For the December Music Season audience of today, this name will make no sense. Yet in the 1920s and the 1930s, this was the venue of choice for all music and dance performances. It was also hired by political outfits, social service organisations, and labour unions. Located on Govindappa Naicken Street, George Town, it was the smaller option for organisers who did not want to hire the Gokhale Hall on Armenian Street, which could seat at least 700 people.

MS Subbulakshmi debut advertisement

The records are sketchy and there is not even a photograph in the public domain of Soundarya Mahal. But we do know that it comprised two levels – a ground floor that could seat 200 and a small balcony that accommodated 50. There are also accounts that say Soundarya Mahal was not at ground level and had to be accessed by stairs. If so, it is not clear as to who occupied the ground floor.

Dewan Bahadur Salla Gurusamy Chetty, pic courtesy The Centenary Volume of the Lodge Carnatic, Regional Grand Lodge of South India.

The property itself was owned by Dewan Bahadur Salla Gurusamy Chetty. In his time, he was a man of many parts – a successful lawyer, social activist, patron of the arts and a prominent Freemason. His active years appear to have been from the early 1900s to about 1940 or so. Gurusamy Chetty lost his wife Soundaryavalli and it was in her memory that he built Soundarya Mahal as a multi-purpose hall, may be in the second decade of the 1900s. While it was put to good use for meetings of various kinds, it became an important location for the fine arts.

During the 1930s, the scholar Dr. V. Raghavan wrote reviews for the magazine Sound and Shadow under the pen name of ‘Bhavuka’. From these we get to know of performances at Soundarya Mahal by stalwarts such as Papanasam Sivan, T. Balasaraswathi and Chidambaram Srirangachariar. These were all artistes who drew a select but scholarly audience and, so, a small hall suited their performance style best. It was also a venue that could be used for debut performances when organisers were not certain about audience size. Several latter day stars had their debut here. There was yet another factor that worked in Soundarya Mahal’s favour – women of the Devadasi community were not allowed to perform in Gokhale Hall owing to a condition to this effect laid by Annie Besant, the founder. All the handmaidens of God therefore sang only at Soundarya Mahal. Thus it was that the sisters Brinda and Mukta, grand daughters of Veena Dhanam, had their early performances here. In 1933, M.S. Subbulakshmi was presented here for the first time to the audiences of Madras, by the Indian Fine Arts Society.

More important than all this was the role that Soundarya Mahal played in the formation of the Music Academy. It was here that a meeting took place on January 7, 1926 and the details are worth quoting in full:
“A large number of well wishers and lovers of classical music had expressed a desire that effective steps should be taken to stimulate interest in indigenous music in this part of the country and to develop musical culture along sound lines. It was felt that an Academy should be established in Madras for the purpose. A preliminary meeting was held on 7th January 1926 at Soundarya Mahal with T.S.Seshagiri Iyer in the chair.

“The meeting was well attended and among those present were: Dr. U. Rama Rao, Mrs. Margaret Cousins, Rev. H.A. Popley, Messers Satyamurti, W. Doraiswami Iyengar, C.D. Rajaratna Mudaliar, C.R. Srinivasa Iyengar, Rao Bahadur C. Ramanujachariar, R. Krishna Rao Bhonsle, and Dewan Bahadur Salla Guruswami Chetty.

“The following resolution was adopted unanimously:
“that this meeting considers that a Musical Academy be started to develop and encourage indigenous music and the same shall be known as the South Indian Academy of Music”.

Nothing came of the idea in the immediate short term but a year later, the All India Congress Session saw a revival of the same scheme and by August 18, 1928, the Music Academy became reality. In its very early years, when it conducted monthly concerts, the Music Academy made use Soundarya Mahal. So did its rival – the Indian Fine Arts Society, established in 1931. In later years, each went its own way. But Soundarya Mahal remained a venue of choice for much longer. It was here that T.T. Krishnamachari heard M.S. Subbulakshmi for the first time and became a lifelong admirer.

This was also a venue for highbrow regional language theatre. Telugu plays were staged here as were also those in Kannada. Of the latter, the best known was, according to Randor Guy, the play Samsara Nowka, which later was made into a successful film.
Perhaps the most illustrious personality to visit Soundarya Mahal was Mahatma Gandhi. He addressed the women of Madras here on September 16, 1921, under the auspices of the Sarvajanik Mitra Mandal. The Mahatma spoke in Gujarati and stressed the necessity for the assembled women to give up imported clothes. It was also here in 1923 that the seeds of the Dakshin Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha were sown. Rather ironically, it was at rival Gokhale Hall that the anti-Hindi agitation had its beginning.

The later history of Soundarya Mahal does not make for very happy reading. The general degradation of George Town and the shifting of music and dance to venues in south Chennai meant that the place came to be rarely used for meetings and concerts. It did serve a purpose as a wedding hall. The property was administered by a Trust instituted in the name of Salla Gurusamy Chetty and this body felt that the land could be put to better use. There was the question of the Arya Vysya Maha Sabha of which Gurusamy Chetty had once been a pillar. This organisation was still using the building. But in 1995 a solution was hammered out and the building was brought down. What stands in its place is an electricals and plastic goods market of unsurpassed ugliness. Who can believe that music and dance once flourished here?

This article is part of series commemorating forgotten landmarks of our city. The rest of the stories can be read here

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