Written by 3:43 PM Music

The one who kept many maestros of Madras in the right key – S. Venkateswara Rao.

black grand piano gray scale photo
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Digital vs. Acoustic pianos

Most pianos found in homes today are of the digital kind. The reason is that they occupy lesser space and are cheaper than most acoustic pianos. Some have more voices than just the piano tone.

Although some of the more expensive digital pianos are close to acoustic pianos in tone, they are never quite the same.

The essential thing most people are unaware of, there is no need to tune them periodically.

Striking the right keys

Piano tuning is critical. It is not enough to strike the right keys. You could be the best pianist in town, but it will not sound perfect unless the piano is tuned true to scale.

Tuning the piano

All experts agree that a brand new piano needs at least two annual tunings to compensate for humidity changes brought on by the changing seasons. Three or four tunings should be performed within the first year to help the strings stretch. It keeps the piano in tune and keeps the pitch from deteriorating.


The timbre of a piano can be tweaked by voicing, which entails changing the hammers’ hardness or softness. Altering a piano’s “voice” is a task best left to a trained piano technician, who can modify the instrument’s tonal character.

Enter the piano tuner of Madras

S. Venkateswara Rao, who has worked as a piano tuner for over half a century, says about birthdays: “I only celebrate music.” He is quick on his feet and loves to brag about himself and the glitzy film industry surrounding him. He can remember specifics like dates and events, but he often forgets the names of the people who come up to greet him. “I never expected this much trouble at my age,” he says with a wry smile.

Video courtesy: Benedict G. https://www.youtube.com/user/benedictgn

Nobody knows how old Venkateswara Rao is. He moves like he is in his twenties. A flood obliterated his birth certificate, so he nor anyone else knows.

Rajahmundry is the place of his birth. When he was five years old, his father passed away; when he was twelve, his mother succumbed to tuberculosis. His upbringing by an uncle who worked as a street theater harmonist kept him connected to the arts community. His apprenticeship with Ratna Varma in Machilipatnam began when he was 14. During that time, he became an expert in constructing and repairing various stringed instruments, including veenas, violins, and harmoniums.

When he was 16, he moved to Madras, India, where trams were still a common sight. Working in various city music stores gave him hands-on experience building and tuning larger, professional instruments.

After four years, Musee Musical offered him a job as a technical assistant, and he accepted, in exchange for Rs. 60 per month, that he could work on pianos. He’s been a freelance tuner there for a while now, and a two-hour shift earns him around Rs. 1,000.

Musee Musical

One of the best piano stores in Madras is Musee Musical. Musee Musical, established in 1842, is a 180-year-old institution. Kishore and Sachin Das are the ones who manage the store. I used to visit the store quite often, not to buy anything since I could ill afford even to buy the cheapest instrument as I was still in school. I remember there used to be a Chinese restaurant nearby, and the delicious smells of Chinese food made me feel hungry.

Pianos by Steinway, Boston, and Yamaha are available for immediate purchase at our store. says Kishore Das, one of the directors of the store, who is also a classical guitarist. “We supply military bands and have serviced some rare instruments, including an 1823-vintage piano at the Air Force Club, New Delhi, a Steinbeck played by MS Subbulakshmi, and a piano played by Tagore.”

The room’s focal point is an elegant grand piano costing roughly Rs 22.28 lakh (approximately $30,000).

Senior to the maestro, Ilayaraja

Even before Ilaiyaraaja had the chance to study with the renowned musician, he had begun training under Master Dhanraj to learn global tuning. “I am senior than Ilaiyaraaja,” he says broadly.

Rao is unique, as he has only heard of three or four other tuners in the city. “You’ve seen movies where Rajnikanth and Sri Devi play the piano, right?” He says, “I’ve tuned those,” with pride and casualness.

He also claims that he has been the on-call piano tuner for every piece written by Ilaiyaraaja.

As soon as Rao started working at Max Mueller Bhavan in 1967, he tuned a piano for the great Handel Manuel. Since then, he’s fine-tuned the radio broadcasts of many famous people, such as musicians Roman Rudnytsky, Billy Taylor, and Chico Freeman, music directors A.R. Rahman, Yuvan Shankar Raja, and Harris Jeyaraj, and singers Unni Krishnan, Srinivas, and Karthik.

He still finds time to tune pianos for various clients across the city, including The Music Academy, Taj hotels, The Leela Palace, Chennai, the show Vijay Super Singers, weddings, receptions, and pretty much any stage with a piano that needs his attention. Every month, he tunes about 15 to 20 pianos.

He has complete authority over the process for the hour and a half it takes him to tune a piano. As he has done since the beginning, he tunes using the same method as Bach. He says, “The method will remain the same until the end of time.” All the other things are constantly evolving.

Mr. Rao is tuning the piano. Thanks to the late actor, Mr. Vivek, whose comedy I have thoroughly enjoyed

It was difficult for him and his five children when his wife of 50 years became ill. He spent money to take care of her diabetes, which she had for a long time. Then, without warning, a heart attack took her life. When asked how he has dealt with her death, he simply responds, “I’m all right. Nothing else exists in my world except the music.”

His seven-year-old grandson misses out on his grandfather’s attention because his life is consumed by his passion for music and work. Having hobbies prevents one from achieving “fine-tuning,” he says bluntly.

When Rao is at work, he doesn’t stop to rest because his satisfaction comes from his work and nothing else. However, he finishes up long before the lights go up on the stage.

While on stage, a guitarist uses only six strings; offstage, he becomes intimately familiar with the piano’s two hundred and twenty. When asked how long he has been tuning for this city, Rao replied, “One town has one man.”

I hope Mr. Venketeswara Rao is well and active. I would appreciate it if anyone could update me on this.

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