This was written last year and published in Sruti magazine

An enjoyable concert of Sanjay Subrahmanyan was drawing to a close at the vast Swami Vivekananda Centenary Hall of the Ramakrishna Students Home in Mylapore. It was part of the Navaratri series. In attendance was a huge audience, which included students of the home, several monks of the Ramakrishna Order and the music-loving public. It struck me that what I was witnessing was part of a great Mylapore tradition, for the Navaratri series at the Ramakrishna Mission goes back to the 1920s. The portrait of C Ramanujachari, the man who initiated it, hangs rather appropriately by the side of the stage, facing the audience. He would have been delighted with the series, for the man loved music and theatre.

The Home moved into its present premises in 1921 and ever since then, it became customary to host concerts during Navaratri. It would be relevant to point out here that music has always been an integral part of the Ramakrishna Order. Sri Ramakrishna was greatly moved by music and would frequently go into Samadhi while it was being performed. Swami Vivekananda was a good singer himself. Music is a part of the worship at the headquarters in Belur Math and the evening arati in particular is musically most moving.

C Ramanujachariar was a senior bureaucrat, having begun life as a clerk in the Madras Secretariat and risen to the level of Under Secretary, Department of Law and Education. He was also very knowledgeable in Carnatic music. Such a combination meant that any concert series organised by him could count on Carnatic stars and members of the higher echelons of society participating in it. The Navaratri series, begun in 1921, became a high-profile event from its first year. All the big names of Carnatic music – Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar, Palladam Sanjeeva Rao and later Musiri Subramania Iyer, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, GN Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer, performed at the Home. This was not a benefit series for no tickets were sold or funds collected. Musicians were not given anything beyond the proverbial thengamoodi, but the presence of Ramanujachariar and the sheer atmosphere of the Home made up for everything. In a way it also served a beneficial purpose for the Home. There were not many Sabhas in Mylapore in the early 1920s and the residents of the upper-class area were starved of music. Several came to listen and also, by the way, came to know of the Home and the good work it was doing. The lawyer ND Varadachariar who was an indefatigable diarist has noted thus on September 23rd, 1925 – “In the night, to Sri Ramakrishna Students’ Home for Ariyakkudi Ramanuja Iyengar’s vocal, Parur Sundaram violin, Dakshinamurthy mridangam. A good performance”.

Concerts were initially held in the Nattukottai Nagarathar building remember old-timers. The Nagarathar Building could accommodate a vast number and once during an Ariyakkudi concert some youngsters decided to have fun at the expense of the musicians by making a hissing noise repeatedly while the music was in progress. Ariyakkudi stopped singing and made an announcement. “This is the Ramakrishna Mission,” he said. “I expect people who come here to observe due decorum at such a place”. That had its effect and the rest of the concert was heard in peace.Later, when the Vivekananda College came up in that premises, the concerts were shifted to the Abdul Hakim Ward, one of the several dormitories in the Home and named after the donor who made the construction possible. The Abdul Hakim ward had a problem. It could accommodate only about 40-50 people. Loudspeaker arrangements were therefore made whenever a star was performing and people would congregate in the open spaces around the building and listen to the performance.

Several are the stories recollected about concerts at the Abdul Hakim Ward. People remember Ariyakkudi with fondness. His fraternal affection and admiration for the Harikatha artiste C Saraswathi Bai was well-known and she was a regular at the Home too. It was said that the audience would be jubilant if she was among the attendees at an Ariyakkudi concert for he would then take extra care to ensure that his performance was a success. She, on her part, according to her nephew, would not hesitate by means of a sign language that the two understood, express her appreciation or disapproval of his performance. It was a kind of live feedback that went on all the time.

Once, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer was late for a performance. C Ramanujachariar was a stickler for punctuality and noticing the young GNB in the audience he commanded him to get on to stage. Viswanatha Iyer arrived just as the first song was completed. GNB offered to vacate the stage but Ramanujachariar would have none of it. He rather indifferently informed Viswanatha Iyer that everything being well, he could perform the next year. The next Navaratri, Maharajapuram practically camped on the premises. It was GNB concert and when the artiste began, his throat was found to be in poor form. Ramanujachariar, with GNB’s permission, requested Viswanatha Iyer to take over. The latter gleefully did so. It was a kind of poetic justice.

Old-timers recall that Musiri Subramania Iyer was practically adopted by the Home in the sense that Ramanujachariar could ask him to sing at any time. It also perhaps helped that Musiri lived within calling distance. A concert of Musiri’s at the Home was apparently converted into an exposition of raga alapanas by Karaikkudi Sambasiva Iyer who, seated in the audience repeatedly requested for one raga after another. Musiri was also roped in by Ramanujachariar to go to Malaysia for a series of fund-raising concerts for the benefit of the Home . In 1936, Lord Erskine, the then Governor of Madras visited the Home and Musiri was asked to sing the prayer. This was held in the prayer-hall of the Home and those present remember that Musiri sang a shloka in Anandabhairavi and the Governor stood throughout. He was also sensitive enough to remove his shoes at the entrance.

Another regular at the Home, both as a member of the audience and also as performer, was Madurai Mani Iyer. He, like Musiri, lived a stone’s throw away. Once Mani Iyer was performing at the Abdul Hakim Ward and as 9.00 pm approached, several people began leaving. The maestro was losing his vision by then and could not see this. TS Vembu Iyer, Mani Iyer’s companion and vocal accompanist whispered to him that the concert should perhaps conclude soon, to which the former replied that he would like to sing for some more time. Ramanujachariar on hearing this called out to Mani Iyer that he would remain in the hall as long as the latter would like to sing. The concert concluded at midnight.

Flute Mali was another huge draw at this venue. He had performed here from a very young age. In the 1930s, a concert by Mali was in progress with Ramanujachariar keeping the talam with enthusiasm. The Ananda Vikatan’s cartoonist Mali was busy sketching both of them. On seeing this Ramanujachariar’s attention was diverted and he missed a beat. The young Mali immediately put down his flute and smilingly corrected Ramanujachariar who took it in good spirit. Later Mali would play truant at the Home. On one occasion he called off his concert at the last minute and a notice to the effect was put up outside the Home. Those who came to listen to Mali saw the notice and left after having roundly cursed the musician. Standing next to the notice board was a heavily bearded man who laughed uproariously each time someone abused Mali. None could identify that it was Mali himself, having the time of his life.

On yet another occasion, Mali did not land up and the crowd grew restive. Ramanujachariar, who was resting in his room did not even bother to wear an upper garment. He and Jagannathan, an inmate of the Home, rushed off in a car to Bazaar Road where Mali was living. Having found him there they lifted him bodily, placed him in the car and brought him to the Home. By then, Mali having recovered from the influence of the stuff that cheers, proceeded to give a scintillating performance.

While kutcheris were the norm on Navaratri evenings, Harikathas and upanyasams were conducted in the morning on all the nine days. These were held in the library of the Home. There were performances by Soundararaja Iyengar, C Saraswathi Bai, Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar and others.

In order to collect funds for the Home, Ramanujachariar adopted several measures, all with the fine arts as the focus. In 1932, he got the permission of the Maharajah of Travancore to conduct Sri Jayanti concerts at Trivandrum and Nagercoil. This got him Rs 3000 for the Home. In 1936, the birth centenary of Sri Ramakrishna was celebrated all over Madras for a week. Ramanujachariar was the chief planner. Processions were taken out in various parts of the city with the top-ranking nagaswaram artistes in attendance. Harikatha performances were held at various places. The highlight was a Harikatha on the life of Sri Ramakrishna by Srirangam Satagopachariar. Saraswathi Bai’s nephew remembers that she performed on the occasion at the Hindu High School. The crowds were so great that she could not get in. Someone led her to the rear of the building, where having scaled the compound wall by means of a ladder, she managed to gain entry. Music concerts were held too.

Ramanujachariar also floated the Secretariat Party, a dramatic society of amateurs who were all employed at the Madras Secretariat. This was an all-men group, assisted by the boys at the Home. Among the talents discovered at the Home was that of R Ganesh who at the encouragement of Ramanujachariar decided to seek a career in films. He became a star and is remembered as Gemini Ganesan. The Madras Secretariat Party too scaled great heights, and functioned for twenty years. The plays were invariably with a strong bhakti motif and ranged from topics such as Hanumat Sanjeevi to Kabir or Meera. Ramanujachariar was the playwright, music director and coach. He could at a pinch act any of the roles. This came in handy when during the staging of Raja Bhakti, the hero was injured by his own sword. None noticed this but Ramanujachariar and within five minutes he had donned the greasepaint and the costume and had got on to stage.

The Secretariat Party staged plays regularly in Madras at the Walltax Theatre and also travelled to every important town in Madras Presidency and beyond. It also staged performances at Rangoon and Colombo. Travelling to so many places meant a lot of preparation beforehand, for the shifting of props, the travel arrangements for the actors, local hospitality and sale of tickets at each town had all to be handled. But Ramanujachariar worked with a will and over a period, the Secretariat Party contributed more than Rs 5 lakhs towards the corpus for running the Home, thereby ensuring financial stability. Those championing other causes were quick to solicit its help and the Secretariat Party put up plays for the war effort and relief efforts following natural disasters.

After his retirement, Ramanujachariar’s influence over the Secretariat Party waned and in 1945, he promoted the Ramakrishna Kripa Amateurs, with membership being open to all those wanting to help the cause. This group, rehearsed all its plays at the Home and by way of its performances added Rs 3 lakhs to the corpus. Its biggest hit was Kalki’s Sivagamiyin Sabadam, the first staging of which was seen and approved by the author. The play was adjudged the best play in Tamil at a contest organised by the Delhi Natak Sangh. Ramanujachariar sent the team to Delhi and there, supported by the vast bureaucratic network that had several South Indians, the play was staged twice, once officially for the Sangh and the second time to collect funds for the Home.

Ramanujachariar was a strong proponent of the idea that Carnatic music ought to be taught using modern methods. He was one of the signatories of the famous resolution dated 7th January 1926 that proposed an Academy for Music in Madras, which became reality a year later. He was also, in his capacity as Under Secretary, Department of Education, involved with the setting up of the Annamalai University where he helped in particular with the conceptualising of the Music College, the first of its kind in modern times.

As age advanced, Ramanujachariar, like Ramu, spent time increasingly at the Home. In the last years of his life, he began working on his magnum opus – the translation of the lyrics of Tyagaraja into English. He completed the work and entrusted its presentation and publication to his close friend V Raghavan who brought it out in 1958. Sadly, Ramanujachariar did not live to see the book in print for he died on 4th November 1956. But the work Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja is still in print.

The Navaratri series continued till the 1970s thanks to Kolathu, who as Principal of the Ramakrishna Mission School, kept it going. But in the 1980s the practice was discontinued. The Abdul Hakim Ward had become dilapidated and was pulled down in 2005 to make way for the new Centenary Block. That year, several old students decided that the tradition established by Ramanujachariar ought to be revived. The new hall was rectified for better acoustics and a search began for a sponsor for the Navaratri series began. Nalli Kuppuswami Chetty, who had personally known Ramanujachariar came forward gladly and began underwriting the concert expenses. Since then, the Navaratri series has been taking place for the past six years. The response is terrific and once again, while it serves the cause of art, it also helps that a larger public gets to know of the good work being done by the Ramakrishna Mission Students Home.