The period of time under question is before the Second World War and of course before India attained independence. These events took place when we, my parents and siblings, were living in Pudukottai which is now a district headquarters in Tamilnadu. But then it was one of the independent states ruled by a king whose name was Rajagopala Thondaiman. There were many independent states in India during this period of time similar to this, and they were all colonies under Great Britain. There was a separate national anthem for this state, which we sang as school children. I still remember the first stanza, learnt when I was a tiny tot. But as far as I can remember, for public functions, it was the British National Anthem that was invariably played and sung. It is only now that I wonder why the British National anthem was also in vogue in that state. Was it the usual protocol or was it that I am remembering the particular period of time when the king, his highness Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman had died, and his son, who like me was only seven or eight years old. A British representative had been invited to rule the state until the boy reached the age to rule the state independently. So it could have been because of that English administrator that the British National Anthem was also used.
The name of the British administrator was Alexander Tottenham. He had been given royal status. His official palace car driver was a member of the local Lutheran Church, and thus well known to us. Because of this, we learnt a lot of information about this English ruler. I had seen Tottenham once when he visited the match manufacturing factory owned by my elder brother G. Asaph. Mr. Tottenham was a tall, hefty man with a grand personality. He had the full status of the colonial king, and perhaps even more, being a Britisher. One of the anecdotes we learnt from this driver—Mr. Sundaram—was that this British administrator loathed noise while he was sleeping in the night, especially that of frogs croaking. During rainy days, this used to be a menace, because the frogs made a lot of noise. It was hell for the poor policemen at that time, because they had to be ready with sticks, nets and all kinds of tools to catch and kill the frogs. It seems he would punish his staff with fines levied to them if he heard the noise of frogs croaking while he was asleep in the night. We found this story quite amusing. I wish a man like Tottenham could become an administrator today in Madurai, the place from which I have come to this wonderful country of New Zealand—serene and green wherever I turn. Madurai perhaps is one of the noisiest cities I have ever lived in. The atmospheric pollution, mosquitoes, and cockroaches were also problems, but may be it cannot be helped in places with tropical climates even if a Tottenham ruled there!
The music scene
I would like to mention the names of some outstanding musicians in Tamil Nadu at that time. I loved music, which became quite an important part of my life. This part of this post may not be of interest to many unless they have some knowledge and interest in Indian music especially of South Indian music. In my case, I was a musician in my limited sphere, vocal and instrumental, and became the church organist in the Tamil Evangelical Lutheran Church at Tiruchi in Tamilnadu, also called Tiruchirapalli, when I was fourteen years old. Later on in life, God gave me some special opportunities to use this gift for His glory. I commenced my musical activities with Indian Carnatic music, but in between switched over to Western classical and church music. Such a background helped me to teach and train singers within the Indian churches wherever I lived.
During the period covered by this write up (1933-35), one of the most popular musicians in Carnatic music was one S. G Kittappa. Gramophone records containing his vocal music were a bestseller in those days. You must remember that in those days there were neither TV nor computers.
K B Sundarambal was another famous lady singer. She was asked to sing a song in memory of Motilal Nehru, the father of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Now, Motilal Nehru is regarded as one of the greatest Indians who lived, nearly on par with his son Jawaharlal Nehru during the 19th to 20th century. He was the first Indian member of the Viceroy’s Council in Calcutta and one of the richest Indians in the world at that time (a Kashmiri Brahmin by caste). His death was considered to have caused a serious vacuum in Indian political life at that time. In Tamilnadu, K B Sundarambal was chosen to render the memorial song in honor of Motilal Nehru. I still remember the first one or two lines of that song “Pandit Motilal Nehru parihodu thomae, parihodu thomae naangal parithovithomae.” The gramophone record of that song was a bestseller at that time.
Shortly after her time, K B Sundarambal was succeeded by M. K. Thiagaraja Bhagavather, another great musician (a vocalist) of tremendous popularity especially in film music. I do not know of anyone with a sweeter and more melodious voice.
Shortly after him, some gigantic musicians arose whose popularity in classical Carnatic music has become history, and they are remembered even to this day. I have listed them below:-
– Musiri Subramania Iyer
– Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar
– Sembai Vaidyanatha Iyer, whose student was the famous Jesudoss
– M. S. Subalakshmi
– Madurai Mani Ayyar
– Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu (who became the head of the Department of Music, Madras University)
– Mysore Chowdiah (in whose memory a huge public hall was built in Bangalore. World-famous musical performances are held in this hall now. I have been to this hall twice during the time I lived in Bangalore. He was the only violinist known in India who used a special violin, an instrument of his own innovation with double strings.
– T. N. Rajaratnam Pillai (I have read in an article that no one has supplanted him in the musical rendering he had set up.)
– Tirukokarnam Dakhinamoorthy for Kanjira and Mridangam
– Palghat Mani Iyer for Mridangam
M.S. Subalakshmi sings at my brother’s wedding
She was honored by the Government of India with the highest award, the Bharat Ratna, which only two Tamilians have ever received—M. G. Ramachandran and M S Subalakshmi; may be Kamaraj Nadar also, I am not too sure of it. This M. S. Subalakshmi, when she was just emerging as a vocalist, was not so well known. I was seven years old when I saw her during a performance. Actually, she performed at the wedding of my eldest brother G. M. Martin. His wedding was celebrated in a grand scale because his father-in-law, Felix Pillai—he was also my maternal uncle—was an influential government official in those days in Madurai. He celebrated the wedding of his daughter, the first marriage in his family very elaborately, spending a considerable amount of money. He was affluent enough to engage M. S. Subalakshmi on that occasion. Besides that, she would not have been so expensive at that time because she was not well-known yet, but just a budding artist. Being only a seven-year-old boy, I was not too interested in her nor in her performance. Had I known that she was going to be an internationally famous vocalist at that time, I would have occupied a seat very near her. After all it was my own brother’s wedding and no one would have objected to me taking even the nearest seat possible at that time! However what I still remember vividly was her scintillating diamond nose ring, which reflected the electric lights every time she turned her head. When she became famous later, people found it hard to believe me when I said that she was the artist who performed during my brother’s wedding.
How I came to be introduced to Dwaram Venkataswamy Naidu‘s music
He was a child prodigy, born in a town called Dwaram in Andhra Pradesh. He was blind from his childhood but showed unprecedented skill in violin. Though he was not very educated, he emerged as a genius in violin. He was made the head of the Department of Music in Madras University. A few of his renderings are with me now in the form of audio cassette tape which I still hear occasionally and enjoy. When I was twenty years of age, at a time when I had no knowledge of him, I was returning home one night from somewhere. From the radio of some wayside teashop, I heard some violin music. Because I was musically inclined, I could perceive that I was listening to an artist of extraordinary nature. I stopped to listen for a while. Later on, when I mentioned it casually to a friend, he informed me that it was the performance of Venkataswamy Naidu and added that if he had known that I was interested, he would have invited me to his house and we could have listened to the radio in comfort. That was the first time I heard the name of this violinist.
All the musicians on my list were performing in musical concerts all over India. But I did not have the chance of attending any of them. First of all, I was young and dependent and could not afford to spend money for such luxuries. Secondly, no one in our family had the inclination or means. I can only remember two people who attended such concerts. One was Hilda’s paternal aunt who we called Paapakka, who attended these concerts for her husband James Pillai’s sake, although she was herself as musically ignorant as a cat. The other person was my eldest brother G.M. Martin, who was newly married in an affluent family. To attend such concerts was a status symbol in those days, but my brother was quite musical and I am sure he would have enjoyed the concerts very much. I used to be greatly thrilled, just to listen to the experiences of those who went to these concerts.
(Penned by GB in Auckland in 2013)