Memories of the Season – The Hindu

Scrolling through back issues of music season memorabilia, one finds musicians endorsing brands, movie and restaurant ads, eye-catching illustrations and studio portraits.

The concept of the December Music Season Remembrance was probably initiated by KV Krishnaswami Iyer, a prominent lawyer, who introduced it every year after he took over as President of the Academy of Music in 1935. Through these publications, the Academy of Music has an annual festival record. The Indian Fine Arts Society, which came into existence in 1932, followed suit but, unfortunately, this sabha did not maintain its archives and only a handful of its memorabilia survived. The Tamil Isai Sangam has a full set, starting with the first annual festival it held in 1943.

Today’s memorabilia is pretty dull business – endless pages of “with the best of compliments”, a few articles, and then song lists for concerts of the year, shared by the artists who care. But at least until the 1960s, such well-produced publications were a record of the time. They also achieved good aesthetic results, with illustrations, halftone images and black and white photographs. Despite poor quality paper and not so sophisticated printing technology, their content was still interesting.

While Musiri Subramania Iyer endorsed the effectiveness of Kesavardhini hair oil for the hair of women in his family in an advertisement, Chittoor Subramania Pillai paid glowing tributes to a doctor whose patent medicine cured him of inflamed tonsils. But all this is nothing compared to the hymn which TRK Rao of Car Street, Triplicane, composed in praise of Dr. Naru, sexologist, of Naru Hospital, 24, Broadway, Madras. A few lines are enough to give you a general idea: “I was a perpetual nuisance to my wife who simply couldn’t bear to see me as someone like her husband. Today, the regeneration you have wrought forces my very wife to magically embrace the dust I tread under my feet. The new strength your treatment has instilled…” Presumably, Mr. and Mrs. Rao lived happily ever after.

MS, GNB and the gramaphone

Next are the gramophone advertisements – the most popular names being MS Subbulakshmi (of course), MM Dandapani Desigar, NC Vasanthakokilam, Chembai and GNB. Cinema advertisements are also interesting. The Academy of Music, it seems, was not so encouraging of them, but the Indian Society of Fine Arts even featured them on its covers. The 1944 issue has Susheela Rani impersonating Draupadi in the key undressing scene. It was for Huns Pictures’ Draupadi, directed by Rani’s husband, Babu Rao Patel, best known as the editor of Film India. You wonder what kind of review he would have written for his movie considering he trashed all the others.

The Tamil Isai Sangam has been more discreet, devoting several interior pages to the latest cinematic releases. A quick glance would reveal that the number of films announced but never made far exceeded those that eventually hit theaters. What happened, for example, to Bhakta Sabari with Vasanthakokilam? Or Nakkeerar be filmed with Dandapani Desigar in the title role? And was his Sivayogi already out? Listed theaters are yet another set of lost monuments – Odeon, New Elphinstone, Plaza, Globe, Rajkumari…

Some ads tell you the story of the evolution of Indian companies, or at least their South Indian version. You see Rane Madras selling automobiles and typewriters, TVS mainly specializing in vehicles and spare parts, and the first corporate body of what later became the Murugappa Group, Ajax, selling steel cabinets. Many other stars then disappeared today – Binny, Best & Co, Gordon Woodroffe and Beardsell, leaving Parry the sole survivor. The same goes for many factories whose advertisements fill the memories – Pankaja, Vasantha (managing agent RK Shanmukham Chetty, who later became Dewan of Cochin, independent India’s first finance minister and president of Tamil Isai Sangam ) and Madura.

Tamil Isai Sangam souvenirs seem to specialize in lungi ads, only they were all advertised as palayakat, a word whose origin is now lost to time. Coffee was then, as now, a big favourite. Followed by whole lists of famous restaurants – Everest Hotel, Sri Rama Bhavan (“Try our refreshment counter on Beach Station”), Ramakrishna Lunch Home, Dasa Prakash and Woodlands. And then there’s snuff – all the brands advertised as rich in pungency, smell and quality. Inhaling snuff was something musicians themselves were known for – even female performers of an earlier era were addicted to it. If snuff is gone, so are steel chests and iron safes. Who uses them now? The jewelry craze, however, continued – you find several listings of names such as Veecumsee, TR Joshi and Vummidi Ramiah Chetty Gurusami Chetty, now replaced by others.

Close examination of some of the illustrations reveals the signatures of S. Rajam, ‘Oviar’ Sama and Maniam. All famous names, with Rajam of course straddling several areas, including music. Going to studios for formal portraits was in vogue then, and musicians were no exception. GK Vale’s regularly features its photographs of musical celebrities. MS Subbulakshmi and NC Vasanthakokilam were probably the most frequently published. And then there are the photos of artists and main guests – all the men in turbans, dressed and booted, with walking sticks. The women seem to have preferred to be photographed in profile. Names are yet another matter – every man has at least three. My favorite is Chinni Hardware Merchant Yelamantha Chetty Anjaneyulu Chetty – try to say it quickly. And the titles – Mahakathaka Kanteerava Abhinava Bharatacharya Brahmasri Chidambara Bhagavatar of Agara Mangudi had a name as large as his height. We live in milder times.

Through it all, you have the Eternals – immortal ragas and compositions. You suddenly realize that the bicentenary of Syama Sastri’s death is only five years away. The way he, his contemporaries and the big names before and after him have remained polar stars through all this change is amazing. Really, everything else is fleeting.

The Chennai-based historian writes about music and culture.