‘From O Osman’ to ‘God Save the King’ to ‘Jana Gana Mana’ Powells have played it all

Zeenath Khan

Come December, a wave of nostalgia washes over me as I recall my ten-year-old self singing her lungs out during the Hyderabad Public School’s annual Christmas concert. Bursting with excitement, I along with the rest of the choir strutted out in our gleaming polished shoes on to a tinsel bedecked stage. The girls were prim and proper in red tartan skirts and white blouses,while the boys wore black trousers and white shirts.

The concert began with traditional Christmas carols and ended with a song our redoubtable music teacher Mr Dennis Powell had pepped to the level of a rock anthem: Santa Claus is coming to town, Santa Claus is coming to town, Santa Claus Is coming to town. By the finale, we’d be shaking maracas and tapping our feet while Mr Powell performed a grand flourish on the keyboard.

Although none of us were familiar with the term in those days, Mr Powell, whom henceforth we shall refer to as Dennis, embodied the term ‘Rockstar’. He joined the Hyderabad Public School in 1980, while in his early twenties, and remained its sole music teacher until as recently as 2017. However, in doing so, he charted a different course from three generations of Powells before him.

I caught up with Dennis on a video call and learned some fascinating facts about his family. Not only have the Powells been active on Hyderabad’s music scene from the late 1930s, but their family boasts intricate links to the city’s history.

In the year 1900, the 25th Madras Infantry presented this bottle to Dennis’s great-grandfather, George Powell, their Drum Major shortly before his elevation to Band Master of their regiment. ‘What’s interesting about this bottle,’ says Dennis, ‘is that the writing and stickers are on its inside.’

His Exalted Highness, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad, whose military already possessed a string band, fancied another. So he moved John Fredrick Powell, who had inherited the position of Band Master from his father, along with his entire band, to Hyderabad. The new imports formed the Police Band for Hyderabad State. Until this day, locals refer to the area in Fateh Maidan where they settled as Band Lines.

Dennis shared this treasured family photograph with me. He approximates that it dates to 1937 or 1938 when his grandfather and his band first moved to Hyderabad. Seated in the front row, conducting stick in hand, and Band Master’s cap on his head is John Fredrick Powell. To his left is Major Charles Henry Luschwitz, Director of Music for the Hyderabad Military.

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John Fredrick soon earned a glorious feather to that Band Master’s cap. He composed the music for O Osman, Hyderabad State’s national anthem. On Independence Eve in 1947, John Fredrick conducted the last rendition of God Save the King at a farewell banquet for Mr C. L. Herbert, the last British Resident to Hyderabad at the Residency (Kothi). And, by sweet coincidence, after Operation Polo in 1948, when Jana Gana Mana played at an official function for the first time in Hyderabad State—the conductor was none other than George, Dennis’s father who had inherited the Band Master’s baton from John Fredrick.

George remained Band Master of the Hyderabad Police marching band until his retirement in 1981. The string band ceased to exist after Hyderabad’s amalgamation with India. However, the passing of the baton from father to son stopped with George. The next generation of Powells envisioned a different future for themselves. In 1974 the seven Powell siblings formed a band known as the ‘Powell Brothers’. Still in their teens, the ‘Powell Brothers’ played at weddings and parties gratis. By the early 1980s, they had gained popularity in the twin cities and performed at many a wedding and even the Christmas Eve ball at the Ritz Hotel. Following on the heels of many other Anglo-Indian families from the twin cities, three of the Powell siblings migrated to Australia one by one. ‘The Powell Brothers’ disbanded by the late 1980s.

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Dennis retained his day job at the Hyderabad Public School and played the keyboard in the evenings for over twenty years at the Taj Krishna beginning in the mid-1990s and at the Park Hyatt between 2016 and 2018.  After the recent relaxation of pandemic related restrictions, Dennis our Rockstar played for a wedding at the Taj Krishna after what he says felt like aeons.

(The tune is Dennis’s improvisation.)

Throughout our conversation, Dennis remained humble about his family’s illustrious past and his own contribution to Western music in Hyderabad. His greatest achievement, he claims, has been inculcating the love of music in youngsters over the last four decades. Many of his students have formed bands and play gigs around the city. Dennis shared a rather poignant anecdote with me. While at a family gathering in Australia, a group of elderly gentlemen came up to him and sang the national anthem of the erstwhile Hyderabad State.

Apparently, settling in a new homeland hadn’t diminished their fondness for the land of their birth. Nothing brings back memories of good times past better than a tune from our youth. In the words of Shakespeare: If music be the food of love, play on. Dennis Powell, may you play on for decades yet. Both the city and us, your students owe you a tremendous debt for enriching our lives with music and song.

Zeenath Khan is based in Mumbai. She writes columns and blogs and is in the process of writing a book on Hyderabad.

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