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Notes of commitment

A gifted pianist and founder-director of the choir `Shamas', Damayanthi Santwan has carved out a niche for herself in Western music circles in the city. A profile...

THE MELLIFLUOUS notes of Beethoven's piano sonata greet you as you step into her house.

A gifted pianist and noted accompanist; Damayanthi Santwan is the founder-director of the choir, Shamas. She is also the choir conductor and organist at the Egmore Wesley Church.

Passionate about Western classical music, Damayanthi's musical journey began early. "We had a tradition of singing hymns and community songs in our family. My mother, late Mrs. Sudarsanam, used to play the organ at home. Dr. Mcphail of the MCC used to get students to sit and listen to classical music after dinner. My cousin Balasundaram, who benefited from these sessions, inculcated the interest for Western classical music in me''.

Damayanthi learnt piano first from Godfrey Jacobi and later from Coralie Tayor, and took the Trinity College examinations. When the late Victor Paranjothi was the Station Director of All India Radio, Haydn's `Trio in G' was scheduled to be broadcast.

The pianist, who was to play in the trio could not make it and 12-year old Damayanthi was summoned. She agreed, but as her father was in the hospital, her relatives didn't think it was a good idea. But soon, she started playing piano and the pipe organ regularly on AIR and this continued for many years.

``Those days, concerts used to begin after supper at 9.30 p.m. in the Museum Theatre. The Quit India Movement had gained momentum and we had to stand up for `God save the King'. As a school girl, I remember squirming during the song,'' she recalls.

Damayanthi has performed with Handel Manuel in a few recitals and has accompanied solos and other pieces for the Minstrels, conducted by George Harris.

She is a sought-after piano accompanist in Chennai and is invited to play when foreign artistes perform here. She has a rare gift of transposing and playing music when necessary. Damayanthi was part of the trio formed in the 1980s.

When the Santwans moved to Calcutta, she started a choir and was the accompanist in the Wesley Church.

Later the family shifted base to Hong Kong. She was back in Madras in 1987 and founded Shamas, named after a singing bird.

"I had my own ideas of how a choir should sound." Today, her choir is a force to reckon with in the music circuit.

The choir was started with 12 voices in July 1987 and it brought out a cassette, "Songs of Christmas" the same year. Shamas' aim is to study and perform Western choral music — classical and modern, thereby promoting appreciation and understanding of this kind of music in India.

They give many performances during Easter and Christmas and do one major concert every year. Shamas performs masses and excerpts from oratorios by Bach, Handel and Mozart. The choir sang Mendelssohn's `St Paul' in Bangalore and in Chennai, last year.

The 25-member choir has been featured on both radio and television.

Ten years ago, Damayanthi, now 73, took over the Egmore Wesley choir and also became the church organist. Hearing her play the pipe organ is an experience by itself.

For a brief period, she served as the conductor of the Madras Musical Association. "Choral music is more popular here, while in cities like Mumbai and Kolkata, it's instrumental music that's given prominence," she says.

"Television and pop music have done a lot of damage to classical music,'' feels the veteran musician.

And she hopes parents encourage their children to listen to good music.


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