The following is an extract from Sivan’s partial autogiobraphy. To me, it is a fascinating book and this passage has never failed to thrill me. The account mentions AK Ramachandra Iyer- a firebrand who was a patron of the arts. He founded the Midland (now Jayaprada) Theatre, started Madras Auto Services (now with the TVS Group), set up RR Sabha and introduced Coca Cola and Parker pens to Madras. He was also the eldest son-in-law of the famed lawyer, TR Venkatarama Sastry.
Sivan’s Patna Pravesam
(Translated from the Tamil Enadu Ninaivukkadal originally serialised in 1968 in Dinamani and later published as a book with the same title in 1996)
The man who laid the foundation for my life in Chennai was the greatly generous AK Ramachandra Iyer. It was he who first invited me in 1922 to perform bhajanai during the Mayilai temple festival. I reached his house on North Mada Street at around 8.00 am a day before the festivities began. Ramachandra Iyer was in animated conversation with ten to fifteen of his friends. Those who had never seen me or heard my bhajans were deep in discussion about my music. I felt extremely shy about announcing myself at this juncture and just sat in a corner. Suddenly, lawyer Vaidyanatha Iyer arrived and noticing me asked me as to when I had come. On hearing this, AK Ramachandra Iyer greatly offended and remarking that I ought to have introduced myself instead of sitting like one robbed of speech departed in a huff.
I bathed in the temple tank, worshipped at the temple and returned to the pyol outside Ramachandra Iyer’s house. After half-an-hour, he departed in his car for office. He noticed me as he left and calling the servant instructed him to take me inside and ensure that I was fed. I went inside and was enchanted on seeing the puja room. Ramachandra Iyer’s wife (daughter of the eminent lawyer TR Venkatarama Sastry) was Goddess Lakshmi incarnate and she served me my lunch.
The next day the flag was hoisted at the temple. At 10.00 pm the deities came out in procession. Ramachandra Iyer went to have his darshan and en route asked me as to why I had not gone for the bhajan. I replied that I needed a harmonium. He immediately instructed his servant to accompany me with the harmonium in the house. As soon as the procession began Ramachandra Iyer returned home and retired for the day. At midnight the procession reached his residence and he came out for darshan. Auditor Rajam Iyer called out to him and asked him to come and participate in my bhajan for a little while. “That lunatic perform a bhajan and I to listen to him!” he exclaimed. “He must have gone somewhere.”
“See that crowd at the southern end?” asked Rajam Iyer. “That is Sivan’s bhajanai.”
“Don’t be silly,” came the reply. “That must be the tevara ghoshti”. By that time the tevara ghoshti had reached Ramachandra Iyer’s doorstep. It was a small group of ten to fifteen people only. Seeing this Ramachandra Iyer went in without a word.
Half-an-hour later, my group which was a huge crowd reached his doorstep and hearing the cries of “Hara Hara Mahadeva” Ramachandra Iyer came out en famille and participated in the bhajanai. By the time our group reached the gopuram it was 1.30am. Ramachandra Iyer stayed on till then and walked home with me.
On the third day it was the Adhikara Nandi procession. This time Ramachandra Iyer escorted me with great love. He was greatly devoted to Karpagavalli and Kapali and he looked resplendent with his forehead lined with the sacred ash. The bhajanai began. Many thousands, unmindful of the terrible heat and forgetting their worldly cares, their hunger and thirst stayed on and participated wholeheartedly. In this fashion the bhajanai sessions were held on four days of the festival.
On the ninth day the Bhikshatana procession began at 6.30 pm. I went to Tiruvallikeni and the beach to enjoy some fresh air and returned well after 7.00 pm. The deities had crossed South Mada Street. It was then that I noticed the vast ocean like throng, patiently waiting for the Sivan Bhajani to begin. I was filled with remorse. As if in punishment for my wrongdoing I found my throat had become hoarse and not a note would emerge from it. I shed tears. I prayed to Kapali. I then set the pitch to 4 ½ kattai instead of my usual 4 and began. This worked and it was 12.30am when the mangalam was sung.
After this Ramachandra Iyer fixed concert engagements for me at the residences of TR Venkatarama Sastry, A Rangaswami Iyengar and the Accountant General NV Raghavan. I also sang one evening during the vidayatri festival at the temple. Everywhere rasikas and patrons appreciated me.
After the festival I requested Ramachandra Iyer to give me permission to go back home. Around 20-30 prominent residents of Chennai gathered for my farewell and they all spoke in my praise. I can never forget the words of AK Ramachandra Iyer.
“I had formed a certain mental picture of Papanasam Sivan. He would be around fifty. He would be sporting the sacred ash on his person and several rudraksha malas would adorn his chest. He would be wearing the dhoti in the panchakaccham style and would have the complexion of a ripe gourd. I imagined that he would be accompanied by two or three disciples. My mind refused to accept that this figure, sitting in a corner, clad in a four-cubit dhoti and sans an upper garment or baggage of any sort and for all appearances presenting a picture of a simpleton would be the great Sivan. I dismissed scornfully the idea that this man could perform bhajans. Truly I realise now that his simple appearance and humble ways show him for the great man that he is”.
Ramachandra Iyer gifted me Rs 500 on that occasion. From then on Kapali and Karpagam made me their own and kept me near them. Truly, this has been my greatest fortune.