In recent times, I spent a happy morning with Sanjay Subrahmanyan and his wife, visiting the Kalyana Varadaraja Swami temple at Colletpet. I wrote a detailed article based on this for Sruti magazine which I reproduce below. After it was published, I realised that I had made a grave error in writing that there were no songs composed on the temple. Veenai Krishnamachariar, the younger brother of Tiger Varadachariar dedicated several of his songs to this deity. I then wrote a sequel to my original article and that will be published in Sruti soon. In the meanwhile, read on about what the English called the Colleana Varadaraja Swami Covella.

Colletpet – the Tiger’s lair

Colletpet, or Kaladipettai as it is referred to now, is a neglected suburb of Madras that is Chennai. It is a small but historically significant settlement that is located between Tondiarpet and Tiruvottriyur. To reach it, you drive down from Rajaji Salai onto to Royapuram. From Royapuram you take Tiruvottriyur High Road and drive past Tondiarpet. One of the numerous cuttings on the left is Sannadhi Street and if you take that, you reach the Kalyana Varadarajaswami shrine, once the heart of this locality. In the world of Carnatic music, it acquires significance as it was the birthplace of Tiger Varadachariar and (presumably that of his) musically-talented brothers, KV Srinivasa Iyengar and ‘Puliyodarai’ Krishnamachariar.

Historically, Colletpet owes its existence to two men, Joseph Collet who was Governor of Madras from 1717 to 1719 and Veeraraghava, a Brahmin who was rather unfortunately referred to as Virago Brahminy in the East India Company records. Veeraraghava was the son of Venkatapathy, who was the agent or ‘Egyb’ of the East India Company at the court of the Nawabs of Golconda. In 1675, Venkatapathy died and his son succeeded him to the post. But he was shortly thereafter dismissed for being ‘unduly close’ to Podala Lingappa, the Governor of Poonamallee who was inimical to British interests. Later Veeraraghava was reinstated and by 1717 or so held the high post of Brahman Writer at the East India Company in Madras. He had to interact frequently with Collet and the two formed a close relationship.

What irritated or intrigued Collet was Veeraraghava’s habit of frequently undertaking a journey to Kanchipuram (some say he went every day in the morning and reported late for duty). On coming to know that this was due to latter’s devotion to Lord Varadaraja Perumal of that town, he berated Veeraraghava for his faith. In jest, he also asked Veeraraghava, who claimed that his mind was ever in Kanchipuram, to tell him what was happening there at that very moment. The devotee immediately replied that he could see the deity being taken around the town in a chariot and that at that precise moment, the wheels had sunk into mud and attempts were being made to extricate them. Collet made enquiries and found that what Veeraraghava had said was true. Impressed, he decided to bring the Lord to his devotee. He offered to build a temple for Lord Varadaraja close to where Veeraraghava lived.

Cloth being the chief business of the East India Company at this time, a number of artisans involved in the trade were settling down near Madras. By the promise of special concessions, Collet encouraged the immigration of weavers and ‘painters’(those who printed or drew designs on cloth) to settle in the environs of Tiruvottriyur. By 1718, the new settlement had ‘104 houses, 10 shops, a temple and contained 489 adult inhabitants’. The temple referred to was the Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple or as the East India Company records referred to it, the Colleana Verdaraja Swaminee Covela. Collet had made good his promise to Veeraraghava.

The area was to be defended by Collet as well. In 1717, Nawab Sadatullah Khan of Arcot demanded that the five villages of Tiruvottriyur, Sattangadu, Nungambakkam, Kattupakkam and one more that appears in the records as Vezallawarrow (Valasaravakkam?) be made over by the East India Company to his Chief Renter, Ducknaroy (Daya Ram). Collet refused and a pitched battle was fought near Tiruvottriyur and its environs. The much larger army of the Nawab was defeated by the lean, mean fighting machine that was the East India Company army.

In 1719, Collet announced his decision to return to England. On 28th December that year, Collet informed the Council at Fort St George that the local inhabitants of the new settlement had desired that the place should be named after him. He also mentioned that the town had a handsome pagoda (temple). The area became Colletpet thereafter and in course of time, the name was corrupted to Kaladipettah. Today, a legend persists here that as this was an area that Vallalar Ramalinga Swamigal walked over, it became Kaal adi pettah. The saint would have no doubt been vastly amused but that is perhaps the reason why the name of the locality has not been slated for a change. Or perhaps the administration simply forgot Colletpet. Certainly a visitor to the place today would be convinced that no municipal attention is paid to it.

Veeraraghava lavished money and love on the temple. He was allowed by Collet to collect ‘a small duty on imports and exports for the maintenance of the temple’. After his death, his son Kolacherla Papiah Brahminy petitioned the Company that his father had “expended his whole estate on the pagoda.” The Company settled the management of the temple as a hereditary right on Papiah. Many years later, the temple passed into the hands of the HR&CE Department of the Government.

The Kalyana Varadarajaswami Temple is a small shrine. It was till recently fronted by a gopuram that had become dilapidated with time. Perhaps it was built by Collet. After the sudden collapse of the rajagopuram at Kalahasti, this gopuram too was demolished as a safety measure and efforts are now on to collect funds to build a new one. Today, the temple is therefore fronted by ugly galvanised sheets which hide the huge gash in the earth where the tower once stood.

The temple inside is a curious amalgam of some wonderfully graceful stonework and hideous modern disasters that have been grafted on to it. Thus you have a beautiful four-pillared mandapam and also a strange circular shrine for the navagrahas. The main shrine is fronted by what must have been a wonderful mandapam with sixteen stone pillars holding up the roof. Alas, one side is now closed with sanctums of doubtful aesthetics for various acharyas. The other side is bricked up and has ugly rolling shutters to give access from the side. The Varadarajaswami shrine retains much of its stonework but the backdrop to the deity is a wall of polished red granite. The moolavar is impressive with four arms and flanked by the two Nachiyars. The deity is an exact replica of the Varadarajaswami at Kanchipuram. On the left of the Perumal shrine is a separate shrine for Perundevi Thayar. On the right is a shrine for Andal. This stands out for its walls painted in green on to which students have written their examination roll-numbers as a prayer for securing pass marks. There are some romantic ‘inscriptions’ as well, no doubt hoping for a pass in the test of life.

Close to the entrance, at the left are shrines for Anjaneya and Chakrathalwar. The temple has a large tank with steps cut to provide access. But there is no water in it.

Being in the centre of a thriving business and residential locality, the temple has a steady stream of devotees. And what makes up for the tackiness of the shrines is the remarkable elegance with which the youthful priests decorate the deities with flowers. Saturdays are when the temple sees a throng of devotees.

The Sannadhi Street is no longer a quiet thoroughfare with tile-roofed houses as it must have been during Tiger’s time. It is today a bustling bazaar with lorries offloading several goods. Concrete buildings of various shapes and sizes have taken over and only a couple of old houses still hang on. Certainly none has heard of Tiger and his brothers. But at one time, if we are to go by what Tiger said in a radio interview, the place breathed music. Here are some extracts that prove that this was indeed a Sangeetha Sthalam if not sanctified by a composition then at least by the way it fostered the arts.

“It was said that even the pillars of my house could sing,” began Tiger. His elder sister was renowned for her repertoire of songs and if there was any wedding in the neighbourhood, she would be pressed into service.

Next in line was an elder brother, Ramanujam who was “proficient in Tamil, Telugu and Sanskrit and very good in music. He could play on the veena and the sitar”. Tiger recollected that he provided vocal support for his elder brother’s Harikatha performances on themes such as Nandanar Charittiram. Yet another brother of Tiger’s was Krishamachariar. In the talk he mentions that that it was thanks to the sponsorship of that great patron Dharmamurthi Rao Bahadur Calavala Cunnan Chetty, that this sibling could train in music under ‘Panchataleswara Pritankita’ Veena Nilakanta Sastry. Strangely, Tiger does not mention his equally talented other brother, KV Srinivasa Iyengar, who within a short life-span, for he died in 1928, published several music books.

Navaratri was a time for music. Tiger remembered that the initial attraction during this festival was the prasadam – comprising sundal, sweets and fruits. But after a couple of days it was the music that attracted him. The songs of Tyagaraja, pieces from Arunachala Kavi’s Rama Natakam, lullabies and dance songs filled the air and Tiger said that it was here that he learnt his lessons on ragas such as Bhairavi, Mohanam, Todi, Kamboji and Darbar.

The temple of Varadarajaswami was the hub for fine arts. Here Tiger feasted his ears on the music of Kakamma, a woman “who could sing over 500 to 600 songs beautifully. My sister and I would follow her in an attempt to grasp her style. Even the nagaswaram artistes of the temple would listen to her closely.” While festivals here attracted nagaswaram artistes from outside, the local troupe was no mean outfit apparently for Tiger remembered that “Parthasarathi and his son Narayanaswami could do raga alapanas and play songs and ragam-tanam-pallavi suites with complete adherence to tradition”. The percussion artistes too were of great quality and Tiger recollected the skills of tavil artistes Vadivelu and Muthiah Pillai. On the days that the deity went around in a procession, the Nathamuni Band of Madras would be in attendance. The star of this troupe was “Clarinet Abbayi who on one occasion played the Balahamsa raga for four hours and topped it off with the song Ninnu basi”.

Dance was another feature. Tiger states that many women were attached to the temple and that they organised dance and music performances, comprising all-women ensembles. One of them could perform on the mukhaveena very well. According to Tiger, he heard the best Yadukulakamboji, Sahana and Huseni here. Equally unforgettable was the abhinayam performed for the padam ‘Telisenura’ by one Rukku during the float festival.

Harikatha was a third element. Tiger recollected a performance of the famed Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar at a house-warming ceremony in the neighbourhood. The legendary Narayanaswami Appa provided mridangam support. Krishna Bhagavatar says Tiger, performed on four evenings, with Nandan Charittiram being done twice and Sakkubai and Ahimahiravana Charittiram being the subjects of the other two evenings.

If all this was not enough, there was music outside the temple as well. The local bhajana mandiram had group singing on all auspicious days and on one occasion “my elder brother wrote and directed the performance of the play Indra Sabha. I had an important role to play in it”. Street theatre was popular too. And Tiger reminisces about the performances of Koochipudi and Gangapuram troupes where the music was largely based on pentatonic scales. He remembers the plays to be ‘Jalakridai’ and ‘Sarangadharan’.

Today, music or any form of fine art would be the last thing you would associate with Colletpet. Heaven knows where the bhajana mandiram is (or was). As I leave, my companion points out a board announcing that keyboard classes were being held in a building on Sannadhi Street. Well, something is better than nothing.