Thatha’s fascination for Cars

Written by MH Anand Kumar to Dr Poornima on 16 July 2020

To begin with, I am the grandson of violin maestro T Chowdiah. I am the son of his eldest daughter Padmamma. My grandfather’s stature held me in awe and I revered him and at the same time was intimately close to him. My grandfather had a very strong liking and a soft corner for cars. I had learnt to drive the car by the time I was 14 years of age and in a way had become the permanent driver to my grandfather. I was very proud of the fact that the driver’s licence had “son of Chowdiah” printed on it.

It had not come to the notice of my thatha that I could drive the car. It was only because of my grandmother, whom we called thathamma that he became aware of it when she mentioned it casually during a conversation. Thatha did not get angry or annoyed at this information, instead he said “Oh! Let’s take the car out and go to Subbu’s place to eat”. That was the day when I became the driver to my grandfather.

As said earlier thatha liked cars very much and was very proud of the fact that he had his own car. In fact, whenever there was a concert, he always insisted on driving in his own car even if the concerts were in places other than Mysore. Just like his big heart, he made sure that he accommodated maximum number of people while travelling. We were once travelling to a kutcheri in Hassan. There were three of us - thatha, Gopal and I. On the way, he wanted to pick up Venkatachalaiah, and temple priest Binnappa when we reached K R Nagara and so on. Our car would always be packed to the limit. That was thatha.

Thatha always liked to travel very early in the morning. Once after finishing a concert in Hassan, we had to travel to Bangalore. As was the norm, he woke us all up very early and we were ready to leave by 5:30 am. I started grumbling saying that we could leave after finishing our breakfast and coffee. Thatha would have none of that and his ready answer was that we could do all that while travelling on the road. Hardly had we travelled 15 kilometres from Hassan, we had a flat tyre. We filled air into the tyre and travelled a few miles only to develop another puncture. By the time we were near Kunigal the car had some seven to eight punctures and we had run out of car tubes. There was no way we could proceed further and my hunger got the better of my temper and I yelled at thatha “You are such a famous musician yet; do you have to struggle to travel like this? Why can you not accept the offer of a taxi?” Looking at my pathetic state, Gopal came up with a brainwave. He pointed to the mangoes on the trees beside the road and said “let’s fill the inside of the tyre with these mangoes and run the car. We had done the same when I was in military”. Such was our state that we were ready and willing to do anything to make the car run. The master plan turned out to be a damp squib as all the mangoes were crushed before the tyre went one round. Finally, we reached Kunigal taking help. Thatha was his normal self, showed us a lot of concern and made sure that he first fed us masala dosas. Later, he gave me fifty rupees and packed me off to Mysore.

Another time there was a kutcheri in Hindupur in1964. As usual, thatha refused the car sent out to him and I accompanied thatha in his own car along with Gopal, Puttaswami and Manjunath. 

After the kutcheri, we started travelling back to Bangalore in our own car declining their offer of a car. This time, there was also a driver along with us. Hardly had we reached Doddaballapura, there was a snag and the car refused to budge an inch. There was nothing that the driver or any of us could do to set it right and we spent a miserable night sitting inside the car. The next morning, the driver went to Bangalore to bring back thatha’s favourite mechanic Raju. Within no time, Raju had the car running and we all heaved a sigh of relief. Despite repeated requests from Raju to accompany him in his Chevrolet car, thatha stuck to his stand of travelling back in his very own car. To our luck, we were met with road blocks as the Queen of England was visiting Nandi Hills. We were totally exhausted and could only make it to Bangalore by night fall.

Earlier, all concerts in Bangalore would get over only after 10 o clock in the night. We would be very delayed by the time we had our prasadam. Many times my suggestion of staying over the night would be turned down with the “how far is Mysore? Let’s go”. Hence if we left Bangalore by 11 O’clock we would reach Mysore early in the morning by 3 am. At home, Mangala akka would always be waiting to open the door. It so happened once after finishing the kutcheri in Bangalore we reached Mysore only to be told by Mangala akka that there was a telegram saying that there was a kutcheri in Mettupalyam the very next day. That was it. Without even a moment’s hesitation, he turned towards me and said “come let’s go”. Already I was exhausted driving all the way to Mysore and lack of sleep had me in a pitiable condition. Thatha’s solution was that he would do the driving. Without another word, I was back behind the steering wheel. I can say that there are many such incidents like this.

In 1963, we had a driver named Chellappa, who was the brother of cinema artiste by name Kuchala Kumari (1950’s). We were all travelling to Coimbatore for a concert in thatha’s new Chevrolet car along with mechanic Perumal. That was the time when khedda operation was in progress and there were special arrangements for it. We had finished our breakfast in Pachappa hotel in Chamaraja Nagar and had just crossed the Dimbam check post, when we were suddenly confronted by a lone furious tusker. Its trumpeting sent fear down our spine and the driver applied sudden breaks. It could have easily crushed us seeing the state it was in and had all of us terrorised completely. But, thatha was his usual calm self and tried to instil confidence in us at the same time making sure we were all in complete silence. He started meditating as well as reciting Vinayaka stotra. The seconds just dragged on and all of a sudden just as it had appeared it walked away with a long trumpeting sound without giving us a second glance to our immense relief. We later came to know that the elephant had escaped the khedda operation and furious as it had destroyed a check post completely before confronting us.

There was a person named Namboodiri in Guruvayoor, whose son was the disciple of Chembai. Thatha received a special invite for his arangetram and when he arrived at the station, he was taken in a grand procession to their place. They had more than 25 cars parked at his place and thatha gave out an involuntary exclamation. Namboodiri very humbly offered to present a car to thatha to which he replied “Oh! I have a very good car and it is not possible for me to even think of driving another one”. There is another incidence pertaining to His Highness Maharaja Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar. Once, Maharaja was camping in Bandipur. Thatha was travelling to Ooty in his car via Bandipur that night. The cacophonic sound of thatha’s car in the still night woke up his Highness and he came to know that it was ‘Chowdiah’s car’. Later, Maharaja invited thatha to the palace and enquired if he was interested in purchasing a new car. To this thatha replied “Mahaswami, my car is in very good condition and I cannot find another car like mine anywhere else”. Thatha’s naivety was such that he could not read between the lines of what Maharaja said and also his dignity and self respect would not have allowed him to take anything freely offered.

Later in 1965, his eldest daughter, my mother gifted him three and a half thousand rupees to buy a new car. Thatha refused. After much persuasion, he relented to buy a new car but from his own pocket.

Talking about thatha’s food habits, he was a person who never indulged while eating. His favourite was rasam made with dal and flavoured with coriander leaves. The question of eating in the hotel did not arise at all. He always carried with him cashew nuts, badam and sugar candy. A very disciplined man he would always wash his clothes and would never let me pack the holdall while travelling. Once it so happened that by accident I brushed his violin case against a wall. Never had I seen thatha becoming so angry. He gave me a tight slap and said “what did you do? Couldn’t you have been more careful? Mother Saraswathi is inside” was his comment. He made sure that the violin case was always on his lap while travelling in the car. If the violin had to have some repairs done, he would call Rangappa home to set it right but never would the violin go to Rangappa place. Thatha had a lot of respect for Brahmins and would politely refuse to accept their namaskarams. Whenever he was in Coimbatore, he would stay at the home of his very close friend VR Srinivasa Rao who used to run the Mysore Ayurvedic Centre. The friend’s wife was a very orthodox lady who was very rigid and would follow her set of rules for everything (madi). I was very uncomfortable to eat at their place as the food would be served from a height to our plantain leaf. I would question thatha and ask why he put up with all these and was it not better to go and eat in a hotel? To this thatha replied “it is not appropriate for you to talk in this manner. It is up to them to follow whatever they believe in. We are no one to change them. Let us recognise the love and affection that they show and not expect anything else in return”.

Thatha shared this incident with me which happened to him when he was a student of Bidaram Krishnappa in the early days. In the beginning, all the students would look down on thatha. He not only had to wash the clothes of his guru but also of the cook and other students. He also had to carry the luggage of everyone while travelling. Thatha never complained nor did he feel bad at all. According to him, all these were a learning curve and only helped him on his way to sadhana. He was of the opinion that when there was a community these things were very common.

Once thatha had to play violin for his guru Bidaram Krishnappa’s concert. But on that very day thatha had to go to Tirumalakudlu for some work. He missed the bus to travel back to Mysore and even the horse carriage that he arranged gave way. Only his determination to play in the concert made him run seventeen kilometres to reach Mysore. By then, all the disciples of Bidaram Krishnappa requested their guru to make alternative arrangements. Thatha upheld the confidence his guru had on him and was there to play for the concert. Thatha had received the honour of being ‘Asthana Vidwan’ from the Maharaja. A car would be sent to bring thatha to the palace. Many a times I would accompany thatha to the palace, but I was not allowed inside as I was still a young boy.

Once there was a kutcheri in Madras and we were staying in the Woodlands hotel. I was reading a newspaper outside the room. I was approached by a very simple looking man in dhoti and he enquired “Is Chowdiah sir there?” I let the person to stand there and went inside to tell thatha that there was someone waiting for him. Thatha brought the person inside with a lot of respect. After he finished talking to him and serving him hospitably, he took me aside and said that the person I had made to stand outside was none other than Chief Justice Raja Mannar and provided me an insight into how to interact with people.

In a similar manner, when there was a kutcheri in Calcutta, it was one of those times when I sat in the front row and not as usual on the dais. A person sitting next to me asked “do you know him?” I replied that I was his grandson. To which they asked “I very much want to see his violin. Can you show it to me?” during the break, I went up to thatha and repeated their request. Thatha looked at them and said “Can you not recognise who he is? He is sitar maestro Ravi Shankar”. That day the concert was attended by Pandit Ravi Shankar, Uday Shankar, Lakshmi Shankar and Pankaj Malik who were all sitting in the front row along with me. After the concert, I remember them all holding thatha’s violin and getting a feel of it.

My thatha and thathamma made an ideal couple. Thatha would never go against the wishes of thathamma and he has forgone to travel many concert tours abroad as my grandmother was afraid of plane travel. Thatha had this burning desire to play with renowned violin player Yehudi Menuhin and there were opportunities to travel abroad for this. Being sensitive to his wife’s fear, he let go of the opportunities. He wished that Yehudi would travel and come to Karnataka so that he could play with him. This just remained as a wish and did not come to fruition.

Whenever thatha went to distant places for kutcheris he would send most of his remuneration by money order in thathamma name. It was fun watching my grandmother receive it by pressing her thumb in the place of signature. Grandmother would save some money from this and had got herself diamond earrings, a waist belt (dabu) and many other jewelleries. Whenever thatha was at home he would insist that we all sit together to eat. He used to keep an eating competition during festival days. It was always Bhime Gowda who would come first.

Once Muniswamy Chettiar had come home as he wanted to show his new car to thatha. My elder brother Shivu was a small boy then. He playfully sat inside the car and accidentally, the car started moving forward. This totally scared thatha and he vented out his ire on Chettiar. It was not in thatha’s nature to sit idle at home. He would always be playing the violin and come up with new things. Thatha had once planted lemon plants one in front of his room and the other at the far end of the compound. In a few days’ time, the lemon plant near thatha’s room started growing really well. Thatha then concluded that plants do respond to music. Everyone ridiculed thatha for this and there was even a cartoon in the paper Thayi Naadu (1955) mocking this. Now there is acceptance as it has been scientifically proven.

Thatha has been the recipient of many honours and awards. Among them, the Palace had conferred the title ‘Sangeetha Ratna’ along with gold and diamond embedded Ganda Berunda pendent.

On the night of 17 Jan1967, thatha developed some respiratory problems. No car was available immediately. Somehow arrangements were made to shift him to K.R. Hospital. No special ward was available there and we had to keep him in ordinary ward. Two days later, he slightly opened his eyes and mentioned the names of his sisters Meena and Lilly. He groggily said that Nanji had to be looked after well. He did not want to be on glucose as it was hurting him. Without much suffering, he left us all that night. My favourite thatha had gone forever leaving us all orphaned. I was given the honour and responsibility of performing all the rituals which I did so with utmost humility. To be honest, I do not think he has left me as I am always surrounded by his memories. Like wise, I have also retained the house where he lived all his life. Even today, thatha is in that house and I am living with him there.