I wrote this article several years ago for the Sruti magazine under the Sangeetha Sthalams series. It came to mind once again when I conducted a heritage tour on 15th December 2013, of the musical spots of Mylapore.

The Mylai Sangeetha Sabha (MSS), founded circa 1910 or so, was quite strict when it came to nagaswaram performances not being allowed in its premises, thanks to a peculiar prejudice that existed then against the nagaswara artistes and also a belief that the instrument was meant to be performed in the great outdoors.

AK Ramachandra Iyer, music lover, munificent patron and the owner of Midland Theatre who resided on North Mada Street, Mylapore, was a great lover of the nagaswaram. He decided to found a sabha that would patronize the instrument among other performances. Joining hands with M Loganatha Mudaliar (Industrialist) and K Natesa Iyer (Hosiery Merchant) he founded the Rasika Ranjani Sabha in 1929. Strangely the first few programmes were held at the same venue as the MSS, namely the Vanniyar Sangam Hall at the intersection of Nadu Street and Salai Street. Later the venue was shifted to the National Girls School (now the Lady Sivaswami Iyer Girls School) on Sundareswarar Street a location with a hoary musical link for the street and the properties on it belonged to the Kovvur Sundareswarar Temple. This was the temple that Tyagaraja had visited and on which he had composed five songs.

Shortly after the shift, seven grounds belonging to the temple and located opposite the school were acquired by the Sabha and a shed was put up for programmes. However, shortly after this, AKR and his friends fell out leading to his locking the shed and preventing the conduct of any programmes. A case was filed and came up before the City Magistrate’s Court in 1931 and a verdict to open the Hall was obtained thanks to S Narasinga Rao, a young and promising lawyer whose family owned most of the Balaji Nagar area. SN Rao became an active member of the Sabha and contributed to its growth. The legal hiccup behind it, the Sabha soon began attracting members with personalities such as VV Srinivasa Iyengar, S Srinivasa Iyengar, Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Iyer, Sir CV Kumaraswami Sastry and K Raja Iyer (all legal luminaries) joining up. Interestingly, in an era when such practices were not very popular, the Sabha had an elected governing body almost from inception. In 1932 VV Srinivasa Iyengar became the President.

From the beginning, the Sabha aimed at providing a variety of entertainment and thus there were Harikatha performances, music concerts and drama. In 1933, 20 programmes were put up of which seven were Harikathas, six were concerts and the balance were plays. Bharata Natyam was introduced in the mid thirties after the Music Academy showed the way. Among the early Harikatha performances were those of Harikesanallur Muthiah Bhagavatar on the life of Tyagaraja, Tiruvayyaru Annaswami Bhagavatar on the Ramayana and Srirangam Sadagopachariar on the Mahabharata. As for drama troupes, the well known ones such as the TKS Brothers, Nawab Rajamanikkam and Seva Stage of SV Sahasranamam considered it an honour to be featured at the RR Sabha.

By 1934, the Sabha had 600 members and annual receipts stood at Rs 9000. In 1939, Sriman Srinivasa Iyengar took over as President. It is very interesting to see from the records that the Sabha premises also functioned as a club, with a reading room and sports facilities for ping pong, chess, carom and volleyball.

Part 2