Ragas for the soul: how Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti of Nalli Silks lets music bring calm to his world

Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti loves his Carnatic music. So much so that he has been a patron of the annual music season in Chennai for over 50 years. Here's how his passion for Carnatic music merged with his work for five decades

Call this a period piece with no modern elements. We take a dip into the past and bring to light a patron of the arts who has consistently given financial backing to nurture Carnatic music, one of the most rigorous art forms requiring discipline, knowledge, nuance, sophistication, and imagination in its practice.

As the music season begins this year in Chennai, YS Weekender caught up with one of the most successful silk merchants in India, the 79-year-old Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti of Nalli Silks, to know more about his stellar contribution towards keeping the organisations that nurture Carnatic music alive.

Beauty and the best

Nalli silks were a rage among young women
M S Subbulakshmi, one of the legends of Carnatic music,  known more by her initials MS, set a trend among the rasikas (fans) of Carnatic music as well as performing women artistes with a special, blue silk saree that she wore, designed by Nalli Silks, which came to be called ‘MS blue’. When MS was spotted in the saree, women thronged to Nalli Silks to buy it and repeat orders kept pouring in for years.

The third generation owner of Nalli Silks, Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti, is also a connoisseur of Carnatic music.

A celebration of music

Chennai celebrates the music season every December in the Tamil month of Margazhi. It is said that 2,500 Carnatic concerts are held within the season, which lasts a month, but nowadays the season begins by November and ends by January. Woven through this tradition of 90 years is Nalli Kuppuswamy Chetti’s grandiose financial backing of this art form for over 50 years.

A patron of the arts

Nalli Kuppuswami

Carnatic music has thrived on patronage – by kings during the princely rule, then by wealthy zamindars and dubashes (agents of the British East India Company) and now by the corporates, the affluent and the NRIs. In the current times, perhaps there is no parallel to the patronage extended by Nalli Kuppuswamy Chetti.

“I contribute to all the 140 sabhas in Chennai to the extent I can,” he says.

His financial support has been multiplying through 50-odd years. Some sabhas survive solely on his benevolence.

First tryst with music

In 1944, the young Kuppuswamy heard a rickshaw-puller sing the melodious number ‘Manmatha leelaiyai vendrar undo’ (has anyone ever been able to prevail over the cupid’s arrow?) from the 1944 hit film Haridas, starring MK Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the superstar of Tamil cinema during that period.

“I found the song and its rhythm mesmerising though I couldn’t make out the raga on which it was based. Later, I came to know the song was based on charukesi,” he says.

But it was in 1954 that Nalli was completely captivated by Carnatic music. As he stood outside his silk shop, opposite Panagal Park, he would listen to the music waft through the air from the next-door Krishna Gana Sabha, one of the premier sabhas for Carnatic music in Chennai. He was mesmerised. Though he could not figure out the art’s nuances, he felt that the music was soothing, calming and elevating.

His friendship with A Natarajan, the former director of Doordarshan, who was also the director at All India Radio, Madras, introduced him to the Carnatic artiste circles. He began to attend concerts regularly. “I find that Carnatic music has a calming effect on me. I give as much as I can to it,” he says.

A journey through history

Nalli is also interested in history and has accumulated a vast collection of books, especially on the history of Madras, inspired by Madras chronicler S Muthiah’s Madras Rediscovered, an account of the history of Madras and its growth.

Nalli’s interest in reading started when he was in Class IX. The first two books he read – teachings of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and autobiography of Mahatma Gandhi – changed his life. He is passionate about reading and has also authored 50 books so far.

Talking about the three things he loves in life, he says, “I forget the world in three places: at my shop, while reading, and when I listen to Carnatic music.”

Nalli has lived in T Nagar all his life and so has an intimate connection with that locality in Chennai. He has seen it grow from a sleepy village in the 1960s to a hustling and bustling commercial centre over time. His nostalgic remembrances of the place are recorded in his book T Nagar Andrum Indrum (T. Nagar, Then and Now).

A passion for silk

Nalli's love for Carnatic music is legendary

Initiated into the family business at 15 that his weaver grandfather, Nalli Chinnasamy Chetty, started in a small way in 1928, Nalli Kuppuswamy has not only made Nalli Silks a popular silk brand in South India, but also widely known across the country and abroad where South Indians live.

Nalli Silks has 37 stores spread across India and two overseas branches -- one in Mountain View, California, and one in Singapore.

A young generation awaits

Two more generations behind him are into Nalli Silks now. While Kuppuswamy Chetti takes care of the business in Chennai, Tiruchirappalli and Coimbatore, the rest of the stores are handled by his son, Ramanathan Nalli.

His granddaughter, Lavanya, a Harvard MBA grad, has taken the business to the next level by starting a chain of Nalli Next stores that specialise in computer-aided saree designs. She has also taken the Nalli brand online. Lavanya previously worked with Myntra before foraying into the family business, and operates out of Bengaluru.

His eldest daughter Jayashree Ravi -- married into the family that runs Kumaran Silks, Nalli Silks’ neighbour -- also runs a saree business under the brand Palam Silks.

Nalli personally procures the materials from his service providers, including silk and woven sarees. He is elated that his brand was recognised once in Paris in the 1980s by a French woman who saw a Chennaiite draped in a silk saree pass her by.

No saree hits the shelves without Nalli approving it. “I can make out the quality of the silk saree just by a look and when in doubt, just by a touch.”

Celebrity customers

In 1911, Nalli Chinnaswamy Chetty presented a Kanchipuram saree, Darbar Pet, to King George V.

And, over time, Nalli Silks has seen wide patronage from several star customers, including former President Rajendra Prasad, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, former Tamil Nadu Chief Ministers Rajaji and Kamaraj, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister NT  Rama Rao and a galaxy of film stars.

Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had been presented with scores of Nalli silk sarees by her visitors from South India. Yesteryear actress Savithri made it a custom to make the first purchase on Ugadhi day. Thespian Sivaji Ganesan was a regular customer for the Nalli Silks. He once jokingly remarked, “Half my film earnings must have gone to Nalli Silks.”

Perhaps one name that Indians all over would recognise is that of Tamil superstar Rajinikanth, who is long-standing patron. “Apart from family purchases, Rajini would select costumes for his films from Nalli Silks,” says Nalli.

For Nalli, selling silk sarees is not just a business but a passion. New challenges await him every day and he enjoys them immensely.

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