All you need is Bach

While we’re still in lockdown/curfew/restrictions/whatchamacallit, the rest of the world is slowly, cautiously, opening up.

The Wigmore Hall London, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading centres for chamber music, threw open its doors to live audiences, “in line with Government guidelines.”

One of the high points of its summer 2021 schedule was undoubtedly the two recitals by one of the world’s greatest living pianists, Sir András Schiff

on 28 and 30 May, in a weekend of celebrations for the venue’s 120th birthday.  Schiff’s post-pandemic resolutions have been to do away with the interval break in his recitals, and not to announce his concert programme in advance, apart from perhaps the names of the composer(s). The Wigmore Hall website laconically forecast just “Bach and Beethoven.”

My friend, the noted music journalist, critic, author and librettist Jessica Duchen reviewed the 28 May recital. Schiff divided his performance into three, each segment containing a Beethoven piano sonata and a Bach prelude and fugue (taken from Books 1 and 2 of his ‘48’, the Well-Tempered Clavier, BWV 846–893) in the same key.

It’s not relevant to go into specifics of the concert, but I loved Duchen’s description of Schiff’s playing of the Bach fugues: “just a step away from Bach solving a crossword puzzle.”

I’ve been able to scrutinize the keyboard music of the great Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) up closely, albeit vicariously, in midlife, through my son Manuel’s piano lessons with his teacher, Goa’s very own piano pedagogue Margarida Miranda.

Manuel’s piano exposure to Bach began with ‘Notebüchlein für Anna Magdalena Bach’,

two manuscripts or ‘little notebooks’ for Bach’s second wife. The selection of pieces is intended for young players with little fingers and tiny hand-spans, yet still possess a refined, understated elegance despite (or even by virtue of) their simplicity.     

Currently, during this pandemic, Manuel keeps up his daily practice routine with Bach’s ‘little’ Preludes and Fugues,

and his Inventions and Sinfonias.

 

The little or small (‘kleine’) Preludes and Fugues give us an insight into the didactic side of Bach. Although ‘student works’, they point the way to Bach’s great works, such as the Well-Tempered Clavier already mentioned and his ‘Goldberg’ variations.

“A clear, clean touch of all the fingers of both the hands” is the first thing Bach would teach young students, including his own eldest son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach (1710-1784), for whom he specifically wrote a Clavier-Büchlein (begun when Wilhelm Friedemann was nine), a collection of keyboard pieces meant for pedagogical use,

a precious few of which (e.g. BWV 930) have fingerings in Bach’s own hand.      

The Clavier-Büchlein also contains short compositions (originally written as “Praeambula” and “Fantasiae”) that we now know as the Inventions and Sinfonias, BWV 772–801, also known as the Two- and Three-Part Inventions:  15 inventions, which are two-part contrapuntal pieces (two melodies or ‘voices’ in conjunction with another, according to fixed rules), and 15 sinfonias, which are three-part contrapuntal pieces (three ‘voices’).

Manuel has a particular affinity for Bach, and if unsupervised, gravitates to his music and has to be gently nudged toward other composers’ pieces in his practice regimen. And I can see why. Even Bach’s ‘student’ works have that sense that Duchen writes about, of an inherent logic that makes you want to return to them again and again. Each return visit can reveal new insights and nuances. The great American conductor-composer-educator Leonard Bernstein waxed even more philosophical, referring to the “inexhaustible spiritual vitality” of Bach’s music.

Of the little Preludes, Manuel loves to return to (and I love to listen) is BWV 999, which according to the only extant 18-th century manuscript was actually written not for keyboard but for lute. In the dark (to our ears) key of C minor, it has a restless energy due to the intersecting rhythms between the two ‘voices’ (or left and right hand when played on the keyboard) and its peripatetic, perpetual-motion whistle-stop modulations that soon leave the ‘home’ key from the third bar, finally ending at G major, the ‘dominant’ major. Although just 43 bars long, to my imagination it conjures up a heroic figure sallying forth, battling all sorts of obstacles along the way, and it is almost a with sense of relief that we listen to that final resolution in the major, reassuring us that all is well with the world. This is a pedagogical work, an etude if you will, but it is an exciting performance piece too.

As Bach wrote no tempo or dynamic (the keyboards of his day didn’t have the range) markings, the performer has to intuit the contour, but it is still a subjective choice. Many, including the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, take BWV 999 at quite a clip, give a dramatic “pivot” to the music at bar 33 and begin to slow to a close (ritardando) in the last couple of bars.

Others play it at a slower steadypace with little dynamic variation.

It makes interesting listening as well on the instrument it was written for, the lute. 

Coming back to the recital by Schiff at the Wigmore Hall not so long ago: For an encore, Duchen wondered if he would play more Beethoven, but the audience got Bach instead; the “sprightly little” Invention no. 8 in F major, BWV 779,

proving the point about their being appropriate for both, pedagogy and performance. She reminded us that this invention “floats in at the end of the Beatles’ ‘All You Need Is Love’.”

Indeed it is (in ringing brass instead of keyboard).

Although the Beatles may have dissed Beethoven (”Roll over, Beethoven”), they had a healthy respect for Bach.

“Bach was always one of our favourite composers,” Paul McCartney once said in a 1993 interview. Both McCartney and John Lennon sang in the church choirs of St. Peter and St. Barnabas in Liverpool in their formative years and would certainly have “met” Bach there.

Although you wouldn’t guess the origin from the finished version of the Beatles classic ‘Blackbird’,

there is video footage of McCartney demonstrating on his guitar how the first few bars of the Bourrée from Bach’s Lute Suite in E minor (BWV 996)

morphed into the opening riff of the song as we know it today.

“[Bach’s] almost like a pop star,” he said. “He’s got good tunes.”

Listening to Bach’ second Brandenburg Concerto (BWV 1047)

also inspired him to add high trumpet to the score for ‘Penny Lane’.

The ‘fifth Beatle’ George Martin wrote a two-part invention (played on piano but recorded at half-speed an octave lower to sound like a harpsichord) reminiscent of the fugue in Bach’s Concerto for two Harpsichords (BWV 1061

for ’In My Life’.  

It shouldn’t be surprising therefore that Beatles hits have been arranged in the Baroque style, a nod not just to Bach (Peter Breiner’s Beatles Go Baroque: Concerto Grosso no. 3 in the Style of Bach, 1994)

but in general.

It may be a long and winding road, but it always somehow leads back to good ol’ Bach.    

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 June 2021 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India) 

The Bartered Bride: Catherine of Braganza

From our school days, it has been drilled into us, that Bombay (today’s not so euphonious Mumbai, to borrow Salman Rushdie’s recent qualification of the present name) was gifted by the Portuguese as a wedding present when Charles II of England married Catherine of Braganza. It is usually summarized in just a sentence. But there’s much more to it than that.

The match between Catherine of Braganza (Catarina de Bragança in Portuguese;1638-1705) and Charles II (1630-1685) was a marriage of convenience, like most royal unions.

File:English School - King Charles II and Catherine of Braganza.png -  Wikimedia Commons

This month marks the 360th anniversary of the Luso-English treaty of 23 June 1661, negotiated during the regency of Dona Luisa de Gusmão, sealing not only the union of the royal couple but having several other articles and clauses more to do with diplomacy than marital bliss. In article 11, the Portuguese gave up the island of Bombay

Mumbai was formed by uniting these seven islands

in exchange for English military help to defend the pepper port of Cochin (today’s Kochi) and to recover the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). 

England also secured Tangier in North Africa,

trading privileges in Brazil and the East Indies, religious and commercial freedom in Portugal, and two million Portuguese crowns (about £300,000). In return Portugal obtained British military and naval support (which would prove to be decisive) in her fight against Spain and liberty of worship for Catherine.

Portugal even agreed to share Ceylon and the cinnamon trade there with the English Company (article 14). In exchange, England agreed to mediate in negotiations between Portugal and Holland, leading to a Luso-Dutch peace treaty in August 1661.

However, the Dutch took advantage of the expected time-lapse between the signing of the treaty and its actual ratification on the ground to lay siege to Cochin with a massive flotilla, while Lisbon remained unaware of the treachery. The promised English military ‘help’ never came either. Cochin fell in January 1663, and Cranganore (today Kodungallue, Kerala) a month later. By the time news of the Luso-Dutch treaty actually arrived, it was too late.  

Frantic efforts by the Estado da Índia to halt the handover of Bombay to the perfidious English were overruled by Lisbon. In protest, no Goa official went to Bombay to sign the handover agreement on 18 February 1665.

[Since the publication of this article, it has been pointed out to me by my friend the noted history researcher Sidh Losa Mendiratta that “at least two (very) high officials went from Goa to Bombay to oversee the transfer: Luís Mendes de Vasconcelos (“vedor da fazenda”) and Sebastião Álvares Migos (“chanceler da relação de Goa”).”Biker, Collecção de Tratados e Concertos de Pazes…Tomo III (Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional, 1883).]

This incongruity between politics of imperial powers in Europe and in their overseas colonies is well elucidated by Ernestine Carreira in her book ‘Globalising Goa (1660-1820): Change and exchange in a former capital of Empire.’

THE VALLEY OF WORDS: (RE)WRITING GOAN HISTORY

However, many British historical novelists have a decidedly Eurocentric gaze and are either unaware of or gloss over these nuances further afield, deeming them irrelevant to the larger narrative.

I found three historical fiction novels about Catherine of Braganza, two by Jean Plaidy (‘The Merry Monarch’s Wife’ and ‘The Loves of Charles II’)

Buy The Merry Monarch's Wife: The Story of Catherine of Braganza: 9 (A  Queens of England Novel) Book Online at Low Prices in India | The Merry  Monarch's Wife: The Story of
The Loves of Charles II eBook by Jean Plaidy - 9780307337542 | Rakuten Kobo  United States

and one by Margaret Campbell Barnes (‘With All my Heart’)

With All My Heart by Margaret Campbell Barnes

and observed this.

Catherine’s story is quite compelling.

Born on 25 November, St Catherine’s Day (hence her name; also coincidentally the 128th anniversary of the Portuguese conquest of Goa) to, João, Duke of Braganza, (who would when Catherine was two years old ‘restore’ the Portuguese crown from Spanish rule, becoming João IV of Portugal) and the formidable Dona Luisa de Gusmão,

File:D. João IV e D. Luísa de Gusmão.png - Wikimedia Commons

Catherine had a sheltered upbringing, the archetypal devout Roman Catholic ‘convent-educated’ maiden, unwise to the ways of the world. Although you wouldn’t guess it from royal portraits, she was petite, plain and buck—toothed.

In contrast, Charles was tall, dashing …and a cad. Marriage vows meant little to him. Catherine’s shock when confronted with his philandering soon after arriving in England in 1662 can only be imagined. She was far away from home, in a cold unwelcoming clime where no-one understood her native tongue (and she knew no English then) with no family of her own, and in a land that was Protestant, considered heretical by her. She had received proposals from Louis XIV of France and others; she could have been a Catholic queen in France but her mother had chosen this match above others for political gain. England shared Portugal’s enmity with Spain, and a powerful enemy of a common enemy is a formidable friend. The English rout of the mighty Spanish Armada in 1588

Spanish Armada | Definition, Defeat, & Facts | Britannica

less than a century before was a strong deterrent should Spain wish to regain Portugal. Catherine had to make the best of her lot. It is said that she fainted when Charles first flaunted his chief mistress Barbara Palmer

Barbara Palmer Was History's Most Notorious Mistress—For Good Reason

under her nose. She had to endure Charles sadistically making Palmer Lady of Catherine’s Bedchamber. When Catherine refused and threatened to return to Portugal, Charles dismissed nearly all the members of her Portuguese retinue, forcing her to acquiesce.

The fact that she produced no heirs for the king, having suffered three miscarriages hardly helped her case. Nevertheless, the marriage seems to have gravitated to an equilibrium where she forgave him his infidelities and instead worried about the fate of his soul; and he in turn grew to admire her.

Catherine’s fervent, unabashed Catholicism made her the target of anti-Catholic sentiment. She was even maliciously implicated in a trumped-up conspiracy, the so-called ‘Popish plot’ (1678), at which her husband rose to her defence.

Catherine mellowed, and began to enjoy playing cards, dancing, organizing courtly entertainments (masques), picnics, fishing and archery, and took to wearing men’s clothing and shorter dresses that “showed off her pretty, neat legs, ankles and feet.” Much is made of the typically shy queen going incognito into a country fair, only to be caught out and having to beat a hasty retreat.

Although some sources claim that Catherine introduced tea-drinking to England, it is more likely that she made the habit more popular. She is also promulgated the use of cane, lacquer, cottons and porcelain. 

In 1670, Charles commissioned the building of a Royal pleasure yacht HMY Saudadoes (a corruption of the Portuguese ‘Saudades’)

for Catherine to sail on the Thames, and which twice made trips home to Portugal.

Although Catherine wouldn’t come to his deathbed, she instead asked “to beg his pardon if she had offended him all his life,” to which Charles gasped “Alas poor woman! She asks for my pardon? I beg hers with all my heart; take her back that answer.”    

It is thought (although there is no documented proof of this) that the Queens borough in New York City

The Five Boroughs of New York City | The Official Guide to New York City

is named after Catherine, as she was queen in 1683 when Queens County was established. Plans for a 35-foot statue of her on the city’s East River at the tri-centennial in 1983 (endorsed, among others by a certain Donald Trump) were scrapped for many reasons. But a quarter-size model looks out across the Atlantic at the site of the Expo ’98 Lisbon. 

Queen Catherine of Braganza Statue | Audrey Flack. Parque da… | Flickr
The 25 Best Works of Contemporary Architecture and Public Art in Parque das  Nações, Lisbon

Catherine’s story poses so many ‘what ifs’. What if the Portuguese succeeded in retaining Bombay after the English reneged on the 1661 treaty? What if Bombay hadn’t been included in the treaty at all? What if Catherine hadn’t married Charles, and wed another monarch instead? How would the ‘seven islands’ have fared under Portuguese rule, extending into the 20th century? Would Bombay be the City of Dreams, or a constellation of towns and villages of siestas? Something to think about over your next cup of tea.

(An edited version of this article was published on 03 June 2021 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India) 

Tiles on my Roof and on my Mind

We’re not likely to forget Sunday 16 May 2021 quickly. As if a second wave of the pandemic wasn’t enough on our plate, did we really need a whirlwind visit from Cyclone Tauktae too? I shudder to think what it must have been like where it made landfall, if just a glancing blow could be so devastating.

Weren’t it for two good Samaritans who came out to help us despite the elements and the pandemic, the damage would have been far, far worse.

(Casa da Moeda, Panjim Goa)

The experience got me up close with Mangalore tiles – old, new, shattered, whole, wet, dry.

Once again, I had to marvel at the ingenuity of the design, but also wishing they could somehow be a little more resilient. I’m no engineer, but I think it’s a trade-off. Its light weight allows easy handling and replacing. Any attempt to increase its durability would probably make it heavier, unwieldy and add unacceptable weight to rafters and beams.

I was surprised to learn that we have a German missionary to thank for the Mangalore tile, and the context in which it was invented in the first place. My internet searches led me in astonishing directions that I’d like to share here.

In the chapter, The ‘Basel Mission in Mangalore: Historical and Social context’ of the bilingual (English and German) book ‘An Indian to the Indians?: On the Initial Failure and the Posthumous Success of the missionary Ferdinand Kittel (1832-1903) edited by Reinhard Wendt;  Harassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden 2006’,

Buy An Indian to the Indians?: On the Initial Failure and the Posthumous  Success of the Missionary Ferdinand Kittel 1832-1903 (Studien Zur ... World  Asia, Africa, Latin America) Book Online at Low

Rev. S. D. L. Alagodi, CSI (Church of South India), M. Th. (Master of Theology, Senate of Serampore College and University) states that the Basel Mission (founded in 1815 in Basel) was among the first missions to come to in India after the British East India Company lifted the ban on non-British missionaries in British India in 1833. The Basel missionaries arrived in Mangalore the very next year.  

Basel Mission - Wikipedia

According to the agent H. Hoffmann of the Basel Mission then new converts to Christianity from the ‘lower’ castes, were ostracised even further by the society they lived in, losing all employment opportunities or rights to ownership or inheritance. Many became jobless, even homeless.

Creating employment opportunities for the people of the area where each mission was located was actually a major focus of the Basel Mission. After trying various employment alternatives (coffee, sugar, coconut plantations, carpentry, tailoring, smithy, book-binding, rug-making, clock-making), the Basel Mission decided to establish big industries like tile and weaving factories. These were a great success, providing employment and livelihood to thousands over time. The employees included both genders of different castes, shattering the concept of ‘caste’ occupations and encouraging egalitarianism in working together.

As Alagodi puts it: “Due to the impersonal environment at these factories, they served as useful instruments in overcoming caste barriers, as converts from different caste backgrounds worked side by side.”

Employment was also offered to non-converts. Employment statistics from 1913 stats reveal 3633 employees, of which 26% were non-Christian, indicating that “Basel Mission factories were a source of employment for people who desired to break from a caste-stratified society.” 

The stimulus for beginning tile factories seems to have been the discovery of “large deposits of clay by the banks of the Gurupura and Nethravathi rivers” ideal for tile-making. The first tile factory known as The Common Wealth Trust Ltd or locally addressed as Basel Mission tile factory was started in 1865 by Georg Plebst (1823-1888).   

Mangalore tile factory

For someone who made such a significant contribution to our lives and landscapes, very little is known about him. What we do know is that “in 1865, Georg Plebst was able to produce roof tiles of such high quality that they carried a world-wide reputation as “Mangalore Tiles”. The plenipotentiary of the British government was so impressed with the quality of Plebst’s roof tiles that he ordered all of the next year’s production in advance and commanded that it be used on as many government buildings as possible.”

In her dissertation at the University of London (2010) titled ‘The Basel Mission industries in India 1834-1884: Improvisation or Policy?’,

Catherine Stenzl writes: Plebst “had been studying to become an ordained missionary but was unable to complete the course. He was therefore sent out as a lay brother. When he left for Mangalore to introduce typographic printing in 1851 his instructions said: ‘By special providence of the Lord, you have been directed to take up the technical instead of the theological side of the mission’.”

A decade later, returning to Europe on leave for health reasons, he suggested that pottery might be a suitable field for the mission. “He had noticed that Indian pottery and tiles were not glazed, quite brittle and porous,” and asked to learn the necessary skills to make glazed earthenware products.

With the help of “an Indian master-potter” (sadly unnamed) Plebst built an oven and started experimenting “to establish the correct mixture of clay and sand, and on 4 December 1965 he started to produce tiles – 360 per day – with just two workers and a few bullocks.” The tiles were “lighter and more waterproof” than extant tiles at the time.

[Since the publication of this article, I have found more information on Plebst in a 2012 Basel Mission newsletter (No.61; Autumn 2012:The Focus: Swiss photographic collections on Asia 29; Visualising History and Space in the Basel Mission Archives) that I reproduce here: “One of the key people involved in setting the Basel Mission tile industry in India in motion was the German missionary Georg Plebst (1823-1888).11 He originally specialised as a mechanic before undergoing four years of training at the Basel Mission’s home-based seminary. He arrived in India in 1851 and was put in charge of reforming the printing techniques employed by his predecessors. He was thus chiefly responsible for forging two well-functioning Basel Mission printing presses for the Kannada and Malayalam languages, in the modern Indian states of Karnataka and Kerala respectively. Whilst on home leave from 1861-1863 Plebst acquired prolific skills in firing and glazing clay. Meanwhile, several European factories had conducted experiments with clay samples from the surroundings of Mangalore. Upon his return to India, this experience inspired Plebst to apply his techniques to the manufacturing of tiles. He recorded his initial successful attempts in 1864 and thus laid the foundation for a flourishing new industry.12 We are reminded of this pioneering step by a faded photograph of the church (fig. 6), standing where Plebst started his tile manufacturing activity. It is an image that equally helps us understand interconnections between mission stations, outstations and industrial sites, as well as the intricate degree of interconnectedness between such symbols of missionary presence and the local populace, which constituted the core of the labour force and of the mission church congregations.”]

According to Alagodi, the weaving factory had a feather in its cap too: “Johann [Stenzl’s paper says Jacob] Haller, a master weaver who came to Mangalore in 1851, made a notable invention of a dye for his cloth and gave his new colour the Kanarese [Kannada] name ‘khakhi’ which means “dusty”, because it looks like the never-ending brownish yellow of the Indian road. (W. J. Danker ‘Profit for the Lord’ Michigan 1971 pg 88). The police of Mangalore was so enthusiastic that an order for this fabric was made and the entire police force was clothed in this colour. On a visit to the Basel mission weaving establishment at Balmatta, Lord Roberts of Kandahar, then Commander-in-Chief of her Majesty’s forces was so impressed with the practicability of this cloth, that he emphatically recommended and achieved its introduction into the service of the British Army. And so it may be that from this humble religious beginning, khakhi began its march around the world.” 

I wore khakhi all through my school years in the 1970s as it was the Don Bosco uniform (and a generation later my son still wears it), never knowing the story of its introduction into India.

Haller is also credited with having introduced fly-shuttle weaving, “unknown in these areas.” Another weaver Samuel Schoch sent out in 1859 to help Haller introduced damask weaving to Malabar.

The arrival of the Basel Missionaries in Karnataka is thought to have “marked the inauguration of printing” there and “gave a boost to Kannada and Tulu literature.”

Basel mission press to celebrate its 175th anniversary from today |  Mangaluru News - Times of India

Although Konkani is listed among the languages that the missionaries began to study as soon as they arrived, I was unable to find mention of actual printing of literature in Konkani at the Mission’s printing presses.

The next time I come up close to a Mangalore tile (and I hope I don’t have to for a very long time!), I’ll remember to say a silent prayer of thanks to Bruder (Brother) Georg Plebst.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 May 2021 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India) 

“Opera always fascinated me”: Vanraj Bhatia (1927-2021)

The celebrated Indian composer Vanraj Bhatia passed away on 7 May, just a few weeks shy of his 94th birthday. 

I listened and fell in love with Bhatia’s music without even realizing it. I refer to the signature tune of the popular TV serial ‘Khandaan’, the ‘Liril’ soap advertisement jingle,

and God knows how many other earworms.      

In January 2013, I made a trip to Mumbai to attend a few concerts at the NCPA (National Centre for the Performing Arts), but the main reason was to interview him for an article I was writing for the UK-based opera music magazine ‘Opera Now’.

I vividly remember that evening on 23 January 2013 when I caught a cab and arrived at his Napean Sea Road residence, a little apprehensive, not knowing what to expect or how I would be received.

But once he grasped the purpose of my visit, he received me warmly. He bade me sit on one of the upholstered armchairs in his stuffy living room cluttered with doily-covered furniture and bric-a-brac from a bygone era.

“Will you have a drink with me?” he asked. It was a little early for one, but he waved that objection away. “What sort of Goan are you?”

And so began the three-hour interview, some of which I videotaped with his permission.

Vanraj Bhatia at his residence 23 January 2013 (Photo: Dr. Luis Dias)

Bhatia was in the middle of writing the final act of his three-act opera ‘Agni Varsha’, based on a play by Girish Karnad.

He told me of the difficulty in finding a librettist; Act One had been written by Ranjit Hoskote and Act Two by Rani Day Burra. He wouldn’t divulge who, if anyone, was librettist for Act Three.

But he was heartened by the fact that just a few months ago, he had been to New York to attend a “world premiere performance” of the completed acts of the opera, organised by soprano Judith Kellock.

He was all praise for the cast and chorus for having learned their parts and performed it so beautifully.

In a press statement about Agni Varsha to the American press, Bhatia had said: “The musical score is in a contemporary style, with lyrical sections based on ragas. It is an exuberant musical interpretation of a little-known myth from our great epic the Mahabharata, a new showcase for the music, dance and literature of India.”  

To me, he elaborated further: “It has so much spectacle in it. It has all the nine rasas (emotions) in its storyline. There’s power, love, lust, sacrifice, faith, selfishness, jealousy, and vengeance…perfect for opera!” The synopsis includes demons emerging from the underworld, incest, suicide, patricide, on-stage beheadings, a ‘play within a play’, the works.

He was confident it would be staged “soon” at the world’s major opera houses. Quite unexpectedly, (and perhaps because I was writing for an international publication) he then entrusted me with the task of mailing the DVDs of the New York performances to the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala. Did he have specific names in mind at those hallowed venues? “Oh, just look it up”, he said airily.

I kept my promise, but as I never heard back, I have no idea whether his opera was given due consideration.

Leafing through his substantial curriculum vitae (he gave me a copy to accompany the DVDs I would mail), I noted that he written music for over 60 films (just a few among too many notable ones being Ankur, Manthan, Junoon, 36 Chowrighee Lane, Kalyug) ,

close to fifty television serials and films (Khandaan, Tamas, Wagle ki Duniya, Lifeline)

and documentaries (Bharat Ek Khoj) ,

over 7000 jingles (Liril, Garden Vareli, Dulux; “I had to live”, he explained, almost apologetically to me),

over thirty ‘serious’ works including music for solo piano, chamber music, music for larger ensembles and vocal music. His solitary opera stood out among the thicket of compositions.

I found this interesting, as throughout the interview Bhatia couldn’t overemphasise how much he loved opera. He grew up listening to and studying Indian classical music, but his interest in western music was awakened by the Blue Danube waltz (Johann Strauss II). But the siren call came when he heard Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no. 1 at thirteen. “That decided it!” he said to me. From then on, his path was clear in his head.

He studied first at London’s Royal Academy of Music and then won a scholarship to study for five years (the only other Indian apart from Noor Inayat Khan, about whom I’ve written before) with the legendary composition pedagogue Nadia Boulanger.

Nadia Boulanger : teacher of the century – Musica Kaleidoskopea

His Paris years overlap with the time that the likes of Astor Piazzolla and the Spanish guitarist Narciso Yepes were also her students, so they are very likely to have known each other. It’s such a pity that Bhatia’s detailed biography wasn’t written in his lifetime.

He spoke to me excitedly of his love affair with opera, from his student years in the UK and Europe. “Opera always fascinated me”. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at Covent Garden began a lifelong obsession with opera. “I’ve seen Richard Strauss’ ‘Der Rosenkavalier’ at least fifteen times!” he exclaimed. On a special trip to Vienna, he would go to two operas each day, at the Volksoper and the Staatsoper. As a student, he would avail of the cheaper standing places to the opera, even the Wagner behemoth Ring Cycle operas.

While Bhatia couldn’t say how the creative muse visited him, he told me his daily routine facilitated it. “Each morning, I open any random page from Bach 48 (Prelude and Fugues, Well-tempered Clavier BWV 846–893) and play that.” And of course, he acknowledged Boulanger’s “fabulous technique. She didn’t teach composition per se; she taught harmony and counterpoint.”

Throughout the interview, I nursed my drink as much as possible, as Bhatia kept wanting to refresh it. Nevertheless, I was quite light-headed at the end of it, clutching as well an autographed copy of his Sinfonia Concertante for Strings (2001). He bade me goodbye as if we were long-lost friends and asked me to visit again. That I didn’t get round to it is my loss.

Internationally acclaimed Goan-origin soprano Patricia Rozario has performed Bhatia’s music. Two decades ago she came across his Kinguri-Vali for soprano, violin and piano (1960) and was “especially thrilled that he had set a Hindi poem to music.”  She performed it in London and in Mumbai where he coached the ensemble. “He had a wicked sense of humour and told us quite gleefully that he had deliberately made it difficult because we were trained artists and should be able to deal with it!” More recently, she and her husband Mark Troop have performed his song cycle ‘Six Seasons’, specially commissioned for them. 

Six Seasons (1988) by Vanraj Bhatia. Presented by Soundstreams as part of “Song for Athene” on Thursday, April 16, 2015 at Trinity-St. Paul’s Centre, 427 Bloor St. W. Performed by Patricia Rozario (soprano) and Christopher Dawes (piano).

“Six seasons was a set of Sanskrit poems which Vanraj translated into English and set to music, capturing the vivid atmosphere of each poem and bringing a unique sense of the Indian seasons into his music,” Rozario told me. “I was able to perform this cycle in the UK, Canada, Australia and India and everywhere the audiences were enchanted by Vanraj’s music.  A working session with the composer brought out a lot of detail in each piece which made them so much more vivid.  My favourite one is “Monsoon” which brings to mind the haunting sounds of falling rain in the voice and piano.  Talking to a composer about his music gives an artist a greater insight into the music and confidence to perform it with freedom and flair.”

I listened to the 2012 performance of ‘Agni Varsha’ again in the wake of Bhatia’s death and am glad I did. It was not a staged performance, and sung to piano accompaniment than to a full orchestra, but the lyrical sections were quite moving, particularly the love duet between Nitila and Aravasu.

I learned from a subsequent interview in 2017 on Scroll.in that Act Three was “almost finished.” I do hope he did complete writing his magnum opus before his death. Judging from just the first two Acts, it deserves to be staged, and if that happened, I am as confident now as he was then, that it will stand the test of time as an Indian operatic masterpiece.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 May 2021 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Navhind Times Goa India) 

 (An edited version of this article was also published on 22 May 2021 in Serenade magazine).

(An edited version of this article was also published on 25 May 2021 in Scroll.in).

“Haunting and Soul-stirring”: The Music of Satyajit Ray (1921-1992)

Despite the worsening coronavirus pandemic in India, the media circus over the Bengal elections has been so all-consuming that one hopes the birth centenary of Satyajit Ray (2 May 1921 – 23 April 1992), one of its great sons of the soil doesn’t get forgotten this Sunday.  

The 51st edition of IFFI commemorated this milestone by screening several of his classic works.

51ST EDITION OF IFFI TO PAY TRIBUTE TO LEGENDARY FILMMAKER SATYAJIT RAY ON  HIS BIRTH CENTENARY – IFFI 51

Satyajit Ray is a towering figure not only in Bengali but world cinema. What might not be as well-known to all but the film buff is what a consummate film-maker he was, immersing himself in all aspects of the creation of his films, including costume design and even writing and directing and recording his own film scores.

“Like his films, the music of Satyajit Ray is a unique multi-layered blending of Western sense and Indian sensibility”, says the narrator of a 1984 NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) documentary, ‘Music of Satyajit Ray’.

“I was born into a musical family”, he said in the documentary. His paternal grandfather Upendrakishor Ray, apart from being a writer, illustrator, philosopher, publisher and amateur astronomer, was also a violinist and composer who in addition played Indian flute and drum. His maternal grandfather Kalinarayan Gupto was also a composer, and as he put it, everyone was a “natural singer” on his mother’s side of the family. He was nurtured in an atmosphere of Robindro and Brahmo Sangeet.

Significantly, Ray was also exposed to western classical music from a very early age. In an interview with Karuna Shankar Ray for Kolkata magazine (1970), Ray revealed: “In our house there was a record of the 20s, one movement of Beethoven’s violin concerto. Its ownership hasn’t yet been traced but I have been listening to it since I was seven. After reading about the great composers in the Book of Knowledge, especially about Beethoven, I came to worship him as my hero. If anyone were to ask me now to do a biography of Beethoven, I would jump at it. Someday, perhaps, I might seriously make a suggestion to East or West Germany that I do a movie on his life. My interest dates back to those days, and in my first year (at college) it was a consuming interest.”

The interest grew when a school-friend’s record collection widened his horizons. He read up on composers, their works and musical forms in libraries as he couldn’t afford to buy books. 

In an 1982 interview (Sight and Sound), he spoke of his debt to Mozart: “… when I talk of Mozart as an influence, I am thinking more of his operas and his miraculous ability to have groups of characters maintain their individuality through elaborate ensembles. Leporello’s stuttering fright, the Don’s bravado in the face of doom and the Commendatore’s relentless intoning of his challenge in the Statue Scene in Don Giovanni is but one example out of many. I am greatly fascinated by the possibility of such ensembles in films. The memory game in Days and Nights in the Forest attempts this. Here the game itself is the ground bass over which the six characters play out their individual roles in word, look, and gesture.”   

Even when speaking of film, Ray often used musical metaphors. When talking of Soviet film directors, he compared Sergei Eisentein (1898-1948) to Bach, while he felt Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893-1953) was “closer to Beethoven.” He likened the “pared-down” style of Swedish film-maker Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) to a “chamber music austerity.”

In his 1955 classic ‘Pather Panchali’ (Song of the Little Road), Ray made Indian film history not only by using a Hindustani classical musician of the stature of sitar maestro Ustad Ravi Shankar, but also for employing the genre cinematically. Such collaborations with other stalwarts such as Ustad Vilayat Khan (sitar) and Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) created a new idiom of film music in India.

As such maestros were “often busy internationally”, sometime in the 1960s, Ray decided to take up composition himself. He was too much of a gentleman to say that both Shankar and Khan had differences of opinion with Ray on fitting the music to the film, which gave him the impetus to compose his own music. In the documentary he acknowledged having initial difficulties, but “achieved some proficiency” over time, he added modestly.

As many film composers do, Ray composed at the piano, using western notation. When he realized that his musicians weren’t familiar with western scores and used Indian, more specifically, ‘Bengali’ notation, he was unfazed. He learned to transcribe his music from one notation to the other, quite a feat.

Ray understood the power of silence and of natural sounds in augmenting the potency of a background score in his films. The musical accompaniment quite often can be very sparse, but this only serves to highlight it. Less is more. “I use music as discreetly as possible”, he stated.

He reiterated this point in his collection of essays titled ‘Bishoy Chalachchitra’ (published in translation in 2006 as ‘Speaking of Films’), where he devoted a whole essay to ‘Background Music in Films’. “If background music is used without reason, it can only harm the film.”

“Ideally, the director should be aware where music would be needed in the film”, said Ray in the documentary, “assuming the director knows about music.”

His observations are often extraordinarily perceptive: In ‘Speaking of Films’, he writes: “It is risky to use the sarod as there is every chance that the twang of its strings will clash with the hard consonants used in the dialogue, thereby distorting the music.” 

Charulata (1964) was Ray’s most satisfying experience as a music director, with musical links in its very structure.

Ray believed that all film directors and composers should avoid “hackneyed formulas”, “worn-out conventions” of mindlessly using a certain kind of music to denote happiness, another for sadness or suspense and so on.

Inevitable comparisons have been made with Rabindranath Tagore and Ravi Shankar in Ray’s ability to combine Western and Indian influences to create his own trademark form, a path-setter for others to follow in his footsteps. No other film director has quite matched the command of music and score-writing that Ray had.

Apart from a few films such as ‘Shakespeare Wallah’

a 1965 Merchant Ivory Production, he chose to write background scores for his own films, for his own “personal pleasure” as he described it.

The celebrated French film composer and conductor Maurice Jarre (1924-2009) spoke admiringly of Ray’s music, terming it “haunting and soul stirring at the same time”. I think the commentator Anita Mukherjee in the NFDC film sums up Ray’s music even more succinctly: “imaginative, not melodramatic; balanced, not exuberant; functional, not decorative.” The same adjectives would have fitted just as well to his cinematography, further demonstrating how intertwined the aural and visual world were in the brilliant mind of Satyajit Ray.   

 (An edited version of this article was published on 02 May 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India) 

 (An edited version of this article was also published on 03 May 2021 in Serenade magazine) 

A Tale of Two Cities, Epidemics and Heroes

Maybe some of you have heard of Dr. Acacio Gabriel Viegas (1 April 1856 – 21 February 1933). It was his 165th birth anniversary earlier this month.

I only heard about him around a decade ago. Prior to that, I probably passed by his statue near Mumbai’s Metro cinema without realizing it.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Room 000: Narrative of the Bombay Plague’ by Kalpish Ratna.

Room 000: Narratives of the Bombay Plague by Kalpish Ratna

Ishrat Syed and Kalpana Swaminathan, both surgeons, writing together as ‘Kalpish Ratna’ explore the interface between science and the humanities. ‘Room 000’ is a fascinating read, especially for one with a medical background, but I’d recommend it to everyone. Had a book like this been around in my medical student years, I’d have had a better sense of perspective and awe when visiting Grant Medical College

Grant Medical College and Sir Jamshedjee Jeejeebhoy Group of Hospitals -  Wikiwand

(where Room 000, the site of groundbreaking discovery on the plague, was located) and so many other city landmarks. It brings to life Alexander Yersin

(1863-1943, who lives on through the name of the plague bacillus, Yersinia pestis),

Robert Koch

Microbiology from A to Z explained - Micropia - Micropia

(1843-1910, one of the founders of modern bacteriology),

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine

Waldemar Haffkine - Wikipedia

(1860-1930, who developed vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague),

Paul-Louis Simond

Paul-Louis Simond, le multimissionnaire | Institut Pasteur

(1858-1947 who demonstrated that the intermediates in the transmission of bubonic plague from rats to humans were the fleas Xenopsylla cheopis that dwell on infected rats) and so many other pioneers who all were in India around the time of the Bombay Plague epidemic in the late 1890s spilling into the twentieth century.

It was thrilling to travel back in time into their world, and a refresher course on basic principles of bacteriology, from Koch’s postulates

to the intricacies of Gram staining.

  

Dr. Acacio Viegas features very prominently in the book (I counted at least 168 mentions), and deservedly so. To him goes the credit for spotting the index case and correctly diagnosing the outbreak as bubonic plague, much to the skepticism and scorn of some of his peers. He then launched a campaign to clean up slums and exterminate rats, the carriers of the plague.

The Worst Epidemic Of the City in 1896 | MeMumbai

His diagnosis prompted the British government to bring in four teams of independent experts to ‘confirm his findings’ (Kalpish Ratna speculates that there might have been subtle racism, in mistrusting the acumen of a native), most famously Haffkine, whose Institute still stands in Parel.

Haffkine Institute for Training, Research and Testing

Viegas’ early diagnosis saved untold thousands of lives. He personally inoculated around 18,000 residents with Haffkine’s serum.

Bombay plague of 1896: The first bio-political crisis to be captured on  camera in colonial
The Worst Epidemic Of the City in 1896 | MeMumbai
When the 1897 bubonic plague ravaged India
Omar Khan's book on postcards from the Raj shows how the British used  postcards for propaganda.

Kalpish Ratna portray him as a “grave physician”, who after hours was a “dreamy-eyed romantic, inclined to music, a classicist who read Camões-but not Bocage”, a “sharp dresser with a luxuriant crop of curls he tried in vain to tamp with pomade.” It is an imaginative description, given the little that is indeed known of his personal life.   

There are so many parallels between the lives of Dr. Acacio Viegas and my own great-grandfather Gen. Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias (1854-1936).

Re-discovering the private Chapel of Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias – The Balcao

They both were Goan doctors of course, but their timelines overlap neatly, born two years apart and their deaths three years from each other. Both were at the forefront of the campaign against plague in their respective cities, at different times (1896 onwards in the case of Viegas in Bombay; the first decade or so of the 20th century in Goa for Dr. Dias) and from slightly different vantage points. While Dr. Viegas was in private practice, Dr. Dias was at the helm of both the Escola Médica and Serviços de Saúde (Health Services). Both, from all available accounts didn’t discriminate between rich or poor.

Both saw the connection between public health and civic administration: Dr. Viegas became President (the first native Christian to do so) of the Bombay Municipal Corporation in 1906; Dr. Dias was President of the first Provincial Congress of Goa and also mayor of the Municipal Council of Ilhas. 

Both had statues erected in their memory for their services to humanity in combating the same disease even during colonial regimes, British and Portuguese. Dr. Dias had this honour in his lifetime;

with Dr. Viegas it was three years posthumously, 1936, coincidentally the year of Dr. Dias’ death.

As I am from the family of Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias, I am privy to much about even his early years, passed down as oral history through generations.

Biography | Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias
Sketch of Gen. Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias by noted Goan artist Angelo da Fonseca

I was unable to find any information on Dr. Viegas’ years growing up in Arpora. His family must have a similar oral history, perhaps even photographs. Currently, there is just one photograph from his later years

in the public domain, and of course pictures of the statue.

Kalpish Ratna bestows a wife Paloma and two unnamed children on him, and a genealogy website says his wife was Amelia, but I couldn’t find any further information on his Arpora years or about his family. Would anyone know where his family house was in Arpora, and if it still stands?

I also couldn’t help wondering: what prompted Dr. Viegas’ parents to send him to St Xavier’s High School Bombay after his primary education (primeiro grau) in Goa? Having completed his matriculation with distinction in 1874, he enrolled in Grant Medical College, getting a First Class at the Licentiate in Medicine and Surgery degree examination in 1880, later setting up private practice in Mandvi in South Bombay. From there he made history.

In contrast, my great-grandfather finished his school education in Portuguese Goa and then proceeded to study medicine in Lisbon. He went on to make history too. But Dr. Viegas and Dr. Dias occupied two different worlds, the Anglophone and the Lusophone.

The main reason the young Miguel Caetano chose Lisbon for his medical studies must have been the fact that his brother was already there.

Major João Vicente de Sant'Anna Dias, older brother of General Miguel Caetano Dias.
Major João Vicente de Sant’Anna Dias, older brother of General Miguel Caetano Dias.

But was Bombay ever an alternative option? It definitely would have been cheaper, and much closer to home. The story of his descendants would have been quite different had he studied medicine in Bombay. Interestingly enough, he did marry a ‘Bombay’ girl, Veronica, sister of Dr. Austin da Silva, who founded Holy Family hospital in Bandra.

Holy Family Hospital in Bandra West, Mumbai - Book Appointment, View  Contact Number, Feedbacks, Address | Dr. Nishat Nanavati
HolyFamily Hospital

My great-grandmother Veronica da Silva Dias,

although fluent in Portuguese, seems to have preferred English. This is clear from her letters to her eldest son, my grandfather Dr. Vítor Manuel Dias (1892-1949).

vmd3
vmd1

She would begin in Portuguese, “Meu querido filho” (My dear son), but after a few lines lapse into English.   

What the separate trajectories of Dr. Acacio Viegas and Dr. Miguel Caestano Dias do demonstrate is how profoundly the medium of instruction (in these two cases, English and Portuguese) can set one on completely different life paths.

That said, Dr. Viegas and Dr. Dias would certainly have known of each other, and perhaps even corresponded with or even met each other.

I’ve not explored primary sources on the plague in Goa, but the secondary sources I’ve read only touch upon the sanitary measures employed. It is eminently plausible that the plague came to Goa from Bombay. Did its treatment come from there too? Were plague vaccines (serum, specifically the Haffkine serum; Haffkine even worked for a while in Daman) imported from Bombay? Or did politics or financial considerations come in the way? I’d love to know more.

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 April 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

(An edited version of this article was also published on 28 April 2021 in Scroll.in)

The Bridgetower Sonata

Any violin student beyond a certain level will have heard of Kreutzer. His 42 etudes or caprices (42 études ou caprices)

42 Etudes or Caprices | Edition Peters UK

are almost a rite of passage, a core part of the teaching repertoire ever since their publication around 1796. I have my much-used copy from my student days, and just before last year’s lockdown gave our more advanced Child’s Play violin students theirs. I still return to Étude 2 with its varied bowings.

French violinist-composer, conductor and pedagogue Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831)

composed prolifically, with 14 violin concertos and 40 operas among other works. But it is for the etudes that he is remembered today.

Rather unfairly, he is also remembered for the ‘Kreutzer’ sonata (no. 9 opus 47 in A major) by Beethoven, dedicated to Kreutzer but which the violinist, not a fan of Beethoven’s music,  actually spurned, calling it “outrageously unintelligible” and never playing it. It must count as one of the oddest dedications in music history.

Many of you will recall the eloquent account of this work in Panjim in 2012 by Israeli violinist Hadar Rimon (Natasha Tadson, piano).

Hadar Rimon: Stuff of Legend

It’s still up there with some of the most memorable violin-piano concerts I’ve heard in Goa.

Why did Beethoven dedicate a work to Kretuzer who thought so little of it? What is not so well-known is that Beethoven had originally dedicated it to another violinist who has faded into oblivion but is now getting his due.

George Augustus (also Hieronymus Hyppolitus de Augustus) Polgreen Bridgetower (1778 – 1860) was a violin virtuoso with an interesting story. He was born in Biała Podlaska, Poland to John Frederick Bridgetower, probably of West Indian descent, (most likely Barbados, with the name Bridgetower derived from the island’s capital, Bridgetown); and Maria Anna Ursula Schimdt from Germany. Both are thought to have been servants to nobility, although the father claimed to be an African prince (as stated on George’s baptismal record).

The year after George’s birth, his father found himself employed as servant to the Hungarian Prince Nicolas Esterházy,

the patron of Austrian composer Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)

Joseph Haydn - Wikipedia

in Eisenstadt and Esterháza. Growing up in the music-loving Prince’s household must have had a strong influence on George’s development as a musician.   

It is remarkable that the musical potential of a servants’ child, and a mixed-race one at that, was spotted at all, and so early. It is now certain that Haydn himself tutored Bridgetower in his early years. I had used the example of George Bridgetower at my presentation at Carnegie Hall, New York in 2012 for Child’s Play, to make the point that musical potential can be found in the most serendipitous places if children are only given the opportunity and encouragement.

The Bridgetowers moved to London soon after. By the age of ten, the young prodigy was established as a professional violinist and was performing with the Royal Philharmonic Society Orchestra at Drury Lane Theatre.

He took up composing and teaching, and later attended Trinity Hall, Cambridge where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree. In 1789, his concerts took him to Paris, London, Bristol and Bath.

After his Paris concert, French journal Le Mercure de France wrote: “His talent is one of the best replies one can give to philosophers who wish to deprive people of his nation and colour of the opportunity to distinguish themselves in the arts.”

His father arranged for him to play before the music-loving monarchs, King George III and Queen Charlotte.

File:King George III and Queen Charlotte with their six eldest children.jpg  - Wikipedia

Bridgetower also caught the attention of the Prince Regent, (the future King George IV)

George IV - Wikipedia

who oversaw his further music education (studying with the likes of Thomas Attwood and Giovanni Battista Viotti)

Giovanni Battista Viotti – violinist and composer | Italy On This Day

and effectively became his guardian after his father went astray.

In 1802, Bridgetower was given leave to visit his mother and his brother (a cellist, Friedrich Joseph Bridgetower) in Dresden, where the brothers performed together. The following year, he visited Vienna at the invitation of Prince Lobkowitz, Beethoven’s patron, to play Beethoven’s string quartets.

The two musicians bonded instantly. They had much in common: they were less than a decade apart in age; both had abusive fathers who tried to exploit their prodigious musical ability.

It must be remembered that this encounter took place just a few months after Beethoven had seriously contemplated suicide and wrote his Heiligenstadt Testament documenting his despair over inexorably worsening deafness. But now he seemed to have found joie de vivre again. The two stayed up nights, drinking and merry-making.

Beethoven was so impressed by Bridgetower’s violin virtuosity that he dedicated this violin sonata to him, with this lighthearted inscription:  “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico” (“Mulatto sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great lunatic and mulatto composer”). Beethoven himself was nicknamed “the Spaniard” due to his own swarthy complexion and theories still abound on his ‘African’ blood, so the term “mulaticco” shold be interpreted in this context. 

The work was written in a fit of creative frenzy. Its first public performance was given by dedicatee and composer at Vienna’s Augarten on the morning of 24 May 1803. But at 4.30 AM that morning, Beethoven’s pupil Ferdinand Ries was still copying out the parts. He managed just the first two movements of the violin part, and just sketched out the piano part. Bridgetower had to virtually sight-read most of the music, looking over Beethoven’s shoulder at the hastily scribbled score. Beethoven played his part from memory.

At one point Bridgetower amended or made an embellishment to the violin part, which so surprised and pleased Beethoven that he leapt up from his bench, saying Noch einmal, mein lieber Bursch!” (“Once more, my dear fellow!”).

Beethoven gave Bridgetower a tuning fork as a friendship token. But at some point, perhaps that evening over celebratory drinks in a tavern, Beethoven took offence over a remark Bridgetower allegedly made about “a girl” who Beethoven was happened to be fond of. Beethoven, enraged, withdrew the dedication and terminated the friendship. Instead the sonata was dedicated to Kreutzer, probably a calculated move by Beethoven who had planned to move to Paris (but never did).

Bridgetower returned to England, became a family man, and continued composing, teaching and performing. Two of his compositions survive, and one hopes that at least one violin concerto (composed around 1805 and that he performed often) may someday resurface. He is buried in Kensal Green cemetery.

Bridgetower's grave in Kensal Green cemetery

The Kreutzer sonata has been immortalized as a novella (1889) by Leo Tolstoy

The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories - Alma Books

and the novella in turn has inspired art,

File:Prinet - Kreutzer Sonata.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

theatre

Buy The Kreutzer Sonata: A Play in Four Acts Book Online at Low Prices in  India | The Kreutzer Sonata: A Play in Four Acts Reviews & Ratings -  Amazon.in

and film.

But Bridgetower has been largely forgotten.

In 2009, US poet-laureate Rita Dove wrote a collection of poems ‘Sonata Mulattica: A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play’

Sonata Mulattica( A Life in Five Movements and a Short Play)[SONATA  MULATTICA][Paperback]: RitaDove: Amazon.com: Books

about Bridgetower and the Beethoven sonata.

Last month, over 15,000 people signed a petition for a plaque to be installed in the Assembly Rooms in Bath, where Bridgetower is known to have played.

Dove’s book is the basis for a film ‘Sonata Mulattica’

juxtaposing the lives of Bridgetower and of contemporary black musician Joshua Coyne (1993-) exploring racial prejudice from Bridgetower’s time to ours, and raises uncomfortable questions over how much (or little) attitudes have improved since then.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 April 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Suez Canal Diplomacy and Goa

The obstruction to the Suez Canal by an ultra-large Golden-class container ship ‘Ever Given’ for just a week (23-29 March 2021) has highlighted just how vital the waterway is to global trade ever since its opening in 1869.

The vessel is one of the largest container ships in the world, at 400 meters in length almost as long as the Empire State building is tall, far exceeding the width of the Suez canal, under 300 meters at its widest, even in its 2015 newly-widened segment.

Trying to dislodge the Ever Given ship from the Suez Canal is like trying  to move the Empire State Building | Business Insider India

The Suez Canal has played its role in altering the course of history as well.

During the ‘Ever Given’ stalemate, I happened to watch an episode (Season 2, Episode 1) of the historical drama Netflix series ‘The Crown’,

The Crown (season 2) - Wikipedia

aptly titled ‘The Misadventure’. It is a double entendre, referring both to Prince Philip’s extra-marital affairs as well as to Britain’s ill-advised involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis. This year 2021 marks its 65th anniversary.

Suez Crisis – 1956 – Devastating Disasters

Briefly: Egypt’s nationalization of the Suez Canal by its fiery President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-1970)

1956 Suez Canal war: Seven nights before daylight - Special Files - Folk -  Ahram Online

was followed by the invasion of Egypt by Israel, joined later by Britain and France under the ostensible pretext of ‘peacekeeping’, but with the real intent of regaining control of the Canal. The Suez crisis is therefore called the second Arab-Israeli war or the Tripartite Aggression in the Arab world.

The confrontation between Egypt and Britain put independent India and its first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964)

Aha! Yes, we knew all along that Nehru did it - Telegraph India

in a delicate position. All three nations belonged to the Commonwealth; but Nasser and Nehru (with Yugoslavia’s Josip Tito) were founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM).

What Is The Nonaligned Movement?

In fact, literally just a week before Nasser’s move to seize control of the Suez Canal, he had co-signed the Declaration of Brijuni in Yugoslavia on 19 July 1956, formalizing the birth of NAM.

Brioni Declaration, 1956 | Nasser, Tito, Nehru at the signin… | Flickr

Nasser had given no inkling to Nehru about what was obviously a calculated decision, bound to elicit a reaction.

The picture was complicated further by the United States romancing Pakistan in 1954; India thus felt compelled to maintain good relations with Britain as a sort of counterweight to this equation. India therefore had to tread cautiously.

Nehru wrote to C Rajagopalachari in August 1956: “This is by far the most difficult and dangerous situation in international affairs we have faced since independence…Probably we shall end by displeasing our friends on both sides.”

Shortly after Egypt’s takeover of the Suez Canal, an international conference comprised of the largest users of the Canal and a few other countries was held in London to defuse tensions. While Egypt refused to attend, it used India (and the Soviet Union) to represent its interests. Nehru (via the Indian delegate Krishna Menon) took India’s role of mediator seriously.

But the Tripartite Aggression by Israel, Britain and France a few months later caused Nehru to abandon the balancing act. Despite military successes by the three nations, pressure from the United States (enraged at having been kept in the dark about the military offensive by all three nations) and the Soviet Union threat of using nuclear weapons in Egypt’s defence led to a ceasefire. Egypt maintained sovereign control over the Suez Canal, and Britain and France lost what had remained of their post-WWII international clout. India was asked to lead the international United Nations peacekeeping force to enforce the armistice line between Egypt and Israel.

The role of Jawaharlal Nehru, both as leader of NAM and as India’s Prime Minister, was significant in this chapter in world history.      

Nehru-bashing and airbrushing history  have become almost a national pastime, but it is worth examining more closely his statesmanship, and hopefully, learning from it.

To quote Srinath Raghavan, senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi (‘India should be prepared for the perils and prospects of diplomatic leadership’ Hindustan Times, 26 October 2016): “By showcasing its ability to play a genuinely independent role, India buttressed its standing as an Asian power. This history is worth recalling today. At a time when West Asia is in the throes of major conflicts, India is nowhere in the picture. It has stayed out of all international efforts to manage these conflicts, focusing instead on imminent threats to Indians living in the region. This stance sits awkwardly with India’s professed desire to be a leading power in its extended neighbourhood. The story of its involvement in the Suez crisis could offer New Delhi a lesson or two in the perils and prospects of diplomatic leadership.”

In what could be seen as Egypt’s ‘return of the favour’ to India, during the hostilities between India and Portugal leading up to the integration of Goa to the Indian Union in December 1961, an attempt by Portugal to send naval warships to Goa to reinforce its marine defences was foiled when President Nasser of Egypt denied the ships access to the Suez Canal.

It is interesting to note how it was reported in the international press. David Lawrence wrote in the Spokane Daily Chronicle on 23 December 1961 (‘Nasser Violates Pledge on Suez Canal Passage’), calling it “a grave blunder – possibly worse in its effects than Nehru’s theft of the Portuguese territory of Goa.” He speculated that “not long ago, Prime Minister Nehru stopped off at Cairo to visit President Nasser. Presumably an agreement was made then that if Portugal attempted to come to the rescue of her nationals in Goa, the Egyptians would block passage of any Portuguese ship through the Suez Canal. Such a deal would imply that the head of the Indian government disclosed his plans for aggression and Nasser was in effect, a party to them.”

It was followed by another short article: ‘Grab of Goa causes talk of Hong Kong, Macao’, the “alarm” over China possibly “taking the cue from India to invade the British colony of Hong Kong and the Portuguese colony of Macao.”

Egypt’s support of India over Goa in 1961 is also confirmed by Egyptian researcher Zaki Awad, El Sayed in ‘Egypt and India, A study of political and cultural relations, 1947–1964’, adding: “the fact that NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] was supporting the Portuguese military action did not deter Egypt from standing by India.”  

As it transpired, neither the NATO alliance nor the centuries-old Anglo-Portuguese treaty (“to be friends to friends and enemies to enemies”) worked to Portugal’s advantage in this instance.

My guess is that even if Nasser had allowed the Portuguese warships through the Suez, the conflict might have been longer-drawn and bloodier, but it wouldn’t have changed the outcome.

Be that as it may, one couldn’t fail to register the irony when reading this excerpt in Charles Hallberg’s book ‘The Suez Canal: Its History and Diplomatic Importance’. The same waterway that “brought back to the Mediterranean the traffic in oriental commodities which, ever since the epochal voyage of Vasco da Gama late in the fifteenth century, had followed the long route around the Cape of Good Hope” by the very act of its blockage of access played its part in 1961 in facilitating Portugal’s exit from its most-cherished and longest-held possession, beginning just 12 years following that 1498 ‘epochal’ voyage.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 April 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Black Portuguese

I was amused to come across an anecdote recently, wherein yesteryear Congressman Y.B. Chavan

Yashwantrao Balwantrao Chavan | Indian politician | Britannica

“who despite being a Congressman, campaigned actively for Goa’s integration in Maharashtra” in the 1960s and “referred to Goan Christians as ‘Black Portuguese’”. Goan Christians at the time were apparently, and quite understandably, enraged by the taunt. But what stung more, the word ‘black’, ‘Portuguese’, or both? 

Funnily enough, these words came up again in the oddest of contexts, in the wake of Oprah Winfrey’s widely-televised interview with Meghan Markle and her husband, Prince Harry, the Duchess and Duke of Sussex.

Prince Harry and Meghan had just one official ceremony says Justin Welby -  BBC News

The couple revealed that racism within the British royal family and the press played “a large part” in the couple’s decision to leave the UK.

Markel’s marriage to Prince Harry in 2018

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry Were Secretly Married Pre-Royal Wedding

only fuelled the obsession with colour (or ‘blackness’) within the British royal family on account of her mixed-race background.

Many commented on the timeliness of the release of ‘Bridgerton’,

The Duke and I | Julia Quinn | Author of Historical Romance Novels

the hugely popular Netflix period drama series in relation to the vitriol hurled at Markle (she was at the receiving end of 5000 racist and abusive tweets in just two months in 2019) merely on account of her colour, raising “pointed questions on who we [British society] want to be now.” 

The show “ignited discussion about British Royals’ possible African ancestry”, in highlighting the rumoured “blackness” of Queen Charlotte (1744-1818),

Bridgerton Hair Designer on Queen Charlotte's Wigs, Daphne's Bangs

Was this Britain's first black queen? | Race | The Guardian

consort of King George III (unfortunately better remembered today for the mental illness that consumed him in his final years), although she is not a character in historical romance author Julia Quinn’s novels that the ‘Bridgerton’ series is based on.

Its creator Chris Van Dusen was inspired by historical debate over the 1940s African ancestry myth of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz “…to base the show in an alternative history in which Queen Charlotte’s mixed-race heritage was not only well-established but was transformative for Black people and other people of colour in England.”

In my years working in obstetrics and gynaecology in London, we often had to go to training sessions at Queen Charlotte’s and Chelsea hospital

Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust - Shelford Group

– a maternity, women’s and neonatal care hospital down the road from Hammersmith hospital where I worked and resided for a year. At the time, one was too absorbed in clinical work to bother about the monarchs whose names adorned public institutions. But it turns out that in 1809 Queen Charlotte founded the General Lying-in Hospital,

General Lying-In Hospital - Wikipedia

a hospital for expectant mothers, which today bears her name.

George III and Charlotte were keen music-lovers;

File:King George III and Queen Charlotte with their six eldest children.jpg  - Wikipedia

both played harpsichord and he the flute as well. Both admired the music of Handel. The queen had Johann Christian Bach, (eleventh son of the great Johann Sebastian) as her music-master. In 1764, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) dazzled their royal court with his prodigious skill at the keyboard, and accompanied Queen Charlotte as she sang an aria. His six Opus 3 sonatas are dedicated to her.

Also an amateur botanist, the South African crane flower or Bird of Paradise is named Streitlizia reginae after her.       

Of the couple’s 15 children, thirteen survived, among them two future kings (George IV and William IV) and Prince Edward, father of Queen Victoria.

For all that, suspicion over her supposed ‘African’ ancestry would persist during and after her life.

A 1761 portrait of her by Scottish portrait-painter Alan Ramsay

Queen Charlotte (1744-1818)

led Jamaican-American writer Joel Augustus Rogers (1880-1966) to conclude in his book ‘Sex and Race, volume I’ (1940) that she must have had a “Negro strain” based on his observations of her “broad nostrils and heavy lips”. Rogers also quotes her contemporary, the man of letters Horace Walpole, as having described her “nostrils spreading too wide; mouth has the same fault.” Another contemporary, Baron Stockmar said that Queen Charlotte had a “mullato face” as a baby (never mind that he had never actually met her until two years before her death). Despite the flimsiness and pettiness of these ‘observations’, the rumour mill hasn’t ceased.

This is where the Portuguese angle comes in. Charlotte’s alleged ‘African’ ancestor was thought to be Madragana ben Aloandro (c.1230-) of Faro, Algarve,

mistress to Portuguese King Afonso III (1210-1279), possibly “given to him” as a spoil of war when he ended the so-called ‘Reconquista’ by taking Faro in 1249; she would have been nineteen at the time. She bore him two children, (one of them a daughter named Urraca!). When the king’s “passion for her faded” around 1260, she was married off to one Fernão Rei, possibly a knight.

She has been romanticised and today is part of the tourist trail in Faro: you can take a guided tour of the city with someone dressed as Madragana. 

FARO & THE FOUNDATION OF EUROPE – Tours&Tales

Not surprisingly, just as with Queen Charlotte in England, Madragana was the subject of much conjecture in Portugal regarding her ethnicity, with chronicler Duarte Nunes de Leão claiming she was a ‘Moor’ (Moura, referring to ‘north-western African Muslim people of mixed Berber and Arab descent”) and António Caetano de Sousa disputing it two centuries later.

Most historians believe Madragana was Mozarab (Iberian Christians who lived under Muslim rule in Al-Andalus following the conquest of the Christian Visigothic Kingdom by the Umayyad Caliphate) and therefore not African. Even if she were, they continue, she would have been Berber, not sub-Saharan (to whom the description ‘Negroid’ usually has been applied, although a pejorative term today). In any case, fifteen generations separated the two women, so any genetic inheritance is unlikely to have been noticeable.

In the elaborate ‘line of descent’ connecting Charlotte to Madragana, another woman’s name is prominently displayed almost at the midpoint:  

File:Margarita de Castro e Souza genealogy and descent.JPG - Wikipedia

Margarita de Castro e Sousa (c.1440?) of the ‘elder and nobler’ Sousa family of Portugal. From that family, Martim Afonso de Sousa (c. 1500 –1564)

Martim Afonso de Sousa - Wikipedia

is known to us as Governor of Estado da Índia (1542-1545) and for the acquisition of Diu (1535). Curiously, no observations of a ‘Negroid strain’ have been made about his appearance in several excellent portraits of him.

Martim Afonso de Sousa - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia
Martim Afonso de Sousa | Portuguese admiral | Britannica
Martim Afonso de Sousa - Alchetron, The Free Social Encyclopedia

Perhaps its phenotypic manifestation skipped his generation?

Furthermore, if one believes Wikipedia, which asserts that “there isn’t a single noble man (or woman) in Portugal that does not have the blood of the Sousas,” it follows therefore that they all inherit the ‘blood’ of Margarita de Castro e Sousa, and through her, the ‘blood’ of Madragana.

Doesn’t all this seem ridiculous? What’s the fuss about, anyway? So what if there is black or any non-white ancestry in the bloodline of a European royal family, whether British or Portuguese? Is it because they are traditionally seen as ‘white’ bastions, notoriously fastidious about marriage alliances, and so a deviation from the norm, (a ‘non-white’ partner), is therefore viewed as scandalous? Or is it a combined phobia, one of colour as well as Islamophobia?

This speculation over ‘dilution’ of blood over generations, as if African genetic contribution were some sort of contaminant that needed ‘purifying’, discussed with such seriousness by scholars, reeks of racism. That it should even be an issue proves how difficult it is to eradicate prejudice.

(An edited version of this article was published on 04 April 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India) 

Putting Bach into Tango

Astor Piazzolla | Nonesuch Records

It was the birth centenary of larger-than-life Argentine tango composer, bandoneon player, and arranger Astor Piazzolla (11 March 1921 – 4 July 1992) earlier this month.

The Strad magazine carried a tribute article “How should we interpret tango music?” a guide to classically-trained violinists on how to tackle this music genre.

Yet again, I was struck by how much classical music had meant to Piazolla while growing up. The Todo Tango website published a first-person account of Piazzolla’s recollections of his childhood in New York.

“I attended four schools until I finished grade school. They expelled me for quarrelling. But at one of them I found music: A teacher used to play records for us as examples. She made us listen to the Brahms’ third symphony, or the second movement of a symphony by Mozart. And at the next class we had to recognize each one of them.”

This would have been before he turned twelve. As he puts it, “I found it but I didn’t discover it. I didn’t pay attention to the explanations. I couldn’t stop laughing and making my schoolmates laugh. I discovered it later when I was 12 years old.”

This is what then happened: “We lived in a very long house and there, at the back, beyond a courtyard there was a window and, from there, the sound of a piano was heard. It hypnotized me, I stood still beside it. Later I came to know it was a piece by Bach and that the pianist practiced nine hours a day. He was Bela Wilda and soon he became my teacher.”

I found this part of Piazzolla’s account really touching. Here was a neighbor who just happened to be going through his daily grueling practice regimen, but across a courtyard and through an open window, a little boy heard it and was “hypnotized.” Isn’t that something? There’s really no telling who or what can inspire whom, or how or when.

Bela Wilda was a Hungarian classical pianist who had been a student of Russian virtuoso pianist, composer, conductor and pedagogue Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1973).

Russian Piano Virtuoso & Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff was Born On This Day  in 1873 [ON-THIS-DAY]

Piazzolla vividly recalled his first encounter with his teacher: “My father and I knocked at his door and when he opened it I was bewildered by his grand piano and the pack of Camel cigarettes he used to smoke.”

As Piazzolla came from a poor Italian immigrant family, a novel method of payment for piano lessons was arrived at: “As mom had no money and because she worked as a manicurist she agreed to care for his hands for free, of course, and twice a week bring him a dish of gnocchi or ravioli. My teacher loved pasta.”

Back at his home, he would listen to his father’s records of the tango orchestras of the great French-Argentinian singer, songwriter, composer and actor Carols Gardel (1894 – 1935)

Carlos Gardel Also Known as El Zorzal Criollo | Tango History

and Argentinian tango composer Julio de Caro (1899 – 1980).

Julio De Caro (1899-1980) —

Thinking back on those days, Piazzolla was glad that his father “had those records and not ones cut by other tango men, in general, mediocre musicians.”

One of Piazzolla’s friends, fellow Argentinian Andrés D’Aquila played piano as well as the bandoneon (a type of concertina particularly popular in Argentina and Uruguay, a typical instrument in most tango ensembles)

Bandoneón Day - Wikipedia

and taught it to Piazzolla.

Wilda later in his music classes, made him play Bach on bandoneon. “He handed me the sheet music for piano and he showed me what I had to do and what I ought not to do. Very soon my father bought me [a bandoneon].”

Piazzolla told a colourful story of his first meeting with Gardel (going through a fire escape and a window to wake him up as the door was locked) in 1934 and even played a cameo role in the actor’s movie ‘El día que me quieras’  (‘The day that you will love me’) the following year. Gardel was sufficiently impressed with the teenaged Piazzolla’s bandeoneion playing to invite him to join Gardel’s performance tour, but his family wouldn’t let him as he was too young, much to Piazzolla’s dismay. But in retrospect it was a life-saving decision, as Gardel and his band would perish tragically in a plane crash while on that tour. Piazzolla would later remark with  dark humour that had his parents allowed him to go on that tour, he would have “played the harp instead of the bandoneon.”

By the age of twenty, now in Argentina, Piazzolla could afford lessons in orchestration with eminent Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983)

Alberto Ginastera (1916 - 1983): A Centennial Tribute - YouTube

on the advice of Polish-American pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982).

pianist Arthur Rubinstein, 1887-1982 | Arthur rubinstein, Piano music,  Famous composers

Piazzolla immersed himself in the scores of Stravinsky, Bartok, Ravel and others, rising early each morning to listen to the Teatro Colón orchestra rehearsals while continuing to play in tango clubs by night. 

In 1943, he began piano lessons with Argentine classical pianist Raúl Spivak,

Raul Spivak - Jewish Museum and Archives of BC

and wrote his first classical works ‘Preludio No. 1 for Violin and Piano’ and ‘Suite for Strings and Harps’.

As his tango career advanced, Piazzolla continued to study Bartók and Stravinsky and orchestra direction with German conductor Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966),

Hermann Scherchen (1891-1966): The complete Ravel recordings R.1949-62 (R.  Casadesus) - YouTube

searching for his own creative voice, composing several works along the way.

In 1953, his composition ‘Buenos Aires Symphony in Three Movements’ featuring two bandoneons in the orchestra so offended the audience that a fight broke out, but it nevertheless won Piazzolla a grant to study in Paris with the legendary composition teacher Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979).

File:Nadia Boulanger 1910.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

From her, he would learn counterpoint, which would prove useful to him later.

By then he was tired of tango music and tried to conceal that aspect of his past from Boulanger. But she saw that his genius lay in tango when she heard him play his composition ‘Triunfal’

and urged him back in that direction.  

Back again in Argentina, his distinctive style would be nuevo (new) tango, incorporating jazz, extended harmonies and dissonance, counterpoint and fugue, and compositional forms such as the passacaglia, a cyclical bass line, and allowing musicians the freedom of improvisation.

Perhaps the most recognizable among his works is ‘Libertango’, a portmanteau of the words “libertad” (Spanish for liberty) and “tango,” symbolizing Piazzolla “liberating” himself from classical tango to tango nuevo.

Although an instrumental composition, in 1990 Uruguayan poet Horacio Ferrer added Spanish lyrics, his own poem ‘Libertango’. Almost every line cries out at the beginning “Mi Libertad” (My liberty), and one couplet seems to sum it up rather well: “Ser libre no se compra ni es dádiva o favor” (“Being free is neither a purchase, nor a gift, nor a favour”).

Something to think about, both on and off the dance floor.

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 March 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India) 

(An edited version of this article was also published on 01 April 2021 in Scroll.in and on 6 April 2021 in Serenade magazine)