V Sethuram

V Sethuram, President of the Indian Fine Arts Society, one of the oldest music sabhas of the city, passed away on July 4, 2020. It was a full life, for he was 93. But it marks the passing of a certain way of living – an older and more gracious world.

Almost three generations of South Indians grew up on stationery and more importantly, pencils that his family business churned out, for he was a scion of the Vupputur clan that ran V Perumal Chetty and Sons. Equally famous were the Hoe & Co diaries that the eponymous printing house, also owned by the family, brought out. There were other business interests as well, including being dubashes to the Railways. The Vupputurs were in the top order of the Arya Vysya community of old Madras, whose business heyday was from the 1850s to the 1950s. These Telugu-speaking Chetties left their imprint in diverse fields ranging from law to construction to industry to jewellery to trading. And the more successful built large houses in the Chetpet/Kilpauk area – huge bungalows, of which Vupputur House on Flowers Road was one of the largest.

Today Mylapore may lay claim to be the bastion for Carnatic music but when the Arya Vysyas were at their zenith, it was George Town, their business headquarters, and Kilpauk/Egmore, which was where they resided, that most artistes aspired to perform in. Legend has it that when the Telugu-speaking Arya Vysya community was exorted to found its own Sabha by T Chowdiah the famed violinist, the Indian Fine Arts Society came into being, in 1932. BV Gopalakrishna Rao, an employee of the Corporation of Madras was the founder but it was in reality bankrolled by the Arya Vysyas. TV Subba Rao, an employee at Hoe & Co roped in the Vupputurs and that is how the family became involved.

But it was only in the 1950s that Sethuram and more importantly his elder brother Emberumanar Chetty came to practically run the Sabha, with able assistance provided by N Ramachandran, who was its Secretary. Between them, they moved it from George Town where it had functioned from historic Gokhale Hall, to the Vani Mahal, and later the German Hall in Habibullah Road. In addition, the family also involved itself in the running of the 50:50 club. The brainchild of SY Krishnaswami, ICS, it had its programmes at the SGS Sabha on Habibullah Road. Its name came about owing to its restricting membership to a hundred couples – with husband and wife being joint members and therefore having equal weightage. The programmes involved a concert, followed by dinner. Emberumanar and Sethuram were its livewires.

At the IFAS, run by the brothers, together with Secretary N Ramchandran and his brother Srinivasan, courtesy to performing artistes was an absolute must. During the 1980s, when Semmangudi, Balamuralikrishna and S Balachander were hurling imprecations at each other like Nordic gods and many Sabhas took sides, the IFAS remained a venue where all three performed and often launched into tirades against their then current bete-noires, much to the delight of the audiences. With time, even as the Perumal Chetty and Hoe & Co businesses wound down, and the IFAS could not count on that support, Emberumanar and Sethuram ensured that the Sabha became financially independent – sponsors were brought in out of the sheer goodwill that the brothers enjoyed. They knew everyone. “Call Sethu,” was one of the most frequent instructions of S Muthiah whenever he had any clarifications on some old business families of Madras. 

At the December Music festival, it was customary for Emberumanar to stand at the gate of German Hall and welcome everyone in. After his passing, Sethuram, asPresident, who moved the Sabha to the Ethiraj Kalyana Mandapam, did the same, even till a year or so ago, the only concession to age being a sofa to sit on. Running IFAS was not easy and I asked him once as to why he persisted. “It is part of my life,” he said. 

Calling on him and his gracious wife Sridevi, who predeceased him, at their Barnaby Road flat meant being welcomed by relics of Vupputur House – Thanjavur paintings, a hideous stuffed bear that doubled as a sofa, lovely lacquered screens and of course, an old world hospitality. Sridevi was a talented veena player herself and one of her prized possessions was a miniature instrument, around 18 inches at most, that could be performed on. 

Outside of music, Sethuram involved himself in numerous charities. He was besides a pillar of the Chinmaya Mission, the Madras Riding Club and the Bala Mandir Kamaraj Trust. His world of friends and acquaintances was large and he embraced everyone with love and affection. He was as I said, a representative of a different world.

This article appeared in The Hindu dated July 10, 2020

You may want to read about some of the other great members of this community –

Narayana Guruviah Chetty

Thatikonda Namberumal Chetty

Salla Guruswamy Chetty

Vemuru Ranganatham Chetty

Moogallur Cunniah Chetty

Gazulu Lakshminarasu Chetty

Dharmamurthi Rao Bahadur Calavala Cunnan Chetty

C Radhakrishna Chetty