This article was published several years ago in Sruti

Govindappa Naicken Street

This is a long and narrow thoroughfare that cuts across George Town, one of the older parts of Madras city. Who Govindappa Naicken was, nobody knows. But among the oldest educational establishments of the city is the Govinda Naicker School and it functions close by at the Pacchayappa’s Hall. As for the street, in keeping with the Government diktat to remove all caste names, it is simply Govindappa Street. Today it is dominated by shops and small businesses and on an average day it is almost impossible to navigate through with trucks and lorries, auto-rickshaws, two-wheelers and cars jostling for space. It has been declared a one-way but that makes no difference and if you are not the variety that walks, a cycle-rickshaw may be your best bet.

In terms of music, there is nothing but memories left on this street and even those, are fast fading. But before they vanish altogether let us see why Govindappa Naicken Street merits being a Sangeetha Sthalam.

Just as you enter the street from its NSC Bose Road end, there is a lane that cuts to the left. This is Thambu Naicken Lane and if there is a prize for a street with minimum ventilation this would win it hands down. It would also merit winning a prize for being the largest public convenience in the city. With all the darkness and the odours emanating from it, it is certainly a daunting prospect to walk through. But on a hot summer afternoon in 2000, Sanjay Subrahmanyan and I did just that. We were looking for the house of the Tachur Singaracharlu Brothers who did so much pioneering work in the field of printing books on music. The elder was also a composer and his varnams are often sung in concerts. ‘Tiger’ Varadachariar remembers that the Brothers conducted bhajan sessions at their residence. Prof P Sambamurthy in the Madras Tercentenary Volume records that they lived at No 3, Thambu Naicken Lane. By the time Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande came to Madras (1904/5), the elder brother, who was working as a Sanskrit Pandit at the Pacchayappa’s School, had passed away. But Bhatkhande met the younger brother and also witnessed him training students in music. Sanjay and I found no trace of any home in the lane which has metamorphosed into a plastics market.

Going further down Govindappa Naicken Street you will come across the Manali Hostel. Opposite this stood the Manali Palace, once the residence of the Manali Mudaliars of whom Muttukrishna who was the last Chief Merchant of the East India Company and his son Venkatakrishna will both go down in history for being patrons of Ramaswami Dikshitar. This building merited preservation as a heritage site. But two years ago, this vast edifice where the longest Carnatic song (Natakadi vidyala, the 108 ragatalamalika of Ramaswami Dikshitar) was composed and which had played host to personalities such as Marimutha Pillai and Arunachala Kavi was demolished completely to make way for a car-park.

On Govindappa Naicken Street also stood Saundarya Mahal, its exact location now unknown though it was demolished only around ten years ago. The property of Dewan Bahadur Salla Guruswami Chetty, it had functioned as a venue for music, dance and theatrical performances before it became a marriage hall and finally faded out. But what wonderful memories it must have held when it stood!

Owing to a ban on Devadasis performing at the Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street, Saundarya Mahal was much in demand whenever Sabhas had to organise performances by these women. Brinda and Muktha, accompanied by their sister Abhiramasundari on the violin had their debut here. MS Subbulakshmi’s first concert performance in Madras city took place here on 28th December 1933 under the auspices of the Indian Fine Arts Society (IFAS) with industrialist C Rajam sponsoring the programme. Even when it came to artistes of non-Devadasi origin, the IFAS utilised the Saundarya Mahal for those who were not big draws. The Music Academy, which in its early years was conducting monthly performances, also used the Saundarya Mahal on occasion. One noteworthy performance was that of Veena Dhanam on 19th September 1936. The old lady stopped her performance midway and walked out in protest against a patron coming in with squeaky slippers.

Debates and discussions on music also took place here. The case for establishing an Academy for Indian Music in Madras was presented and a resolution passed at the Saundarya Mahal on 7th January 1926 when a group of city luminaries including the city’s leading medical practitioner Dr U Rama Rau (later the first President of the Music Academy), the theosophist Dr Margaret E Cousins who was taking a deep interest in Indian arts, the Rev. HA Popley who began the Summer School for Music, the Congress stalwart S Satyamurti, the scholar ‘Kirtanacharya’ CR Srinivasa Iyengar, W Doraiswami Iyengar, music patron and manager of the publishing house Longman-Green, bureaucrat and scholar C Ramanujachariar and noted patrons of music CD Rajaratna Mudaliar, R Krishna Rao Bhonsle and Dewan Bahadur Salla Guruswami Chetty met under the leadership of TV Seshagiri Iyer. The resolution read as follows:

“That this meeting considers that a Musical Academy be started to develop and encourage indigenous music and the same shall be known as the South Indian Academy of Music”

This was one of the many factors that saw the setting up of the Music Academy in 1928. It was during this meeting that Salla Guruswami Chetty announced that his venue would be available free of cost for those wishing to conduct classes on music. It is not clear if this offer was availed of.

Saundarya Mahal was also the venue where Samsara Nauka, a tear-jerker of a Kannada play was staged in the 1930s. It was a mammoth hit even though the language was alien to people in the city.

Govindappa Naicken Street will forever be remembered in music publishing history, for it was here that the Gnanasuryodaya Press was located. It was from that press that the first published Carnatic Music book, the Sangita Sarvartha Sara Sangrahamu, the work of Tirunagari ‘Vina’ Ramanujayya, a resident of Triplicane, came out in 1859. This year marks the 150th anniversary of that landmark publication. It was sponsored by Ramanujayya’s patron Suri Chetty Govindaraja Chetty. For the first time a wide variety of music forms, ranging from alankarams to kritis was published. Some songs of Tyagaraja, Syama Sastry and Subbaraya Sastry were included and Tyagaraja’s kritis were singled out for notation as well, perhaps the first time Carnatic music was being published with notation. Rather uniquely, Ramanujayya had sahitya for sarali and jhanta varisais! In retrospect it makes sense, for it gives variety to what has become a mundane exercise often taught with no attempt at creating interest in the disciples. The Sangrahamu was a best seller for it went into several editions with several scholars working on it over the years. The last edition appeared in 1917.

Today there is no physical proof of any of these things happening in Govindappa Naicken Street. But then music is to be enjoyed for the moment and savoured in retrospect long after the actual performance is over. Can music history be any different?