As much as the promotion of Tamil, this imposing art deco building in Esplanade also exhibits the clout of one Chennai family that is always close to the echelons of power
But the British became omnipotent soon enough, and they had no rivals. The fort had become symbolic and the esplanade redundant. This left large spaces for the High Court, Law College (which still has graves of the Europeans), the bus stand and other government buildings in the area. Even after this, there still was a 23 ground empty area next to the Chamber of Commerce, perhaps waiting for the highest bidder – or the one who could flex his political muscles.
Meanwhile, the classical music field in the forties were in a constant state of feud. The primary proponent, the Music Academy, had just hardened its stand on how a kutchery should be run and what its content should be. The main bone of contention was language of the lyrics.
There was an exodus of many musicians from the academy. Some started sabhas, with people like Satyamurthy, legendary singer MS Subbulakshmi’s husband, even advertising “a new sabha in response to the requests of intelligent people”.
Men like Rajah Annamalai Chettiar, as wealthy as Croesus, took it upon himself to protect the nascent Tamil music movement. The grandson of a banker, he had needled out the title Rajah from the British and used it more often than a real king would have.
Rajaji named the music association controlled by Rajah saheb as the Tamil Isai Sangam, which projected itself as the main rival to the Music Academy from day one. It held programmes on the same days as the academy for eight years at the St Mary’s Hall on Armenian Street and later for a year at the Museum Theatre.
The 23-ground land lying empty in esplanade was leased to the Sangam and Laxman Mahadeo Chitale the architect, soon to build and attain fame with the LIC building, took care of the design of the two-storey structure. The Rajah died before the work was completed. But his son MA Chidambaram would spend an hour daily at the site on the way to work for the entire period of construction. Little wonder then that the auditorium was finished without a hitch.
The war years had witnessed neo Chettinad architecture, much of which was art deco style supported by plenty of concrete with curved staircases, Burma teak wood panelling and mosaic floors. That style was fully adopted in Rajah Annamalai Mandram.
People assumed that the building would be named as Tamil Isai Sangam but there were some who insisted that the late Rajah be remembered. In fact, a pedestal was put up in front of the building though the mammoth statue of his came up only in 1964.
When most sabha programmes were held under thatched roofs in rented spaces in the early fifties, this was the first major sabha to have the festival in its own solid edifice. At the inauguration, Rajaji, never an admirer of Music Academy, joked that rival sabha auditoriums reminded him of Kishkinda (the monkey land).
The auditorium was clearly a structure intended to please the art lover. For the first time in Madras, modern sound systems were introduced, along with acoustic dampeners covering all the walls. The 800 seats, arranged in gently curving rows, each higher than the previous one, ensured that no one missed the view of the stage. This, along with a stage with an area of 48 feet x 35 feet also proved very useful for drama troupes. Ace dramatists TKS Brothers used to comment that this was the best auditorium they had ever performed in.
But time does take its toll. The Rajah Annamalai Mandram was built in the original heart of Carnatic music in Madras – George Town. Almost all musicians worth his name lived there to start with. However, with time, the migration of the music loving crowds to the south of the city had of course shaded the glory of the Mandram.
The writer is a historian and author