Flipping through past issues of music season souvenirs, one finds musicians endorsing brands, ads for films and restaurants, catchy illustrations and studio portraits

The concept of the December Music Season souvenir was most probably pioneered by K.V. Krishnaswami Iyer, leading lawyer, who brought it out every year after taking over as the president of The Music Academy in 1935. Thanks to these publications, the Music Academy has a continuous record of the annual festival. The Indian Fine Arts Society, which came into existence in 1932, followed suit but, sadly, this sabha has not maintained its archives, and just a handful of its souvenirs survive. The Tamil Isai Sangam has a full set, beginning from the first annual festival it held in 1943.

Today’s souvenirs are rather drab affairs — endless pages of ‘with best compliments’, a couple of articles, then lists of songs for the year’s concerts, shared by those artistes who care to do so. But at least until the 1960s, these well-produced publications were a record of the times. They scored high in aesthetics too, with illustrations, half-tone block images and black-and-white photographs. Despite poor-quality paper and not-so-sophisticated printing technology, their content was always interesting.

If Musiri Subramania Iyer endorsed the efficacy of Kesavardhini hair oil for the tresses of the women in his family in one ad, Chittoor Subramania Pillai paid glowing tributes to a doctor whose patent medicine cured him of inflamed tonsils. But all of this is nothing compared to the paean that TRK Rao of Car Street, Triplicane, composed in praise of Dr. Naru, sexologist, of Naru Hospital, 24, Broadway, Madras. Just a few lines will give you a broad idea — “I was a perpetual nuisance to my wife who just could not bear to see in me someone as her husband. Today the regeneration brought about by you compels the same wife of mine as though through magic to kiss the dust that I tread beneath my feet. The new strength that your treatment has infused…” Presumably, Mr. and Mrs. Rao lived happily ever after.

MS, GNB and the gramaphone

The gramophone ads are next — the top-of-line names being M.S. Subbulakshmi (of course), M. M. Dandapani Desigar, N.C. Vasanthakokilam, Chembai, and GNB. Also of interest are the cinema ads. The Music Academy, it would seem, was not so encouraging of these, but the Indian Fine Arts Society even featured them on its covers. The 1944 number has Susheela Rani posing as Draupadi in the key disrobing scene. That was for Huns Pictures’ Draupadi, directed by Rani’s husband Babu Rao Patel, better known as the editor of Film India. You wonder what kind of a review he would have written for his film considering that he trashed everyone else’s.

The Tamil Isai Sangam was more discreet, devoting several inner pages alone to the latest film releases. A cursory glance would reveal that the number of films announced but never made far outnumbered those that finally hit the theatres. What happened, for instance, to Bhakta Sabari starring Vasanthakokilam? Or Nakkeerar to be shot with Dandapani Desigar in the title role? And was his Sivayogi ever released? The theatres listed are yet another set of lost landmarks — Odeon, New Elphinstone, Plaza, Globe, Rajkumari…

Some ads tell you the story of how corporate India, or at least the South Indian version of it developed. You see Rane Madras selling automobiles and typewriters, TVS is primarily into vehicles and spares, and the first corporate entity of what would later become the Murugappa Group, Ajax, selling steel cupboards. A whole lot of others featured then have vanished today — Binny, Best & Co, Gordon Woodroffe and Beardsell, leaving Parry the sole survivor. So have many mills whose ads fill the souvenirs — Pankaja, Vasantha (managing agent R.K. Shanmukham Chetty, later to become Dewan of Cochin, independent India’s first Finance Minister, and president of the Tamil Isai Sangam) and Madura.

Tamil Isai Sangam’s souvenirs seem to specialise in lungi ads, only they were all advertised as palayakat, a word whose origin is now lost in time. Coffee then, as now, was a hot favourite. Followed by entire lists of famed restaurants — Everest Hotel, Sri Rama Bhavan (‘Try our refreshment counter on Beach Station’), Ramakrishna Lunch Home, Dasa Prakash and Woodlands. And then there is snuff — all brands advertised as rich in pungency, odour and quality. Inhaling snuff was something musicians themselves were known for — even women performers of an earlier era were addicted to it. If snuff has vanished, so have steel trunks and iron safes. Who uses them now? The craze for jewellery, however, has continued — you find several ads from names such as Veecumsee, T.R. Joshi and Vummidi Ramiah Chetty Gurusami Chetty, replaced now by others.

A close look at some of the illustrations reveals the signatures of S. Rajam, ‘Oviar’ Sama, and Maniam. All famed names, with Rajam of course straddling several fields, including music. Going to studios for formal portraits was in vogue then, and musicians were no exception. G.K. Vale’s regularly features its photographs of musical celebrities. M.S. Subbulakshmi and N.C. Vasanthakokilam were probably the most frequently published. And then there are the photos of artistes and chief guests — all the men turbaned, suited and booted, with walking sticks. Women seem to have preferred being photographed in profile. The names are yet another matter altogether — each man has at least three. My favourite is hardware merchant Chinni Yelamantha Chetty Anjaneyulu Chetty — try saying that quickly. And the titles — Mahakathaka Kanteerava Abhinava Bharatacharya Brahmasri Chidambara Bhagavatar of Agara Mangudi was as wide in name as he was in size. We live in tamer times.

Through all of this, you have the eternals — immortal ragas and compositions. You suddenly realise that the bicentenary of Syama Sastri’s death is just five years away. How he, his contemporaries, and the great names before and after him have remained polestars through all this change is amazing. Truly, everything else is ephemeral.

The Chennai-based historian writes on music and culture.



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