A Violin Shaped Memorial

By Shekher Phadnis

Many eminent musicians have been feted in their lifetime and had memorials built after their demise. But the Chowdiah Memorial Hall in Bangalore built in 1980 in remembrance of the famous Carnatic music violinist

T Chowdiah (1895-1967) is the only example in the world of the musician’s instrument being made a model for his memorial building. It is built in the shape of a violin!

Violin in Hindustani music dates only from the first decades of the 20th century, whereas Carnatic music had it for nearly 200 years. One of the eminent singers of Carnatic music Baluswami Dikshitar (1786-1859) saw the British army band stationed in Tanjore practicing western music. Later on, Baluswami Dikshitar learnt violin from a British missionary, and adapted his violin playing technique to suit Carnatic music. His brother Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the great Trinity of Carnatic music composed "nottuswarams", based on English notes in Sankarabharanam raga to practice with. Soon both the Dikshitars had the great Vadivelu (1810 - 1845) court musician of the Maharaja of Travancore as their disciple and the violin became one of the main accompanying instruments in Carnatic music.

Hundreds followed Vadivelu in the ensuing years and one of them was T Chowdiah known as Piteelu Chowdiah. Piteelu means violin in Kannada. He was one of the greatest violinists of Carnatic music. In his musical career stretching over 50 years (1916 to 1967) Chowdiah won accolades from the connoisseurs of music and was given the award of Sangeetha Kalanidhi by the Madras Music Academy. This recognition is the Nobel Prize in Carnatic Music.

Chowdiah’s versatility as a violin player is shown by the following comment on him by Professor B Sambamurty, one of the great savants of Carnatic music. In his words, "In the second and third decades of 20th century, Chowdiah came to notice the lowering of Adhara Shruti (fundamental note) by vocalists. Amplification was not known then. The accompanist was therefore at a disadvantage, as his violin sound did not carry well and far enough to the audience. This set Chowdiah’s active mind working on a method of rectifying the handicap. With the aid of a craftsman, he converted the four string violin into a seven-stringed instrument, the sounds from which were agreeable and voluminous. But handling such a complex stringed instrument, however, needed skill to tailor it to Carnatic music and Chowdiah was a great master in this achievement".

After his demise in 1967, for many years, his admirers sought to perpetuate his memory. But it required K K Murthy the President of the Academy of Music Bangalore to bring it into fruition.

In Murthy’s words as he recalled the beginnings "Making it a unique hall was important, and since it was a tribute to one of the greatest experimental violinists India produced, and I thought that it should be in the shape of a violin. When I discussed the idea, people thought I was mad to attempt anything like building a violin-shaped hall". But he decided to go ahead anyway.

The architect appointed was given a violin which he would dutifully bring to the construction site so that the building would be an accurate and perfect replica of the original instrument! Tons of bricks, glass, marble and metal went into building - a superb concrete violin. Getting the shape right wasn’t easy and the structure was demolished and rebuilt at least 10 times. Finally it was complete with the strings, keys, the bridge and even the bow! Aluminium strings were acquired to give the final touch as the seven strings of the violin prominent above the concert hall. Finally, it was inaugurated in 1980. The Chowdiah Memorial hall stands proud today as the only one in the world in the shape of a musical instrument dedicated to a musician. This 1,011-seater hall has wonderful acoustics upgraded with digital crossovers, graphic equalisers, modern mixing consoles and echo units. Around Rs eight lakh is spent every month on the hall’s maintenance.

It celebrated its silver jubilee in November 2005 in a function presided over by Dr A P J Kalam the then President of India. In his speech Dr Kalam said, "Chowdiah made a unique contribution to violin through his seven string violin. I am told this building also has seven strings. Well done. You have seized a glorious moment of time. Though the building is built like a violin, architects have ensured that functional aspects of the auditorium are fully taken care of. I have been to this auditorium many times and have always wondered how something that looks extremely pleasing to the eyes can also deliver sweet melody to ears". MF