In 1943, Tamil was good to speak in but not to sing? Ironically a bias had crept into a system brought on to break biases.
The Carnatic music Sabhas that had sprung to be the patrons of regional music- a post hitherto held by the zamindars soon fell a trap to their own pomposity.
In the 1930s and 1940s, Carnatic music concerts consisted mainly of Telugu and Sanskrit compositions with no Tamil song heard in the first half of a concert. In the post-tani tukkada segment, a Devaram or a Tiruppugazh might make a reluctant appearance, quickly smothered by Telugu compositions.
It was often sniggered that Tamil was a non-musical language with hardly any songs. Ironically those who fought tooth and nail for the retention of other language songs perhaps could not even converse in Telugu or understand Sanskrit.
“We want more Tamil in Carnatic Kutcheris,” the pro-Tamil protesters announced insisting that audience pleasure could be realised only when the sahitya was in their mother tongue. Their opponents from the Music academy retorted that Telugu and Sanskrit alone were concert worthy.
Facing stiff resistance, protagonists of the Tamil Isai movement realized a need to establish an organization of their own. In June 1943, Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar founded Tamil Isai Sangam (a name chosen by Rajaji) and in December the Sangam dared to hold a music conference parallel to those of the Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society. In its performers list were artists who were more popular than the mainstream singers because of their movie connections.
MS Subbulakshmi, MK Thyagaraja Bagavathar, K.B.Sundarambal, GN. Balasubramaniam and Madurai Mani Iyer sang for the Sangam causing much resentment at the older Sabhas. Many of these artists were ignored thereafter by the Music Academy.
Other than the aggressive support of Annamalai Chettiar, it was MS and Kalki who supported Tamil Isai right from its dawn, fortifying the movement and prevented it from collapsing prematurely. In addition Kalki’s Carnatic songs in Tamil movies sung by MS (as in Meera) were heard by millions, numbers other Carnatic musicians could never even dream of.
Funnily enough, in espousing the Tamil Isai, Sadasivam, Kalki and MS found themselves in an unexpected political and caste dilemma. The anti Bramhanical pro British justice party bedfellows they found themselves with didn’t seem to embarrass them though. Ms found herself in the midst of an aggressive, no-holds-barred, controversy. She was banned by the Madras Music Academy for five years (the reason- singing Tamil songs in the first section of a concert).
Castes really didn’t matter any longer. Bramhin Papanasam Sivan, who was making a name for himself in the world of films and Dandapani Desigar from a family of Oduvars shot to the forefront.
The Music Academy and the Indian Fine Arts Society became the rallying points for those opposed to this agenda of ‘Tamilisation’. The Academy opposed the movement tooth and nail, even passing resolutions to stop the new disease – “Tamil vyadhi”. Bitter battles were fought in the press with letters appearing in The Hindu, Ananda Vikadan and the newly founded Kalki Magazine.
However, during the early days of the movement, the real challenge was the absence of a large repertoire of Tamil songs with authentic notations. The works of early composers largely survived as lyrics without tuning. The movement had to develop a brand new repertoire of compositions. But hundreds of musicians rose to the occasion and spent years in searching and fine-tuning a wide range of concert-worthy compositions. The works of Bharathi, already popular in the on-going freedom struggle began to be frequently sung in concerts. In addition, songs of the Azhwars and Nayanmars and savant Ramalinga Swamigal were set to tune.
The Sangam functioned from a rented place on Armenian Street before moving to a gorgeous structure in the Esplanade area in the 1950s.
Fronting it is a huge statue of its founder Annamalai Chettiar (how it forced the statue of a ‘real king’ to shift places is another story)
But with time angers were assuaged on both sides and each came to respect the sentimentalities of the other.
After years in exile, MS returned to the Music Academy which increased the Tamil songs in its concerts.