By Malathi Ramanathan
The span of a human life reflects the time and culture of its origin and existence. It holds a mirror to the multilayered spaces of socio-cultural interactions, not merely of that one individual but an entire set of connected individuals and in turn of the society to which they belong. While this is universally true, the reflection is magnified manifold in the case of an extraordinary individual living an ordinary life, making little effort to be in the limelight and yet leaving discernible imprints.
Seven notebooks of Mrs. Savithri Rajan (1908- 1991), written randomly in both Tamil and English, are a mine of information on the social and the cultural world of Madras of the early 20th century. As impressive as her quest for the aesthetic in Carnatic music is her questioning mind on societal matters and her social activism. The notebooks are a witness to her thoughtful insights into men, matters and music. What emerges is a unique mirror reflecting life as an ode to both joy and sorrow.
Here is an attempt to picture society through the lives of her ancestors as she writes about them and to understand the musical world of Madras through her eyes and experiences. Her remarkable personality runs through her writings as an undercurrent, though she rarely speaks about herself. She was a humanist, with a passion for Carnatic music which she learnt under stalwarts. She displayed little interest in giving public performances. With a flair for literature, she penned her thoughts in notebooks which rarely saw the light of day. Yet she was vocal in expressing her views. She gave talks on several occasions, for example at the Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy Centenary Celebration, or at Stree Seva Mandir, Gandhi Vidyashram.
A Society in Transition
South India at the turn of the 20th century witnessed the rise of an English educated class migrating from rural to urban areas in search of a job or profession. Like in Bengal, the men of this class promoted learning amongst their womenfolk. With their economic security thus provided for, these women were to form the network for social and political activism of the Gandhian days. Lives of several women of this section of society from all over India demonstrate this truism. The early ancestral history of Mrs. Savithri Rajan represents these changing patterns of migration, of profession, of urban centres and of broadening horizons, as impacted by a colonial domain. Her life spans across the twin sections of a colonial as well as an independent India. Her views also reflect the changed circumstances of a newly emerging nation. The picture of Madras of early 20th century as described in her writings is typical of the newly developing urban centres throughout India.
About her parents, she writes that the early boyhood of her father, Seethapathy (born in 1882 and the tenth child of financially poor parents) was one ‘of adversity.’ Orphaned at the age of ten, he got through his education and sustenance with scholarship and help from a few known families in Madras. With his elder brother (a sub-registrar in the Government) wanting him to take up government service, he aimed to be and did become a doctor, with the degree of L.M.&S. and took up the job of assistant surgeon in the King’s Institute of Preventive Medicine, Guindy. Later he started his own private practice in Madras.
His ancestral family had migrated ‘from Toppur in Salem district during the famine of 1832 and while one branch of the family settled in Gudiyattam in North Arcot, the other went on to Bellary. His (Dr. Seethapathy’s) father was the supervisor of the springs in the Palar river bed. His job, with an income of three rupees a month, was to see that the springs were kept live and clean and the different communities adhered to the rules and did not encroach. Supplementary income came from priestly duties performed for neighbours. One of Dr. Seethapathy' uncles, Srinivasa Sarma, had left home when hardly twelve, walked from Gudiyattam to Benaras to study and became an erudite scholar. Savithri Rajan recalls that he ‘was the delight of us children for he would treat us to fantastic stories.
‘My mother (Kanakakamakshi alais Kanakammal)’ writes Savithri Rajan, ‘hails from the great family of Appayya Dikshitar in the village named Karthozhu. She is the grand daughter of the seventh generation of this sage. Appayya Dikshitar was a philosopher and scholar, a brilliant disciple of Sankara and Dikshitar’s work in Sanskrit are the treasure of Sanskrit scholars and thinkers of Advaita philosophy. Savithri Rajan’s maternal grandfather ‘was a manager in the police office. Venkatarama Sastri, a great grand uncle, a Sanskrit scholar also well versed in English, taught the students in the village, some of whom later became lawyers in Madras.
Assuming domestic duties at 13 years of age in a big joint family with innumerable dependents, Kanakammal developed into a forceful personality. Born in 1892, she was married in 1902, to Seethapathy, ten years her senior. Since she was deeply interested in music and could sing well, her husband arranged for her music lessons by Thirumalachar when they lived in Saidapet. It was said that equally interested in music, Seethapathy played the tambura sitting beside his wife, as he listened to her sing with her tutor! Being a social activist, Kanakammal ‘regularly contributed rice to the Ramakrishna Students’ Home on Kutchery Road in 1915 when it was started. Her practical idea of a handful of rice in a vessel daily kept aside for the boys and collected weekly by them was praised by the founders of the Home.
Kanakammal ‘organized a similar collection for the Avvai Orphanage (set up by Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy) in some 40 houses in 1928-30 or 1930-32, thus collecting one bag of rice every week for the orphanage. One of the earliest members of the Sarada Ladies’ Union, established by Sister Subbalakshmi, she lent her enthusiastic support to institutions like the Mylapore Ladies Club, Music Academy of Madras, then being established. She was invited to serve on the committee of V.T.I.