The first canteen ad, 1940
The first canteen ad, 1940

A small but significant anniversary will take place on December 24, 2014, for that will be the day when the concept of a Sabha canteen will enter its 75 year.

Many of the core rasikas may argue that the eatery is but a fringe element in the December Season, but its role in making the music festival a lively affair over the years, cannot be denied.

On how the idea of a canteen came about, in a way we need to thank Adolf Hitler for it. Had it not been for the Second World War, restrictions would not have been imposed on gatherings at outdoor spaces in Madras. Had that not happened, the Music Academy would have happily continued hosting its conferences and concerts in 1939 in the gardens of Woodlands Hotel, Westcott Road, as it had the previous year, to great success.

But with WWII breaking out in September, the Academy and its dynamic president KV Krishnaswami Aiyar (KVK) were faced with the task of finding an enclosed precinct in which to conduct the music festival.

Thanks to his being a member of the University Syndicate, KVK, with some help from S. Satyamurti, who was Mayor of Madras that year, managed to get the University Senate House for the series. Not everyone was happy. The acoustics were bad and to the conservative Carnatic crowd, it was a lonely spot, especially in the evenings.

KVK had an answer for everything. The acoustics at Senate House were improved with sacks draped across all windows and doors. Special buses transported the musical faithful to and from the venue.

But the new complaint that emerged was that Senate House had no eatery in the vicinity, where the peckish could go and fill their stomachs. This was managed to an extent. Advertisements of hotels and eateries were placed in the souvenir, that of Udupi Gopalakrishna Lunch Home of Thambu Chetty Street being the most prominent.

The next year, 1940, with the series once again at Senate House, KVK went a step further. An eatery would function from the premises itself – Ambi’s Café of Broadway being the caterer. This was evidently a great success.

The next year’s festival was also at Senate House and the Tanjore Lodge of Mambalam won the contract. In 1942, the last year that the Senate House hosted a concert, Bharath Café of Mount Road, Mambalam and Mylapore, was the canteen operator. From then on, a canteen at the Academy became de-rigueur.

Regarding the other Sabhas, their canteen history is not so well documented but it is clear that the Tamil Isai Sangam had a subsidised kitchen going even in the 1950s, which still operates from the premises. The Indian Fine Arts Society souvenir too has advertisements of caterers from the 1950s. Thereafter, the other Sabhas followed suit.

Through the 1950s and 1960s, when the Music Academy operated from the RR Sabha and the PS High School, its canteen was run by Appaswami Iyer. Among his specialities was a badam halwa that had SY Krishnaswami, the music-loving ICS officer waxing eloquent. Not so appetising from its description, but equally in demand was a hideous dry preparation of dry fruits and crystallised sugar that was sold in small paper packets. The canteen contract was an entry into high society for Appaswami Iyer and he was soon in demand for weddings.

His successor at the Academy was Krishnamurthy, who had at one time presided over the kitchen fires at MS Subbulakshmi’s Kalki Gardens. He was to bring the same grace and hospitality that embellished that stately home (coffee – as dark as night, as sweet as love and as hot as hell to quote T. Sadasivam) to the canteen. His speciality was kasi halwa and the news that it was ready would spark off an exodus from the auditorium. Even Semmangudi, it was rumoured, rather craftily had the news conveyed to him and he would immediately ask the percussionists to perform the tani avartanam, to prevent a second exodus.

Others have come and gone since then at the Academy, but the canteen magic is now broadbased- Arusuvai Natarajan, Gnanambika Jayaraman, Meenambika Kannan, Mount Mani, Mint Padmanabhan… the list goes on. Are they not as much stars as the artists who perform within the auditoriums? Here is a toast to all of them who have kept music lovers happy for 75 long years.

This article was published in the Friday Features section of The Hindu dated December 19, 2014