Finding Vamona

The demise of my father was so sudden and dramatic, that almost two decades later, it still seems surreal. I had been in the UK for two years almost to the day in August 2000. I had just moved into new hospital digs, when a hospital porter knocked with a message from switchboard (Having just moved, I had no phone in my room, and certainly no mobile) that my dad was critically ill.

I had called my parents just five days earlier on their wedding anniversary (15 August, Independence Day), and he was as healthy as he could be at seventy-two. There must be a mistake, I told the porter; you’ve got the wrong room. But he was back a few minutes later, shaking his head regretfully.

I was in the departure lounge of Heathrow airport just hours later, but my father was already dead. As I sat there, numb with shock and disbelief, awaiting the first available flight out, I remember my first emotion, even more than grief, being anger. Anger at him, for leaving without a proper goodbye, and at myself for not having been there when he departed.

There was so much ‘unfinished business’ between us, so many loose ends, so many missing pieces in a vast jigsaw puzzle that I thought I’d sort out ‘later’, because parents are immortal, aren’t they? I’d ask him about missing links in the family tree or history ‘tomorrow’, or ‘the next time’ we met or spoke. ‘Tomorrow’ would never come now, and that hit me like a sledgehammer.

We cleared the furniture in the living room in a blur, to receive his body from the morgue. And my eye fell upon the pencil-sketch of him in youthful profile on the wall, undated, unsigned, but from his heady student years in Europe. Anyone who knew my father will immediately recognize him from the sketch.

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As children in the 1970s, my brother Victor and I would place tracing-paper over the glass and copy the sketch endlessly. We asked my father who the artist was, and he would reply, “My friend Navelcar.” I didn’t press further then; at the time, that answer was enough. I would ask him more about the artist ‘later’. Three decades later, I was still no wiser, about this and so many things.

I returned to the UK after the funeral, and long story short, was back in Goa eight years later, in 2008. Going through my dad’s personal effects, many unanswered questions did sometimes get resolved. But the artist of the sketch was still a mystery. But now, I wanted to know. Was the artist still abroad or here, living or dead? Where had it been sketched? Lisbon, or Berlin?

Then, in a section of the press (it was about a year or two after 2009, when my son was born), there was an article about Vamona Navelcar. From the mention of his age, it was obvious that he was my father’s contemporary; and his Lisbon years coincided with those of my father. It must be the same Navelcar, I told my mother.

Through the grapevine, I tracked down his Panjim address, only to be told his home was in Pomburpa. I got hold of a phone number, and spoke to Navelcar himself. The line wasn’t clear, and my story must have been perplexing to him. As I now know, he is such a prodigiously prolific artist; how could he be expected to remember a sketch from half-a-century earlier?

On an impulse, having vaguely understood the directions to his Pomburpa house, I decided to drive over that instant, taking the painting, and my wife and son along for the ride.

I introduced myself, but Navelcar still couldn’t remember my father. Until he saw his painting, that is. I wish I could describe the sparkle in his eyes when he quite literally recognized an ‘old friend’, both the sketch itself and its subject.

Excitedly, he expertly took apart the rickety old frame housing the sketch, and signed beneath it in black ink: ‘Vamona Navelcar 1959 – Lisboa Café Pão de Açúcar.’

This was an unfamiliar Lisbon landmark. I have not visited Lisbon often, unlike many Goan acquaintances. I’ve only been there twice. But on both occasions, I made sure to stop by for a coffee at another café, Café Nicola at the iconic Rossio square.  My father had often told me that three generations of the family before me had been regulars there in their student years in Lisbon.

A recurring intergenerational ‘trick’ gets played out over and over, perhaps since the beginning of mankind. When we’re young and impetuous, we don’t really listen when our parents and elders try to hand down the family stories, because we’re preoccupied with our present, which is far more real and appealing. By the time we’re old enough to value this oral heritage, it’s often a little too late, as the older generation has gotten even older, memories are beginning to fade, or they’re not even with us anymore. My father would drone on endlessly at mealtimes, telling us these stories, but I can remember only fragments now.

At my last Lisbon trip, almost a decade after my father’s death, I sat in Café Nicola at a table by the entrance, overlooking the square, where apparently my ancestors had sat too, and wept quietly, not just for him, but also for not having listened more attentively to him.

But now, thanks to the Navelcar sketch, another fragment of a hitherto ‘lost’ story has been regained. The next time I go to Lisbon, the Café Pão de Açúcar (which Google tells me is at the Alameda Dom Afonso Henriques) will be another pit-stop, for this is where two friends perhaps had a coffee almost fifty years ago, and this precious sketch was born.

Reading Anne Ketteringham’s lovingly written ‘Vamona Navelcar: An Artist of Three Continents’, other parallels between his life and that of my father are also obvious.Like Navelcar, my father was also pressured by the dreaded Portuguese secret police PIDE (Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado) to sign a document denouncing Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. It was a pre-condition to his being allowed to study medicine in Lisbon. Like Navelcar, my father refused to comply, and faced the consequences.  He was compelled to therefore leave Portugal, and it opened a new chapter in our family history, in Germany.

It has taken a while for Navelcar to be hailed in his own homeland, but laudable efforts have recently been made, most notably the ongoing exhibition of his work at the Fundação Oriente in collaboration with the Al-Zulaij Collective.

Navelcar is unusually generous in bestowing his art to an adoring public, with impromptu, effortless sketches dashed off in lieu of a signed autograph (as he did at the inauguration of the exhibition). But this 1959 work is an even more treasured heirloom, for its connection to my father, and the new family story it revealed to me.

(An edited version of this article was published on 07 January 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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Practice, Practice, Practice!

If you visit the website of Carnegie Hall, the iconic Manhattan concert venue, one of the world’s most prestigious music venues, there’s a whole page devoted to “The Joke.”

“How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice.”

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The origin of the joke is a mystery. Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi believes that it could have actually happened to concert violinist Mischa Elman, trudging back to his hotel after a rehearsal session that hadn’t pleased him. Some tourists saw his violin case and asked him the question. Without even looking up, he retorted, “Practice.”

Francesconi feels Elman was “impish enough and known for his sense of humor to come up with it.”

The story has undergone several twists, with Elman replaced by Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein.  Comedian Jack Benny (who was also a trained violinist and did play at Carnegie Hall) used the joke in his routine.

Whether or not we want to “get to Carnegie Hall”, everyone needs to practice, whether an aspiring student or an established musician. But practice, or the lack of it, can often be the biggest obstacle to progress in learning an instrument.

Although I’ve had several good teachers in my formative years, few really taught me how to practice.  Just telling a pupil to “prepare” a piece or étude and return in a week isn’t good enough, in my own experience as a student and more recently working with children, at Child’s Play or private pupils or my own son.

I’ve written about the P-word before, and had touched upon these points: 1. Making practice a daily routine. 2. Setting aside an optimal time, duration, space for a student. 3. The importance of parental encouragement and support, especially in the beginning years, which can be make-or-break for a child. 4. The challenge in making practice fun. 5. A practice journal to have an objective record of practice time. 6. Important extra-musical life lessons (discipline, perseverance, the reward of incremental progress at a task).

To this list, I’d like to add some pointers I picked up along the way, and wish I’d learned earlier in life, as they help me (and my pupils) a lot:

  1. Spending time just studying the music score before picking up the instrument to work at it can be invaluable. Many things reveal themselves which make the actual playing a lot easier and give it musical shape. If we are mindful of the form and structure of a piece, that awareness influences how we approach it, how we perform it and how a listener appreciates it. For instance, a change in key (major to minor) or tempo or time signature can be our cue to convey a different mood or emotion, and give much more nuance to our playing.
  2. Likewise, many études and sometimes compositions have a specific educational purpose; indeed they may have more than one. Understanding what this purpose is will make the study and mastery of it much more comprehensive than mindlessly attacking it every day in the hope that it will somehow get better.
  3. Every piece one studies has a passage here, or an awkward bowing or fingering there, which needs to be isolated and worked upon during practice time, rather than just playing it through over and over.
  4. A tricky or bravura passage has to be learned slowly, really under the prescribed tempo, and very gradually brought up to performance speed. The natural tendency for most of us is to try and “have a bash” at it, at tempo, especially if there has been a relatively more facile portion before it that we could play at tempo. But I’ve learned the hard way that it pays off hugely to keep one’s natural impatience in check and work at it slowly but surely and with perseverance. I’ve learned this also from watching some really wonderful performers as they warm up and practice before performance. The violinist Hadar Rimon (who has performed twice in Goa) is a very good example. One learns so much from observing great artists practice.
  5. Ascending and descending scales, arpeggios, fingered octaves, dominant and diminished sevenths. In our childhood, we tackled these almost at the last minute, just before an exam, “because it was in the portion”, a very Indian approach to exams. But if you look at any orchestral passage, or even in chamber and solo works, they can be seen as snippets of all of these put together in different permutations and combinations. So regular, daily practice of these areactually even more important in many ways than merely working on the piece(s) that demand your current attention. I find it useful to ‘rotate’ the scales: C major/minor today, C# tomorrow, and so on.
  6. Furthermore, for any student (or even professional) of a fretless stringed instrument, these form the foundation of good intonation, and should be regarded as a daily tonic or workout to stay “musically healthy”. I found this extremely useful when my work shifts as a doctor limited by practice time; just 15 or 20 minutes of scales, arpeggios, etc on those days helped me immensely.

This applies to collective practice as well, especially chamber groups such as a trio or quartet. Many of you will have read Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music”, a book well-appreciated by music aficionados, for the intimate knowledge with which he writes about so many aspects of the music world. It warmed my heart, but didn’t surprise me, when he describes the Maggiore Quartet’s ritual of beginning every rehearsal session with a three-octave scale. His protagonist Michael Holme says: “When I play [the scale],…I become the music of the scale. I mute my will. I free my self.”

This is so true, even when I practice scales in solitude. With real concentration on good intonation and tone, it becomes much more than ‘just’ a scale, and enters the realm of meditation, a higher sense of being.

  1. Most of us who play a stringed instrument, have been taught the ‘odd’ (first, third, fifth) left-hand positions, to the utter woeful neglect of the ‘even’ ones (second, fourth, and higher). Practice time is a good time to correct this. I try to play scales, apreggios, etc in as many positions as possible, with disproportionate emphasis on the ‘even’ positions. It helps to constantly rethink fingerings for one’s pieces as well, no matter how often and well one knows the work. Often, a new fingering can give a whole new colour and dimension to an ‘old’ favourite. It is like seeing an old friend in a new light.
  2. In my youth, I would skim over the Mazas and Kreutzer études (numbers one in both cases) devoted to tone production and slow bows, and want to play the flashier ones. But there is much to be learnt from them, and attention to them early on is hugely rewarding.

I wish you all a Happy New Year of Practice, Practice and more Practice!

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Someday… in the Holy Land

Ever since Bible stories were read to me as a child, I’ve dreamed of visiting the Holy Land. I’ve imagined going to Bethlehem, Nazareth, Galilee and Jerusalem. I’ve listened breathlessly to accounts of relatives and friends who’ve been there.

I remember listening to the radio with my father as he followed the coverage of the 1973 Arab-Israeli (“Yom Kippur”) war. Most of the world media available to us (with the exception of Radio Moscow and Tass), Time magazine in particular, put forth the narrative of a young Jewish nation being attacked by Arab nations encircling it, and putting up a valiant fight despite seemingly impossible odds. David versus Goliath.

There seemed so much to admire about Israeli chutzpah, and the brilliance of its scientists, artists and thinkers.

India’s policy in the Middle East almost from our Independence had been to be a staunch supporter of Palestine. India voted against the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine in 1947, and voted against Israel’s admission to the UN in 1949.

In my own medical class of 1984, there was a Palestinian exchange student. I don’t remember ever discussing the issues in his homeland with him; I guess I felt I knew too little on the subject then.

In 1992, there was a thawing in India-Israel diplomatic relations. I remember signing up for a newsletter titled ‘Shalom’ from (if memory serves well) an Indo-Israel Friendship Society.

During my England years, it was a lot easier to make the trip to the Holy Land, and I could afford it as well. But this is also when my eyes were opened about so many things I had unquestioningly accepted until then.

I remember walking in London with a work colleague to his apartment (which he shared with an Israeli, also a doctor). On entering, he sorted his mail, and finding an envelope addressed “To The Occupier”, he flippantly tossed it to his flatmate, saying “It’s for you!” The friend took it in good humour, but the point (about the territories “occupied” by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War, in violation of international law: the Syrian Golan Heights, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Egyptian-occupied Gaza Strip, and Jordanian-annexed West Bank) lingered with me.

After that, I found myself learning more about the troubled region, through reading up, watching documentaries and speaking to doctor-colleagues from all over the Middle East, including Israel.

I stumbled upon the writing of American polymath, historian and political activist Noam Chomsky by accident. Impressed by his lucidity in an article on linguistics, I began to read more by him.

His book ‘The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians’ was an eye-opener. I have subsequently watched him online, speaking at lectures and interviews; his grasp of the sequence of world history, its significance, and the chronicling on injustices against vulnerable, oppressed people everywhere, not just the Middle East, and his untiring campaign for justice on their behalf is truly inspirational.

Expatriate Israeli historian-activist Ilan Pappé, American political scientist, professor and author Norman Finkelstein and Israeli-American activist Miko Peled are more recent discoveries. Significantly, all four (Chomsky, Pappé, Finkelstein and Peled) are Jewish. Finkelstein’s mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto, the Majdanek concentration camp and two slave labour camps, and his father was an Auschwitz survivor, but every single other member of both sides of his family perished in the Holocaust. In an impassioned response to a question following a lecture, Finkelstein elaborates that “it is precisely and exactly because of the lessons my parents taught me and my two siblings that I will not be silenced” when the Israeli government commits its crimes against the Palestinians.”

Peled’s grandfather signed Israel’s declaration of independence, while his father fought in the 1948 war, and served as a general in the 1967 war. The latter became an ardent advocate for peace, and condemned the 1967 war as a “cynical campaign of territorial expansion”.

Miko Peled initially carried on the family military tradition, serving in Israel’s Special Forces after high school and earning the red beret, but quickly grew disillusioned. Disgusted by the 1982 Lebanon invasion, he buried his service pin in the dirt.

In 1997, when political mileage was sought to be drawn after a suicide attack killed his niece, he countered:  “Why not tell the truth … that this and similar tragedies are taking place because we are occupying another nation and that in order to save lives the right thing to do is to end the occupation and negotiate a just peace with our Palestinian partners?”

In his 2012 book ‘The General’s Son: Journey of an Israeli in Palestine’, he describes how he, “the son of an Israeli General and a staunch Zionist, came to realize that “the story upon which I was raised … was a lie.”

This year marks the centenary of the 1917 Balfour Declaration issued by the British government. While it stated that it “view[ed] with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” it also categorically specified that it was “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

 

When British PM Theresa May last month said Britain was “proud of our pioneering role in the creation of the state of Israel” at a gala dinner attended by her Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu, to ‘celebrate’ the milestone, there was a deafening silence over the shameful, failed Balfour promise to the “non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

What has unfolded in the last century in Palestine is another messy legacy of colonialism, leaving tinderboxes as they left, as in Cyprus, the Partition of India and elsewhere.

But although successive Israeli governments (with tacit, steadfast American support) continue to flout international law, pressure is building among its own Israeli Jewish people. ‘Breaking the Silence’ is an Israeli NGO founded by armed forces veterans who are speaking out about their experiences in the Occupied Territories.

Also, more and more young Israelis are risking much in disobeying orders to serve in the Israeli Defence Forces.  And abroad, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement gathers momentum, despite allegations of anti-semitism.

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An overwhelming 128 countries voted in favour of the UN draft resolution against the US decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, braving overt threats and bullying by both countries, demonstrating how isolated the two have become in the international community. To its credit, India was among those 128; 35 countries (including Australia and Canada) abstained, while only seven countries (Guatemala, Honduras, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Togo) voted alongside the US and Israel.

Although ‘Make in India’ might have been the dominant factor causing India to scrap the $500 million missile deal with Israel last month, the move was hailed by the global movement to boycott Israeli industry.

In the documentary ‘Disturbing the Peace’ (2016), a band of former Israeli soldiers and Palestinian freedom fighters “promote, with rare, often controversial evenhandedness, the notion that only nonmilitary action can bring peace to the region.”

Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian women (‘Women Wage Peace’) marched through the West Bank last October, on a ‘Journey to Peace.’

At a time when we wish “Peace on Earth to men (and women) of good will”, let us pray that peace and goodwill come someday soon to the Holy Land. Amen.

I would love to fulfill my childhood dream of visiting the Holy Land, but only when true peace and justice and equality reign there.

A peace-filled Christmas to everyone everywhere.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Vivaldi’s Foundlings and the Healing Power of Music

 

We speak of ‘social empowerment through music education’ as if it were a modern construct. El Sistema, the music education program that began in the 1970s ‘that rescues children from the depredations of poverty through music’ is justly called a revolution, almost a miracle in achieving this objective.

But the ‘Red Priest’ (Il Prete Rosso), the flame-haired Italian Baroque composer, virtuoso violinist, teacher and cleric Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) was steeped in exactly such philanthropic work over three centuries ago, when barely in his twenties.

The church of Santa Maria della Visitazione is an imposing Venetian waterfront edifice even today, a few hundred yards from the city’s famed landmark, Piazza San Marco. It is better known as Ospedale della Pietà, or La Pietà, or even more simply, as ‘Vivaldi’s church.’

 

The Pietà was a convent, orphanage and a famed music school in Venice. It was a haven for orphans and abandoned, mostly illegitimate girls, especially those left in their care as babies. Like other Venetian ospedali or Foundling Hospitals, it gained renown for performances of sacred music by its figlie di coro. La Pietà also had a formidable orchestra of up to sixty players, all female. Inevitably, it became a hub of creativity, with composers writing music specifically for them.

Venice’s Ospedali played a pivotal role in the Republic’s musical life. Choirs and orchestras, made up exclusively of girls, were formed from those orphans that showed musical talent. They were trained by the finest musicians and composers, whose salaries were paid by the governors, sometimes out of their own pockets. The girls’ regular performances of sacred and secular music were packed with Venetians, including the nobility (some of whom sent their daughters to train with the orphan girls), and were an indispensable venue for foreign grand tourists (tourists undertaking the Grand Tour of Europe), who waxed lyrical about the foundlings’ virtuosity and angelic singing. Some soloists attracted enthusiastic followings, and the girls’ marriage prospects – most left the Hospitals by the age of 25 – were greatly enhanced by the admiration they enjoyed, as well as the attractive dowries given them by the Doge.

The Ospedali became the templates for future music institutions in Italy and beyond. The Royal Academy of Music London (1822) was the first English music school that solely trained both boys and girls to be professional musicians. Felix Mendelssohn who in 1843 founded the Leipzig Conservatory was influenced by his teacher Carl Zelter who had begun a school modelled upon the Ospedali.

The Ospedale della Pietà alone produced at least five composers that we know of, all female, and three of them foundlings. They wrote in a distinctive ‘Pietà style’ of composition.

Those among the other foundlings who went on to become musicians and singers attained a degree of respectability that society might perhaps not have accorded them had they not been brought here. It is worthwhile noting that only girls in the orphanage were taught music, as boys could be trained for livelihoods in commerce and shipping. This was unusual in a society that generally frowned upon professional female musicians.

Vivaldi who had been ordained as a Catholic priest in 1703 (it is said that his mother dedicated him to the priesthood soon after his birth in gratitude for his deliverance from an earthquake that shook Venice the day he was born; others believe that he chose the profession to further his musical career), the same year he began work at the Pietà, wrote much of his sacred vocal and instrumental music for the forces available to him there during his thirty years of service to the institution.

It appears that he had his differences with the Ospedale’s board of directors from time to time. The board, which had to vote each year on whether a teacher stayed on or not, was seldom unanimous in their vote on Vivaldi. In 1709, he was voted out, 7 to 6, and he spent that year as a freelance musician outside the Pietà. But the same board voted him back, unanimously, in 1711. His absence had made them realize just how important Vivaldi was to them.

L’Estro Armonico (The Harmonic Inspiration) is a set of 12 concertos for stringed instruments, published in 1711, probably initially composed for performance by the girls of the Ospedale della  Pietà.

Performances of these concertos would have allowed advanced pupils to develop their skills as soloists, and given the chance to others to learn how to play in an ensemble. The dedicatee of the collection, Ferdinando de’ Medici, frequently visited Venice from his native Florence and supported the Pietà.

The publication of these concertos disseminated them far and wide, far beyond the walls of the Pietà. One particular concerto from the set, concerto no. 8 in A minor for two violins, cello and strings RV 522, caught the attention of Johann Sebastian Bach, who was so impressed by it that he transcribed the whole work into an organ concerto (also in A minor, BWV 593).

The evolution of music, the pursuit of musical excellence, music education and pedagogy, and charity, philanthropy and social empowerment have been closely intertwined through history. Long may this continue!

At Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), this intertwining is central to our DNA. The music of Vivaldi has been performed by Camerata Child’s Play India to much public acclaim, on several occasions.

The RV 522 A minor concerto for two violins has a special place in our history. It was performed by Camerata Child’s Play India three years ago, in 2014, at the Goa State Museum. At that time our string project was in its very early years, so the solo parts were performed by two young musicians from the community.

Our children have progressed a lot since then, and so it gives me great pleasure and pride to state that Camerata Child’s Play India will perform the first movement of this beautiful, energetic, youthful concerto, this time featuring two of our more advanced students, Irfan Shimpigar and Natsalene Estrocio as soloists.

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The work will be part of our annual Christmas concert today 17 December 2017, at Institute Menezes Braganza hall, 6 pm. Come along to experience a live manifestation of this confluence of music education and pursuit of excellence, charity, philanthropy and social empowerment. Share in our joy and Christmas cheer!

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

Joy to the World!

christmas Flyer

In addition to all the Christmas music, two of our children (Irfan Shimpigar and Natsalene Estrocio) will be soloists in Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for two violins, cello and strings in A minor RV 522 (first movement). It’s quite an achievement for them, and for us! 🙂

See you there!

The latest video documentary about Child’s Play India Foundation! :)

Video Volunteers Goa very kindly made a video documentary about the work of Child’s Play India Foundation!

Do come to our concert this Sunday (17 December 2017, 6 pm Menezes Braganza hall Panjim Goa India).

Music Education in Goa, then and now

 

I was delighted to be invited as chief guest and to play my violin at a tribute event last weekend in Margão to the late Prof. Micael Martins (1914-1999), great Goan violinist, tireless archivist, champion and orchestrator of Goan folk music and prolific composer.

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Prof. Martins was a family friend; I remember him dropping in often, when passing through Panjim, to meet my father, who had been his violin student (and also of Martins’ own teacher, the towering violin pedagogue Dominic Pereira) in their Bombay years. He would talk about the project that was currently occupying his attention and time. On some of those visits to our house, he would sometimes pick up one of the violins in our house to illustrate a point. It left quite an impression; even in his later years, he played with great spirit and elegance.

In my years as a young doctor, I had the great privilege of playing several compositions and arrangements of Goan folk music by Prof. Martins, with the Gavana troupe at many locations all over Goa.

Leafing through his 80th birthday commemorative brochure that was recently presented to me by Dr. Rajendra Hegde of Goenkaranchem Daiz, one cannot help but marvel at the portfolio of staggering accomplishments  by Prof. Martins especially in nurturing, promoting and extending the reach of the rich tradition of Goan folk music, from such humble beginnings in his native Orlim.

As elaborated in the seminal book “Song of Goa: Crown of Mandos” that Martins co-authored with José Pereira and António da Costa, it was church patronage of music education in parish schools that enabled the western music playing tradition to flourish and produce so many accomplished musicians, who distinguished themselves in Goa and much further afield.

During a recent visit to the archives of the Xavier Centre for Historical Research, Porvorim Goa, I stumbled upon a book by Rev Fr. Lourdino Barreto titled “Goan Vocal Music and its Appreciation” (1982, Tipografia Rangel, Bastorá Goa), where he is quite scathing and brutally honest in his observations.

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While commenting that “Our motet and mando cannot bear comparison with their [western] counterpart in artistic merit”, with “the amateur-like simplicity in their structure attributed rather to incompetence than to proficiency in the art of composition”, he avers that “it is the Goan talent for performing music that obtained for Goa such renown.”

He then begs the question: “If Goa produced so many prominent artists in the past, why none now? If it had given so many performers, why not any composers?”

He answers by observing: “Obviously the opportunities given to Goans to develop their talent in each and every village in Goa exist no more, [and if this was the case in 1982, it is even worse today!], as also the occasions to show the talent provided for them in and around the Church. So it is that the innate Goan musical talent in the villages has been stifled. The cities with their music schools and private teachers’ lessons continue to offer the citizens to some extent facilities to develop musical talent. But the busy city life and lack of opportunities to show the talent hinder their progress and so the number of those who advance in training compared to those who undertake the training every year show phenomenal disparities”.

I couldn’t agree more. The collapse of the parish-church music schools, “the nurseries of Goan musical education” as Fr. Barreto calls them, has left a huge void which must be filled.

During the same visit to the Xavier Centre, I also came across a souvenir from an even earlier past: a concert brochure dated 25 May 1967, featuring a concert of “Music from the Konkan” at Cine Nacional, Pangim.

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Among the performers were Prof. Micael Martins and his Orchestra, consisting of “30 top-notch players”. If one looks at the sheer numbers of Goan players in his orchestra and the Goa Symphony Orchestra that also performed the same evening, particularly lower strings (cello and double-bass), to say nothing of woodwind and brass (two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, one clarinet, two trumpets and French horns), we have to ask ourselves whether we have progressed or regressed since then. It is an almost impossible task to find homegrown musicians able to play lower strings and several woodwinds and brass to a high enough level for serious high-quality ensemble music-making. Flying in overseas musicians (at considerable expense) for the odd concert here, and festival there, is not the solution; it only papers over the education crisis we urgently need to address.

The violin has been part of Goan folk music since the 1500s. It is an instrument long steeped in folk music tradition elsewhere in the world as well, with its beautiful tessitura that matches so closely the human voice, and its easy portability and handling.

But as Prof. Martins and so many other musicians who began to orchestrate Goan music well knew, one needs other strings (viola, cello, double-bass) and sometimes wind instruments as well to add breadth, depth and colour to our music. We need to revive the inherent strength we already possess in our violin-playing, but also build anew to create a strong pedagogical tradition across all the string register and winds.

It is with this intention, and with the additional purpose of providing social empowerment to disadvantaged children in Goa, and hopefully very soon in other parts of the country as well, that we created Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity that seeks to provide music education to disadvantaged children. We are currently in three locations in Goa, and hope to recruit and train more teachers to reach out to further locations deep within Goa and beyond. As Fr. Barreto observed, we in Goa do not lack in talent; Prof. Martins is a shining example of what can be achieved when such talent is nurtured and then taken much, much further. But it is incumbent upon us, Goan society, to provide the infrastructure for education and pedagogy, to a level that exceeds anything Goa has experienced before, to a truly world-class level.

Another exciting, glass-half-full way of looking at our predicament is that there has probably never been a better time to do this than now. India has attained the status of economic superpower, and can well afford the finance required to lay down this infrastructure. Music teachers from all over the world are interested in coming here to help us establish this, provided their financial terms are met. This is comparatively a much smaller enterprise than hiring overseas football players for league matches, and the dividends will accrue for posterity.

Much is written recently about a supposed ‘Renaissance’ in classical music in Goa. I will believe this to be true when Goa’s children are being instructed to play to a truly world-class level, across all instrument disciplines, and in every nook and cranny of the state. It is well within reach if we only make the financial and emotional investment and long-term commitment towards this objective.

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Melaka Diaries – II The St. Francis Xavier Trail

 

In my youth, the Old Goa novenas were an annual ritual. We’d be up at dawn, get on our bicycles and join swarms of other cyclists, bells a-tinkling merrily, converging from all over the state onto the Ribandar Causeway and all the way to the early morning mass at the Bom Jesus Basilica. This was the 1980s, and it used to be so cold that we often donned sweaters, and we could actually see our breath condense as we cycled up the final slope to our destination.  The nip in the air, and the euphoric camaraderie of fellow pilgrims are part of my memories of those years.

We’d also cycle past many pilgrims who had undertaken punishing vows, to walk all the way and back. Since then, I’ve met devotees of St. Francis Xavier from all over the world, many of whom I have taken on walks through Old Goa. Just some months ago, I accompanied one such devotee, who had worshipped at all the places that St. Francis Xavier visited during his life, and had just returned from Malacca (Melaka) before stopping over in Goa.

I didn’t dream that in a short while, I too would be visiting Melaka.  It was an impulsive decision to revisit Malaysia, and this time Melaka had to be on the itinerary, given the many connections with Goa.

When I first studied the life of St. Francis Xavier, his life course puzzled me. Having come in 1542 to India, where there was enough work for him, why did he embark for Malacca a mere three years later? I am still not quite clear why, but it appears that he hitched a ride on a Royal Coromandel ship headed in that direction from Mylapore, on the centuries-old Spice Route.

In January 1546, he in fact headed from Malacca for the Moluccas, or the Maluku islands, known even today as the Spice Islands due to the nutmeg, mace and cloves that were originally found exclusively there, and the presence of which sparked colonial interest from Europe (the Portuguese, Dutch and British) in the 16th century. The Portuguese by then already had established settlements there. Xavier first visited Ambon island, where he stayed until mid-June, and then visited other Maluku islands, including Ternate, Baranura and Morotai.

Xavier returned to Malacca in 1547. The following year, with the assistance of fellow Jesuits Fr. Francisco Peres and Brother Roque de Oliveira, he established a school (College of St. Paul) in the premises of a chapel which was originally built in 1521 on the summit of a hill (known today as St. Paul’s hill, presumably after the college), making it the oldest church building in Southeast Asia.

Built by a Portuguese fidalgo Duarte Coelho in gratitude for surviving a storm (the information plaque at the site mentioned “enemy attacks”, not a storm) in the South China Sea, it was dedicated to Nossa Senhora da Annunciação (Our Lady of the Annunciation), also termed Nossa Senhora do Monte, or Oiteiro (Our Lady of the Hill).

The church had been deeded over to the Society of Jesus by the Archbishop of Goa João Afonso de Albuquerque in 1548, with the title deeds given over to Xavier himself. It is possible that the school or college established there was dedicated to St. Paul, as this was the name given to an similar albeit much larger institution just a few years earlier (1542) in Goa, also founded by Xavier the same year he arrived there. St. Paul’s College Malacca was the first school in the modern sense of the word to be established on the Malay peninsula.

St. Paul obviously held much significance to the Jesuits, especially in naming their colleges and schools, as they founded a St. Paul’s College in Macau in 1594 as well.

Xavier would use the Melaka church and college as his base from which he would undertake missionary expeditions to Japan and China. It was on one of these journeys that the saint would fall ill and die on Shangchuan island, China in 1552.

He was buried on the island, but the following year, his body was disinterred and temporarily buried at the main hall of the Melaka church for nine months before finally being shipped to Goa. An open grave (protected by a metal frame) still marks the spot.

Military defence of Malacca continued to be a preoccupation, and in 1590, a watchtower was built behind the church.

With the Dutch conquest of Malacca in 1641, the church was reconsecrated for use by the Dutch Reformed church and was then called Bovernkerk (High Church).

With the building of Christ Church in Malacca, this church building on the hill was deconsecrated and incorporated into the military fortification of the port city. The Portuguese watchtower was demolished, but its walls were strengthened to turn it into a fortress.

With the British occupation in 1824, the upkeep of the structure deteriorated further, and it served as an ammunition depot.

Efforts to conserve the historic site were begun in the early twentieth century. Tombstones from the Portuguese and Dutch era that were scattered in the vicinity of the church were affixed to the walls. And in 1952, a large statue of St. Francis Xavier was erected in front of the church to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the saint’s death. A day after the consecration of the statue, a large casuarina tree fell on it, breaking off its right arm.

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Incidentally, the right forearm of the body of the saint was detached on the orders of Superior General Claudio Acquaviva in 1614. Since then, it has been displayed in a silver reliquary at the mother church of the Society of Jesus in Rome, the Chiesa del Santissimo Nome di Gesù all’Argentina (Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus at the “Argentina”), known for short as Il Gesù.

It is difficult to imagine from today’s ruins what the church would have looked like when completed in 1521, but it shares several similarities with our own Nossa Senhora do Rosário in Old Goa, also atop a hill (Monte Santo), and built just a couple of decades later (1543). The Rosário is widely believed, among all the churches and shrines in Old Goa, to be truest to its original form.

Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário, Old Goa 

The Melaka church doesn’t have the cylindrical towers or buttresses of the Rosário, but it has a similar austere three-storey tower-façade, albeit with an attenuated top storey, and both have a four-paned window in the middle storey and a similar arched doorway in the ground storey.

Another Malacca connection: although the Rosário was built following a vow by Afonso de Albuquerque after the conquest of Goa, its construction was made possible by the donation of properties on Monte Santo by Pedro de Faria, former governor of Malacca, who had acquired them in 1526. And both have a connection to St. Francis Xavier: he is thought to have given his first sermon in Goa at the Rosário, and taught catechism to children there.

(An edited version of this article was published on 03 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

The Melaka Diaries – I: The Flower of the Sea

 

A combination of reasons caused me to return to Malaysia after almost a quarter of a century. We are increasingly drawn to destinations that offer visas on arrival, and although being an Indian passport-holder doesn’t open the door to as many countries as being Singaporean, it is refreshing to find that an increasing number of countries are wooing the Indian traveller. And flights to some South-East Asian destinations are often cheaper than domestic flights within India, if booked in advance.

The final clincher for me is often the music scene. So many South-East Asian countries and cities are fielding symphony orchestras that are growing in stature, reputation and repertoire, attracting formidable names on the international music circuit, and with concert calendars that are just as busy and diverse as their European and Atlantic counterparts. When I visited Kuala Lumpur in 1994, the Petronas Twin Towers were being built, but there was no Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. A quick scan of their programme schedule revealed at least two concerts we would be able to go to, and (it’s such a small world!) one of those concerts featured concert violinist David Juritz from England, who had helped us (our music charity Child’s Play India Foundation) get off the ground.  That more or less swayed our decision.

Even during my first visit all those years ago, I was struck by how conversant the local population was about Goa and its place in world history, and in their own history. It transpired that they had been taught in school about St. Francis Xavier, and about the spice route and the Portuguese colonial experience. My shoe-string budget at that time prevented me from making a trip to Malacca (or Melaka as it is known today) but I was determined to visit this time.

It was just a short inexpensive bus ride from Kuala Lumpur. I was particularly keen to visit its Muzium Samudera (Maritime Museum). Its highlight is an elaborate replica of Flor do Mar (Flower of the Sea), the Portuguese nau or carrack used by Afonso de Albuquerque in its short lifespan from 1502 to 1511, and presumably the very vessel he commanded during the conquest of Goa in 1510.

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It was built expressly for the “India run” (Carreira da Índia) in the Lisbon shipyards in 1502. At 400 tonnes, it was vastly greater in size, capacity and stability than the São Gabriel (120t) of Vasco da Gama’s 1497 fleet.  She was the largest carrack yet built, although even larger ships would eventually be built, peaking at about 600 tonnes (some accounts venture even 1500 tonnes).

At her very maiden voyage of 1502, portents of her ill-fate already began to manifest: under the command of Estevão da Gama (Vasco da Gama’s cousin), she sprang leaks on the homeward trip in 1503, presumably so overladen with spices and other cargo that it became difficult to negotiate the treacherous currents of the Mozambique channel. History repeated itself again on her second journey in 1505-6 (under command of João da Nova); the Flor do Mar was compelled to dock in Mozambique for lengthy repairs on her homeward run.

She was still in dock in 1507when Tristão da Cunha expedited repairs and commandeered the ship as part of his own India-bound armada. This decision effectively sealed the Flower of the Sea’s fate; she never returned to Portugal again.

The Flor do Mar (still captained by da Nova) saw action during Cunha’s conquest of Socotra (the archipelago of islands in the Arabian Sea that is part of modern-day Yemen) in 1507. But Cunha then ordered that the ship remain in service in the western Arabian Sea, incorporated into Afonso de Albuquerque’s patrol squadron fleet.  The Flor do Mar then participated in further conquests (Kuryat, Muscat; Khor Fakkan, Oman; and Ormuz) in 1507.

In 1509, D. Francisco de Almeida captained her as his flagship in the battle of Diu. At the end of his term as viceroy, Almeida planned to sail home with the Flor do Mar, but Albuquerque overruled this decision and retained her in Indian waters instead. So it was that the Flor do Mar supported the conquest of Goa in 1510 and the conquest of Malacca in 1511. The latter was the largest commercial hub of the East Indies, and the plunder from the palace of the Malacca sultan alone was said to be legendary.

This was the Flor do Mar’s undoing. Although she had on more than one occasion been found to be unseaworthy when loaded to capacity, Albuquerque decided to hoard all the Melaka loot into her hold and sail back to Portugal. However, she had no sooner left the harbour when a powerful storm struck, wrecking the Flor do Mar on some shoals off the coast of Sumatra. She sank to the bottom of the sea on 15 November 1511. Albuquerque was rescued in an improvised raft, but the treasure still lies unclaimed. The salvage rights for the contents of the Flor do Mar are disputed by Portugal, Malaysia and Indonesia. There are wild fanciful claims that it is the largest unclaimed shipwreck treasure in the annals of maritime history.

One might think that 1502-11 was a pretty short lifespan for a carrack, but by carrack standards it was already a long life. India ships were built with the expectation of just three or four years of service on the arduous Carreira da Índia run.

Exploring the replica deck and hold and looking through the displays and information, one was struck by how much more mature Malaysia is about its colonial past than we. The placard at the entrance describes dispassionately, without any rancour, the dimensions and other salient features of the ship. It informs us that the “main focus of the museum is on Melaka’s maritime history and its glory”, and then goes on to enumerate the four eras of that history: “The Golden Era of the Melaka Malay Sultanate (1400-1511); the Portuguese era (1511-1641); the Dutch era (1641-1795); and the British era (1824-1957) up to the time of Independence of Malaya in 1957.”

There does not seem to be any obvious rewriting of their history; on the contrary, there is even a life-size bronze statue of a very youthful Afonso de Albuquerque deep in the bowels of the ship.

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Could we even countenance the possibility of a similar maritime museum or statue with an objective account of our past on Goan soil? The Malaysians do not regard such an examination of their history in the slightest as a dilution of their pride as a nation; they even have a museum shaped in the form of the vessel that once conquered its people. With monthly visitors of over 20,000 people, it is the most visited museum in Melaka. It is time we grew up and had a more mature view of our own history, and stopped being held to ransom by petty disruptive fringe elements who get ‘outraged’ on behalf of everyone else over non-issues.

(An edited version of this article was published on 26 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Love at First Sight (and Hearing)

 

Television came to Goa in 1982 during the coverage of the Asiad games. And with it, the couch-potato syndrome, and perhaps the beginning of our own obesity epidemic. And the first wave of in-your-face commercialism and advertising.

They say it pays to advertise. But sometimes what lingers after some advertisements is everything but the product. This has been the case with me, regarding one of those early TV ads. It would have been 1985-86. I remember so much about it; it was about half-a-minute long, and a pretty model shrouded in a hooded cloak stepping into view amid a swirl of the most glorious cascading piano music I had ever listened to. The music would fade away, and the product spiel (luxury chocolate? coffee?) would take over, and the spell would be broken.

It was only several years later, during my internship year in 1989, that the identity of the music was revealed to me. An East European pianist was performing at the Kala Academy, and it was the first time I heard the work in full: Chopin Étude no. 1 in C major, opus 10.

In those pre-internet days, programme notes or any information about music works were not easy to come by. Over time, I managed to listen to different recordings of this étude. The versions by Martha Argerich, Maurizio Pollini and Vladimir Ashkenazy still stand out in my memory, and quite readily accessible online for those interested. The great Vladimir Horowitz had a healthy respect for it, and refused to perform it in public: “For me, the most difficult one of all (the études) is the C Major, the first one, Op. 10, No. 1.”

The American music critic James Huneker compared the “hypnotic charm” that these “dizzy acclivities and descents exercise for eye as well as ear” to the frightening staircases in Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s prints of the Carceri d’invenzione  (Imaginary Prisons), his capricci, or whimsical aggregates, Kafkaesque depictions of monumental architecture and ruin.

The main technical challenge of the étude is playing the right-hand arpeggios seamlessly without interruption, legato and accurately at the suggested tempo (Allegro). It is called a study in ‘reach and arpeggios’, and is aimed at stretching the fingers of the right hand.

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Chopin himself told his pupil Friederike Müller-Streicher: “You shall benefit from this Étude. If you learn it according to my instructions it will expand your hand and enable you to perform arpeggios like strokes of the [violin] bow. Unfortunately, instead of teaching, it frequently un-teaches everything.”

If one follows Chopin’s own metronome markings (MM 176, referring to quarter notes), it is a daunting tempo. Later editors such as Hans von Bülow suggested a slower tempo (MM 152), arguing that at MM 176 “the majestic grandeur [would be] impaired.” Most contemporary performers seem to follow Chopin’s original recommendation. If memory serves right, the clip in the TV ad, as well as the live performance I first heard in 1989 were taken at the slower tempo.

This étude entered popular culture in 1978 when its first few bars were incorporated by the English progressive rock group Emerson, Lake and Palmer into their track ‘Love at First Sight’ in their studio album Love Beach.

It is an odd choice, and seems to be tacked on to the beginning of the ballad for no real artistic reason. The album in general was panned by fans and critics alike; Rolling Stone magazine sniffed: “Stale and full of ennui, this album makes washing the dishes seem a more creative act by comparison”.

But the Chopin Études theselves are timeless, and form the bedrock of the concert piano repertoire. This first étude in his set of opus 10 (aptly nicknamed ‘The Waterfall’) was written by him when still a teenager; he would dedicate the entire opus to his friend Franz Liszt.

For those interested, there is wonderful video footage of a young dashing Vladimir Askenazy striding purposefully over to the keys to play this marvelous piece. The camera lets you watch his right-hand arpeggios in all their glory.

But for sheer poetry, the audio clip of Martha Argerich’s 1965 prize-winning (Fryderyk Chopin Piano Competition) account of this étude is matchless. The evenness of the fingers, the fluidity of wrist are phenomenal, and the whole work ‘sings’ from the weighty left-hand bass. Magical.

(An edited version of this article was published on 19 November 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)