The article on S. Doraiswami Aiyar, which appeared in these columns, reminded me of his formidable musical lineage.

His maternal grandfather was Tiruvottiyur Tyagier (1845-1917), a celebrated composer. Tyagier’s father was ‘Veena’ Kuppayyar (1788-1850). He was a direct disciple of Tyagaraja, arguably the greatest composer of Carnatic music.

Tiruvottiyur Tyagier's house
Tiruvottiyur Tyagier’s house

Kuppayyar was a talented composer and created several immortal songs which bear his mudra, ‘Venugopala’. He was also one of the earliest established artistes to make Madras his base. In the words of Professor P. Sambamoorthy, Kuppayyar was mainly responsible in making Madras a seat of music culture. The city, he opined, ought to be proud of Kuppayyar.

After living for a while at Tiruvottiyur when he was supported by the Rajahs of Kalahasti and Venkatagiri, Kuppayyar moved to George Town where he came under the patronage of Kovur Sundaresa Mudaliar, dubash of the East India Company. Kupayyar took up residence at 88 (now 33/10), Ramaswami Street. The house soon became famous for its musical soirees. Legend has it that when Tyagaraja visited Madras in the 1830s, he called at this house and composed a song here.

Kuppayyar’s youngest son was Tyagier. Chitra Pournami and Vinayaka Chaturthi were celebrated in a grand fashion by Tyagier in the house and many concerts were held during the festivals. Despite suffering from ill-health for most of his life, Tyagier taught many disciples. He also published two books on music — Pallavi Swarakalpavalli in 1900 and Sangita Ratnavali in 1907.

In 1904, the famed Hindustani maestro, Vishnu Narain Bhatkhande came to Madras and met Tyagier in this house. He was very impressed with Tyagier’s simplicity and erudition.

The residence was of the archetypal town-house pattern that Madras was famous for till the 1950s. Those who have been inside remember it as having all the standard elements, such as rezhi (hallway), mittam (courtyard) and the straight passage leading from the front door to the rear exit. The house remained in the possession of Tyagier’s family till the 1950s and then became the office of a TUCS branch, with the first floor serving as the manager’s residence, till the 1970s. It later became a wine shop for a short while. Subsequently, it was given over to the elements.

Venugopala on doorway
Venugopala on doorway

When I began including it in my heritage walks, it was on its last legs, with a fabulously-embellished doorway standing testimony to its past glory. On the top of the frame was a carving of Krishna playing the flute and being adored by cows. This was a reminder that Kuppayyar and Tyagier worshipped Venugopala as their family deity.

Last week I decided to visit the house again. I was saddened to see that it had been completely demolished. Corrugated sheets held debris in place. A garbage bin stood guard over what had once been a home to music. God knows where the doorway with the Venugopala is. Perhaps it adorns an art collector’s home. Hopefully it has not been chopped up for firewood.

The site now
The site now

This article appeared in the Hidden Histories column of The Hindu dated 18th December 2012