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Mother of all Music Conferences

SRIRAM VENKATKRISHNAN

CONFERENCE Abraham Pandithar, a doctor by profession, was the prime force behind the establishment of a sangam to debate issues relating to Carnatic music.


A look at historic events in the world of Carnatic Music as reported in The Hindu.



DISTINGUISHED ASSEMBLY: Musicians and Members of the Sabha of the Sabha who were present at the second conference on August 31, 1912.

The offices of The Hindu, the Swadesamitran and a Madurai based paper, Sentamil, received an article on Indian Music on the same day in 1911.

Written by a well-known doctor of Thanjavur, Abraham Pandithar, it raised ten questions on music and invited responses. What is the origin of the sapta swaras? Is it true that there are 22 srutis in an Octave? If musicians of old, as legend has it, could sing a raga for days on end, why do modern musicians not sing them for more than two hours? All these and more were asked and received no response.

Born on August 2, 1859, at Sambavar Vadakarai near Tenkasi to Muthuswami Nadar and Annammal, Pandithar was educated in Surandai in Tirunelveli and later qualified as a teacher at the CVES Normal Teachers Training School at Dindigul. However, coming from a family that boasted of several practitioners in native Indian medicine, it was that field which attracted him and in 1879 he went to the Surli Hills near Madurai to study herbs. Here, he came into contact with a Karunanda Rishi who initiated him into Indian medicine, besides giving him recipes to produce several remedies. Returning to the plains, Pandithar married Gnanavadivu Ponnammal and the two were employed at the Lady Napier Girls School in Thanjavur as Tamil Pandit and Head Mistress respectively. Their methods of teaching won them acclaim. In 1890, the couple quit their posts, in order that Pandithar take up research in Indian medicine. Purchasing a large tract of land outside Thanjavur, Pandithar converted it into a farm for growing medicinal plants.

Named by him as Karunanandapuram, it was referred to as Pandithar Thottam by the locals. At his residence in the city of Thanjavur, Pandithar opened the Karunanidhi Medical Hall to which patients flocked. His Gorosanai pills in particular, became extremely well known not only in India, but also in the then Ceylon, Burma and the Strait Settlements. The Governor of Madras, Sir Arthur Lawley and his wife, called on Pandithar on February 22, 1908 and praised his work. In 1909, the Government awarded him the title of Rao Saheb. Pandithar built a large community hall in commemoration of the Governor's visit and named it as the Lawley Hall. In 1911, Ponnammal passed away and a few months later, Pandithar married Bhagyammal.

The other passion

Music was the other passion of Pandithar, having learnt it from Dindigul Sadayandi Bhattar. Several musicians of south India were his friends and during his conversations with them he realised that while there was a considerable number of theories on srutis, swaras and their positions, none were easily accepted. `How could a science without precision in its fundamental ideas and a house without a foundation ever hope to stand?' asked Pandithar. In 1912, the then Governor of Madras, Lord Carmichael visited Tanjore and a reception was organised for which several prominent musicians of Madras Presidency, such as Konerirajapuram Vaidyanatha Iyer, Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer and Harikesanallur Muthaiah Bhagavatar were present. Pandithar placed his views before them and it was resolved that a musical Sangam was necessary to debate these issues. The Setupati of Ramnad agreed to be the patron. The Sangam had several objectives which included

— Making a study of such data as would tend to the development of south Indian music and to publish them.

To establish an Academy for the systematic teaching of South Indian music and its fundamental rules.

To arrange for examining of its pupils and others desirous of being examined and give them certificates.

— To deliberate upon and remove the doubts about some of the important items of Carnatic music.

— To reward distinguished vidwans by means of medals and honorific titles.

The Sangam met six times between May 27, 1912 and October 24, 1914 at the Karunanidhi Medical Hall. Sir V. P. Madhava Rao, the Tanjorean Dewan of Baroda, came to know of the Sangam and inspired by it, organised an All India Music Conference in 1916 at Baroda with the Maharajah, Sayaji Rao Gaekwad inaugurating it. Pandithar was an honoured invitee and his daughter Maragathavalliammal gave a demonstration of Notation in Indian Music, while Pandithar read a paper on Sruti. Returning to Tanjore, Pandithar imported and set up an electric press at the Lawley Hall, documented the proceedings of his Sangams and published them in two volumes, in English and Tamil, titled Karunamirtha Sagaram. These are used as reference works even today by students of musicology and music history.

Pandithar passed away on August 31, 1919, and was buried in the Thottam where he did his research. Today, the Lawley Hall, the Pandithar Thottam and the Karunanidhi Medical Hall, all of which are heritage landmarks in Carnatic music are well preserved by the Pandithar family.

The road leading to his house is named after him. Perhaps the greater tributes are the various conferences and research works in Carnatic music that followed his pioneering contributions.

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