To Carnatic music audiences of today, Tamil is as musical a language as any of the others in which compositions were created – Telugu, Kannada, Sanskrit or Malayalam. Yet there was a time when the language was considered unsuitable for Carnatic music. The belief, widespread till the 1940s, did not come about suddenly. It was an offshoot of the history of South India. Several music lovers were concerned over the secondary status given to Tamil and it was left to the business baron Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar to correct this wrong. He, through the Music College of the Annamalai University of which he was the founder, called for a conference to discuss the status of Tamil as a music language.

It was at this juncture that an announcement appeared in The Hindu dated 28th July 1941 under the caption “Encouragement of Tamil Songs”. The Annamalai University Syndicate had “approved a scheme for the composition of new Tamil songs and the popularisation of old songs”. The announcement stated that “a conference of votaries of music in this part of the country will be held .. in August and all that songs that will be sung there will be in Tamil only.”

On August 3rd, 1941, Tiger K Varadachariar, Principal, Music College, Annamalainagar wrote to The Hindu, giving details of the conference, scheduled to begin on the 14th of August, in which several prominent musicians were participating. The conference began with a concert by Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar accompanied by Kumbhakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai and Palani Subramania Pillai. The Subjects Committee of the Conference convened at 1.00 pm that afternoon with T Lakshmana Pillai presiding. The list of attendees was a veritable who’s who of Carnatic Music. Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar dominated the show and ended it with a discourse on the “Greatness of Tamil Music and its Songs.”

The conference concluded on the 17th of August and its resolutions were published in The Hindu dated 19th. The second of three resolutions sparked off a major controversy. This read “The Sangeetha Sabhas (are) to arrange kacheries in such a way that the songs were in Tamil and that only a minor portion of the kacheri was devoted to songs in other languages.” Several musicians and music lovers felt that this spelt an end to the songs of the Carnatic Trinity and other great composers. Curiously, Ariyakkudi who had until then been singing more Tamil songs in his concerts than any other musician, strongly opposed the resolution too.

The Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society became the rallying points for those opposed to this agenda of Tamilisation. Bitter battles were fought in the press with columns, articles and letters appearing in The Hindu and in Tamil magazines such as Ananda Vikatan and the newly founded Kalki. The latter’s eponymous editor was a staunch supporter of Tamil Isai. On 19th June 1943, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar founded a new body to propagate Tamil songs and at the instance of Rajaji named it the Tamil Isai Sangam. It was to have branches in several towns including Madras, Madurai and Devakottai. In December 1943, the Sangam held its own music conference, in parallel to those of the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society. Artistes such as MS Subbulakshmi, MK Tyagaraja Bhagavatar, KB Sundarambal, GN Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer, sang for the Sangam. This caused much resentment at the older Sabhas, but with time attitudes softened on both sides and each came to respect the sentiments of the other. The Music Academy increased the percentage of Tamil songs in its concerts and the Tamil Isai Sangam relaxed its rigid attitude that only Tamil songs could be sung under its portals.

During the early days of the movement, a challenge often posed to the Tamil Isai lobbyists was the absence of a large repertoire of Tamil songs with authentic notations. The works of early composers largely survived as lyrics, sans music. Several top-ranking musicians then worked on setting these songs to tunes. The works of Subramania Bharati, already very popular owing to the ongoing struggle for the country’s freedom, began to be frequently sung in concerts. Composers such as Anai-Ayya, who were contemporaries of Tyagaraja began to receive their due in concerts. Papanasam Sivan, who was making a name for himself as a music composer both in the world of films and classical music became a very popular name. Mayavaram Viswanatha Sastry was another composer who did yeoman service to the cause of Tamil songs. He had been discovered by the Music Academy in the 1930s when he won the first prize for a competition on songs with a nationalistic theme. He went on to create several Tamil songs and emerged a vaggeyakara of the highest order. Yet another Tamil Isai find was MM Dandapani Desigar. Hailing from a family of Oduvars, he became a Carnatic musician who not only set several existing Tamil songs to music but also became a composer. He later headed the Music Department at the Annamalai University. Some others whose creations became popular at this time included the composer Koteeswara Iyer and the lyricist Periasami Thooran. In addition, songs of the Azhwars and Nayanmars began to be set to music. Guruvayur Ponnammal, a singer of yesteryear and better known now as the sister of the mridangam maestro Guruvayur Dorai, set to music the poems of the savant Ramalinga Swamigal.

The Tamil Isai Sangam built a handsome edifice for itself in the Esplanade area of Madras in the 1950s. Fronting it is a statue of its founder. The auditorium remains a popular venue for fine art performances even today and each year in December, it hosts the Tamil Isai Sangam’s music festival where lecture sessions are held in the morning and concerts at night. Today, the Sangam is almost the sole body espousing the cause of Carnatic music in North Chennai.

Sanjay Subrahmanyan is an artiste who apart from his excellence as a singer is known for his extensive repertoire of Tamil songs. In this album, we feature a concert of his that was performed at the Tamil Isai Sangam in December 2009.

This was written as the sleeve note for the Charsur release of a live concert of Sanjay Subrahmanyan’s at the Tamil Isai Sangam during the December Music Season of 2009