Last month I was commissioned to cover, for the national and international press the historic run of performances of Domenico Cimarosa’s 1792 comic opera in two acts, ‘Il Matrimonio Segreto’ at the recently restored and reopened Royal Opera House Mumbai, produced by Patricia Rozario’s Giving Voice Society, with an impressive all-Indian double cast comprising twelve of her voice students, and with musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India. It was the first time a full-length opera had graced the stage of the over-century old Baroque-style opera house.
While interviewing various people involved in the production, I stumbled upon the heartwarming story of conductor Maria Badstue. I had been told that she was of Indian origin, and was returning to India for the first time in her life. That intrigued me, and I was keen to learn more. But her story bowled me over completely.
Maria was given up for adoption thirty-five years ago to an orphanage in the temple town of Pandharpur; when just a five-month old baby, she was adopted by a Danish family and therefore had the rest of her upbringing in Denmark, in the countryside, with little opportunity to meet others like her, from India.
Her Indian origin was no secret to her when she was growing up. However, up until the time that she was invited by Rozario to conduct the opera, she thought she was from Bombay (Mumbai). “My whole life, I’ve been told I’m from Bombay. Back home we have a big and heavy briefcase with all my adoption papers, and letters to and from the adoption agency. I have always been told that I am Danish, and I had never really taken a big interest in the ‘Indian’ part of myself. In my youth in Denmark I tried to ‘fit in’ as most youngsters do, I guess. Perhaps this is why I chose to push those thoughts about India away. So I actually didn´t open that briefcase until one week before I got here.”
Maria’s story resonated strongly within me as founder and project director of Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music education charity working with India’s underprivileged children. Our whole ethos rests on the untapped potential of India’s disadvantaged children and the transformative power of music in their lives.
One doesn’t know whether to be amused or irritated when presumably well-meaning members of the press and media ask me whether the children we teach “have difficulty” in learning to play a musical instrument and its repertoire. Some even go further and ask whether teaching them western music is appropriate, and whether it wouldn’t be a better idea to teach them “their own” music and culture instead. They then have trouble articulating what exactly they mean by this statement; quite a few of these mediapersons themselves learnt western music as children, or today have children and relatives and peers who do. The irony, the double standard, that it is somehow okay for privileged sections of society to immerse themselves in Bach and Beethoven and Vivaldi, but the underprivileged have to turn to “their own” culture, this nebulous ill-defined entity, instead, seems to be lost on them. It calls to mind the hypocritical double standard of the whole Medium of Instruction storm in a teacup, where “the masses” have to learn the vernacular languages and be the guardians and champions of it, but the leaders of these movements, who inevitably come from privileged backgrounds, can send their own children to private, English-medium schools, just as they themselves were educated in them. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
So Maria Badstue’s story is a shot in the arm; it proves, if proof ever were necessary, that any child from any background can achieve anything, in this case musical prowess to the highest level, if given love, nurture, encouragement, opportunity, the right milieu and the proper training. This is something we at Child’s Play aspire to. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if geography became an irrelevance, and when children from all backgrounds, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, could get the same opportunities and conditions here that allowed Maria to blossom in Denmark?
After beginning the correspondence with Maria Badstue, I attended a conference on children affected by mining, and during the course of the day, a hard-hitting film “Falling Through The Cracks: Children in Mining” was screened. Through the whole film documenting what amounts to criminal institutionalised child neglect and abuse, I couldn’t help thinking of the potential these children represented, if only we could collectively realize this and nurture it, and how it was just being allowed to “fall through the cracks” in the system.
Maria made this same point to me when I met her in Mumbai a few days later for two back-to-back performances of the opera. Although she had not been able to fit in a visit to the orphanage in Pandharpur as she had originally planned, due to the rehearsal schedules for the opera and the inconvenient train time schedules to get her to Pandharpur, she did visit the all-boys orphanage in Mumbai run by the same organization that also runs the Pandharpur (all-girl) orphanage. She met some eighty boys crowded into a very small living space, and saw India’s future potential in them, provided they were only given the opportunity.
We have remained in touch after her return to Europe, and she hopes to return to India, and specifically to visit and work with us at Child’s Play, in the near future.
“It would be a great personal and professional honour and a pleasure to come back and contribute in developing the scene of western classical music in India in any way.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 20 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)