Philomena Thumboo Chetty
BY G. VENKATACHALAM
Some musicians are born. And some take infinite pains to become one. Philomena Thumboo Chetty is a born musician.
When hardly six years old she asked her father for a violin, and at the age of eight she delighted her parents and teachers with her music.
To have passed with honours, at the tender age of thirteen, the Diploma Examinations of F. T.C.L. and L.A.B. is creditable enough for any girl, but to have stormed the portals of the great Paris Conservatoire at sixteen is an incredible achievement for an Indian girl.
Few Indians have taken kindly to European music and fewer still have achieved any fame worth the name in the field. Philomena shines like a solitary star in that naked sky.
Violin, like veena, is a delicate and difficult instrument to master, and even where such mastery has been achieved by any Indian, it has been at the cost of style and beauty.
Tirukodikaval Krishna Iyer and Trichy Govindaswamy Pillay were, undoubtedly, great masters who played exquisite melodies on their violins and revealed their soul and art through that medium, but even they lacked ‘style’ and ‘finesse.’
Style is the man, as well as the artist. And Philomena is an artist with a style.
Technique is all right but it is not all art. Knowledge and skill are necessary but they do not make one a great artist. A great play suffers when badly produced; a fine piece of music gets lost when indifferently performed.
Violin playing has its own technique and style even as veena or sittar. Indians laugh when their music is mutilated by foreigners, and so do the Europeans when their instruments are mishandled by Indians.
The method of holding a violin, the angle in which the bow is drawn, the volume of tone the instrument is capable of producing when so played, are as much the part of style and technique of the art as merely making it reproduce correctly the melodies of a musical piece.
There is a dignity about Philomena when she plays her violin, an artistry about her art as delightful as her personality. She creates an ‘atmosphere’ and infuses a ‘feeling’ which are, after all, true tests of a great artist.
"Her modesty is as big an attraction as her masterly and exquisite playing," observed a fellow musician who had heard her play some of the most difficult pieces with an ease and confidence that astonished him.
Sensitiveness of feeling and refinement of playing, these characterise her violin recitals, and they are no mean achievements for a girl of her age.
Philomena was born in Bangalore but her childhood days were mostly spent in Mysore where she was educated in a Convent. ‘Rukmalaya,’ her home, is a modest little bungalow in Mysore, as modest as its owner Mr. Thumboo Chetty, her father.
A quiet, god-fearing Christian is this Mr. Thumboo Chetty, a great son of a great father. And thus Philomena was blessed with a rich heritage and it is indeed gratifying that she has so nobly kept up the family tradition and even enhanced it. And nobody is happier today than the proud father.
Artists are often snobs. Not so this girl. Wealth, position, influence and even the much coveted honour of being presented at the Court as a debutante, while yet a school-going girl, have not touched her head.
Philomena’s dream is to be an artist, to have a career. A beautiful dream but an exacting life!
When I first met her she was a little girl, her enthusiasm as lively and fresh as her complexion. She came rushing to our place to attend a song recital by the poet Harindranath Chattopadhyaya. The poet was in no mood for songs that day and Philomena was visibly disappointed. She was not keen even to attend a lecture on music by Harindranath. She wanted the real stuff. Such was her enthusiasm for music even in her childhood. Music was in her blood.
She is today a full-fledged musician, a first-rate violinist. She has already won laurels in foreign lands and is now winning the applause of her compatriots. Her first private recital for her royal patron was an unqualified success. His Highness, a connoisseur himself, was greatly impressed, we were told. European critics raved over her performance; such Indians as understood European music were full of silent admiration. Since then she has charmed her audiences in Bangalore, Calcutta, and Madras.
Several Indian girls have studied European music and shown commendable mastery of the art, both as composers and artistes. Mrs. Comalata Dutt, Mrs. Daulat Sethna, Miss Leela Lakshmanan are well-known as gifted composers, but Philomena is the first Indian girl to win a European reputation. And it must be remembered that Western audiences are more critical and harder to please.
And Philomena was lucky to have been born a Mysorean. Her father, a trusted friend and adviser of the Maharaja, did not bring up his daughters in luxury or surround their young lives with false pomp and show. They were educated to be simple and to make the best use of their talents. Philomena’s love was for music which the fond parents encouraged.
Her six years’ stay in Europe has helped to draw out all her latent talent and to make a fine musician of her. She had exceptional opportunities of studying under great masters, of attending some of the famous musical conservatoires and of listening to some of the world-renowned artistes in Europe.
After receiving the approbation and good wishes of her master Georges Enesco, she appeared before appreciative audiences in London and Oxford and charmed them with her personality and performances.
Young, intelligent, bright and vivacious, Philomena impresses one greatly. She is an artist without the poses or eccentricities of one. She is modest and sweet-natured, and, for her age, wise too in many ways.
A rebel at heart, she hides the fiery nature of her soul under the mask of a gentle serene face lit by two large, dark, soulful eyes. And who would not wish this brave little daughter of India the quick fulfillment of her hopes, a glorious adventure as an artist, an immortal fame as a woman! Good luck to Rukma, better known to the world as Philomena Thumboo Chetty!