D. Harry Pandian recounts his nearly five-decade-old journey as organist and choirmaster
It is a calm evening at the All Saints Church in Puthur, Tiruchi. A couple of worshippers slip in for a reflective moment. The run-up to Christmas and New Year has seen relentless practice sessions for the three choirs of this historic church.
In a corner, near the organ, stands D. Harry Pandian, who has been the choirmaster here since 1964. As he recounts his own tryst with choral music, Pandian, 80, looks every inch the quiet genius.
“I joined the All Saints Church choir in 1946, when I was studying in Third Form at the Bishop Heber High School,” he says. “For the past 49 years, I have worked here as the organist and choirmaster.”
Pandian credits his father, Daniel, with sowing the seeds of sacred music in him. “While working as the chief draughtsman at South Indian Railways, my father used to play the big pipe organ at St. Peter’s Church in Nagapattinam. He wanted me to learn music, but I was very playful throughout my school days. I started learning in earnest only before I went to college,” he says.
He is also thankful for the support of two other people, his music teacher Mrs. June Noble who also used to accompany the church choir, and Mr. George Harrison, an airport employee and conductor who inspired him to start a male choir just like his so that the two groups could exchange music.
Harry Pandian served in the Railways from 1955 to 1991 as chief clerk at the Golden Rock Railway Workshop, Tiruchi. Retirement has given him plenty of time to devote his life to developing the three choirs (for men, women and small boys) in All Saints Church, as well as have his own group called The Minstrels (formed in 1978), which is open to male singers of all Christian denominations.
“For regular worship, we use the small boys and men’s groups,” says Pandian. “For special occasions we use the ladies’ choir.”
There are two organs in the church – a pipe organ that is around 70 years old, and a 2008 double manual (dual keyboard) organ, both of which Pandian is adept at playing. “Both the instruments are in good condition, but I rarely use the antique organ because repairers are quite hard to find. They have to come all the way from Chennai, and only after you keep calling them up,” he says.
The octogenarian’s daily routine is a blend of music and leisure. Using the two electronic keyboards and a Richard Lipp piano at home, he takes music lessons for students from 6.30 a.m. to 8.30 a.m. This is followed by some time off to visit friends, and then after a lunch break and siesta, it’s more music lessons from 4.30 p.m. to 6.30 p.m. “Many music teachers like to offer classes throughout the day, but I prefer this short schedule,” says Pandian. “Otherwise you will get no time for yourself.”
His wife Meera, former principal of Periyar Teachers’ Training Institute, and now a superintendent of the All Saints Sunday School, helps to keep the household humming along. The couple has two daughters.
From 6.30 p.m., Pandian gets busy in All Saints Church with choir practice sessions. “My life is full of music,” he chuckles.
Cradle of talent
The Minstrels group of around 20-25 members, which gathers for practice every Thursday, keeps him occupied with performances of classical Western-style music all over the state. “I prefer the old style of music. Handel, Bach, Beethoven and Mozart are the main composers we use,” he says. Among their most frequently-sung requests are Jesu God of Man’s Desiring (Bach), Gloria (Mozart) and Hallelujah (Handel).
The Minstrels has been a cradle of talent as well: well-known film composer and TV anchor James Vasanthan used to sing bass in the choir. Sustaining interest is a constant challenge, says Pandian. “Most people will come for one practice session; then we cannot expect them for the next. But there are others who are very dedicated, and attend all sessions regularly.”
The younger generation has a preference for “guitar and lighter types of music,” rues Pandian, who also trains students for the Trinity College London exams, “but we have more schools teaching music than before.”
Among the most memorable moments in his career, he recalls the impromptu request of the Minstrels being asked to sing at the St. Andrews Church in Chennai (known as The Kirk), and of Pandian giving the timing to Handel Manning, noted organist and founder director of the Madras Philharmonic and Choral Society in 1981. “So many people asked, ‘how did they allow you, a mofussil group, to sing in this church, and how did Handel Manuel play the organ for you?’ But it only proves to us that we had God’s blessing.”
Harry Pandian is the first to give thanks for the many blessings in his life. “At this age, so many people find it difficult to go out, to walk and so on. But I just take my two-wheeler and I go around. If there was no music, my life would be unpalatable. I have no plans for the new year. Just more time devoted to the service of God.”