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Sounds of Music in the Nilgiris

Plantation life offers the discerning music lover the unique ability to stay tuned to an odd assortment of music – most of it at least fifty years old – and make it a part of everyday life.

Some years ago the little town of Coonoor in the tea-growing district of Nilgiris got its own unique version of a supermarket. Walk down Bedford Circle towards Stanes School, (yes, we’re still in India) and you’ll find a charming little old colonial structure complete with red tiled roof, the sign above the door proclaiming to the shopper that here stands a franchise of the Bangalore-based Nilgiris chain of supermarkets. But there the similarity ends. This wonderful store could be a place out of time from 1950s England… The Woolworths of the South Indian hills. To the residents of Coonoor it’s just known as Cedric’s, named after the long-standing resident who started this much-loved outlet, and will greet every single client with a cheery smile, and always by name.

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You can get anything here. From frozen goods, to knitting needles, to home-made chocolates, to soap and shampoo to Thai food kits to an exquisite range of home-curated cheeses and jams and chutneys, to dog food, to ayurvedic medicines… The whole town tends to shop there and it has become a common meeting point, allowing you to say hello to those you like and magnificently ignore those you don’t. And it does not matter what time of the year you go there or what time of day, the one thing you will always, always find in this delightful treasure trove is music. And not just any music, but country music and rock and roll from the fifties and sixties streaming forth from a rather fine sound system. As you wander around the store, bumping shoulders with other shoppers, you’ll find most of them humming along with these familiar tunes from another time… Because everyone in this town, where time stands still, knows and loves this kind of music, and few have cared to venture beyond this era and genre. A twelve-year-old will probably know the words to ‘House of the rising sun’ and few would find it hard to resist a subtle smile as Elvis croons out one of town’s favourites. Yes, as you enter this delightful store there are two things strike you immediately… The tall display of beautifully packaged Nilgiris teas on the right, as you enter, and the wonderfully old-yet-familiar music that instantly transports one back to simpler times and simpler ways.

Indeed, few things are more irrevocably tied together than tea and music – at least in this unique part of the world. The tradition going back many decades. In Holy Innocents High School in 1982 a group of twelve-year-olds belted out a beautiful arrangement of Malaika under the skilled tutelage of their much-loved music master, Michael Enos, still known around town today as Sir Michael. That most charming teacher himself comes from a family that has done much to uphold the Western musical traditions of this little hill district. His father, the late Mr Enos, was a piano teacher of some distinction, and his brother, Ivan, still runs a music school today, as well as heading up the local band, that to many biased local ears is still the best one on the planet – I concur. In fact, there was a time when no dance at the Wellington Gymkhana Club, or a wedding celebration, was considered complete without the (former) Minks in attendance, and many a tender romance blossomed at these dances as Michael and Ivan played on. Certainly, back in the day a piano lesson with Ivan Enos was a special occasion indeed. An effortless musician, he made learning music simple and fun, and his gracious father would always be on hand, nodding quietly, as he handed the entranced pupil the cup of tea that came free with the lesson.

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Cedrics at Coonoor

And these legacies live on. The town boasts its very own choir, one of some particular talent. From ‘All I have to do is dream’ to ‘Blue Christmas’ to ‘A whiter shade of pale’… a performance by this fine group of singers showcases both the town’s musical heritage and its vital sense of community. Parsis, Sikhs, Hindus, Muslims, Christians and atheists come together in wonderful harmony (pun intended, naturally) to sing everything from hymns to old Hindi songs to the odd Swahili number… yes, ‘Malaika’ is still popular after all these years. And last Christmas, the town’s longest standing musical legend, Mrs Phyllis Wright, stood before this very choir that she helped start many decades ago, and raising her delicate, elegant hands, helped conduct it once more, aged 96, accompanied by none other than Ivan Enos. Of course, those that know Mrs Wright will know that her musical abilities were matched only by the very fine tea-parties she used to give – complete with mouth-watering sandwiches and melt-in-the-mouth cookies she baked herself. In fact, there was no finer way to enjoy a cup of Nilgiris brew than at one of these select soirees.

Maybe it’s the fact that most schools and colleges have always had choir, or that being up in the hills cuts off more modern musical influences, but there’s something incredibly heart-warming about this little slice of life that continues to exist unchanged in its simpler musical pursuits, in a world where technology and hedonism have overtaken melody and emotion. Maybe it’s the swirling clouds that wander in and out through the tea gardens that help preserve a way of life that is unbelievably gentle; or perhaps it’s the very tradition of tea-drinking that helps preserve this music of the mountains… Whatever the cause, Coonoor is special and its musical legacy both quaint and wonderful. And for all these reasons and more, it remains the keeper of a way of life no longer in evidence anywhere else in the world.

One thing is certain. That while this green-blue mountain range may seem to offer quiet and calm in spades, you can be quite certain that these tea-laden hills are quite alive with the sound of music. And yes, almost everyone in Coonoor will know the lyrics of almost every one of those songs from that much-loved musical. I will stake a cup of tea on that…

Photo courtesy Greaves Henriksen

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  • Sangeetha Shinde
    Sangeetha Shinde is Managing Editor of The Business Innovator, a European business magazine. She has previously edited and written for lifestyle and culture magazines, including the Times of India, Reader's Digest and Femina. She is also the author of "A Moral Murder and Other Tales from the Blue Hills", a collection of snapshots of life and legends in the Nilgiris, where she grew up.
  • All Posts from Sangeetha Shinde

26 Comments

  1. geetha job says

    Thank you sangeetha for the beautiful write up. U captured the essence yet again in a nutshell. Feeling nostalgic!!!!

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      The Nilgiris has that effect… Especially on those who left. Thank you, Geetha, for reading and being a oartyof Teabox.

  2. Diogo Trindade says

    No doubt the words written by Sangeetha have the magic of being able to transport us to Coonoor after a few lines of text. The smells, the textures, the people, the feelings … It’s all here. What is good about these? At this moment and for me, the desire to travel to this place, get to know the country, the region, the city and the people!

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Diogo… That Teabox and I have captured the imagination of people on other continents, makes what we do so worthwhile. Thank you… And please keep visiting us.

  3. Stephen Gardner says

    Another wonderful piece that, once again, stirs the inner desire to travel & experience places not yet visited. I haven’t drunk Tea in a long time either, but reading about a cup of tea in the surroundings of the Nilgiris stimulates a desire to try that taste adventure once again!

    That said; I think a cup of tea on a rainy cold English afternoon won’t be quite as magical as the Nilgiris!

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Hi Stephen… What a lovely email. You have a lovely way with words. I hope someday you experience the magic of the Nilgiris in person. Until then… I give you Teabox. :)

  4. Matthew Ryan says

    What a beautifully written, heartwarming piece. Makes me want to kick my coffee habit and retire to the tea district described in this article. I look forward to more such as these – what a wonderful theme to work stories around. Starring your blog now.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Dear Matthew,

      All of us at Teabox take credit if you kick your coffee habit. Do check out our carefully curated range… It might help you along that most excellent journey. I, of course, recommend Nilgiris tea… Nothing better in my very biased opinion. Thank you for writing in and please keep reading. We have a collection of writers and stories that rival our teas. :)

  5. Lovely article! Flavours and sounds actually go together hand in hand. Digging into our memories about certain places will often immediately also bring up the food/drinks we had and the music we listened too. I would love to visit Coonoor, have a tea and listen to the music you’re writing about!

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Edgar, thank you for your note. I do hope you will visit my hometown and I assure you…the tea there cannot be described in words. But maybe a sampling from Teabox might give you a taste of journeys to come. Thank you for reading… Please keep coming back.

  6. Ann Antonio says

    Thank you so much Sangeetha for that wonderful trip to Coonoor. It transported me back to a time of pure simplicity and freedom. I always feel nostalgic when I go back there. But now, you have taken me there with the way you have so wonderfully reminisced events that we have grown to love over the years.

    Indeed, it is “Sound of Music in the Nilgiris”.

    Thank you and look forward to many more in the days to come.

  7. Sangeetha Shinde says

    Dear Anne, so glad you enjoyed the read and it brought back good memories for you. I hope you’ll be back in the Nilgiris soon… Enjoying a cuppa and reading our collection of stories that capture the heart of India’s plantation life.

  8. Beena says

    Hi Sangeetha,
    I think I’m going to look at Cedric’s Shop differently after reading your piece. Yes I’ve unconsciously hummed to the songs being played over there.?
    As for the Enos family they remain the iconic music family of Coonoor. Michael Enos passed away a few days back. May his soul rest in peace. One of his uncles taught us three sisters piano in the sixties. Only thing more than learning music,what we enjoyed most was all the stories he told us about the British who lived in the Nilgiris. He would often talk about the ‘good old days ‘ before the ‘dothiwallas’ came to rule us. I guess all of us have our ‘good old days’?.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Hi Beena.Thank you for your note. Michael was my class teacher over thirty years ago… His passing was a huge loss to our community. I would love to hear more about your growing up in Coonoor… Someday… :)

  9. Dear Sangeetha,

    Reading your comments about Nilgiris(Coonoor) it was pleasing to my soul. I am including to my projects to go there one day and have this wonderful experience. You have really created a living image of a paradise for music and tea!
    Thank you so much for this trip!

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Dear Elizeth, Many thanks for writing to us. I hope you make it to the Nilgiris some day soon and I hope your projects are both successful and satisfying. Please do keep visiting us at Teabox… and keep us posted on your travels.

  10. P.Rajagopalan says

    P.Rajagopalan

    The link to this blog was provided by someone who is part of a group of former students of the Lawrence School, Lovedale. I happen to be the most ancient in this group, having passed out of the school in 1957. I feel certain that my time at Lovedale in the 1950’s predates the ‘arrival’ of Cedric’s as I do not recall anyone mentioning Cedric’s during my years at Lovedale.
    It was lovely reading your article. It has generated a lot of nostalgia, particularly since my last visit to Lovedale was as far back as in September, 1969. The mention about the music of old being played continuously only enhances the element of nostalgia. By the way, I am almost certain that the older Mrs. and Mr. Enos were familiar figures at Lovedale. If I do happen to make a trip to the Nilgiris, I am sure that I shall find myself dropping in at Cedric’s.
    With all good wishes,
    Rajagopalan.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Dear P Rajagopalan… Thank you for your lovely comment. delighted that the article brought back happy memories for you. When you do drop into Cedric’s please tell him, Sangeetha says hello. Also, you’ll be happy to know, I studied at Lawrence Lovedale for a year in my distant youth. :-)

  11. Arleigh Hubbard says

    Excellent Sangeetha. Enjoyable read.
    Ticket from Neenah to Nilgiris please.

    • Sangeetha Shinde says

      Dear Arleigh, don’t forget to take the toy train up to Coonoor. Thank you for reading and for writing in. :)

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  14. Michael Sales says

    Excellent article Sangeetha especially for a boy from the Nilgiris who imbibed all this in his formative years in school at St George’s Ketti where, as a member of the Choir I did get to meet and sing with Phyllis Wright and her husband Charles who had a lovely baritone. The Enos family of Coonoor were also well known as one of my work colleagues in Bangalore was the daughter of Mr Enos Snr. Many a time we have travelled up from Bangalore either by bus or car en-route to visiting my parents in Kodanaad where a stop to drop her off was always accompanied by refreshments provided by Mrs Enos.
    A most enjoyable encapsulation of the musical persuasions and talent in the Nilgiris

  15. Sreeram says

    Thanks a ton. I have been to Cedric’s quite a few times but I’ll have a completely different experience on my next visit there. You make Coonoor look beautiful by your writing, always. This place, which is larger than life(as quoted by you) deserves a writer as artistic as you. Thanks for your bias towards the Nilgiris, which contributes to the above.

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