Tirumakudalu Chowdaiah: Mysore’s own Violin Virtuoso
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Tirumakudalu Chowdaiah: Mysore’s own Violin Virtuoso

September 30, 2019

Well-built, loud, affable and endearing in his personality, T. Chowdaiah was humility personified. He is remembered among other things, for the introduction of the seven stringed violin in the Indian context. He was an Asthan Vidwan of Mysore Palace and was a constant accompaniment to some of the titans of Karnatak Music in South India. Fondly remembered as “Pitilu” Chowdaiah in Karnataka, here is a brief biographical sketch on the Maestro this Dasara.

“Chowdaiah was to his teacher what Swami Vivekananda was to Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.”  — Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer

By Dr. S.N. Bhagirath

In 1903, a nine-year-old boy stood on the banks of river Kapila with a frown on his face, waiting for his daily boat to arrive. His school was on the other side of the river. A passing scholar by name Vidyakantha Acharya (of Sosale Mutt) was intrigued by the boy’s sad countenance and enquired him the reason for it.

He learnt that, having learnt Amara and Raghuvamsha, the boy had no further inclination to learn anything further in the Sanskrit School ! He further learnt that the boy’s endearing passion was to learn only one thing — Music ! The learned scholar read the boy’s palm and immediately took the boy home and convinced his parents not to coerce him into attending the formal school, but instead allow him to pursue music. This boy would be known later as Pitilu Chowdaiah, the Violin Maestro from Mysore.

Chowdaiah was born on 1st January, 1894 to Agastye Gowda and Sundaramma at Tirumakudalu, eighteen miles from Mysore. The town is at the confluence of rivers Cauvery and Kapila and the greenery that abounds is truly breathtaking. The ancient temple of Agasthyeshwara figures in various                                                                              Puranas. The large fig tree that stands in front of the temple is called the ‘Brahma-Aswatha.’ On the banks of Cauvery is the Sosale Mutt. By the banks of Kapila is Tirumakudalu Narasipura town. These were the environs in which our Violin Maestro had his early childhood.

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T. Chowdaiah’s mother, convinced by Vidyakantha Acharya decided to put Chowdaiah through Violin classes under his step-brother Pakkanna. These didn’t go well and Chowdaiah did not want anything more to do with Pakkanna! Distraught, Sundaramma turned to her brother for help. He decided to take Chowdaiah to Mysore and entrust him in the care of Bidaram Krishnappa for further training in music in 1910. Chowdaiah was sixteen years of age.

For the next few years, Chowdaiah was put through a rigorous training regimen. He used to get up by four in the morning and exercise (Kusti) till eight. From nine in the morning till noon, he would practice the Violin. There was a brief period of rest after lunch. Again from three in the afternoon till five, he had to devote himself to Violin practice.

His Master used to encourage walks in fresh air till seven in the evening, whereafter it was again practice till ten in the night! He had to stick to the same single Raga for one full week. Chowdaiah considered Mysore Vasudevacharya also as his Guru. He accompanied Bidaram Krishnappa on many concerts.

His first public appearance was purely by chance as the Violinist intended for the concert failed to turn up. Bidaram Krishnappa (the main vocalist) asked Chowdaiah to accompany him on stage! This was in 1911 and Chowdaiah was just seventeen. But he nonetheless rose to the occasion and made a mark.

File photo of T. Chowdaiah performing with M.S. Subbulakshmi.

Chowdaiah gave concerts for close to 55 years! He is credited with the introduction of seven strings in the violin in an Indian context. His reasons for doing this were indeed quite practical. In those days, there were no amplification devices and many a time, the listeners in the last row could seldom hear the concert. In order to get through to them, Chowdaiah came up with this ingenious addition. While seven stringed Violins were being experimented with in the West, it is not clear if Chowdaiah was familiar with these adaptations. He nonetheless managed to bring it into mainstream Indian musical scene successfully.

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T. Chowdaiah had an imposing personality — well-built and stocky in appearance. He had bushy eyebrows and a glaring stare which few could forget. He was quite loud and assertive, but never rude. His was a most affable and endearing personality. The vibhuti on his forehead was always impeccably placed and was only contrasted by the sparkling diamond earrings he had on either side.

His personal life was not a very happy one. His wife Ramamma passed away within a year of their wedding. Five years hence, Chowdaiah married Nanjamma with whom he spent most of his later years. He was known for dedicating his concerts to his close friends and well-wishers, who were often in dire straits for various reasons.

The eminent historian and polyglot Dr. S. Srikanta Sastri was one such acquaintance of Pitilu Chowdaiah. When Srikanta Sastri was admitted in K.R. Hospital, Mysore, for ill health, Chowdaiah in a gesture of true friendship decided to dedicate a small concert at Srikanta Sastri’s house on Dewan’s Road, Mysore as a tribute and prayer for the Professor’s early recovery.

[To be continued tomorrow]

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