Handel Manuel, the pianist from Madras

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Handel Manuel – the pianist who put Madras on the world map

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Who was Handel Manuel?

Handel Manuel was a pianist, organist, composer, chorus director, music teacher, and producer of children’s radio programs. He was station director for the Western music program at All India Radio, Madras. He worked on contract for All India Radio, serving as the Director of Western music programs. Handel Manuel was Music Director of Madras Musical Society for about 40 years; the founder and Musical Director of the Madras Philharmonic and Choral Society, and a life member of the Royal School of Church Music, England.

His birth and background

Handel Manuel was born in Tuticorin on April 26, 1918. He was the oldest of four children. His father, Dr. G. Manuel, had a hobby repairing musical instruments. So the house had many musical instruments lying around. Surender Schaffter, his brother, learned to play the cello, piano, pipe organ with pedals, clarinet, flute, cello, recorder, and double bass. In contrast, Handel learned to play the piano and the pipe organ. Dr. Manuel named his eldest son Handel after the German composer George Fredric Handel. The name was not wasted on him, and Handel Manuel became one of the best Western classical musicians that Madras has seen.

He studied at the Madras Christian College, Tambaram in Madras (Chennai)

Madras Musical Association

The founding of the MMA in 1893 was in an attempt to capitalize on an existing Western musical tradition in Madras. By the middle of the nineteenth century, regular Western music performances were taking place in major cities across India, expanding from churches, military, and home settings to public performances at theaters and opera houses, like the Museum Theatre in Madras. Later, MMA drew more and more upon Indian members and audiences to continue promoting and performing Western music.

While Western music became increasingly popular amongst wealthy minority communities in Indian cities, the Madras Musical Association remained exclusively a European organization until the Second World War outbreak. The British and Anglo-Indian communities, which had also left India in increasing numbers following 1947, led to the decline of Western music audiences and the membership of organizations like the Madras Music Association. In Madras, for instance, Western choir music was performed from 1715 onwards by the Charity School of St. Mary’s choir. Governor Thomas Rumbold founded the garrison band in 1779.

At age 23, Manuel became the first Indian conductor of the Madras Music Society. With the Second World War outbreak, MMA accepted its first Indian member, Handel Manuel, who joined the chorus in 1939, subsequently becoming its director in 1945, leading the chorus for forty years. Handel served as the church’s organist and choirs director for 53 years; and the MMAs choirs conductor for almost four decades, having been thrust into this role almost by a pitchfork in his early 20s.

Uncle Handel – All India Radio, Madras

While at the All India Radio, he named himself Uncle Handel. He would play the piano, and children from different schools would sing. This program became so popular that he would recreate the show outside of the radio too. The name tag Uncle Handel became so popular that everyone in his family would call him Uncle Handel, including his wife, Alice! 

How he met his wife

Handel was introduced to Alice by Sharadha, who married Handel’s younger brother Surender Shaffer. Alice was a good pianist, but she would consistently underplay her talent. On occasion, she had the opportunity to play the piano. When Handel watched her sight read and play, he was astounded. “His jaw dropped,” she remarked!

Handel’s amazing talents

A student of his, Arul, observed that Handel had extraordinary skill in sight read music. He would take the melody of a simple nursery rhyme like “Twinkle, twinkle little star” and interpret it as how Bach or Beethoven would arrange it. His ability to improvise on the spot made him a genius.

Handel notated the national anthem of India, Jana Gana Mana, with all the semi-tones necessary. The English hymn that M. S. Subbalakshmi sang at the United Nations was composed and arranged by him.

In 1984, he visited the United Kingdom and the continent of Europe, performing brilliantly at several renowned centers and cathedrals, wowing audiences across the continent. Inspired by the positive response, he continued his musical tour. He flew to the United States, touring many major cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. While in San Francisco, Mr. Handel played brilliantly on a brand-new, massive six-manual organ commissioned just the previous month. In 1993, he returned to the United Kingdom and Europe to perform another time.

Accompanists don’t come much better than Handel Manuel. He was in high demand by some of the best musicians in the world, including Melli Mehta, the father of the famous musician Zubin Mehta; American violinist Jack Gladzer; Argentinian violinist Alberto Lysy [Protege of the great Yehudi Menuhin], Australian violinist Michael Grube, Dutch cellist Francois Vetter, and others. 

Many of the world’s best singers, including those from the United Kingdom, the United States, Japan, and elsewhere, had Handel as their pianist or orchestral conductor. 

The pianist Michael Grube publicly praised Handel Manuel after hearing a recital of his work in Madras, saying, “I have played with many Pianists in the world, but none like Handel Manuel.” 

Mr. Handel Manuel has performed as a Guest Pianist with many well-known jazz ensembles over the years, including the Barrel House Jazz Group from Germany, Bob Barnard’s Jazz Group from Australia, Clark Terry and his Jolly Giants from the United States, and many more.

Awards and recognitions

Handel Manuel was awarded the Padma Shree, India’s prestigious national recognition, in 1983. He was also elected as an Honorary Life Member of the Royal School of Church Music, UK. He also received the Sake of Honor from the Rotary Club. He was also invited to the International Tchaikovsky Competition as a guest of honor.

Handel Manuel playing ‘Money money money’ by ABBA

His passage to eternity

Handel’s end came about on October 1994. He was jolly and pleasant and remained that way till the very end of his life.

His Legacy

After Handel passed away on October 1994, following requests from former students of Manuel’s, Sharada and Surender Schaffter established the Handel Manuel Chorus in 2003. The choir has 30 members and performs primarily Baroque and Classical choral music. Among the places of worship they have played are in churches in Bangalore and Chennai; the Egmore Wesley Church, St. George’s Cathedral, Emmanuel Methodist Church, and St. Andrew’s Church. 

Courtesy: thomascherickal.com

His son, Viju Manuel, is regarded as India’s pre-eminent pianist and bassist. He has spent the better part of the last four decades accompanying celebrated Indian composer Ilayaraaja. Viji was a talented, self-taught musician who used to focus on bass guitar and drums but shifted his attention to the keyboard. In 1971, he won the top prize for drumming at an all-Indian competition. Oscar-winning composer A R Rahman admired Viji’s musical skills.

Viji Manuel with A R Rahman – https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063591856477

Viji passed away in August 2015.

Cited Sources

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