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Vol. XXX No. 17, January 1-15, 2021

50 years and still promoting arts – Brahma Gana Sabha

by V. Karpagalakshmi

The Brahma Gana Sabha (BGS) has been promoting classical arts, theatre and also encourages young performers to showcase their talents. Founded by like-minded friends, some of whom were also the original committee members of Narada Gana Sabha, BGS was established in 1969 and turned fifty in 2019. The sabha was inaugurated on 14 April 1969 by Justice K.S. Venkataraman, followed by a vocal concert by Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer. It was launched with Chitra Narayanaswamy as President, N. Sethuraman and M.S. Muthu as Secretaries and M. Krishnamurthy as Treasurer along with Vice-presidents M.V. Murugappan, Moolangudi Jayaraman, Nalli Rangaswami Chetti, Meenakshi Subramaniam, Sudharani Raghupathy, A.L. Lakshmanan and a few others like R.K. Tagat, Pattabhiraman, Kothandaraman, Viswanathan, Kasi Viswanathan and General Stores Sundaram. BGS initially hosted its programmes at the Children’s Club and P.S. High School in Mylapore. Later, it made an arrangement with the Music Academy whereby it conducted its monthly programmes there at a subsidised rent, and in return, agreed to redesign the Academy’s stage suitably for dramas and other big shows. Secretary, M.S. Muthu was instrumental in redesigning the Music Academy’s stage under the guidance and supervision of veteran actor and dramatist, R.S. Manohar.

A concert duirng the Nagaswaram-Tavil series.

In the initial years, Brahma Gana Sabha had 1,300 members which soon grew to 1,600, as a result of which the organisation split the membership into two groups; each programme was conducted twice for two sets of members on two consecutive days. The sabha celebrated its 15-year milestone in 1984 by organising a 15-day programme which was inaugurated by the then Governor of Tamil Nadu, S.L. Khurana.

After the demise of M.S. Muthu in 1989, Sethuraman and Pattabhiraman took over as secretaries. In 1995 after Sethuraman’s demise, his son S. Ravichandran (Ravi), who was earlier a committee member, took charge as secretary along with Pattabhiraman. Due to the advent of other entertainment choices like television and the internet, the membership slowly came down to about 500. In subsequent years, the membership fell drastically, making it difficult for the sabha to survive. In 1998, noted industrialist and art patron, Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, became the president of Brahma Gana Sabha since when he continues to head the governing body.

The Governor of Tamil Nadu, Banwarilal Purohit presenting awards to the artists during one of BGS’ Art Festivals.

Between 2001 and 2003, Sankar, son of Pattabhiraman, also became one of the secretaries, after which N. Balasubramaniam joined Ravi as secretary.

All leading musicians, dancers and drama troupes have performed for Brahma Gana Sabha. It has organised several unique programmes like the duet kutcheri of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavatar and his disciple K.J. Yesudas which was indeed a highlight.

The sabha has also hosted several Hindustani classical concerts by eminent musicians like sitar maestro Ravi Shankar with Alla Rakha, Parveen Sultana among others. Apart from classical programmes, BGS has presented several light music events such as Kishore Kumar Nite, Hemant Kumar Nite, and Usha Uthup’s concert, which were held at the University Centenary Auditorium.

Brahma Gana Sabha received the ‘Best Sabha Award’ from Mylapore Academy in 1994 and again in 2001. The Tamil Nadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram recognised Brahma Gana Sabha as the ‘Best Cultural Organisation’ in 1995.

To increase their visibility and improve membership, Brahma Gana Sabha decided to host the December music season in 2002 as suggested by their president Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti. The first year they held a festival for ten days at the Sivagami Pethachi Auditorium, Luz Church Road, Mylapore, and from the following year, it became the norm for BGS to launch the season at the same venue on 3 December every year and conduct the festival for 30 days. Later, the sabha added a dance series and the number of days increased to 45, which has further swelled with the inclusion of the nagaswaram festival. For a few years, BGS even held its December season concerts at three venues – namely Pethachi, Arkay Convention Centre and P.S. High School. However, in December 2019 it was decided to restrict it to the first two venues as it had become difficult to manage.

At the Golden Jubilee year celebrations – M.Venkiah Naidu, Vice President of India, honouring Malavika Sarukkai as Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti (President), S. Ravichandran and N. Balasubramaniam (Secretaries) and other dignitaries look on.

The secretaries confess that it is because of the munificence of Nalli Chettiar that they are able to conduct the season, as sponsorship in general, has come down significantly.

Over the years, BGS has added to the list of titles conferred by it, which presently includes the titles of Ganapadmam, Natyapadmam, Natakapadmam and Vadypadmam awarded to eminent artists during its December-January music and dance festival.

Talented, young nagaswara and tavil artists are also encouraged during the sabha’s Nagaswaram-Tavil series which takes place soon after the December season. BGS conducted a competition last year which had 130 entrants, and the winners were given a chance to play during the series. There has been a reasonably good response to this from the rasikas.

The dance festival has three different slots – for juniors, seniors and for gurus who run their own schools. BGS has also been inviting dancers from north India to perform at their festivals in collaboration with the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, though at times the expenditure on hospitality for some of the popular dancers becomes unaffordable, even if many of them are cooperative.

At times, BGS ties up with other organisations who feature the same artists, and the expenditure is shared. There are many aspirants these days in the various dance genres and the sabha gets a considerable number of applications from within India and abroad, including for their Adi festival.

While the sabha generally follows a rotation system to feature artists, it is not strictly followed as they believe in encouraging and promoting young talent. With the dwindling audience response for instrumental concerts, the sabha has been forced to cut down on them, though they do get applications from instrumentalists even from outside Chennai.
Brahma Gana Sabha’s golden jubilee celebrations were launched by Vice President of India, Venkaiah Naidu, on December 3, 2018 during the music and dance season in Chennai. The golden jubilee celebrations culminated in 2019 – Courtesy: Sruti.

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