Written by T Nagamma on 18 July 2020
Impressions of Centurion T Nagamma (Sister of T Chowdiah) by Dr.TC Poornima, Mysore , (Translation credit Asha Ramesh)
Everyone at home would call him “Annayya’. None of us had the courage to stand before him and talk to him. It did not mean that he instilled fear in us. With his solid learning, brilliant artistry, charismatic personality we did not have the courage to go near or speak to him. Only Lingappaji (next brother to Chowdiah) would talk to him. He would broach any topic and irritate him. He also, was very gifted. His knowledge over English and Sanskrit was immense. He would experiment on harmonium, would write books in Sanskrit, so was a little conﬁdent. He would talk a little bit to Annayya. When it came to his personal thoughts, he was one among us. Had a lot of respect and a great feeling towards Annayya. That respect instilled with awe and devotion.
This was how our home was. Our Doddava, Chowdiah’s mother (Sundaramma) was herself a savant, a scholar in Sanskrit, literature and dramatics, she was perfect in everything. When Doddavva passed away I was inconsolable, thought that “Learning had died”. She was really ‘Saraswati-The Godess of learning’. For a long time, I would go to the place where her funeral pyre was lit, cry and console myself. The mother had justly shared her knowledge among all her children. Annayya acquired music and literature. Lingappaji culture, literature and her knowledge of music. Doddarajanna (youngest of Chowdiah's brothers) had a vast knowledge of music and had a great manodharma in his music. Puttanna (next brother to Lingappaji) was a famous name in music. Thus the talents and capabilities that ran in their blood grew under the umbrella of their interest and opportunities. Annayya had become a titan in playing the violin.
I was younger to Chowdiah by 20 years. I must have been six or seven, I remember, them going to Madras and Trichy for concerts. Madras was like his hometown. He was more renowned among his contemporaries. Annayya's accompaniment on violin with all the big names in the ﬁeld of music, would bring some kind of amazement in us. We would feel proud too. His Guru Bidaram Krishnappa would teach him with a lot of care.
Annayya and Gururajanna (Chowdiah's Cousin) would sleep in Guruji’s house. They would get up at 4:00 in the morning to practice. There was this episode. It seems Annayya would sleep a little away from where Guruji slept. Annayya in his deep sleep would roll and kick or come near Guruji and put his hands and legs over him. Though he was inconvenienced, Guruji, being the person he was, would wait till 4:00 in the morning and when it was time to get up, he would move him slightly and he would wake him up. He was so concerned that he thought if he disturbed his student’s sleep he would not be able to practice the next day. Annayya had a lot of respect and devotion to Guruji. A rare ﬁnd in the Guru-Sishya heritage.
One cannot say which was greatest of Annayya’s devotion - devotion to Guru, Devotion to God or Devotion to his mother. He never uttered a word against his mother. Sometimes mother would scold him “you are better dead than alive”. Even then my brother, the savant would say “What have I done mother that you should say this”. He never answered her back. “Leave it at that. If a mother doesn’t scold me who will she scold?” He would come and tell us. He had such a big heart.
If Annayya entered when we all sat together and talking, we all would walk away. He would ask ”what girls?” and would joke about any topic. Annayya was not a short tempered person. Never spoke ill of anybody. He would get angry sometimes but would come back laughing. He was not angry or hateful. He was obstinate only where music was concerned.
Once I was singing a Keertaney to myself. Coimbatore Rajappayyer, the great mridangam player was also present. I was not formally trained under a Guru. I was self-tutored and didn’t know the nuances. I was singing to myself. Once you start singing on a eduppu, you can’t change it hallway through. Eduppu is the place you start the kriti and it can be 1/4 eduppu, 1/2 eduppu or 3/4 eduppu. While I was singing, I changed the eduppu and erred while singing. My brother who was inside and was listening to me got annoyed and said” you are sometimes singing in 1/2 eduppu and 3/4 eduppu Nagu. You are not singing properly”. I said “Brother, I didn’t know that. How do you sing that?” He knew, I did not have any formal training. He said softly “It is not traditional that you change halfway through once you start on a eduppu,” and taught me the correct way. Wherever, however he was, my brother's mind was always unimpeachable.
My brother was not so good at singing. But he was matchless, with his deft ﬁngers on the string. He also played seven strings. The notes would ﬁll out with all the melody. The sound that came from the source would make the sound appear insipid. He would accompany big musicians Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Tiger Varadachar, Ariyakudi Ramanuja Iyengar. He would play jugalbandhi with Jog, the famous Hindustani violinist. I have heard that he also played on the violin with the world famous Yehudi Menuhin. It did not mean that he was wanting to accompany only the big and famous names in music. They only had to be good musicians. He had accompanied Subbulakshmi too. Why I say Subbulakshmi is she was, like a disciple to him, younger than him. Her mother was Shanmugavadivu, a Veena maestro herself. Whenever she came for concerts with Subbulakshmi, she would come and stay with us. I remember Subbulakshmi once stayed in our house for 5-6 months. She wanted to practice with my brother. Pattammal would also come. Annayya never taught anything. They all would observe him while he played the violin and would practice themselves. Annayya would then listen to them sing and advise them. I would learn along with them.
Annayya would call Subbulakshmi - ‘Kunjamma’. Even I called her that. Annayya would encourage her a lot. He would accompany her in concerts. In Annayya’s opinion talent was more important than fame, age and gender ‘What of those people who criticised, well can they understand his large heartedness”.
Annayya had several interests. Among them the most unforgettable and that which everyone knew was that he was a "Car lover”. He bought many cars. He sold many of them. I don’t remember any car running smoothly. We had to push it sometimes in the middle of the night. He would buy only such cars. He could have bought a big car if he had made up his mind. He would change a car to bring another only to push it while bringing it home.
Even though he didn’t have a formal education he had a great interest in literature. He composed Keertanas in Kannada, Telugu and Sanskrit. He would use the name of our village “Trimakuta, Trimakutavasi” as ankita in his composition. That could have been about himself or in the name of our premier deity Agastheeswara. All of them have been composed cleverly and intelligently.
We could have expected more from him had he been well educated in literature and experienced that would have framed his thoughts better just like Lingappajjanna.
From what I saw Chowdiah was a simple human being. He had a lot of self-esteem too. If anyone wanted to listen to him play on the violin he would never disappoint them, but he never went in search of opportunities. Whether it was a servant or a king he never hesitated. Such a complete scholar. He never went to the palace on his own. The Maharaja would have never refused anything even if he had provided slightest hint of wanting something. Annayya never created an opportunity for himself. He was such a great patron of arts, and so was the artiste. The reason for this was his Guruji who never allowed to beg for opportunities leaving self- respect aside.
The procedure of the palace was that, if the Maharajah wanted something, or one wanted something from the Maharaja a request had to be made through people who were called Darbar Bakshis. My brother didn’t like doing that. He never went of his own accord. He stayed away from the palace.
But the Maharaja was a great patron of arts. He would invite the great musicians on grand occasions and bestow them with honours. I remember we would always get royal treatment. Once the Maharajah had gone on a sojourn to Ooty with his relatives and he had taken Annayya also. He made him stay there for a fortnight, organised a concert for the royal family and honoured him. Nalvadi Krishnaraja Wadiyar was very fond of Annayya’s music. He had arranged to give the title “Sangeetha Ratna” to Annayya in 1940 on Bhimanamavasya day but unfortunately the Maharajah passed away. Narasimharaja Wadiyar was coroneted during the Dusshera, the same year and in 1941 he bestowed the same title. At that time this kind of honour was something extraordinary.
My brother was the uncrowned emperor of music. He was bestowed with so many titles, so many honours. In Annayya’s resplendent eyes, smiling lips, arched postures, above all his dignity was wrapped in the rippling ﬂow of his music. Greatness was heightened. Eminence embodied. My brother was like a blazing sun.