What #DecemberMusicSeason Souvenirs Say

The concept of the December Music Season souvenir was most likely pioneered by KV Krishnaswami Iyer, leading lawyer who on taking over as the President of the Music Academy Madras in 1935, began bringing these out each year. From then on, the Music Academy has a continuous record of its annual seasons, thanks to these publications. The Indian Fine Arts Society, which came into existence in 1932 followed suit from then on. Sadly, this Sabha has not maintained its archives and just a handful of its souvenirs survive. The Tamil Isai Sangam, like the Music Academy, has a full set beginning from the first annual festival, held in 1943. 

Today’s Souvenirs are rather drab affairs – endless pages of ‘with best compliments’, a couple of articles and then the song lists, of artistes who care to send them that is. But at least until the 1960s, these were great productions, carrying forward a record of the times. In terms of aesthetics too they score, with their illustrations, half tone block images and of course the black and white photographs. That all of these continue to impress despite the poor-quality paper and the not-so-sophisticated printing technology, speaks volumes about the content. 

Paeans to Potency

If Musiri Subramania Iyer is attesting to the efficacy of Kesavardhini hair oil on the tresses of the women in his family, Chittoor Subramania Pillai is paying glowing tributes to a doctor whose patent medicine cured him of inflamed tonsils. But all of this is nothing compared to the paean that TRK Rao of Car Street, Triplicane has composed in praise of Dr Naru, Sexologist, of Naru Hospital, 24, Broadway, Madras. Just a few lines will give you a broad idea – “I was a perpertual nuisance to my wife who just could not bear to see in me as someone as her husband. Today the regeneration brought about by you compels the same wife of mine as though through magic to kiss the dust that I tread beneath my feet. The new strength that your treatment has infused…” Presumably, Mr and Mrs Rao lived happily ever after. 

The gramophone ads are next – the top of line names being MS Subbulakshmi (of course), MM Dandapani Desigar, NC Vasanthakokilam, Chembai and GNB. Of interest are the cinema ads. The Music Academy it would seem was not so encouraging of these, but the Indian Fine Arts Society even featured them on its covers. The 1944 number has Susheela Rani posing as Draupadi in the key disrobing scene. That was for Huns Pictures’ Draupadi, directed by Babu Rao Patel, her husband and better known as the editor of Film India. You wonder what kind of a review he would have written about his creation considering that he trashed everyone else’s. 

The Tamil Isai Sangam was more discreet and devoted several inner pages to the latest productions and releases. A cursory glance would reveal that the number of films announced but never made far outnumbered those that finally hit the theatres. What happened for instance to Bhakta Sabari starring Vasanthkokilam? Or Nakkeerar to be shot with Dandapani Desigar in the title role? And was his Sivayogi ever released? The theatres listed are yet another set of lost landmarks – Odeon, New Elphinstone, Plaza, Globe, Rajkumari…

Some ads tell you the story of how corporate India, or at least the South Indian version of it developed. You see Rane Madras selling automobiles and typewriters, TVS primarily into vehicles and spares, and the first corporate entity of what would later become the Murugappa Group, Ajax, selling steel cupboards. A whole lot of others have vanished – Binny, Best & Co, Gordon Woodroffe and Beardsell, leaving Parry as the sole survivor. So have many mills – Pankaja, Vasantha (Managing Agent – RK Shanmukham Chetty – later to become Dewan of Cochin, independent India’s first finance minister and President of the Tamil Isai Sangam) and Madura. 

The sniff of life

The Tamil Isai Sangam souvenirs seem to specialise in lungi ads, only they were all advertised as Palayakat – a word whose origin is now lost in time. Coffee then, as now, was a hot favourite, and then there are entire lists of famed restaurants – Everest Hotel, Sri Rama Bhavan (try our refreshment counter on Beach Station), Ramakrishna Lunch Home, Dasa Prakash and Woodlands. And then there is snuff – all brands advertised as rich in pungency, odour and quality. Inhaling snuff was something musicians themselves were known for – some of the women performers of a very early era were also addicted to it. If snuff has vanished, so have other items – steel trunks and iron safes. Who uses them now? Craze for jewellery however has bucked this trend – you find several ads from names such as Veecumsee, TR Joshi and Vummidi Ramiah Chetty Gurusami Chetty. Now there are others.

A close look at some of the illustrations is revealing – you see the signatures of S Rajam, ‘Oviar’ Sama and Maniam. All famed names, with of course Rajam straddling several fields including music. Going to studios for formal portraits was in vogue then and our musicians were no exception. GK Vale’s regularly features their pictures. MS Subbulakshmi and NC Vasanthakokilam probably were the most frequently published. And then you have the photos of artistes and chief guests – all the men turbaned, suited and booted, with walking sticks. Women seem to have preferred to be photographed in profile. The names are yet another matter altogether – each man had at least three. My favourite? Chinni Yelamantha Chetty Anjaneyulu Chetty – hardware merchant. Try saying that quick enough. And the titles – Mahakathaka Kanteerava Abhinava Bharatacharya Brahmasri Chidambara Bhagavatar of Agara Mangudi was as wide in name as he was in size. We live in tamer times. 

Through all of this, you have the eternals – the immortal ragas and the compositions. You suddenly realise that the bicentenary of Syama Sastri’s death is just five years away. How he, his contemporaries, and the great names before and after him have remained polestars through all this change is amazing. Truly everything else is ephemeral. 

This article appeared in The Hindu dated Friday, December 10, 2021

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One thought on “What #DecemberMusicSeason Souvenirs Say

  1. Carnatic Music remains largely unchanged and seems to have stood the test of time, through the ages, which can never be said of film music, which fades away rather quickly. The advertisements may look completely out of place today from the old souvenirs which serve as a reminder of those times but what comes out is that Carnatic Music remains and strongly.