Enthroned on a wooden bench in St John’s, Secunderabad, tapping pedals and tabbing on keys, Ex-Naval Commodore TMJ Champion does his rendition of Toccata and Fugue in D minor (BWV 565) by J. S. Bach on an 104 year-old pipe organ. The instrument is completely mechanical with no external speakers or electronics, he explains. The hundreds of pipes that form its anatomy produce when air is released, like whistles. Behind its piano like facade of the instrument lies its body. He turns a key into a small wooden door and directs me to climb narrow wooden steps that lead inside the instrument. While one can walk inside the St John’s Organ, there are organs that are as big as three stories, he explains. I wait in the isle surrounded by sets of countless pipes that varying in size from tiny flutes to considerable tree trunks. He plays the instrument so I know exactly which pipe the air is released from.
It’s not very common for one to be passionate about such an instrument. He reminisces how in his hometown of Nagapattinam, the church congregation would have to wait for British musicians to come and play it each Sunday. No one knew how to play it, is what my father told me, he says. Not only did he learn to play it, he became an expert at its mechanics. With no one knowing anything on the subject in India, he wasn’t left with much of a choice. “When the British left India, there was not a single organization in India that had any expertise in building or restoring organs,” he says. If you get on the Internet you’ll find sites of organ builders in Europe, the US and Australia, but there’s not a single one in India.
Self taught through experience, books and visits to organ makers in the UK, Commodore Champion over the years has helped breathe air into lifeless organs across the country. The first organ he repaired was in Wesley Church, Mumbai. Since then he’s been acting as a consultant and facilitator for restoring organs in India. The organ in St John’s Secunderabad, that was unused for two decades was restored by him in 2003 at the cost of 1.5 lakh.
Not only is lack of expertise a problem, but restoration is an expensive affair. The quotation for restoration work can span from a few lakhs to even over a crore. Some work on the bellows and woodwork is done by Tapan Das from Kolkata under Champion’s guidance, who is the only such remaining craftsman in India. But repairing and re-tuning old pipes can only be done by experts from the UK and many parts are just not available here.
Of the five pipe organs in and around Hyderabad only one is in working condition (St John’s). The city is cold about western classical music compared to Chennai and Bangalore, where music lovers have made efforts to raise money for repair works, he says. But, historically the Nizam VIII of Hyderabad is known to have been passionate about western music. He brought down Tamil musicians from Chennai for his symphony orchestra and cavalry bands, the land denoted to these musicians is the area of Bandlines in the City.
While reviving western music in the City might take many more years, Commodore Champion continues to play the pipe organ each Sunday making sure its sound is alive.