Geetha Ramanathan Bennett
Remembering William Skelton (1923-2009)
America will not be the same for me anymore. Our good family friend William Skelton passed away in Hamilton, New York, on September 23. Anyone who loves Carnatic music knows his name.
Bill Skelton was one of the first Americans to come to Chennai to study Carnatic music. Being a bassoon-player, he took up the nagaswaram. (The bassoon is a double reed orchestral instrument.)
I met him when I was in Class VII. He used to come to our 20 Sydoji Street, Thiruvallikeni house in Chennai to take veena lessons with my father S. Ramanathan. One day I was sitting on the staircase when he came to the class. I handed him a note saying that it was from my father and that there was no class that day. He opened the note and found that it said ‘April fool’s day’. He laughed so much and, after that prank he adopted me as his daughter.
Bill Skelton (and his wife Mary Lou, who passed away 14 years ago) would bring several Colgate University students every year to India to study Indian music and absorb Indian culture first-hand. I was living in the east coast of the U.S. at that time and went to Colgate University several summers to train students in vocal and veena before they started undertaking those trips.
After our marriage, Frank and I went to visit him together for the first time. His beautiful house was decorated like an Indian household, and there was a huge temple bell hanging outside on the porch. We arrived at his house in the middle of the night. Without thinking, Frank gave the bell a strong hit. The enormous sound floated down the hillside and woke up half the village. Bill came to the door and looked around. With his usual mischievous smile he said: “It’s okay you woke me. I had to get up anyway. Some damn fool was ringing the porch bell.” Frank fell in love with him that very moment, and became part of Bill’s family.
Bill Skelton was a pioneer in many ways. When he taught his Colgate students the story of Rama and Sita, he demonstrated the events of the story by renting a train which took the students around to all the places where the Ramayana events had occurred. He and Mary Lou climbed the Tibetan Himalayas to Mount Kailash for a darshan. Bill was the only non-Indian invited to be part of the Navaratri festival in the Mysore palace. He arranged to have dancer Kamala Lakshminarayanan do the world premiere performance of Thyagaraja’s opera ‘Prahlada Bhakta Vijayam’ which my father had collected and published.
Bill Skelton was the first to see potential in me and he invited me to perform solo on the veena selections of Russian composer Rimsky Korsakoff’s ‘Scheherazade’ with the Colgate University Orchestra that he conducted. Thanks to him, after this performance I had the opportunity to tour and record with several renowned fusion groups and travel the world.
Love for Chennai
Bill Skelton loved Chennai as if it were his home town. His culinary talents were also remarkable. All by himself he could prepare in one afternoon a four-course south Indian meal served on the traditional banana leaf for 60 people.
I was fortunate to play for his 85th birthday celebration in October 2008 hosted by Colgate University. A number of his former students, including the president of a dot-com company, Professors of music professors and admirers, came from all over the country to celebrate that day. Wearing his dhoti and kurta he played ‘chakkani raja’ on the nagaswaram, and showed the videotapes of his days in India to take us all down memory lane.
Among those who had experienced Bill Skelton’s devotion to and love for India and its arts, there is not a pair of dry eyes today.