How Sheik Chinna Moulana made the sound of his nagaswaram echo across the globe

On the maestro’s birth centenary, grandsons Kasim and Babu talk about being his disciples and the joy of taking forward his legacy

Updated - April 18, 2024 12:10 pm IST

Published - April 02, 2024 04:08 pm IST

Sheikh Chinna Moulana.

Sheikh Chinna Moulana.

It is a special time of the year for the family of nagaswaram exponent Sheik Chinna Moulana, as his Srirangam-based grandsons S. Kasim and S. Babu prepare for a dual celebration of their maternal grandfather’s birth centenary and the 25th edition of the annual ‘shraddhanjali’ (homage) programme in Tiruchi later this week (April 6 and 7).

“Thatha’s contribution to the field of classical music, through the nagaswaram has endured and taken this humble instrument to the world stage, because of his dedication and talent. My brother and I are really fortunate to be able to carry forward his legacy,” says Kasim.

The brothers reach out to artistes with various programmes through their Dr. Chinnamoulana Memorial Trust, besides running the music school Saradha Nadhaswara Sangeetha Ashram in Srirangam.

Kasim-Babu, grandsons of  Sheik Chinna Moulana.

Kasim-Babu, grandsons of Sheik Chinna Moulana. | Photo Credit: M. MOORTHY

Kasim and Babu meet visitors at ‘Alapana’, the 1950s-era house in Srirangam that was formerly Sheik Chinna Moulana’s residence and is now Kasim’s home. “Our relationship with thatha was more formal since we were his disciples first. Like most gurus of the time, he was reticent with his praise, because he did not want us to rest on our laurels. I feel this made us more serious about developing our craft,” says Kasim.

S. Kasim takes us on a tour of Sheik Chinna Moulana’s house in Srirangam
| Video Credit: S. Kasim

The sole occasion the brothers remember being lauded by their grandfather, was when they presented a recital in Hyderabad where Sheik Chinna Moulana was honoured for receiving the Sangita Kalanidhi in 1999. “He listened to us rendering the Shankarabharanam raga, and later that evening said, ‘you presented it properly, because I saw the audience listening to it in silence. It was not effusive praise, but this was his way of complimenting us,” says Kasim.

Originally from Karavadi in Andhra Pradesh, the family has over three centuries of experience in playing the nagaswaram. “Thatha belonged to the Chilakaluripet (a town in Guntur district) school of music,” says Kasim. “Among his gurus were his own father, Sheik Kasim Sahib, and later, Sheik Adam Sahib.”

As he emerged as a noted performer , Sheik Chinna Moulana decided to explore the Thanjavur bani, which allows for greater variations in presenting ragas. “From an early age, thatha was influenced by the recordings of T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai. He migrated to Tamil Nadu to get trained in the Thanjavur style under Rajam-Duraikannu Brothers of Nachiarkovil,” says Kasim.

Sheik Chinna Moulana, Kasim and Babu performing together.

Sheik Chinna Moulana, Kasim and Babu performing together.

Sheik Chinna Moulana’s career took off in the early 1960s, and Kasim believes the exposure to the Thanjavur bani helped immensely. The maestro decided to make the temple town of Srirangam his home. Kasim, who accompanied his grandfather to Tamil Nadu early on, studied at the Srirangam Boys High School, and went on to graduate in Physics, at St. Joseph’s College, Tiruchi, while getting his music education at home from the age of three.

Babu joined the in-house gurukul in his teenage years, and was educated up to Standard 8 in Andhra Pradesh. “Our proximity to our guru was an added advantage,” says Babu. “I would spend all my waking hours with thatha, trying to distil the essence of his musical experience into my performance.”

“From 1982, after I graduated from college, until thatha’s last concert in 1999 in Chennai’s the Music Academy, where he was awarded the Sangita Kalanidhi title, I was performing with him,” recalls Kasim. “Thatha never had a retirement phase, he just kept working, or teaching.”

Sheik Chinna Moulana and  Ustad Bismillah Khan in Delhi to play a concert for the  inauguration of Doordarshan.

Sheik Chinna Moulana and Ustad Bismillah Khan in Delhi to play a concert for the inauguration of Doordarshan.

Purity of form

Often referred to as the ‘Bismillah Khan of the South’, Sheik Chinna Moulana shared a deep relationship with the shehnai maestro. “We have a video recording of Sheik Chinna Moulana and Ustad Bismillah Khan exchanging ideas on the playing techniques of the nagaswaram and shehnai. Thatha was against compromising on his musical values; the duo did just three jugalbandis (collaborations), and kept away from fusion. Their most notable jugalbandi was in the 1950s, which was telecast when Doordarshan was launched . Even here, both artistes chose ragas that sounded similar; thatha played Kalyani, while Khan sahib chose Yaman,” says Kasim.

Sheik Chinna Moulana was the first nagaswaram artiste to perform in the United States and Canada, under the East-West Exchange Programme, in 1973. “Thatha’s tour was not for Indians, but for Westerners. Professor William Skelton of Colgate University, who was a nagaswaram exponent himself, hosted and accompanied thatha during the tour, besides NASA scientist V. K. Viswanathan. The tour planted the seed that has blossomed into this huge banyan tree of performances and musical collaborations,” says Kasim.

Sheik Chinna Moulana after receiving an honorary doctorate from Andhra University in 1985.

Sheik Chinna Moulana after receiving an honorary doctorate from Andhra University in 1985.

Among recent efforts to document the maestro’s work, is the creation of a digital audio archive of over 250 hours of Chinna Moulana’s recitals. “We have also started a YouTube channel through which we will periodically release vintage video recordings of our grandfather’s concerts,” says Kasim.

For the centenary, the nagaswaram instrument used by Sheik Chinna Moulana will be put on public display.

Not many know that the instrument which made the maestro’s popular across the globe, was purchased long ago from a destitute artiste. “According to my father, a nagaswaram artiste who had fallen on hard times, had got off the train at Karavadi, and upon enquiring about musicians in the village, was advised by the station master to visit Sheik Chinna Moulana. He came home and showed thatha his nagaswaram. He said that he had to sell it in order to make ends meet. Moved by his plight, thatha bought it for Rs. 20, and told him to stay back for dinner. This nagaswaram, possibly already used for a few years, was to become thatha’s preferred instrument for over four decades, shaping his career and style of playing. Till date, we have not been able to trace the artiste who sold it to him,” says Kasim, as his brother brings out the nagaswaram.

Kasim and Babu are the special nagaswaram artistes of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanams, and like their grandfather, share a unique stature in Hindu sacred music. The success of Muslims such as Sheik Chinna Moulana in the Hindu cultural sphere is perhaps the greatest example of India’s syncretism. “Thatha often used to say ‘music is my religion’,” says Kasim.

Centenary special

An event to mark Sheik Chinna Moulana’s birth centenary will be held on April 6 and 7 (6 p.m.) at Courtyard By Marriott (Sangam Hotels) in Tiruchi. M. Venkaiah Naidu, former Vice President of India will inaugurate and preside. K.N. Nehru, Minister for Municipal Administration, Government of Tamil Nadu, is the guest of honour.

A documentary on the nagaswaram legend will be screened on the inaugural day followed by the presentation of Lifetime Achievement award to thavil vidwan Udumalapettai M. Angusamy. On the occasion, senior nagaswaram artiste Palani M. Sakthivel and thavil artiste Thirukattupalli T.R. Ramadass will also be honoured. Young nagaswaram artiste B. Selvam and Srirangam M. Muthukumar (thavil) will be given the best upcoming artiste awards. Nagaswaram and thavil will be distributed to students learning to play these instruments.

At 7.30 p.m., Abhishek Rahuram will present a concert. He will be accompanied by Akkarai Subhalakshmi on the violin, T. R. Govindarajan on the thavil and Arjun Kumar on the mridangam.

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