Champion of the pipe organ

Champion of the pipe organ

A retired naval officer, Commodore T M J Champion, has made it his life’s mission to repair pipe organs and give the British legacy its due ...

A retired naval officer, Commodore T M J Champion, has made it his life’s mission to repair pipe organs and give the British legacy its due

The 200-odd pipe organs in the various churches in the country would have become a part of history but for the relentless restorative work by Commodore Champion and others

The pipe organ in St John’s Church, Secunderabad, was built by Misquith & Co. Madras in 1908 by Mohammad Habibullah. A handwritten inscription in pencil by him has been sighted inside the woodwork of the bellows
T P Venu
The entire life of Thanjavur-born electronics engineer T M J Champion, who has served the Navy for decades, can be seen befittingly from two standpoints: dedication to his job and his undying love for the pipe organ. There are about 200 pipe organs in the country. Largely a British legacy, many of them are either lying unused or are being dismantled for want of repair. “The British left India, but did not leave behind a factory that could repair the pipe organs. If I can extend the life span of a few by another two decades I’d be happy,” says Champion.
Initiation into music
As a child, Champion dabbled in music and his interest in the pipe organ grew when his father told him that an Englishman was playing the pipe organ in Nagapattinam. Though just 11 years, he took a trip to see for himself and also played the pipe organ with elan.
The visit to Nagapattinam spurred him on and later in life his work as a naval officer took him to several places. From playing the organ for his school anthem to a being the organist at the Holy Comforter’s (Lutheran) Church, Tanjore (as it was called then), as a teenager he had his first exposure to German hymns. As a naval officer he was posted to several cities and he invariably became the organist of the church, be it The Cathedral Church of the Redemption, Delhi; Christ Church, Byculla, Wesley Church, Mumbai or the St Christopher’s Church, Goa. Now he is one among the four organists at the St John’s Church, Secunderabad.
Repairing and restoring
Apart from playing music, he started collecting books and visited pipe organ manufacturing firms in England, USA and Germany. “The engineering education came handy as I was able to understand how it functions,” says Champion. The highpoint of his life came when he visited ‘The Cathedral Church of the Redemption’ in New Delhi in 1988 and was astonished to find the largest three manual pipe organ in the country was not functioning. “A letter to the British High Commissioner in New Delhi, consultations with experts and sourcing parts from England ensued and the pipe organ was restored.”
When he came to Secunderabad in 2003 on posting, he visited various churches and played a big role in the restoration of the pipe organ at St John’s Church. With the help of T K Das, an organ repairer from Kolkata, details collected from late Theodore V Comfort, an organist of the church, and the knowledge gleaned from Sam Miller an organist who played in Wesley Church, Mumbai, research since 1970s and, above all, firm determination saw him bring back the pipe organ to life.
The pipe organ was based on hand blowing mechanism. While the organist plays, a man in the background would have to move a tool continuously so that the air is supplied to the bellows. A luxury that people of yore could afford, it is hardly suitable today. So it was converted into an electrical blowing one. An electric motor driver blower was custom-built to deliver 750 cubic foot per minute (cfm). There are a total of 590 pipes in the entire pipe organ at the St John’s Church. The next project that Commodore Champion is keen on is to assemble the pipe organ that is lying unused at the All Saints Church, Trimulgherry, Secunderabad.
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