Sheikh Chinna Moula was one of the stellar exponents of the nagaswaram in the last century. He hailed from a family that was steeped in the nagaswaram tradition from the seventeenth century. Ancestor Sheikh Nabi Sahib is said to have been the first to take to the instrument after receiving divine grace from Goddess Muniamandamma at Sattalur. The family became torchbearers of the Chilkakaluripet school of nagaswaram in present day Andhra Pradesh.
Sheikh Chinna Moula was born in 1924 as the son of Sheikh Kasim Sahib. Early tutelage on the nagaswaram was from his father and from Adam Sahib of Chilkakaluripet. He became a sought after performer even while young. However, an obsession to learn the Thanjavur bhani as personified by TN Rajarathinam Pillai led the Sheikh to seek him out as Guru. However, TNR was an extremely busy artiste and did not have the time and the Sheikh was sent to the Nachiarkoil brothers, who were leading exponents in the field. Sheikh Chinna Moula absorbed all that was unique to the nagaswaram traditions of Thanjavur and then judiciously mixed it with his own ancestral style, thereby creating a niche for himself. However, he always expressed regret at the fact that he had not had the opportunity to learn from Rajarathinam Pillai.
The Sheikh bhani was one that believed in tradition. The Thanjavur style was steeped in raga elaboration and swaras and songs were considered to be appendages on which the key elements of Carnatic music, namely ragas could be yoked. The Sheikh therefore excelled in raga alapanas. Rakti ragas and the core Carnatic ragas were his forte and he showed that they were infinite in scope and could therefore be taken up for extensive elaboration. His kalpana swaras were yet another delight and he would weave garland after garland of notes with great depth. In addition the Sheikh, enhancing the Thanjavur tradition also brought in great bhava into his rendition of kritis. Listening to his performance was a spiritually energising and at the same time relaxing experience.
His first performance in Tamilnadu was in 1960 when accompanied by Tattamangalam Ponnuswami he made the audience take note of a new talent on the horizon. Ever since then he became a busy concert artiste and remained so till the end of his life. He also travelled abroad, beginning with Sri Lanka which he visited several times, the US in 1973, Hong Kong in 1982 and the erstwhile USSR in 1987.
Sheikh Chinna Moula was a man whose religious beliefs transcended faiths and religions. His ancestors had offered musical service at several Hindu temples and he was no different. He made Lord Ranganatha of Srirangam his ishta devata and dedicated all his music performances to that deity. In the 1960s he decided to settle down at Srirangam in order to be close to his Lord and scarcely an evening would pass when he was in station without his visiting the temple. This was in the same tradition as several other great artistes such as Baba Allauddin Khan of Maihar Gharana who was devoted to Goddess Saraswathi and Ustad Bismilla Khan who even today performs regularly at a Ram Mandir in Benares. To the Sheikh ?secularism? was a practice and not just a fashionable word. Many were the awards that came to Sheikh Chinna Moula. Notable among these were
Kalaimamani from the Tamilnadu Eyal Isai Nataka Manram (State Sangeet Natak Akademi) in 1976
Padma Shri from the Government of India in 1977
Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award in 1977
Gana Kala Prapoorna from the Andhra Sangeet Natak Akademi in 1980
Saptagiri Sangeeta Vidwanmani from the Tirupati Tyagaraja Festival in 1984
Doctorate from the Andhra University in 1985
Isai Perarignar from the Tamil Isai Sangam in 1993
Sangita Kalanidhi from the Madras Music Academy in 1998
It was a remarkable coincidence that the Sheikh was awarded his Kalanidhi in the centenary year of his idol TN Rajarathinam Pillai, who for various reasons had never received the award. The Sheikh in his acceptance speech first attributed the award to the grace of Lord Ranganatha and then said he would placing it at the feet of TN Rajarathinam Pillai before accepting it.
The Sheikh was a warm and loving human being who remained humble and devout throughout his life. His desire to propagate nagaswaram music led his founding the Saradha Nagaswara Sangeetha Ashramam in 1982 at Srirangam from which institution several exponents have graduated. The Sheikh?s own grandsons, Kasim and Babu emerged as talented artistes and accompanied him in several of his concerts in his later years. Today they carry forward his bhani.
Sheikh Chinna Moula passed away in 1999, having led a life that knew only music and having received several honours for the high quality of his art.