Sangeetha Kalanidhi, Mysore Shri. T.Chowdiah (Jan 1st 1895 – Jan 19th 1967) was one among the pioneers to bring violin as a main stream instrument in south Indian classical music. He was also an innovator and a composer. Turn on the sound to listen to one of his rare compositions while you read.
A rare composition of Shri Chowdiah by Mysore A Chandan Kumar
He was a loyal disciple of Shri. Bidaram Krishnappa, a noted musician in the royal court of Mysore Wodeyars. Shri Krishnappa was known to be a tuff task master when it comes to teaching. Shri Chowdiah had a rigorous training under his tutelage right from a young age of 15.
He had a very curious mind and was always in quest of new horizons and novel ideas. His first performance was in the year 1911 alongside his guru in presence of the pontiff of Shivaganga Shri Mutt. He was a substitute to an accomplished violinist as the later did not turn up. This was the beginning of his musical journey.
In those days, the concerts were happening without mic. This means, only the audience in the front rows could enjoy the concert and was not so pleasant to the audience sitting beyond a certain distance.
Shri. Krishnappa had a very powerful voice which could reach even the last bench audience (rasika) without mic. Shri. Chowdiah felt his violin’s volume is too feeble and it was very hard for him to match the powerful voice of his guru. He started experimenting first by playing with different bows. Although there was some success, he found it too hard to keep on changing the bow during the rendition.
After sometime, mic was introduced to the concerts. Due to some unknown reasons, there used to be only one mic for the entire orchestra. So it was placed right in front of the main artist. With this, the mridangam was heard a little better when compared to violin. This experience made him start thinking about solving this problem.
Violin being a string instrument, vibration of the strings is a major factor for volume. He started experimenting by adding more strings to the violin in order to increase vibrations and enhance the sound in turn. He started to experiment with 5 strings first then with 7, 9, 12 and 19 strings. In fact he played a few concerts with his 19 string violin. But it was very hard to play it and also to keep all of the strings in tune. Hence he settled to playing the 7 string violin.
The seven strings of the violin were arranged in the following fashion.
First string which is “Panchama” (B-String), has one more string attached to it with its corresponding higher octave “Panchama”
Second string which is “Shadja” (E-String), has one more string attached to it with its corresponding higher octave “Shadja”
Third string which is lower “Panchama”, has one more string attached to it with its corresponding higher octave “Panchamaj”
Fourth string, which is base “Shadja” is left single as it is thick enough to produce the sound.
With this new design, a single application of the bow used to produce double the sound of a normal 4 string violin. Added to that, the implication of two strings of corresponding octaves attached, would produce a harmonic sound. This became the signature of Shri. Chowdiah’s rendition. Due to this innovation of improving the sound of violin, often he was referred to as “Sound ayyah” with reverence.
Revelation of the innovation:
He was very nervous to discuss this innovation with his guru Shri. Krishnappa as he was a traditionalist. Any deviation from the traditional methods was a big no for him. It was in the year 1924, this innovation reached the rasikas of the south indian music and changed his musical journey forever.
Shri. Chowdiah was to accompany his guru Shri. Krishnappa in an invited audience concert at the residence of Shri Veena Sheshanna. Shri. Veene Sheshanna, a contemporary of Shri. Krishnappa and was senior to him and also much revered.
Shri. Chowdiah took the new violin to the concert and was very nervous since his guru did not know about using the new violin. The concert started and guruji noticed that there was something different in the look and sound of the violin. When Shri Chowdiah noticed that his guruji was perplexed, he became tensed. Finally guruji asked, what was that and the loyal disciple admitted that he had added 3 more strings in order to enhance the sound. Everyone knew the temperament of Shri. Krishnappa. The whole hall was in an awkward silence and expected something weird to happen. At this juncture, Shri. Veene Sheshanna interfered and told Krishnappa that the violin sounded great and robust and asked Krishnappa to bless and encourage the beloved student.
Shri. Krishnappa agreed and the concert continued and everyone were awestruck with the robust sound of the instrument. This was the milestone of Shri T. Chowdiah’s artistic journey.
Shri. Tirukkodikkaval Krishna Iyer, was an inspiration to Shri. Chowdiah. Shri. Iyer was very instrumental in bringing violin to frontline during his times. He was known for his tremendous scholarship and control over his instrument. There was an instance where Shri. Krisnha iyear, who accompanying a vocal artist. During the concert one of string was cut and the singer gave a weird look it seems. Noticing this Shri. Iyer cut the other two strings and played the entire concert with only one string. This was his legacy. Shri. Chowdiah was always charged whenever he narrated this instance to his students and family. This was narrated to me by my grandmother, who is Shri. Chowdiah’s daughter. Shri Chowdiah had a picture of Shri. Iyer at home for whom he had highest reverence.
He has been honored with numerous awards and titles including the “Sangeetha Kalanidhi”.
After a long mesmerizing musical journey, Shri. Chowdiah attained the lotus feet of the lord on the 19th of January 1967, leaving behind a vast legacy and inspiration.
I express sincere thanks to Dr. T.C. Poornima (Grand daughter of Sri. Chowdiah) and Vid. T.Nagamma (Sister of Sri. Chowdiah) for providing valuable details.