In the early ’30s, there was a man called Noel Lewis who lived in Bangalore. He moved his businesses from Seppings Road to Narayana Pillai Street; then from Cavalry Road to Moore Road, and finally settled down in Benson Town. South Indian musicians of that era treated him like God. They travelled miles together to meet him. He never sang but his strings often struck a musical chord with many. He was owner of N Lewis & Sons, a popular address in the music industry then and even now.
Noel Lewis was the most sought-after man for guitar and violin repairs, back in the day. Many believed that he was a ‘magician’ who knew what every musician wanted. Lewis could create music even out of a piece of log, they believed!
“There was no shop for musical instruments in Bangalore, back then. Top violinists came to dad and paid money placed in beetle leaves. They touched his feet to show their respect. And, they were all legends of that era,” said Cris Lewis, late Noel's son, as he began a musical solo down memory lane. “From age of 10, I was with my dad, helping him in his business. I was a student of St Charle's High School, Richard's Town. Before and after school, I always assisted my father. I had to discontinue studying after seventh grade,” Cris Lewis, now 67, told City Express. “I was the only son and the rest were all sisters, you know,” he added.
He admits that the business took a hit after his father fell sick, forcing Cris Lewis to take the entire load on his shoulders. “Nothing came easy for me. We were experts, and still are, I suppose, with our guitar and veena pick-ups. Top artistes used to travel from different parts of India to do their veena pick-ups right with us, so that the natural sound is not lost,” said Cris. Despite of competition catching up from all corners, Cris claims that there are many loyal guitarists and violinists who are currently on his elite customer list. “We are not claiming that we are number one, but tell me one musician in town who doesn’t know us. To me, we are an integral part of Bangalore’s music industry. In the early ’70s, we would deliver six hand-made guitars every week. I had 11 people working with me then. The numbers might have dropped, but our passion and love for music is intact,” he says.
While signalling his assistant to summon his family members for the interview, Cris recalled one of his most-cherished moments in life. “Dear, I don’t remember the year. I was in Bombay to repair the pipe organ at Christ Church in Byculla. A lady came to meet me and said musicians Shankar-Jai Kishan wanted to meet me. I met them and agreed to repair their grand and upright pianos. It was a great honour for me,” Cris said, introducing his family members. “Elaine is my wife - she listens to music, and my elder daughter Loretta, she can play the guitar,” he said.
Leave this kids alone
Gerard Lewis is a 41-year-old musician and runs Lewis School of Music. He has been playing the piano since the age of seven. “I learned piano from Rose Mary Morgan, who used to stay in Frazer Town. Later, I picked up lessons in drum and guitar from Eric Alcraft,” says Gerard, now into his 22nd year of teaching. “Bangalore is a happening place for music. The party culture makes it a dream city for music lovers.
It’s a heaven for DJs and RJs. You can become a good musician only if you are wedded to non-stop practice sessions,” says Gerard, a popular figure among party circuits, thanks to his music band.
When asked whether those learning musical instruments would go the distance, Gerard said: “There is enough talent out there and, in some cases, I am surprised at the speed at which kids pick up some tough lessons. But, what's tampering the flow of talent is the unwanted pressure from parents.
You cannot become A R Rahman or Sivamani overnight. There are no ready-made remedies in music. Talent gets mixed up with pressure from parents, and this is dangerous. Leave the kids alone,” said Gerard, the teacher.
The Chinese invasion
Next in line is Noel Lewis, who is into the family’s music business. He is a sound technician and stores rich memories of rocking days as a DJ. “The competition has become very intense. Once upon a time, we were the ones and now there are many. Guitars are in great demand with us, so are keyboards and drums. With technology improving by the day, there will be more digitised instruments coming your way. Your cell phone will be your next smart musical instrument,” says Noel. He said Chinese products have dented the spirits of traditional instrument makers.
The story of the Lewis clan is incomplete without Joseph Noel, who is the youngest. A music importer, he runs the family shop in Koramangala. “Piano repairing is a very complicated art. To take a piano to the normal pitch it takes two hours and to ready it for international standards (440), may be around four hours.
We are among the best three tuners in Bangalore now,” said Joseph. “We are proud of our dad, an extremely talented man. He took care of his dad as well and we are not sure if we can even ever fill his shoes,” he added.
The magic of harp
As the session entered the final lap, Cris Lewis came up with his masterpiece – a massive harp – the oldest musical instrument in the world. “It originated in Mesopotamia and later spread to Egypt and Asia too. It is very difficult to find a harpist. I always had the ambition to make something new. I saw a harp in a Hyderabad museum and came back and made three. It's different,” said Cris, whose instruments are often hired by film-makers and advertisement agencies.
As curtains fell for the musical assignment, Cris Lewis had a curious question. “Do you play any musical instrument?” he asked.
Well, if only the comp keyboard generated some music!