Arneri Govindu Naicker Bhajanai Mandiram

Bhajana mandirams, once abuzz with cultural activities, have now fallen silent

One of the great tragedies of rampant urbanisation is the loss of congregational spaces all over Chennai. At one time, bhajana mandirams were common in the older parts of the city. Endowed by rich people, invariably members of the Arya Vaisya community, these spaces did much to foster music. Today, most of them have vanished and those that survive are either facing an uncertain future or have become temples.

Sumaithangi Ramar Koil, Mint Street. Pic: V Ganesan of The Hindu

The majority of these bhajana mandirams/koodams are to be found in North Madras — places such as George Town, Purasaiwalkam and Perambur. Triplicane and Mylapore have some too. The ones in Perambur came up chiefly to provide recreation for the workers of establishments such as the Integral Coach Factory and Binny’s. One of these, the Venkatesa Gunamrithabhivarshini Sabha played a major role in the founding of Madras Labour Union, the first in the country, in 1918! But that is a story for another time.

Tiger Varadachariar in his reminiscences speaks of a bhajana mandiram run by the Tachur Singaracharlu brothers. There is a contemporary view that this duo has much to answer for the chaos that prevails in raga nomenclature in Carnatic music, but it cannot be denied that they were pioneers in several ways. In the 1880s, they were the prime movers of the Madras Jubilee Gayana Samaj, which did a lot to promote young talent and also got the ruling English to try and understand the beauty of Indian music. The elder was employed by the Pachayappa’s College and so the Gayana Samaj met at the magnificent and now badly neglected Pachaiyappa’s Hall on the Esplanade/NSC Bose Road. The duo also brought out a series of books on music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and Sangita Kalanidhi, long before it became the title awarded by the Music Academy, was one of the publications.

From Tiger’s speech, we can get an idea of the vibrant atmosphere that prevailed in the bhajana mandirams. “In those days, musicians would assemble each Sunday at the Rama Mandiram run by Singarachariar. It was the practice for young talent to be displayed in their presence. On certain Sundays, when no newcomer was available or on special days such as Rama Navami, seniors would perform much to the delight of the learned and lay listeners. Apart from the Singarachariar brothers we had ‘Veena’ Nilakanta Sastry, Muthialpet Tyagier, Kanchi Radhakrishna Iyer’s grandson Tyagier, Kekarai Muthiah and Chitti Vaidyanatha Iyer. The mridangam was invariably by Thanjavur Anganna. Other percussionists such as Muthuswami Thevar, Ammayappa, ‘Ghatam’ Devarajam and ‘Mohrsing’ Govindarajulu would also perform. The way these people demonstrated pallavis, niraval and swarams for the benefit of young aspirants was akin to the manner in which mothers fed their infants.

Where was Singaracharlu’s Rama Mandiram? The brothers lived off Govindappa Naicken Street in a building that later gave way to a plastics market. There are plenty of bhajana mandirams in the vicinity but the only one that answers to the description of a Rama Mandiram is on Mint Street. Now known as Sumaithangi Ramar Koil, it is a full-fledged temple.

The etymology of that rather burdensome prefix to Rama is unclear and the priests here have no idea as to why the Lord got that name. There are some exquisite Thanjavur paintings here, which, in keeping with the bhajana tradition, must have been originally propitiated with songs. These have later been displaced by stone idols, once regular worship began. It is ironic that music faded out the moment the place became a temple. Nowadays, what is heard is from CDs, played over the PA system.

Diagonally opposite the Sumaithangi Ramar shrine is another Ramar Bhajanai Koodam, this one retaining its structural authenticity. It is part of the endowment to the Pachaiyappa’s Trust by Arneri Govindu Naicker. A well-to-do Dubash of Parry & Co, he willed the bulk of his properties to the Trust in 1846 and a school was begun in his name in 1865, which continues to function from Pachaiyappa’s building on NSC Bose Road.

The bhajana mandiram is a small single-storeyed structure in a garden surrounded by high walls. A grille gate is perpetually locked but the door to the bhajana mandiram proper is opened each morning at 6 a.m. and a lamp is lit before the pictures of the deities that line the walls. Much of the interior is visible from the gate.

Was this the place where the Tachur Brothers held their music performances? The answer to that has probably passed on along with Tiger but given that the elder Singaracharlu was employed by the Pachaiyappa’s College and that this building belongs to the same Trust, it may well have been the place. Silence now holds court here instead of music.

You can read more on Tiger Varadachariar’s reminiscences here


This article appeared in The Hindu dated June 23, 2017. The original can be read here