NALLI KUPPUSWAMI CHETTI still remembers sitting on the verandah of his family home in T Nagar, Madras, in the 1950s, listening to the voices of legendary singers such as MS Subbulakshmi and ML Vasanthakumari wafting across from the Krishna Gana Sabha next door. The locality wasn’t the crowded shopping hub it is now, and wore the look of a village square, deserted after seven in the evening. “The nights were so quiet, it was as if I was sitting right next to them,” Chetti told me. “I didn’t know anything about music, I couldn’t identify raagams, but I knew it made me feel good.”
Chetti is the scion of the Nalli textile business, which his grandfather founded in 1928. Nalli Chinnasami Chetty was a weaver who sold sarees, first from his T Nagar home and then out of an adjacent building that has since become the chain’s flagship store. The business grew steadily over the decades and now, under Chetti, it has 26 outlets across the country, and one each in the United States and Singapore. Collectively, these yield an annual turnover of Rs 550 crore. But though managing this sprawling saree empire keeps Chetti busy, he sets aside enough time to serve as the primary sponsor of Chennai’s famed classical music season, held in December and January each year.
When I met him at the T Nagar store ahead of the 2013–2014 season, Chetti recounted the story of how he went from being audience member to patron. In 1961, the heads of the Krishna Gana Sabha, a cultural institution founded in 1953, planned a shift to a new, larger venue. When sabha members approached business owners to solicit interest-free loans to help with the move, Chetti contributed Rs 1,000. Some years later, the members met him again to return the money, but Chetti refused to accept it. Gratified by his gesture, they made him vice-president of the sabha, following which he began to attend concerts regularly.
Since then, Chetti has supported the season each year, with his annual contributions increasing as his business expanded. “The sabhas will pay the artistes, depending on what their budget is, so I don’t sponsor individual programmes,” he said. “The money is given to the sabha to divide. Every year, a few new sabhas come in. I try to give them at least Rs 5,000–10,000.” He couldn’t tell me the total sum he contributed last year. “I’m not sure of the details, but it must be in the range of three–four crore,” he said. “I just put my [signature] on the cheques.”
Apart from financial contributions, Chetti brings out a book of concert listings every year to help audiences navigate through the two months of performances spread across about 125 venues. Chetti also funded a compilation he calls a “raaga ready reckoner”, which lists popular Carnatic songs with the names of their composers and the ragas they are composed in. Updated regularly, this index serves as a handy reference for audience members who want to hold their own in pre- and post-concert analyses.
Promoting certain musical instruments—in particular the nadaswaram, a pipe-like wind instrument—is a particular passion of Chetti’s. To this end, since 2008 he has been running two festivals dedicated to the nadaswaram as part of the annual season. Chetti believes that the role of the patron is vital to the preservation of arts that might otherwise be forgotten. “We need to find talent,” he said. “It isn’t in our culture for people to market themselves. When I hear something good, I tell sabha secretaries that, as a layman, I liked it. Let them see if it appeals to them.”
Nandini Krishnan is a writer, playwright and stage actor based in Chennai, the city in which she grew up. She writes about music, dance, cinema and books for several publications. Her first book, Hitched: The Modern Woman and Arranged Marriage, was published in 2013 by Random House.