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Dr. Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti
…….... a venerable art patron

The Bible says  “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth.” But there are some exceptional philanthropists who keep on giving in bountiful and even the same hand which gives does not know that it has been giving so much! To this exclusive class belongs art patron Dr.Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti whose passion and unstinted support for fine arts has created a record which is unmatched and unparalleled.

It is said that we make a living by what we get but we make a life by what we give. Yes, Dr.Nalli has been hailed for giving in bountiful, be it for the cause of fine arts, education, charity or any other noble cause. Over the years, the patronage he has lent to various cultural institutions in particular, has helped much in the preservation and propagation of the arts all over the globe. Especially in Chennai, his phenomenal contribution has made every nook and corner of the city reverberate with a host of cultural activities.

The noble qualities that Dr.Nalli possesses is inspiring and worthy of emulation. He is a personification of humility, patience and modesty. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, it is thinking of yourself less and Dr.Nalli is a true example of this. You can see him attending a host of functions almost every day and even if you are unknown to him, he will stand patiently and listen to what you have to say. His memory is impeccable and he can clearly and distinctly remember and recollect all happenings so vividly and also quote them precisely in many of his addresses during functions.

Dr. Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti is the Chairman of the 80 plus year old Nalli business house, known for quality silk products. Nalli has recently entered into the jewellery sector also. Dr.Nalli has a penchant for quality and customer care. In recognition of his contribution to trade and industry, the Government of India conferred on him the prestigious title Padma Shri, a national honour. Recognizing his patronage to arts and culture, the Tamil Nadu Government presented him the title Kalaimamani. He is on the governing board of many art, cultural and educational institutions. The monks of the Ramakrishna Mission  recognising his public service, honesty and humility, have made him the President of the governing bodies of the Mission's educational institutions. He has been Chairman of Kapaleeswarar temple for three terms. He has also been a member of the Board of the Tirupathi, Tirumala Devasthanams. He is the Founder-President of Sneha, a NGO counseling the depressed.

Presently, Dr.Nalli is the President of Sri Krishna Gana Sabha, Sri Parthasarathy Swami Sabha, Brahma Gana Sabha, Mudhra, Mylapore Fine Arts Club and Chennai Cultural Academy, Vice President, of Madras Film Society and Mylapore Academy. He is the Executive Committee Member of Bharathiya Vidya Bhavan, Chennai Kendra.

Now Patron, Tamil Chamber of Commerce, Dr.Nalli is also a member in other Chambers like Indo Australian Chamber and Indo-Japan Chamber. He has also been a Member of the Planning Board of the Tamil University, Thanjavur a Member of the Senate, Bharathiar University, Member, Central Silk Board and Member, South Zone Cultural Centre, Chennai and Patron of The Madras Progress Union Higher Secondary School.

Dr.Nalli is invited for lectures by business schools and professional bodies. A man of impeccable honesty, he has never tapped his influence in public life for personal or professional gains. Everything is service for him. Whatever public service he takes up, he does it whole heartedly, with a classic professional touch.

Customer care is Dr.Nalli's core strength. He is an endearing personality to all his customers. Visiting Dr.Nalli's shop in Nageswara Road, T Nagar can be a very unique experience for anyone. Be not surprised if you see Chettiar sitting in the counter near the entrance, greeting familiar customers with a warm smile and also exchanging pleasantries. He is ever willing to walk an extra mile to please his customers, beyond the trade confines. Recently, I was waiting in his shop to meet him and I happened to see a group of foreigners who had come to purchase fancy shawls for some function. Dr.Nalli walked up to them and asking the salesman to display the shawls, he explained the varieties available and only when they were fully satisfied and finished their purchase, he moved away to the next counter to attend to another customer. Such business acumen is really hard to find but perhaps, this inherent attitude to be courteous and satisfy the customers to the very best is the secret of his phenomenal success !

A voracious reader, he is part of the annual Book Fair in Chennai. Some years ago, he paid a weeklong visit to London to read books in the British Library. He has built up a rich home library, an envy of academic institutions and industrialists. He has written many books on management and ethics and two of them have won awards from the Tamil Nadu Government.

What Dr.Nalli has been doing for the art world defies words. Artists, organizers and rasikas are deeply indebted to him for his magnanimous patronage which has helped much to preserve and propagate our great art forms and carry it forward to the next generation. 

In an exclusive interview with Dr.Radha Bhaskar & Mudhra Bhaskar, Dr.Nalli Kuppuswami Chetti shares interesting aspects of his successful journey……………..



First of all, we would like to place on record the great support you have been lending to Samudhra magazine for the past eleven years as our Chief patron………..

I extend my congratulations to you for bringing out this magazine successfully every month. Since I am a patron of Samudhra, many readers also call me up and express their appreciation after reading the articles in it.

Basically, you belong to a business family. How did you develop so much interest in music?

From my early days, I have been interested in reading books and listening to music. My grandfather, Sri Nalli Chinnasamy Chettiar, was a weaver in Kanchipuram and his silks became popular among the people of Madras. Thanks to his devotion, hard work and the quality goods he churned out, he established a large clientele in Madras and decided to shift base. Mangesh Street, in Thyagaraya Nagar, was the location he chose to first set up a shop in 1928. It was only in 1951 that we relocated to its current location in Panagal Park. I was studying in Ramakrishna Mission School then. In the evening, after finishing my homework, I would come and sit in the shop. At that time, T Nagar was an extremely calm and quiet place and you could hardly see anyone on the road after 7 p.m !

In 1954, Krishna Gana Sabha was started and it was then having its venue adjacent to our shop. In those days, there was a calm atmosphere with sparse traffic and very less pollution and hence, even inside our shop, you could hear the performance of artists in the sabha so clearly!  I would enjoy the music, though I did not know much about its intricacies then. I could experience the power of music in making my mind calm and forget all my fatigue. Thus, my strong association with music began from a very early age. Sri Yagnaraman, founder Secretary of Krishna Gana Sabha then requested me to become the Vice -President of the Sabha and later, I became its President and am still continuing to be so. Now, I am President for several sabhas in Chennai.

Who were the artists you got to hear in your early days ?

I have listened to greats like ML Vasanthakumari, GNBalasubra-

maniam, Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer and many others……

What were the sabhas existent then?

The main sabhas then were Music Academy, Tamil Isai Sangam, Jagannatha Bhaktha Sabha, Thyagaraja Vidhwat Samajam, Indian Fine Arts Society and Perambur Sangita Sabha. The patronage by Rajas earlier has given way to corporate sponsorship and now, that is the order of the day. Many banks and corporates are supporting the arts. You may know of the Season Reckoner book that I publish every year, containing the programme schedule of various sabhas during the December season. Last year, according to our book, we had 125 organisations conducting programmes in December. This may sound mind-boggling but with more than 2000 artists in Chennai, so many sabhas are required to give each of them a chance to perform. 

In those days, how were sabhas able to meet the expenses for their programmes?

Well, the concept of sponsorship was quite unknown in those days. Concerts were also quite less then and gate collection was the main source of income. Later, when gate collection decreased, sponsorship was the main source to run events.

What does fine art mean to you? In what way do you think these can enrich our lives?

Whatever be the walk of life, one needs relaxation and entertainment. Listening to good music and attending dance concerts are pleasing and soothes the mind. Also in our tradition, these are related to the epics, Puranas and other religious aspects.

Your contribution for   the cause of fine arts ha s been phenomenal. How did you get this attitude to support arts in such a large way?

I enjoy music, dance and drama. I want my friends, those around me and even those whom I do not know, to enjoy performances. If all should enjoy these fine arts, somebody should pay for it. I support the arts so that everybody can benefit from viewing it. Of course, unlike companies which support the arts, I am doing so as an individual.

While many business houses spend a major chunk on advertisements in the media, you seem to spend much more in supporting fine arts and allied areas………

Our family business has completed 85 years and Nalli has established its goodwill through good quality and service. Therefore, publicity through word of the mouth is enough. Hence, I spend more in sponsorship than advertisements.

In what way do you think such support from entrepreneurs like you will help fine arts?

Now, there is a provision for Corporate Social Responsibility  CSR as it is called. CSR need not be confined to raising bus shelters or granting scholarships. It could also be in the field of entertainment and hence, entrepreneurs and corporate houses could support fine arts under CSR and also take tax shelter.

While sponsoring, do you have any specific criteria on which you decide to what extent you would support an organization? Do you assess whether your money has gone to the right person and utilized for the right cause? How do you ascertain the quality of performance of an organization?

Those who ask me for sponsorship are known to me. If new persons approach me, I check up their credentials. Initially, I give a nominal contribution. If I find or get to know that they do well and deserve patronage, I give them more and continue to do so. I also attend various events personally. Apart from this, numerous friends in the field of fine arts give me feedback to judge artistes and sabhas.

Apart from fine arts, what are the other areas for which you have been contributing? Especially education, your support has been immense…….. Please tell something about this.

I do support poor students liberally. Some come in person and some write to me. Through my friends and contacts, I check up the credentials of those who write to me. Since my father passed away before I completed my schooling, I did not pursue college education. Therefore, to the wards of known families, I get admission in schools and colleges and in this context, I help individuals and institutions. Because I am a voracious reader also, I help some deserving writers and publishers. It is a great pleasure for me to do this.

Today, especially in the December season, so much is happening in the field of arts. Do you think such excess is good for the growth of arts?

It is not excess as you say, not even surplus or supernumerary. Many people come to attend concerts nowadays. Many music and dance schools have also come up. In the December season, artists are given opportunities to expose their talent and also develop themselves. Hence, there is nothing excess………

Also, there is such a profusion of talent among youngsters. Do you think that the undue recognition given to them is good for them?

Yes, I do agree that there are so many talented youngsters today. I am happy to see that many of them perform so exceedingly well.  But, they need to be given the right opportunities at the right time to expose their talent.  In this context, sabhas have a vital role to nurture and encourage them. Personally, if I spot good talents, I see to it that I get them chances to perform wherever possible. Even in the field of drama, I try to encourage as many troupes as possible.

But, they are hasty to come up and look for instant fame. What do you think about this? As a successful entrepreneur who has come up through consistent hard work over so many years, what is your advice to these youngsters?

Soon after completion of Arangetram, an artiste cannot shoot to fame. It takes years to shape oneself into a seasoned artist. One must come up the hard way by seeking opportunities to prove their talent. The music field is not like law or medicine where the juniors work with the seniors. There could be mentors who inspire, but it is up to each person to develop himself. Ultimately, it is only the talented that gain reputation and inspire others. Youngsters need not have inhibitions in asking for chances in sabhas. When given a chance, they should do their best.

Do you think that such deep involvement in fine arts (the way you have) also helps in developing one's profession (like your business)?

The two are totally different. My sponsorship is in no way related to promoting business………

Your time management is amazing. You have such a hectic schedule of attending so many events amidst your business activities and you do it so perfectly. How do you manage everything so efficiently?

I have assistants and friends to work out my schedules and hence, I can share my time effectively between business and other pursuits.

Being courteous and pleasant to everybody and being so easily approachable by all - this is quite rare in people of your stature. How did you cultivate this great quality?

I am in retail business. I am the face of my business. I should be available always in the shop, quite visibly, preferably, close to the entrance. I am not running an office of hierarchy. I run a business where I should always meet customers. That is what is called customer relationship, which is an essential element in any retail business. Any merchant should be pleasant. There is a Chinese proverb  “Can't smile? Then don't do business.” We should always be respectful, courteous and cheerful while speaking to a customer. This will earn a good name for the organization. Irrespective of what amount a customer purchases goods, we must treat all of them equally. I don't put on a smile just for the sake of it. My grandfather and father have been very cordial and friendly with customers. That developed the goodwill. It is in my genes to be what I am. I cannot be otherwise………….




Quality is the hallmark of your shop. Any memorable incident to reiterate this?

Well, once a famous textile shop owner came to my shop along with his wife and as we were conversing, a common friend of our also came there. He asked that shop owner in a naïve manner, “you yourself own such a big shop, so what are you doing here?” To this, that man replied, “so what? It is true that I have my own shop but the point is that my wife is a loyal customer of Nalli shop only!”

So, Nalli seems to be the ultimate destination for all top-notch people as well…….

Yes, we have prominent personalities from all walks of life as our customers. Sometimes, we do not even know who they are! Once, Mrs.Prema Srinivasan of the TVS family came to Nalli Silks with a well-dressed foreigner. Nobody gave the woman a second look as we were used to such tourists. After making their purchases, the two women left their car in our shop and sauntered across to the market around Panagal Park. The visitor had a wonderful time looking at everything and buying whatever she fancied. Only later did we learn that she was Jacqueline Kennedy!

You are very fond of reading and writing books. What kind of books do you read? What are the subjects you like to write about?

I read mainly non-fiction. I am interested in biographies and autobiographies. I like to know how people succeeded in their life. Books help me in that. Right from my school days, I have been very fond of books. I have built up a rich personal library. Some friends say that my library is the largest collection by any businessman. Reading also prompts one to write. When I wanted to share with my friends, fellow readers and fellow traders what I read and enjoyed and what I thought after reading books on business, philosophy and ethics, I felt the urge to write. It started thirty years ago with a brief sketch of my life as a businessman and is continuing even today.

Do you listen only to Karnatic music?

I listen to more of Karnatic music but I also like to listen to Hindusthani music. From my childhood, Karnatic music has been my first choice…………

Your book containing the December Programme schedule is very useful for rasikas………….

In 1995, I was attending a programme in Bharat Kalachar during the December fest. Mrs YGP was having a booklet containing the list of programmes in various sabhas and this was compiled by “Aindukaram Kannan” and his group of friends. Now, with so many programmes happening in all the sabhas, it is a herculean task to remember all of them and I found this book very useful. So, I took to supporting and publishing this book and every year, rasikas eagerly look forward to the release of this book as it helps them keep a track of all the events easily and also plan their schedule well ahead. We bring this book out usually around 3rd of December.

I think the Raga Reckoner book brought out by you is also extremely useful to rasikas all over the globe……..

Yes, and I am very happy about that. I remember attending a concert of Sanjay Subramaniam several years back. The hall was packed and as he sang the songs, some students were jotting down the name of the song and their ragas. But, they could not know for sure whether the raga name as identified by them was correct. They could probably verify it only after going home and asking their parents or music teachers. So I thought, “why not create a book with a complete data base of songs with their ragas and composers?” Thus, now this book has become very useful to all rasikas and students of music. I give it free of cost to all.

Once, a top official of a company visited my shop and he wanted this Raga book. I gave him the English version but he asked for the Tamil one.  He said that it was for his mother who resided in Bangalore and she had told him to get a copy of the Raga book for her. Many music teachers also pick up this book from our shop and give it to their students. Rasikas in various concerts also find it very useful as they can identify the ragas of songs without disturbing the persons sitting next to them! Many rasikas from America have also wanted this book and we have sent it across to them………….

Apart from the various sabhas you are involved in, you also organize exclusive concerts at the Ramakrishna Mission Home, Mylapore  regularly during Navarathri……..

You may be surprised to know that the Ramakrishna Mission Students Home was built in the surplus amount got by organizing Karnatic concerts several years back ! This only shows what great patronage Karnatic music had in those days………After that, not many activities were there in the Home for several years. In 2005, I took the initiative to organize a Music fest at the Students' Home during Navarathri and this has evinced great response from the children. So, from then on, I have been continuing this fest there and all leading artists perform in it. This is also a way to expose our great music to the children who otherwise, would never get an opportunity to hear it.   I also organize a fest in Meenakshi Sunderrajan College to cater to students there and also rasikas around Kodambakkam area. All these concerts are free for all………We have a social responsibility to nurture the arts, take it forward to the next generation and also preserve it for posterity.

You are the Vice -President of Madras Film Society and also in the Censor Board……………..

 I like to watch selected movies. Around 1985, I stopped seeing movies for about 15 years as my business commitments and responsibilities became very heavy after the demise of one of the managers in my shop. When my children were small, it was customary in our house to take them to a movie after their quarterly, half yearly and annual examinations. So, we would definitely get to see three movies a year! But after they grew up, this got stopped. I then got an opportunity to be in the Censor Board. Even today, I always see what I can learn from others. In that way, I learnt many things as a member of the Censor Board.




You have also acted in a movie “Sri Ramanujar” recently……….

Yes, I have a done a small role in that movie. I also did a small role in the movie “ Kadal Mannan.” Of course, in that movie, I had to say as dialogue what I usually say to my customers. So, there was no problem…

 How important is the contribution of business houses and corporates for development of art and culture? What according to you is their social responsibility?

Sanitation, maintaining parks, poor feeding, gifting garments - all contribute to the well-being of the society. Corporate houses do that. But, ennobling the mind is also equally important. Support to fine arts from business houses come under this category. Sound mind and sound body makes the man. Sound mind is what is to be taken care of by CSR. It is not simply helping entertainment but moulding individuals with sound mind for the society to be sound in every way!

Finally, what is your message to readers of Samudhra?

When you started Samudhra 11 years back, I was wondering how you would be able to manage running a magazine, that too exclusively for fine arts. At that time, I was involved in a Tamil magazine called “sarigamapadhani” and I know how difficult it is to bring out a quality magazine on time. It is indeed an arduous task but I am happy that you have been doing it very successfully for so many years. Such magazines are indeed very valuable and a great source of information about our great art and artists for the future generation.

I would also like to say that your Music Appreciation Programme has evinced so much interest among rasikas and such programmes seem to draw a larger crowd compared to concerts. I understand that several top people have been attending your course. I remember seeing Dr.Sugandhi  Rajagopal attending one of your Music Appreciation Programmes several years back. She happened to be such a busy doctor then and people would wait till 11p.m to get an appointment to meet her! I was indeed quite surprised to see her when I presided over the valedictory function to distribute certificates to all the participants. It was then that I realised how people from different walks of life are keen to know more about the intricacies of our great music. When I was in school, we had music as an optional subject but now, it is not so. Of course, not all those who learn music become performers. They can also become music teachers or at least be devoted rasikas of Karnatic music.

I take this opportunity to appreciate you for the wonderful work you have been doing and extend my greetings to all the readers of Samudhra magazine. Thank you!

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