A portrait of Tyagaraja, done during his lifetime

We are going through an unusual phase in our lives. Nobody has any memory of such a complete lockdown out of deference to a calamitous pandemic. Carnatic music too has taken a beating – concerts, music festivals and overseas tours stand cancelled. The livelihood of artistes who are not in the top rung is a matter of concern and above all, there is no clarity on when normalcy will return. Will it? For now, most artistes have gone online but this does not appear to be a revenue generating model as yet.

Are there instances of the world of music being affected by earlier such occurrences? A flashback reveals a few. The first is of an outbreak of plague in Mysore in 1900. Mysore Vasudevachar describes it in his memoirs – Na Kanda Kalavidaru. Despite the ravages of the disease, the administration did not think it fit to stop the religious observances during Dasara, with terrible consequences –

‘The plague epidemic of 1900 took a heavy toll of lives in Mysore. Men died in hundreds every day. The Dasara festival was in progress. The State Elephant and the State Horse were taken out every day in a procession for pooja at the tank outside the Fort. Till the procession was through, the dead bodies were not allowed to be carried along that route. It took about fifteen to twenty minutes for the pooja procession to cover the route from the Fort to the Tank Bund. Within this short span of time, the dead bodies could be seen in rows all along the half mile route from the Palace Ayudhashala to the Amble Annayya Pandit Girl’s School. People got panicky and were thoroughly demoralized. Whenever anyone had an attack, the rest of the family, terrified, would abandon him and set up camp outside the city.’

One of the victims of this outbreak was Veena Padmanabhiah, a celebrated artiste of the Court. Vasudevachar recalls that his disciples were hesitant to go near him, as were his wife and children. Disregarding the advice of others that he too should stay away, Vasudevachar nursed him to the best of his ability but to no avail.

If plague was a disruptor, cholera was no different, appearing with alarming regularity in most parts of South India. In January 1943, an epidemic broke out in the Thanjavur region and the Collector refused permission for the holding of the Tyagaraja Aradhana. There was disappointment all around, with the Aradhana Committee making repeated representations to the administration. It was Bangalore Nagarathnamma alone who remained unperturbed, stating that it was all Tyagaraja’s will and if he so wished, the event would happen. The Collector relented and gave permission for the conduct of a three-day festival. He also withheld permission for the broadcast of performances. When asked he opined that it was the radio recording that caused large numbers of musicians to attend and if that were absent, most performers would stay away, leading to a reduction in crowds! The 1943 Aradhana was therefore a rather subdued affair.

Worse was to follow later in the year, when Madras had to be evacuated following wartime scares. It in fact caused a scattering of musicians that was unprecedented. Thus while Musiri Subramania Iyer moved to Dindigul to be with his disciple and fan, CV Narasimhan, ICS, Papa KS Venkataramiah moved to Thanjavur. Madurai Mani Iyer moved to Mayiladuthurai. Saraswati Bai, the noted Harikatha exponent shifted to Ranipet. Palani Subramania Pillai made Trichy his base. Given the communication technology of the time, it was a wonder that musicians still got together, performed and kept the home fires burning. It however helped that there were plenty of concert opportunities in the mofussil and many musicians had still not made Madras their home. Help was available too – Vellore Gopalachariar, father of maestro Vellore Ramabhadran, welcomed musicians to his hometown and arranged tuition engagements for them. Musiri and CVN together ran a Sabha in Dindigul to ensure concert opportunities. By August 1943, normalcy returned and most musicians came back to Madras. Some such as Madurai Mani Iyer and Papa KS Venkataramiah opted to stay back, returning much later to the city.

The Second World War had a more long-term impact on Carnatic Music – the loss of Chettiars as patrons. With the fall of Burma most members of this community were in straitened circumstances. That meant a complete stoppage of music and Harikatha performance invites in the Far East and closer home, at Chettinad as well. It took Carnatic Music quite a while to emerge from this situation – it was only the growth of the NRI diaspora from the 1980s onwards that once again saw big-time prosperity. We need to see how the COVID pandemic will impact the art in the long run.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated May 1, 2020.

PS: An error was made by me in my original article as it appeared in The Hindu. I had stated that Papa KS Venkataramiah shifted to Karur during the Second World War. It should have been Thanjavur and I thank his grandson Shrikant for setting me right.