Historically the word Sabha may have meant a congregation of people for various reasons but in modern parlance it stands for any organisation that supports the performing arts. It began as a uniquely Chennai phenomenon and from then on spread to first other parts of what was then Madras Presidency and later to the rest of India.
Chennai was uniquely positioned for the birth of such a concept. When Chennai or Madras first came into existence in 1639, the performing arts were dependent exclusively on the patronage of the rulers, landholders and noblemen. They held private soirees to which their intimate friends were invited or on occasion sponsored public performances in temples or open spaces where the ordinary folk could attend. Temple festivals and weddings in the houses of the rich were occasions when people could attend these performances without invitation.
As Chennai grew, it was not possible for any one person to take on the role of patron. Thus it was that from the 1850s onwards, groups of well-to-do persons got together and organised performances. These were informal gatherings where the fee for the performers were borne by the organisers and the venue being a public space was free of cost. Audiences did not buy tickets and during the performance a plate was passed around so that those who voluntarily wished to contribute could do so. Such collections were handed over to the performers in full.
A very egalitarian form of entertainment was the Harikatha which involved the telling of a moralistic or religious story to the accompaniment of music and dance. These recitals involved multiple languages and plenty of emotion of which humour was the dominant element. Not surprisingly this found great favour with the public and the first few Sabhas of Chennai were formed keeping only the Harikatha in mind. The Bhakti Marga Prasanga Sabha was formed exclusively for Harikatha performances by only one artiste – Tanjavur Krishna Bhagavatar who is considered to be the progenitor of the art form. It was only when he was not available that other artistes were considered. The Sri Krishna Gana Sabha (an earlier organisation with the same name as the present one) and the Sarada Sangeetha Sabha also operated on similar lines. An exception was the Tondaimandalam Sabha which was perhaps the first in the city, having come into existence in the 1880s. Led by C Muniswami Naidu, its energetic secretary, it operated from the Tondaimandalam School on Mint Street and organised music performances and pioneered the concept of Rama Navami and Gokulashtami festival series.
In 1887, the Tondaimandalam Sabha introduced ticketing, with disastrous results. For a concert by Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan tickets were sold and when the artiste reached the venue he found several of those who had come empty-handed to listen to him being turned away. On coming to know of the reason Sivan, highly incensed at his performance being “sold” thus, cancelled his concert and repaired to the Parthasarathy Swami temple in Tiruvallikeni and sang there for free, for three evenings in succession. Plate collections came to Rs 750, a princely sum; far exceeding what any Sabha could have given him. The ticketing experiment was temporarily shelved but soon revived and became the norm.
With the demand for Carnatic music performances on the rise, more Sabhas came into existence. Over the years some sabhas vanished. One of these was the Tondaimandalam Sabha which apparently had very well-informed and rather aggressive audiences. When the percussionist slipped on the beat, the audience booed him and made him stand and play on the mridangam for the rest of the performance by way of punishment. The Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha came up in Tiruvallikeni in 1900. It was established by Manni Tirumalachar, holding its performances in the MKT School and later at the Hindu High School in Triplicane. Today it is the oldest surviving Sabha in the city.
Mylapore, which is today the centre for Carnatic music was rather late in having its own Sabha. But by 1905 Luz and its environs had developed into a posh residential locality with several top-ranking lawyers and judges building their palatial residences there. The Mylai Sangeetha Sabha came up in response to this elite audience in 1919. Despite its high profile clientele, it was a rather rough and ready Sabha, operating out of the Vanniyar School on narrow Nadu Street. The thatch-roofed assembly hall of the school was the venue for concerts held every Sunday afternoon. The performances were timed to begin before the inauspicious rahukalam and lasted four-and-a-half hours. Seating for audiences was on the floor with a rope dividing the men from the women. Answering nature’s call, for musicians and audiences meant relieving themselves behind a conveniently located jackfruit tree. Tickets were an accepted practice and season tickets at the Sabha cost 25 paise. Artistes were welcomed on arrival with a bottle of soda and a packet of a mix that soothed the throat. Concerts were held in a friendly atmosphere with members of the audience shouting out requests and the musicians obliging them. By 1924 making a name at the Mylai Sangeetha Sabha was considered very important among the artiste fraternity. The venue was not without its perils for the thatch housed a family of scorpions members of which would fall on the assembled throng causing much uproar.
The arrival of the Music Academy in 1928, following a resolution passed at the All India Music Conference that was held the previous year in Chennai, saw a new type of Sabha. Supported largely by professionals in various fields, it pioneered the concept of a registered body with byelaws to foster the arts. It also pioneered the December Music Season, a unique Chennai festival of fine arts that lasts from mid-November to end January when over sixty organisations conduct over 2000 programmes. These organisations have played a key role in providing patronage for the arts in the post-independence era when state sponsored patronage began to wane. Tickets are sold for performances by senior and established artistes while juniors are provided performing slots for which there is no admission fee. This ensures that seniors as well as juniors in the field are given opportunities. The sabha is thus truly an egalitarian concept, where without any governmental help, the arts are provided sustenance entirely through private initiative.