At KnowYourStar, we are always on the lookout for a good story. So, it was incredibly exciting to have one land in our laps (or inboxes if you will). In 2016, we interviewed Ghatam Suresh, one of India’s better known Carnatic musicians. The following story came to our notice, thanks to him! Suresh Ji received an email from one of his new students, Sylvester Moodley, a musician in South Africa who loved Carnatic music and was determined to better his Ghatam skills. A long-time classical musician and Ghatam enthusiast, Sylvester was inspired by Suresh Ji’s journey despite hurdles, and it added to his desire to excel at the instrument.
Sylvester’s kind words about our article on Ghatam Suresh Vaidhyanathan inspired us to reach out to him and learn his story. We’re always talking about how small acts, when done with great love, touch hearts, and Sylvester’s email left a huge impact on us. As storytellers, we are always excited to have reached an audience – and we’re even more thrilled that we have, however inadvertently, truly touched someone’s life. Read on to find out more about Sylvester.
The Opening Number
It is often said that music knows no boundaries. It has the potential to seep down into our lives and change it irrevocably for the better. It has done just that and more in Sylvester Moodley’s case! Carnatic music, an art form that is beloved in India, has also found some popularity in South Africa thanks to the dedicated efforts of artists like Sylvester.
Sylvester Moodley began his journey with Carnatic music quite early on. Born in Phoenix, Durban, he was introduced to South Indian culture and heritage at a very young age. His parents sent him to a Tamil school and Carnatic music became a part of his life early on. He says, “I initially started studying Carnatic Vocals under Shri Kumarasin Chetty and Mridangam under Shri Gopalan Govender. During this period both my brother and I were actively involved in the music circuit in Durban, the Phoenix Temple Society and the Saiva Sithanta Sangam.”
He discovered his love for Ghatam after his teacher Shri Pregalathan Singaram introduced him to the instrument. He describes his initial forays into percussion,
At that time, we could not find the original Ghatam in South Africa and I remember entering the Tamil Eisteddfod where I played in a Thalavadyam ensemble using a brass metal pot which his (Shri Pregalathan Singaram) wife used as an ornament in their home.
His dream of becoming a Ghatam player grew wings as he saw Grammy winning Ghatam player Vidwan Vikku Vinayakram perform in South Africa. He says, “I was overjoyed at both watching and listening to this musical genius. The love of Ghatam has remained with me ever since.”
Setting The Scene
Sylvester says that the Carnatic music industry in South Africa is quite small, but features a number of pioneers who took up formally teaching the art form. Thankfully, this has continued for generations. He says, “There have been a few doyens or pioneers in this field that initially started teaching structured music, which has been passed on from generation to generation. Namely, Shri Gopalan Govender, Shri I Kistraj, Shri Vella Padiachi, Shrimathi Sathyabhama, Shrimathi Karthigai Moodley, Shri Nadarajan Naicker and many more. Their students have maintained the lineage and continued teaching the art form, which has grown. Today, there is a bigger awareness of Carnatic music in all corners of South Africa.”
In the present day, the scene of Carnatic music in South Africa is expanding. More and more artists are learning and imparting their knowledge to younger generations. Although the visibility and awareness about Carnatic music has improved, Sylvester explains,
There is still a major shortage of skilled specialists, Many artists have studied Mridangam or Tabla and have used this as a base to play other instruments, namely Ghatam, Kanjira, Thavil etc. There is a need for specialist artists who have studied instruments like the Ghatam, Kanjira, Thavil, Morsing, etc.
Remembering His Gurus
The Guru-Shishya or the Teacher-Disciple tradition is at the heart of Carnatic music. Sylvester has had the good fortune to be taught by some extraordinary musicians, and fondly remembers each of them and acknowledges their contributions to his learning with heartfelt gratitude. “My early exposure to Carnatic Music was from Shri Kumarasin Chetty- a naturally born artist whose knowledge and capabilities have not been used to the maximum in South Africa. Shri Gopalan Govender- arguably the pioneer of percussion in South Africa; a fatherly figure that ensured that hi students were initially taught the human values of discipline, respect and morals. The majority of percussive artists in South Africa have stemmed from this great gentleman.”
As for his late Guru, he says,
Shri Pregalathan Singaram- I honestly believe that he was born in the wrong land. Had he been born in India with his natural talent, he would be amongst the greatest. His type of Guruship was a bit different to Shri Gopalan, in a sense that, as much as he was a stern figure, he kept a sort of friendship and camaraderie amongst his disciples.
Sylvester currently practices under the guidance of Shri Suresh Vaidyanathan popularly known as Ghatam Suresh. Moodley came across Suresh Vaidyanathan online and social media gave them a platform to connect with each other. Eventually, he became the Master’s disciple. He describes Ghatam Suresh as, “Strict but also friendly, joyful, and full of laughs and smiles.”
I don’t believe any student should be without a Guru, and Master Suresh has given me added value in life. I believe he is guiding me towards my life’s goals and ambitions in music as well as in my personal life. I remember my first physical meeting with Master at his home in Chennai. He was in the middle of a practice session with 3 senior disciples of his, as I called him and said, ‘Master I am here, can I come see you?’ There was no hesitation on his part, he said, ‘Obviously you must come’. Seeing the respect and manner that his disciples at the time afforded him, cemented my belief that he would become my Guru.
Playing Different Rhythms
Although Ghatam is Sylvester Moodley’s primary instrument, he can also play the Mridangam – a major percussion instrument in Carnatic music. However, there is no denying that he has a special love for Ghatam. He says, “The distinct sound that can be produced by the Ghatam is what has drawn me to this instrument.” Most major instruments have changed massively according to modern standards. Sylvester opines that despite modernizations of other instruments, the Ghatam has remained true to its origins.
Battling Pain And Loss
Great artists often use music to translate their pain into something beautiful. So, perhaps it’s not entirely surprising that Sylvester’s journey, both personally and professionally, has been filled with challenges.
He has endured a lot of physical pain and emotional blows over the years. Medical illnesses have strongly impacted his life. Sylvester has undergone seven sinusitis operations, and due to his chronic sinusitis, he has had to balance his lifestyle to reduce stress and other pressures of life, which contributed to his condition. He has also battled a Spinal Stenosis and Scoliosis, which still affects his posture and mobility from time to time.
Sylvester has also endured turbulent emotional periods when two of his beloved Gurus breathed their last. He says, “It is said that when a parent passes on, a child feels a sense of being lost, or having no purpose. I can compare this exactly to the passing of my Guru. When Guru Gopalan passed on, I was about 13 years old. I don’t think I realised the actual impact of his death immediately; there was a period of time where I thought that I would not proceed with my studies and call it quits, but unknowingly I believe that his guidance led me to Guru Singaram.”
The loss of Guru Singaram was more devastating in a way,
When Guru Singaram had passed away, I felt the full blow emotionally. I was now an adult and understood the concept of death, and I felt the unfairness of his life being cut short and regularly questioned God. But as years went by and having faced life’s challenges and hurdles, I have learnt that some souls are born to do a specific job and once they have achieved that, they must also return home. I feel the presence of both my Gurus daily with me, there is not a day that goes by that I do not acknowledge their roles in my life. Every aspect of my life is a direct result of their guidance given over the years.
Following His Dream
Sylvester aims to become a specialist Ghatam player, a rarity in South Africa. With the assistance and guidance from his Guru, Shri Suresh Vaidhyanathan, he is confident of achieving this.
Roy Ayers once said, “The true beauty of music is that it connects people. It carries a message, and we, the musicians, are the messengers.” Sylvester Moodley’s quest to master the Ghatam and spread the magic of percussion truly makes him a messenger of the art form. As fans, both of Carnatic music and of Sylvester’s, we can’t wait to see what he does next!