Until the 1940s, Tamil was not considered to be as musical as Telugu and many Carnatic musicians felt that the language – with its words ending in consonants like ‘Ik’, ‘ip’, ‘ich’ – was not suitable for music.

Tamil Isai Sangam or Raja Annamalai Mandram located in Chennai's EsplanadeTamil Isai Sangam/ Facebook
Features Music Monday, December 20, 2021 - 13:21

On a bright and humid Chennai afternoon, around 50 people followed city historian V Sriram as he took them around the Raja Annamalai Mandram on a heritage walk. Over the course of three hours, Sriram walked them through the regal structure that was built in the early 1950s as a venue for Tamil Carnatic music performances. At Raja Annamalai Mandram, the home of the Tamil Isai Sangam (an association to promote music in Tamil), one can view musical instruments and other possessions of famous singers from a bygone era and walk through an extensive library. The entire structure is a fine blend of art deco and traditional Chettinad styles of architecture. But most importantly, the history of the Tamil Isai movement – which in the 1940s propagated Tamil songs at a time when the language was considered unsuitable for Carnatic music – can be seen here.  

It might seem strange that the state needed a movement to promote Tamil as a musical language. After all, Tamil Nadu has produced legendary poets like Thiruvalluvar, Ilango Adigal and Subramania Bharati, among others. It has fiercely opposed Hindi imposition Bills, and the preservation of Tamil language, literature and identity has been central to its political ideologies as well as ethos. 

Listening to devotional songs like Thevaram, Nalayira Divya Prabandham and renditions of Bharathiyar’s poems, one would think it was safe to say that Tamil language and literature has always been a cardinal part of Carnatic music. But during the heritage walk at Raja Annamalai Mandram, V Sriram explains how this wasn’t always the case. Before the early 1940s, Tamil was not considered to be as musical a language as its counterparts – namely, Telugu, Sanskrit and Kannada. 

Not considered musical enough

Before the Tamil Isai movement started, many Carnatic musicians and audiences alike, felt that the language – with its words ending in consonants like ‘Ik’, ‘ip’, ‘ich’ – was not suitable for music. Tamil songs were rarely performed at concerts. Even in Carnatic music compilations, Sriram points out that the Tamil songs were found towards the end of books like Sangeetha Parijaatam and Gayaka Lochanam, under a section titled ‘chillarai’, which translates to loose change, or ‘Tukkada’, meaning miscellaneous, minor or insignificant parts.  

This was done, according to Sriram, to make sure Telugu, which is believed to be the first language in which Carnatic songs were penned and performed, maintained its position. In the 15th century, Krishnadevaraya of the Vijayanagara empire was a patron of Telugu songs. Subsequently, independent rulers who took over the erstwhile Vijayanagara empire, such as the Nayaks of Madurai, Tanjore and Gingee, also promoted singing in Telugu over other languages when it came to Carnatic music. In addition, Krithis by the revered trinity of Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri dating back to the 18th century, were predominantly in Telugu and sometimes in Sanskrit. Despite the fact that Tamil music has been discussed at length in the Tamil epic Silappadikaram which is believed to be written between the 3rd and 6th centuries, the language couldn’t find its place in the world of Carnatic music.  

How the Tamil Isai movement started

The inception of the Tamil Isai movement was in 1939 after anti-Hindi imposition agitations were organised by the Justice Party (an organisation that was seen as the start of the Dravidian Movement) opposing the 1937 government order (GO) issued by the newly- elected Indian National government in Madras Presidency headed by C Rajagopalachari. This order mandated that Hindi be compulsorily taught at all schools within the Madras Presidency. It was against this backdrop that Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, a well-known industrialist and philanthropist in Tamil Nadu at the time, spearheaded the Tamil Isai movement – to promote Tamil in Carnatic music. 

In the following years, he not only convened the first Tamil Isai conference in Chidambaram but also donated the seed money to organise similar conferences across big towns like Karaikudi and Madurai in the then Madras Presidency to spread the word about the movement. Annamalai Chettiar’s move to dedicate the music department of Annamalai University – the first private university in India that was founded by him –  for the propagation of Tamil compositions and only include books on Tamil composers, was considered to be a turning point by many.  

News about formation of Tamil Isai Sangam published on April 21, 1943 by The Indian Express's Madras edition.
Source: Google News Archive

Annamalai Chettiar stated in the inaugural Tamil Isai conference in 1941 at Annamalai University that music performances should begin and end with Tamil songs and that a significant chunk of the concert needed to be in Tamil, according to a research paper titled ‘Tamil Isai as a Challenge to Brahmanical Music Culture in South India’ by Yoshitaka Terada, an academic and professor at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. 

Annamalai Chettiar’s insistence was soon passed as a resolution, courting controversy. The resolution reportedly sent shockwaves through the Carnatic music fraternity.  

Sriram recounts that as one expected, the push for Tamil music did not go down well with the sabhas and Carnatic musicians of the time, who were afraid that this would stop the legacy of Telugu compositions from being furthered. Sabhas like the Music Academy and the South Indian Fine Arts association opposed the Tamil Isai movement, thus dividing the Carnatic music fraternity on the issue.  

While TT Krishnamachari and TL Venkatarama Iyer extended their support to the Music Academy, Kalki Krishnamurthy wrote columns in newspapers supporting the movement. There was also a section of artistes like Musiri Subramania Iyer and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, who were on the fence. However, the contributions made by women singers like KB Sundarambal, NC Vasanthakokilam, MS Subbulakshmi and DK Pattammal were instrumental in propagating the Tamil Isai movement. 

Delving deeper into the criticism from Music Academy and musicians associated with sabhas, Yoshitaka writes in his paper that the arguments against the Tamil Isai movement were centered around preserving the "standards of classical music" and not letting consideration of any language impair the set standard. They also felt that by setting a ratio of Tamil songs versus songs in other languages sung at concerts, the essence and importance of "worthy" or "ancient" compositions in Telugu and Sanskrit would be lost with time. 

The caste dynamics that were at play and its influence on musicians who supported the Music Academy and other sabhas, could not be ignored either. Yoshitaka Terada writes in his paper published in Senri Ethnological Studies journal that many supporters of Tamil Isai questioned the Brahmanical domination in the Carnatic world. Organisations like Makkal Kalai Illakiya Kalaham and Tandai Periyār Tamil Isai Manram who were supporters of the Tamil Isai movement, in fact, expressed that the Tamil Isai Sangam was not doing enough to question the status quo nor speaking up against the discrimination non-Brahmin artistes faced.  

Slogans written by Makkal Kalai Illakiya Kalaham on a wall near Tiruvaiyaru which reads 'Demand a public apology
rom the Tyagaraja festival committee which disgraced Tamil Isai artist Dandapani Desikar for singing in Tamil.
Source: Yoshitaka Terada's research 

Slogans written by Makkal Kalai Illakiya Kalaham on a wall near Tiruvaiyaru which reads 'Karnataka music is
stolen music. Sing in Tamil or we will make you sing (in Tamil)'. 
Source: Yoshitaka Terada's research paper

The first Tamil Isai concert, which included a performance by singer MS Subbulakshmi, was held in 1943 and garnered overwhelmingly positive responses from audiences. Speaking to Times of India in 2016, Ramnarayan, who provided vocal support to MS Subbulakshmi for 16 years, said, “MS amma was one of the strongest voices of the movement. The otherwise shy and unassuming artist took a stance opposing the views of her own gurus and seniors.” 

Photograph of singer MS Subbulakshmi's performance in Tamil Isai Sangam. Source: Tamil Isai Sangam 

Watch Performance by late Carnatic singer MS Subbulakshmi at Tamil Isai Sangam in December 1968: 

In 1949, work began on the Raja Annamalai Mandram that would become home to the Tamil Isai Sangam. By that time Raja Annamalai Chettiar had died, but his sons Raja Sir MA Muthiah Chettiar and MA Chidambaram continued his work. In 1952, the 20,000 sq feet auditorium was completed at the corner of Chennai’s Esplanade in time for the Carnatic music season. Over the years, apart from conducting monthly and yearly concerts in Tamil, the foundation went on to support the Tamil Isai Sangam college and started a museum for musical instruments. The Isai Perarignar title has also been conferred upon artistes on behalf of the Tamil Isai Sangam since 1957. It has also been supported by prominent Carnatic vocalists as well as popular personalities like former Indian president APJ Abdul Kalam, who sang a Tamil composition at the 60th music festival of the Tamil Isai Sangam.  

First edition of heritage walk 

The turnout for the first edition of V Sriram’s heritage walk saw history enthusiasts, students and practitioners of Carnatic music, and fans of Tamil literature and language in attendance. Speaking to TNM about the significance of the Tamil Isai movement in today’s world, Sriram says, “This is a state where we have a lot of language pride. We talk about being Tamil and giving importance to our mother tongue. But people are not aware about what happened as recently as 90 years ago when Tamil was not considered to be a musical language.”  

Although the idea of organising a heritage walk was in the works for over two years, the pandemic disrupted these plans. Now that it has seen the light of the day, Seetha Chidambaram, who was part of the walk and the granddaughter of Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, shares that she was pleasantly surprised by the turnout and would like to see similar events in the future. “Dr. AC Muthiah’s daughter Valli Arun, a trustee at the Tamil Isai Sangam and Mr Sriram have been planning the heritage walk for a few months now. I hope events like these help in putting the word out about the need to promote Tamil Isai," she said. 

Heritage walk of Tamil Isai Sangam featuring historian V Sriram along with attendees.
Credit: Photographer William Satish

Many participants were impressed by how factual and research-driven the presentation was. Kavya Bharat, 25, who has learned Carnatic music, tells TNM that she would like more of these heritage tours organised to promote the rich tradition of Tamil music. She also notes that the heritage tour could be conducted in Tamil as well. Kavya says, “I had attended a concert earlier in Raja Annamalai Mandram and was impressed with the hall. When I came across the event, I jumped at the opportunity to learn more about its history.” 

This is just the start, says Seetha. She says that Tamil songs are still considered to be inferior by a set of Carnatic vocalists and musicians but hopes that changes with time. “We still find singers who are fine with singing Telugu songs without understanding its meaning but are reluctant to learn and sing compositions in their mother tongue, Tamil,” she says. Nevertheless, Seetha is optimistic that the efforts made towards creating awareness about the Tamil Isai movement will change people’s perceptions. 

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