At 60, Palakkad musician Abi braves heavy odds, clears Trinity College’s Grade 8 exam

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60-year-old violinist Aby Vazhapillil cleared Trinity College London's Grade 8 examination recently. Photo: Supplied
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Abi Vazhapillil was born with an inability to control his eye movements. The condition, medically known as nystagmus, slowly started affecting his vision and put a question mark over his wish to become a musician. But he overcame those heavy odds to become a renowned violinist and an encouraging music teacher.

Recently, the 60-year-old added another feather to his illustrious cap when he passed the Grade 8 music examination from the Trinity College London. Grade 8 is the final and toughest examination offered by the prestigious performing arts institution.

Abi has been dreaming of taking the Grade 8 examination, where candidates have to read and produce the music at first sight, but nystagmus has put his plan on hold for a long time. (He had cleared from Grade 1 to 7 while working as a violin tutor in the United Arab Emirates many years ago).

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Violinist Abi Vazhapillil - Photo: Supplied

But the lockdown gave him an opportunity to rekindle his dream. He began training with his daughter Anna and disciples Athena Wilson and Sandra Shibu. A few months of dedicated effort helped Abi and his three students clear the examination.

“The notations were too small for me to read, but I managed to pass the examination by the grace of God,” he said.

Musical journey

Born to V.A. Paulose and Mariyamma in Palakkad district, Abi excelled in his academics. He wished to pursue Science for his higher studies. But nystagmus turned out to be a villain and he was forced to study History at the Government Victoria College in Palakkad, which according to him, was a turning point in his life.

Abi's tryst with music began at this time after Sunny George, a bandmaster with the Indian Navy, introduced him to the world of violin. He decided to take music as a career after he trained under famous composer Leslie Peter. "Leslie sir's musical class would last for just 10 minutes. He would give us lessons for musical life after it," Abi recounted.

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Abi (extreme left) with renowned singer Yesudas. Photo: Supplied

Later, he learned Carnatic music and earned the Diploma of Ghanabhooshanam in violin from Chembai Memorial Government Music College in Palakkad.

Since the 1990s, Abi has been an inevitable part of all orchestra troupes in Palakkad district. He also played for many leading orchestras in Kerala, including Choice Orchestra in Thrissur, Satish Babu Orchestra in Kozhikode, Elites Orchestra in Coimbatore. He is a founding member of the 25-year-old Nadam Orchestra in Palakkad. “The troupe's name – Nadam, meaning musical sound, was suggested by me,” said Abi.

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Abi with renowned singer Hariharan. Photo: Supplied

As his stature in musical industry grew, Abi was invited to accompany renowned playback singers K J Yesudas, late S P Balasubrahmaniam, Hariharan, Sankar Mahadevan, Jayachandran, Unnikrishnan, P Suseela, S Janaki, Vani Jayaram, K S Chitra and Sujata in concerts in different parts of India and UAE, UK, Singapore, Malaysia, Qatar and Bahrain.

“Those journeys with blessed musicians gave me many unforgettable memories,” he said.

For a few years, Abi had worked as violin teacher at the Global Music Institute in Abudhabi in the United Arab Emirates. “I had achieved Trinity College London's Grade 7 in violin while working in Abudhabi,” he said.

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Abi Vazhapillil with his wife Daisy, daughter Anna and son Paul. Photo: Supplied

Abi's daughter Anna grew up listening to his music, and she credits her father for helping her clear the Grade 8 examination of Trinity College London. “I completed all grades in just four years. It would have been a mere fantasy without papa's support,” said Anna, who is an undergraduate student in psychology. Abi's wife Daisy is a retired music teacher and son Paul is an undergraduate student in biotechnology.

Abi's student, Athena Wilson, too thanked him for guiding her to clear the Grade 8. “He is a down to earth personality. I could achieve this because of his continuous guidance and the ceaseless encouragement from my parents and siblings,” she said.

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Abi Vazhapillil (second from left) with his daughter Anna and students Athena Wilson and Sandra Shibu. All four violinists achieved Grade 8from Trinity College London. Photo: Supplied

Abi is currently working as a violin tutor at three institutions - Samanwaya Donbosco, National Academy and Hyma Institute - in Palakkad.

Father C J Sebastian, Director of Samanwaya Don Bosco, said Abi is loved by all his students. “Forty years of musical journey has made him a simple, affectionate and a person worth emulating. He is a great violinist, good human being and an accomplished teacher. Everyone loves him,” he said.

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