To Sir with Love: Carlos D’Costa (1911-1983)


Luis Dias
Carlos D’Costa (or ‘Sir’ Costa as we respectfully addressed him) was technically not my first violin teacher, but he was certainly the first to leave such a profound, long-lasting impression upon me. He looms larger than life in my childhood memory. It will be his 105th birth anniversary this August 11, and I would like to dedicate this column to his memory.
I don’t recollect at what point after our return from Germany my father decided that my brother and I should have violin lessons. Perhaps I was five or six when Machado, a kindly old gentleman from Daman, would come home to give us lessons. It was all too brief, as in about a year he returned to Daman. We corresponded with him by post-card for many years. He had the most intriguing address: “Mr Machado, Near mango tree, Moti Daman, Daman.” Incredibly, our letters would reach him on this cryptic address, and he would exhort us to keep up our practice. When eventually our letters began to receive no reply, we had to assume the worst. Should I ever visit Daman, I shall certainly look up his family.
We then had an even briefer spell with Gregorio Rodrigues from Mandur. Then, when our parish priest Fr Martin Fernandes began the Santa Cecilia School of Music, we became its first students. In typical parish music school fashion, we had to first study solfeggio, which I still think is a very good thing. So many students of an instrument are unable to sing the music they are trying to play, which is so fundamental to music-making.
Solfeggio class (at the house on Rua de Ourem at the corner of the turn-off into São Tomé vaddo) was loads of fun under the easy-going, humour-loving Fr Borges. There would be eruptions of laughter in our class, and we would struggle to keep a straight face when Fr Martin made his surprise visits.
One fine afternoon, I was summoned to the other branch of the school (the house opposite Welfit tailors) where I met Sir Costa for possibly the first time. He and Fr Martin got me to try out a simple piece (‘Russian Dance’) on the violin, and they decided that I was ready for violin lessons. From then on, I would have thrice-weekly lessons with Sir Costa, come rain or shine, school or vacation, for nearly a decade until the end of Sir Costa’s teaching days.
This might seem a long time, but when I look back at that time-span, it seems all too short. Those years with Sir Costa inculcated in me the discipline of regular practice. Thrice-weekly lessons meant we necessarily had to practice in the intervening days. Add to that Fr Martin’s encouragement of as many children as possible playing at the 8 a.m. Sunday children’s mass, and we therefore had daily contact with the instrument without us even realising it.
Perhaps we had fewer distractions then. I remember only cycling, playing in the street, and story-books and comics competing for our attention. But even they didn’t really eat into our dedicated practice time. And the instrumental competitions at Don Bosco, the Trinity College exams, St Cecilia concerts, the masses and novenas meant that we constantly had to prepare for something or the other all the time. Children today have fewer and fewer opportunities to perform in public, especially as ensembles.
Sir Costa was such a gentle soul, and something about his aura, his wise, reassuring smile, was so compelling that we tried our best to please him, to give him the results he wanted. I do not recollect practice at home being a chore, because we really wanted to be ready for our next lesson with him. He would be seated at the centre of the room, and the class on benches and chairs all around him, with our music on purpose-built silver-painted wooden stands in front of us.
It might seem a cliché to say this, but in my imagination I can see and hear him play as if he were still here. Everything about the way he played was elegant: clean, crisp bow strokes producing such a distinctive, signature sweet tone. His sound had a rare nobility of spirit and guileless beauty that one doesn’t easily find today.
So many teaching aids and accessories were unheard of then. We played without shoulder-rests, and got along fine without them. We had no coloured strips to the fingerboard or electronic tuners as intonation aids, the only intonation aids being our ears, the ultimate arbiter for intonation.
And Sir Costa was particularly fussy about intonation, and I am ever grateful to him for this. Today, we talk about tonalisation and ‘ringing notes’ through the Suzuki method. But Sir Costa was instinctively doing this even before such concepts had gained currency here.
He was unassuming and self-deprecating to a fault. He would often tell us how he “didn’t know much”, but that he would teach us whatever he knew. But over time, it was obvious he had played a lot on the Bombay orchestral circuit, perhaps in the 1950s after Independence. He had certainly played under the baton of my relative Vere da Silva (violinist and conductor, another major influence in my musical upbringing), and when I learnt of this, I engineered what turned out to be a very emotional reunion between the two of them after decades, at my house.
It was Sir Costa who first extolled to me the joys of orchestral playing (“where a whole section should sound like just one violin playing”), as a result of which I began to listen to my records even more avidly. I think he was happiest when he was allowed by Fr Martin to conduct us. Eyes half-closed, with a smile on his face, he would coax the music from the various voices, and we would play our hearts out for him.
He would spring sight-reading challenges upon us all the time, which really is such an important part of music learning. Perhaps it is an indication of the times India was going through that he compared it to “shoot-at-sight” after curfew. We had to “shoot” the notes at first sight!
Sir Costa was so busy with teaching and playing at the chapel that he rarely got leave to go to his home in Colva. But he took us on one memorable occasion, where we met his family, including his son Rocklin, who is today a priest.
I remember his final years with cancer for the stoicism (“God is great”, he would say) and the dignity with which he faced the illness head-on. When he passed away, it left me bereft of the most important, inspirational teacher-figure in my life until then, and not just in music. I am ever grateful that he touched my life so profoundly.