I wrote this several years ago for the Encore column in The Hindu. Having suddenly rediscovered it I am posting it here.
On November 24, 1934, the Jagannatha Bhakta Sabha met to honour a composer. Unlike many functions that had taken place under the auspices of the sabha, held under a thatched roof enclosure in the gardens of `Veda Vilas,’ Egmore High Road, this was an event with a difference. The composer himself was alive and what’s more, relatively young. He was present in person to receive the honours which included a purse containing the princely sum of Rs. 366.
Papanasam Sivan, who was a well-known figure in Madras, thanks to his association with the bhajan sessions he conducted around the Mylapore temple tank on auspicious occasions since 1921, had settled down in the city in 1929. He had already begun composing, his first song, “Unnai Thudhikka,” a spontaneous creation while witnessing the chariot festival in Tiruvarur, had come about in 1917. Since then he had been steadily bringing out many songs.
Living in a lane off Kutchery Road, Sivan became music tutor to the children of Mylapore Sundaram Iyer. The eldest, S. Rajam, later to blossom as the well-known musician, painter and musicologist, was his first student. It was also due to his association with the family that Sivan got his first film assignment, to compose music for the film, `Seetha Kalyanam’ which had members of the Sundaram Iyer family acting in it.
In 1934, Sivan’s rendition of the song, “Kaana Kann Kodi” during the Adhikara Nandi festival in Mylapore so moved Rukmini Devi that she made him the music teacher at the Besant Theosophical School.
Despite all this growing fame, Sivan remained a simple soul untouched by it all. One of the many music lovers who greatly admired him was R. Rangaramanuja Iyengar, the indefatigable English teacher at the Sir MCtM School, Purasawalkam. He ensured that Sivan’s songs were set down in notation and got them published in 1934 under the title, `Kirtanamalai.’ The Jagannatha Bhaktha Sabha event had a twofold purpose, release of the volume and the honouring of Sivan.
The Hindu, reporting on the event on Monday, November 26, under the heading, “South Indian Composer Honoured,” noted: “there was a large gathering of ladies and gentlemen”.
The proceedings began with a prayer rendered by Mrs. R.V.Sastri and then the well known publisher G.A.Natesan took the chair and spoke on the many facets of Papanasam Sivan. Messages wishing the function all success were received from Harinaga Bhushanam Pantulu of Masulipatnam, S. Sathyamurthy and the well-known violinists Marungapuri Gopalakrishna Iyer and T.K. Jayarama Iyer.
The Hindu noted that the “idea of the purse emanated from a few ardent admirers of Mr. Sivan a year or so back. The outcome of it though not very good, is yet encouraging enough. The apparent lack of response to the Purse, the organisers hope, will be made up by earnest attempts to see that Mr. Sivan’s `Keertanamala’ reaches every home in South India.” Sivan, to whom money mattered very little, accepted the purse with grace.
Interestingly, two of the people who spoke on the occasion were T.K.Chidambaranatha Mudaliar (TKC), the great lover of Tamil and K.V.Krishnaswami Iyer, who the next year would take over as president of the Music Academy.
Within a decade, both would become bitter opponents, on the role of Tamil in Carnatic music. Sivan indirectly was a beneficiary, for his songs came to the fore, thanks to the Tamil Isai movement that was initiated by TKC, Kalki Krishnamurthy and others.
Rukmini Devi, who was present, said that it was the good fortune of her school that it had Sivan as its music teacher.
Sivan, however, was to teach at the school only for five years, for in 1939, owing to increasing pressure and demand from the film world, he had to leave the job.
He was, however, to remain a close associate of Rukmini Devi and Kalakshetra. Yet another speaker was Shafee Mohammed who said that it “was an honour to Tamil Nadu to have musicians like Mr. Sivan. He had great pleasure in associating himself, on behalf of his community, with the function that day.”
Those were secular times indeed, though not many were familiar with the word then.
Significantly, R. Venkatachari (aka Muthanna), secretary of the sabha, while proposing a vote of thanks made a request to Mr Sivan to devote some of his time to composing national songs. Sivan, who had become an ardent nationalist following the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, took this request seriously and was to compose several patriotic songs.
The programme, the first public felicitation to Sivan, concluded with a concert by the composer himself, accompanied by Kumbakonam Rajamanikkam Pillai on the violin and Kothandarama Iyer on the mridangam.