. Some were served four times. I saw children three years old helped two and three times to a large pile of rice and curry. The feeding began at ten in the morning and continued till two or three.
The preparation for the feeding was carried forward with great zest. Some of the workers did not eat for 24 hours and their leader, the founder of the Students’ Home, who was known as Ramu, in his ardour of service, took no food for 36 hours. As the festival fell on a Sunday, the boys from the Students’ Home came early on Saturday to prepare the vegetables. They peeled and sliced hour after hour until long rows of bushel baskets were filled.
About ten o’clock when the road was comparatively free from traffic and the quiet of the night had fallen on the community, all the provisions were carried by hand or hand-dray to the market. Here a long trough had been dug, logs laid in it and huge copper cauldrons placed on its two edges. By the time everything was in readiness to begin, it was long after midnight. There are special cooks whose trade it is to prepare these mammoth feasts. They arrived at about one. A little later, Swami Ramakrishnananda who, with his fervour had been the impelling spirit in all the preparations, conducted a short religious service, after which the fires in the trench were lighted and the cooking began.
As the rice was cooked it was piled on clean boards in an open shed. When it was all done, the huge pile reached from floor to roof. It kept itself hot. It was steaming still at noon and it required no little fortitude to stand beside it, as one of the workers did, and filled the serving baskets. The curry was kept warm in the cauldrons and the curds stood in enormous earthen jars.
One hot afternoon I opened my entrance door in answer to a loud knock and found a group of eight or ten little girls ranging from six to twelve, all dressed in bright silken saris with many gold chains and bangles. There was a tall beturbanned servant with them; he acted as interpreter and explained that the children had come to give me a concert. I unrolled a large mat on the floor of the lower hall and they sat down cross-legged upon it. The servant stood beside them. Then they took out their violins, put the neck against the crossed right foot, the other end under the chin and began to play and sing. I was surprised at their skill and fluency of technique. They remained for nearly two hours and it touched my heart deeply that they should come in that scorching heat to entertain me.
While at Mylapore I had a rare opportunity to hear Indian music at its very best. One of the leading singers of South India was asked to come and sing for the Head of the Order while he was at Madras. With him he brought his father, also a famous musician, and his younger brother of nine. The little boy played the violin with great fecility; the father played small tempered steel cymbals with one hand and with the other marked the beat by softly snapping thumb and first finger together, producing a sound of mellow ivory. The singer himself played the vina, one of the most perfect instruments art has created. The musicians sat in the centre of the huge rug in the monastery hall; Swami Brahmananda, Swami Ramakrishnananda and I sat at one end. There was no one else in the hall and the whole monastery was still. The singer sang with indescribable art; and vina, violin and cymbals wove a spell around his song. Sometimes his voice faded to an intangible pianissimo, violin and cymbals died away, nothing remained but the subtle tones of the fine understrings of the vina. Then they lost themselves in subtler silence and the song was over. Never did music give me a keener pleasure than on that late afternoon in the monastery at Mylapore. I seemed to be listening to something more plastic and melodious than mere human sound…
I remember going one evening to the home of a close devotee at Mylapore. Several branches of the family lived together, forming a community household. I found the head of it in the central court of the house surrounded by children of all ages, some toddling, some crawling, one wee one of a few weeks swinging in a suspended crib. I asked him how he happened to be playing nursemaid. He replied that a wandering sannyasin was reading the Ramayana every evening in the porch of the Vishnu temple nearby and that night Sita was to give her answer to Ravana, the hostile king who had carried her off. The ladies of the house were so anxious to hear (her answer) that he had offered to stay with the children while they all went.
When I first reached Madras, the other sacred epic, the Mahabharata, was being read at the Mylapore high school. The school stood at the lower corner of the four streets of the temple, close to the primary school building where I was then living, and I could hear the sound of the voices from my room there. A rich resident of Mylapore had engaged a learned Pandit and another Brahmin scholar to read the whole of the epic. It took six months. This is not an infrequent form of public service. Every evening at dusk, the Pandit would take his place at a table on the school verandah with a lamp beside him and a large Sanskrit tome open before him. A bench stood at right angles and on it sat cross-legged the other Brahmin holding a tamboura. Next to him on the bench stood a large picture of Sri Krishna. Their appearance was a signal for people to gather. The readers waited patiently for their listeners. When a sufficient number had gathered, the Pandit began to chant in a deep voice a passage from the Mahabharata; then he paused and the other Brahmin rendered the passage in the vernacular, intoning it in a soft, melodious tenor voice to the accompaniment of the tamboura. It was beautiful and musical. During the hour this continued, many stopped in the street outside to listen. Tired burden-bearers laid down their loads and sat in the dust of the road beside them to hear the heroic lines; home-coming coolies and peons and sweeper-women joined them.
On the morning of my last day in Madras a gentleman sent his eldest son to bring me to their home for a visit. The son came in a pretentious carriage with two liveried servants on the box and two standing behind. We drove along a broad shaded road edged by handsome residences, through a high gate and beautiful garden, round an imposing house with up-reaching pillars, to a curving verandah-terrace in the rear. There, amid other seats and swinging hammocks, stood a narrow wooden bench with one end raised like a pillow. Laughingly I said to the boy with me, pointing to the bench: “I suppose you sleep there.” The quick reply came: “No, but my grandmother does.”
The hard, narrow wooden bench struck the key-note of the South Indian home. The South Indian by choice sleeps on a mat on the floor with his head on his arm. I had one close friend at Madras, a government official, who all his life had slept on an eighteen-inch bench with Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary as a pillow!
Sister Devamata left for Calcutta from Madras and from there returned to America.