27th May will mark 100 years of Carnatic music conferences, the first being Dr Abraham Pandithar’s Sangita Vidya Mahajana Sangam. An article appeared in The Hindu – http://www.thehindu.com/arts/history-and-culture/article3451531.ece

May 27th, 2012 marks the completion of a 100 years since the hosting of the first Carnatic music conference in the modern sense of the term. That event was not held in Madras but rightfully in Thanjavur, the heartland of South Indian Music and hosting it was a Christian practitioner of native medicine – Dr Abraham Pandithar.

Abraham Pandithar from Somerset Playne’s 1914 Southern India

Born in 1859, Abraham Pandithar had qualified as a teacher and he, along with his first wife Gnanavadivu Ponnammal joined the Lady Napier School in Thanjavur. By 1890 they had quit so that Pandithar could pursue the first of his two great passions – native medicine. Purchasing a large tract of land outside Thanjavur, Pandithar converted it into a farm for growing medicinal plants.
Named by him as Karunanandapuram, it was referred to as Pandithar Thottam by the locals. At his residence in the city of Thanjavur, Pandithar opened the Karunanidhi Medical Hall to which patients flocked. His Gorosanai pills in particular, became extremely well known not only in India, but also in the then Ceylon, Burma and the Strait Settlements. His pioneering work in the area was to be recognised by the Government which conferred the title of Rao Saheb on him in 1911, the year he married for the second time, his new wife being Bhagyammal.

Pandithar Thottam, pic by Suresh Gopalan

In 1912, the Governor, Lord Carmichael was visiting Thanjavur and a reception was hosted at the Pandithar Thottam. Pandithar’s second passion was music and he had learnt it formally from Dindigul Sadayandi Bhattar. Consequently, the reception to the Governor saw the attendance of several musicians such as Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Tirukodikkaval Krishna Iyer and Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar. To this august gathering Pandithar placed his proposal that a formal music conference, a Sangam as he called it, ought to be held, to clear the air on various confusions concerning the theory of music. This was readily accepted and with the Setupati of Ramnad, the Sangita Vidya Mahajana Sangam as it was called, was all set to begin.

The inauguration took place at the Karunanidhi Medical Hall. The Hindu reported on the event in detail. “Our enterprising citizen, Rao Saheb M. Abraham Pandithar deserves to be congratulated on his taking efforts to advance the cause of Indian music as the first practical step in which direction he had managed to hold the first Conference of some musicians today” began the report of the Thanjavur Correspondent of The Hindu which was published on 28th May 1912. The meeting took place in the new press-room of the Karunanidhi Medical Hall. The press had been specially imported thanks to Sir Harold Stuart, Member, Governor’s Executive Council, Madras Government, for the purpose of publishing the deliberations of the conference.

Karunanidhi Medical Hall, pic by Suresh Gopalan

“A few minutes after the prescribed hour of 9.00 am, there were prayers in Sanskrit offered by Messrs Panchapakesa Bhagavadar of Tanjore and Muthia Bhagavadar of Tinnevelly” continued the report. Abraham Pandithar then went on to make his speech in which he listed the objectives of the Sangam – “to promote an academic interest in and to diffuse a knowledge of all that was best in the science and practice of Indian Music; to correct all conflicting motions in regard to Ragams and determine the precise and scientifically correct methods; to concert measures to the advancement of Indian music.”

Mayuram Veena Vaidyanatha Iyer, a disciple of Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan was asked to chair the sessions. After the morning session, “the conference adjourned for the members’ dinner and was to meet at 3.00 pm.” The afternoon session saw another unique development – a group photograph being taken, by “Messrs GPN Chandra & Co.” Pazhamaneri Swaminatha Iyer, “musician and violinist”, presided over the second half.

Sangita Vidya Mahajana Sangam, pic taken on 27th May 1912

The Sangam met six times, the last session being on October 24, 1914. Its deliberations were compiled and printed at Pandithar’s expense as the monumental Karunamirtha Sagaram. Pandithar’s pioneering effort was to reach the ears of Sir Tanjore Madhava Rao, Dewan of Baroda who in 1916 organised an All India Music Conference under the chairmanship of the Gaekwar of Baroda. Pandithar was an honoured invitee along with his daughter Maragathavalliammal.

Abraham Pandithar passed away in 1919 and was buried in his beloved thottam, next to the grave of his first wife. His second wife’s grave was to come up on the other side later. The garden was to become Muthiah Bhagavatar’s summer camp and it was here that he helped AJ Pandian, Pandithar’s son, set several church hymns to music. The road leading to the Karunanidhi Medical Hall was named after Pandithar.

Pandithar’s Sangam was to lay the blueprint for all music conferences that were to follow, including that of the Music Academy. The pattern is followed even now. The printing machine, on which Pandithar churned out his treatise, has miraculously survived and is today displayed at the Indeco Hotel’s artifacts museum in Mamallapuram.