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Vol. XXIX No. 15, November 16-30, 2019

Chennai’s oldest sabha still going strong

by Charukesi

A curtain-raiser for the December Music Festival 2019.

Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha of Triplicane is the oldest sabha in Chennai. The records of the sabha reveal that it was launched in 1896 by Manni Tirumalachariar, a prominent resident of Triplicane, to foster the performing arts. It was then known as the Sangita Vidwat Sabhai. When the organisation was officially registered in 1900, the organisers sought the blessings of Sri Parthasarathy Swami – the presiding deity of the temple inTiruvallikeni and hence the sabha was named after the Lord. It is said that this was the first sabha where the public came forward and participated in its activities. The Parthasarathy Swami Sabha has played host to several music legends in its nearly 120 year-old history.

From 1900 to 1905, performances were conducted at the residence of Tirumalachariar who had also lent his hand in launching The Hindu. In the 1930s, GNB’s father G.V. Narayanaswamy Iyer took over as secretary of the sabha. “In the initial stages, retired diwans from the Mysore and Travancore durbars, High Court judges and members of the Madras Presidency were part of the executive committee. Former Chief Ministers M.G. Ramachandran and J. Jayalalitha have also been members of our sabha,” says M. Krishnamurthy, the current secretary of the sabha.
“We are proud that over five generations of musicians, dancers and dramatists have contributed to the growth of our sabha. Believe me, even in 1939, during World War II, our sabha had regular programmes for our members!” Krishnamurthy recalls with nostalgia how the grand old man of Camatic music, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, gave a two-and-a-half hour concert during the centenary celebrations.

Harikatha was very popular at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, dating back to almost a hundred years, drawing large crowds. In 1905, Prof. (Rau Bahadur) M. Rangachari presented a discourse on the Bhagavad Gita and the entire lecture series was published in three volumes. A significant event in the history of the sabha was a lecture in 1906 by noted scholar Pandit Madan Mohan Malaviya.

Krishna Bhagavatar, Panchapakesa Sastrigal, Mangudi Chidambara Bhagavatar and Gayaka Sikhamani Muthiah Bhagavatar were some of the prominent artists who delivered discourses here besides music concerts by well known vidwans. Srirangam Satagopachariar, Karappanangadu Venkatachariar, Embar Vijayaraghavachariar and Sengalipuram Anantharama Dikshitar were notable pravachana-kartas who drew big crowds.

“I can give a list of stalwarts of those days, like Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Poochi Srinivasa Iyengar, Bidaram Krishnappa, Tiger Varadachariar, Ariyakudi, Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer, Musiri, Chembai, Sarabha Sastrigal, Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer, Govindasamy Pillai, Kanu Chinnasamy Iyer, Azhaganambia Pillai, Dakshinamurthy Pillai, Gottuvadyam Sakharama Rao, Veena Seshanna, Rajamanickam Pillai, Mysore Chowdiah, T. N. Rajaratnam Pillai, who have performed for us. Ariyakudi performed more than a hundred kutcheris in our sabha!” says a proud Krishnamurthy.

Top Hindustani music maestros like Ravi Shankar, Omkarnath Thakur and Bismillah Khan deemed it an honour to perform at Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha. In 1950, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer once said, ‘”Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha continues to grow as a premier sabha. Hence, it has all the support for continuing and maintaining the growth, except financial resources.”

The main objective of the sabha was to promote music, dance and drama. It was fortunate to have the invaluable support of artists like M.S. Subbulakshmi, Vyjayantimala Bali, Hemamalini and the Travancore Sisters Lalita Padmini-Ragini in garnering resources for the sabha.

To quote C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji) in 1955: “Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha has been one of the pioneers of the renaissance of Camatic music and Bharata sastra in south India and during its long continuous career of usefulness, it has taken every opportunity to cultivate sound taste and to encourage worthy exponents of the musical and dramatic arts.”

The Tyagaraja aradhana, the Purandaradasa music festival and Annamacharya festival have become regular features. The sabha has been paying musical homage to Muthuswami Dikshitar at Ettayapuram every year on his anniversary, inviting musicians to participate in the tribute. Apart from presenting lecture demonstrations to highlight the salient points of Camatic music, the sabha has also been running a music school.

The sabha confers three awards every year – Sangeetha Kalasarathy on a musician, Natya Kalasarathy on a dancer and Nataka Kalasarathy on a dramatist. It presents awards to talented young vocalists, violinists, and mridangists based on their performance during the December music festival. The sabha also honours artists with the Palghat Mani Iyer Centenary Award instituted by Nithyashree Mahadevan and the M.L. Vasanthakumari Award by Sudha Ragunathan.
The activities of the sabha are planned and conducted by an eminent and enterprising team led by Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti (president), with Mohan Parasaran, P. Vijaykumar Reddy, Dr. Jaya Arunachalam, M. Balasubramaniam (vice presidents), R. Vijayaraghavan, M. Krishnamurthy (secretaries) and M.P. Varadan (treasurer).

Nalli, president of the sabha, says that Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha is probably the oldest sabha in south-east Asia. “I was invited to be its president succeeding Prof. K.A. Manavalan. Both of us had the pleasure of conducting many events including Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer’s concert when be was 92. It was a memorable performance. Those days the Sabha used to conduct its events in February.”

He recalls an interesting incident. Many years ago, before the music season, the Times of India had mentioned that thirty sabhas would participate in the annual December festival. Nalli was shocked to find Parthasarathy Swami Sabha missing from the list; the reason was the non-availability of a proper venue to conduct the annual festival. It was at this juncture that Jaya Arunachalam, noted social worker and vice president of the sabha, came forward to offer Vidya Bharathi Kalyana Mandapam as a venue for the season concerts which are now held here year after year.
It is remarkable that a sabha founded in the 19th Century continued to thrive in the 20th and is still going strong in the 21st Century. – (Courtesy: Sruti.)

Ariyakudi Ramanuja IyengarAriyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar at the 50th year celebrations.

C.P. Ramaswamy IyengarC.P. Ramaswamy Iyer speaking on the occasion of M.S. Subbulakshmi’s concert (1960).

M.L. VasanthakumariM.L. Vasanthakumari in concert with Krishnamurthy Rao (mridangam), G. Harishankar (khanjira) and A. Kanyakumari (violin) in 1980.

Nalli Kuppuswami ChettiNalli Kuppuswami Chetti, R.K. Srikantan, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman and Nithyashree Mahadevan at the Sabha’s musical festival.


  1. kadambi seshasayee says:

    good to know the history of the Sabha. I have been attending their concerts at the current venue. But the experience can be far better. Time there was a big effort made to get a much better venue .

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