Aeolian Concert Hall, London, 1935.
Wearing a simple sari, 22-year-old Philomena Thamboo Chetty played Vivaldi, Bach, Debussy and others to an enthralled European audience unaccustomed to the sight of an Indian playing violin.
Her delightful performance received rave reviews – “What gifts India is giving to England these days” (Roy’s Weekly), “She has an easy style and a pleasant tone” (Musical Opinion), “She is already a shade ahead of any of the violinists of the East” (Sunday Statesman).
With this act, a musical child prodigy from Mysore bust through the Empire’s glass ceiling, entered into Europe’s most elite concert halls and marking the start of her professional music career.
Her achievements in music are legendary, her contributions are considered to be part of the Indian renaissance and compared to Rabindranath Tagore, Sir C V Raman and Sir Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. Yet, little to nothing is written about her today. The only known biography is a sketch of her titled “The Indian Fiddler Queen” – published in 1937 with a foreword written by C.V. Raman.
It is in the fitness of things that she has chosen the music of the west and the most expressive of European musical instruments as her medium of self-expression rather than the traditional music and the musical instruments of her own country. To see and hear her play on the violin is an unforgettable experience for anyone.
Could it be that her story is not rags-to-riches enough to attract attention? Philomena was the younger daughter of the Huzur Secretary of the Maharajah of Mysore. With a patronage from the Maharaja that patronized the arts, she was able to pursue her musical dreams.
Learning from the best
She picked up the Violin at the tender age of six and improved every year. Her musical training saw her learn under the best teachers of her time. In the Good Shepherd Convent, Mysore, she learned from the outstanding Irish nun Mother Maurice – who had trained many other prominent members.
At only seven years of age, she sat for the Trinity College of Music’s junior examinations, under Dr. Mistowski, an examiner known for his rigour, whom she impressed enough that he called her a “born violinist”.
She moved from Mysore to Calcutta to study under the French violinist and conductor Phillipe Sandré, who had started the Calcutta school of music. Sandré was a violinist himself and a contemporary of greats like Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns. After training under such illustrious musicians, she decided to appear for the Fellowship at Trinity College of Music, known as the FTCL.
She sat the exam and had the same examiner from six years before. This time, she doubly impressed him – and he had to hold himself back from awarded her a cent per cent score.
The Paris Conservatoire
Her parents knew she had to move on to achieve greater heights. Paris was the centre of the classical world – and in 1929, she applied to the Paris Conservatoire along with 150 other candidates. Only ten were selected, Philomena included – making her the first Indian to be admitted, as well as the youngest student in her class.
In Paris, she was the pupil of the legendary Romanian musician Georges Enesco – who counted among his students Yehudi Menuhin, considered the greatest violinist of the twentieth-century. With Yehudi popping back and forth between America and Paris, Philomena soon became a favourite student of his.
Six years surrounded by the art and culture of Paris tempered her spirit – and though she was always surrounded by greats, her humility in performance never changed. The artist G. Venkatachalam described her as
A rebel at heart, she hides the fiery nature of her soul under the mask of a gentle serene face lit by two large, dark, soulful eyes.
In his memoirs, he recalls a musician’s account of her performances:
Her modesty is as big an attraction as her masterly and exquisite playing.
In 1934, she had her first performance at the Trinity College of Music, London. Her name was so long when attached to her musical qualifications, that the college magazine abbreviated the whole to P.T.C.F.T.C.L.
That same year, she was presented to the King and Queen in the royal court. An article in the Evening Times recorded the event:
“Ordinary Court conventions of dress and curtsey are set aside for Indian women who are to be presented to the King and Queen. Instead of the curtsey, they made a deep bow from the hips, which was by a graceful gesture of obeisance with both hands spread wide apart. Saris took the place of Court dress and feathers, and the traditional colours for a young unmarried Indian girl, red gold and green, were worn by Miss Chetty.”
When Philomena returned from Britain, she was a celebrity – and in demand across India. But she insisted on giving her first recital in India to the Maharajah of Mysore – her royal patron. Playing in the Maharajah’s palace with his own orchestra, she swept away an audience of royals and social elite.
Venkatachalam was deeply moved by the presence and atmosphere she conveyed with her playing. The cultural gap between India and Europe in the field of music was an imposing one to jump, as he notes: “Indians laugh when their music is mutilated by foreigners, and so do the Europeans when their instruments are mishandled by Indians.”
Philomena was aware of the gap, and in a rare example of her own writing, she predicts the rise of fusion music:
Music, whether it is Indian or Western, has a universal appeal…There is a large number of people in Europe who appreciate the music of the East just as there is a large number of people in India who are interested in Western music. A combination based on the Indian and Western systems will have a wider appeal.
Tragically, little is known about her life post-1937. Like all stories, it came to an end when the talented musician passed away on March 19, 2000.
Today, her legacy is in danger of being forgotten. Her family house, Rukmalaya may soon be lost to a slew of private property developments that are taking out Mysore’s heritage buildings. With little written about her, finding a recording would be even rarer. Nor do we know a history of her life and work after 1937.
Indian musicians who play to acclaim in the West today will be doing so in the footsteps of a humble prodigy from Mysore. Where the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) in Britain have a music award in Philomena’s name, India’s premier institutes have none. Is it time Philomena was better recognized in her own country?
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