Ringing in the spirit of Christmas

The pipe organ in Bishop Heber chapel on the MCC campus

The pipe organ in Bishop Heber chapel on the MCC campus  


For Sebastian Gnanadoss and his sisters, gifting a pipe organ to the chapel on MCC campus was a fitting tribute to their father, the talented musician Prof. Adaikalam Gnanadoss

Beat this for a Christmas present! Sebastian Gnanadoss and his two sisters — all British residents — shopped around for months for an antique pipe organ they wanted to gift to Bishop Heber chapel on the MCC campus. Not on the scale and size of those in Nikolai's and King's College maybe, but the gesture would certainly be unique — the pipe organ would be the first in an educational institution in Chennai, perhaps all of India.

“A gift in memory of our father, Prof. Adaikalam Albert Gnanadoss,” said Sebastian Gnanadoss and Shantha Tyler, in Chennai for its dedication. And it had to be associated with music; church music, that their father deeply loved. When he taught Mathematics at MCC from 1946-1960, Prof. Gnanadoss was also sub-warden and a popular choir master and organist at the Heber chapel. Their mother, Leelavathy sang alto in the choir. “His natural talent in music came out in many forms. He composed music for the lyric ‘Aasirvathium Karthere’ sung at south Indian Christian weddings in Tamil Nadu; he put together the responses in the liturgy of CSI. As a tribute to India, he created a harmonised version of the national anthem.”

On December 6, when it was dedicated at the chapel by Bishop Rajavelu, the Bishop Commissary of Madras, in front of a packed audience of clergymen and students, the majestic instrument, fitting neatly into the alcove opposite the new pulpit, gleamed with its tall salmon-pink pipes, looking happy to accept its new home.

Why a pipe organ? It is usually an integral part of church design, explained Sebastian. The pipe organ gains from the echo normally heard in church interiors. Sure, the sound of the instrument and the surrounding echo should strike a fine balance for the music to fill the sanctuary, and “Bishop Heber chapel has excellent acoustics for it.” But Heber chapel was built some 80 years ago, and Sebastian needed a professional to clue him in on the size, sound level and the positioning of the organ. He scouted for a specialist organ restorer, got him to study the chapel's acoustics and examine the space available for the large instrument. “Old pipe organs produce a mellower and deeper sound after restoration. Christopher Gray, organ builder/restorer chose this particular piece based on his observations.” Sebastian believes the organ, built in Scotland, is around 173 years old, and was probably made in 1841; another account says it is an 1863 piece by Charles Brindley and comes from a church in Sheffield. Well, it needed much attention, and after three years of meticulous work, it was ready to be shipped. “Many parts had to be handmade. Hard work and patience brought it to its former glory.”

The organ was dismantled, re-conditioned and shipped to Chennai. “Under the care of the chapel and MCC, it will last another century,” said the Principal Dr. Jesudasan. “Some of the students have been specially trained to play the organ.” The purchase, re-conditioning and shipping must have cost a prince's ransom, but for the Gnanadoss siblings the gift is a “living tribute to parents for whom the chapel and choir music meant so much. The project was funded by Professor Gnanadoss Charitable Foundation, which is supported solely by the family. We set up this charity to fund projects related to education in India.”

“My father was a remarkable man,” Sebastian told the congregation, recounting how he once gave his salary away to a poor student for tuition fees. “Never mix aspects of life that have intrinsic and instrumental value,” he told his son. “If you do, you will love money and use people, instead of loving people and using money.” Define your metric, he ruled. Do you want to give joy even in a short life or spend a long life doing very little? It was his dream that the musical tradition he had started at the chapel should continue. In her speech, Shantha wished the 'king of instruments' would “continue to fill the chapel with music they both loved.”

You have to wait for a couple more months to hear that. “Christopher Gray hopes to commission it in February,” said Sebastian. A few items were found missing when the crate was opened at MCC, and they needed to be handmade. “I've suggested an organ festival in March. It would be excellent if MCC and Heber chapel became a centre for church music in Chennai.” MCCians, no doubt, will say “amen” to that.

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 3:30:22 AM |

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