Albert and ‘Lina’


The violin is not at the top of any list of ‘babe magnet’ options, but it does work for some.

Nobel Prize Laureate theoretical physicist Albert Einstein’s wife Elsa (née Löwenthal) fell in love with him “because he played Mozart so beautifully on the violin.”

If there’s one thing that leapt out at me from the extremely informative ‘Nobel Prize series India 2018 Science Exhibition’ at the Kala Academy in February, it was the remarkable affinity for music possessed by so many Nobel Prize Laureates across all disciplines (physics, chemistry, physiology, medicine, literature and peace) from an early age. I came across this time and again during the exhibition as I read the life histories of these great men and women. This association between exposure to music at a very young age, and brilliance in one’s pursuits in later life, cannot be coincidental.

This exposure to music came early to Albert Einstein (1879-1955). His mother Pauline Koch Einstein, herself a reasonably accomplished pianist, started him on the piano and violin at the age of five, not only to instill in him a love of music, but “to help him assimilate into German culture.”

Although Einstein didn’t enjoy violin lessons at first, he “fell in love” with the music of Mozart later, at the age of thirteen, after discovering his violin sonatas. His interest in music and his instrument grew much more serious after this. This is a lesson for parents, teachers and students: an initial diffidence towards music and practice in one’s younger years shouldn’t deter us, as it could evolve into a deeper engagement over time if we give it this chance. Regrettably, all too often, the decision is taken to discontinue lessons because initial progress is slow.

Einstein would write that Mozart’s music “was so pure that it seemed to have been ever-present in the universe, waiting to be discovered by the master.”

A schoolmate Hans Byland described Einstein’s playing of Mozart: “When his violin began to sing, the walls of the room seemed to recede — for the first time, Mozart in all his purity appeared before me, bathed in Hellenic beauty with its pure lines, roguishly playful, mightily sublime.”

Einstein was also drawn to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In an interview, Einstein once remarked, “I have this to say about Bach’s works: listen, play, love, revere—and keep your trap shut.”

When at seventeen, Einstein played Beethoven’s violin sonatas to a school examiner, the latter observed that the teenager’s playing “was remarkable and revealing of great insight.” He added that Einstein “displayed a deep love of the music, a quality that was and remains in short supply. Music possessed an unusual meaning for this student.”

This “deep love of the music” crept into every aspect of Einstein’s life. He would write later: “If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music… I get most joy in life out of music.”

Another famous Einstein quote: “A table, a chair a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?”


Although taking up music professionally was never his ambition, he played to a very high level, making chamber music with professional musicians (that included violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler, the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky,  and the Zoellner and Juilliard string quartets) and peers (notably Max Planck and son).

Unfortunately, we have no recordings of Einstein’s violin playing, but most listener accounts (some of them quoted above) shower praise. The Juilliard quartet members heard him in his later years and were “impressed by Einstein’s level of coordination and intonation”.

One amusing anecdote survives from one of his string quartet sessions; when Einstein missed one entrance too many, Fritz Kreisler exasperatedly reprimanded the father of the Theory of Relativity: “What’s the matter, professor? Can’t you count?” Other accounts have Piatigorsky make this remark, so the whole story might be apocryphal.

Einstein’s violin was his companion even on his travels, wherever he went. His wife Elsa reminisced, “Music helps him when he is thinking about his theories… He goes to his study, comes back, strikes a few chords on the piano, jots something down, returns to his study.”

Although Einstein possessed several violins in his lifetime, his affectionate nickname ‘Lina’ (apparently, short for ‘violin’) was given to each one of them. He would love to surprise Halloween trick-or-treaters with serenades on his ‘Lina’ of the time, and would join caroling groups at Christmas.

One of Einstein’s violins was in the news last week, having fetched ₤ 373,000 (over 3 crore Indian rupees) at auction by Bonhams Fine Art division, New York. It is believed to be the only one of Einstein’s violins to have come on the market. It seems surprising that the instrument didn’t fetch an even higher price.

The violin was handcrafted specially for Einstein in 1933, the year he fled Nazi Germany to the US. Already considered “one of the most prominent intellectuals of his time”, his arrival created a sensation. It inspired Oscar H. Steger, a cabinet-maker and a member of the Harrisberg Symphony Orchestra, Pennsylvania, to make a violin for him.

An inscription inside the violin reads: ‘Made for the Worlds [sic] Greatest Scientist Profesior [sic] Albert Einstein By Oscar H. Steger, Feb 1933 / Harrisburg, PA.’

Image result for einstein violin auction

Image result for einstein violin auction

In an act of touching generosity, Einstein later gifted it to William Hibbs, son of a janitor, Sylas Hibbs, at Princeton University where Einstein was a resident scholar, when he was told that William was learning to play the violin. The Hibbs family had the violin in their possession until the time of auction.

It is humbling to think that the instrument would have been a source of nourishment, inspiration and refuge. His older son Hans Albert would recall, “Whenever he felt that he had come to the end of the road or into a difficult situation in his work, he would take refuge in music. That would usually resolve all his difficulties.”

Perhaps this should not surprise us so much. Several Einstein biographers have pointed out the qualities of “beauty, clarity, simplicity and architectural perfection”, the “inner unity” in the music of Bach and Mozart that Einstein sought in his own theories in physics.

When asked about his Theory of Relativity, Einstein responded, “It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.”

Scientists are struck by the “beauty” of the Theory of Relativity. Einstein himself would say “Hardly anyone who has truly understood it will be able to escape the charm of this theory.” He recognized and reveled in that same charm and beauty in music, particularly of Bach and Mozart.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


Our irreplaceable, priceless Ances-Tree



Trees and forests have been on my mind a lot lately. The most recent trigger was the unexpected (thanks to our son’s school holiday), impulsive long-overdue midweek visit to Nature’s Nest, the splendid nature resort run by my friend, expert birder and nature-lover Pankaj Lad in Surla in the Western Ghats.

In that brief yet much-needed commune with nature at Surla and the nearby Bhagwan Mahaveer Sanctuary and Mollem National Park, we spotted a plethora of bird species, that included the State bird, the flame-throated bulbul, the Malabar grey hornbill, Asian fairy bluebird, Malabar blue-winged parakeet, racket-tailed drongo, and many more.

At dusk, just as we were preparing to exit the national park, we were blessed (and this is something I had long awaited for decades) to sight (or ‘spot’) not one, but two leopards within just a few minutes of each other.

Trees and forests have a spiritual peace and aura about them. It is no coincidence that our ancient scriptures and the tales within them are situated within sacred groves and forests. When seers, thinkers and saints seek enlightenment, they go deep into forests. They possess a profound cosmic wisdom that all the libraries of the most advanced civilization cannot hope to rival.

The other reason that they are on the brain is the government plan, already underway, to axe (chainsaw or bulldoze is perhaps the more accurate term) around 22,000 trees in the mindless, ruthless push for the ill-conceived, ill-sited, unnecessary Mopa airport. Environmentalists estimate that even more, perhaps 100,000 trees could be felled for this project.

We possess the flawed ‘intelligence’ to be able, with chainsaws and bulldozers, to mow down in hours or days, whole tracts of life-giving rainforests that Nature took centuries or millennia to painstakingly generate.

This folly is not unique to Goa; we see it in Mumbai with the proposed destruction of the Aarey colony, in Bengaluru and in so many other locations in India where myopic politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists measure ‘development’ solely in terms of concrete and tarmac, in pursuit of the mirage of ‘progress’, thus brutalizing timeless natural legacies that had been safeguarded by our ancestors.

Have we even researched the medicinal potential of the flora and fauna native to the nearly 1500 acres of the proposed Mopa airport project before its tens of thousands of trees are leveled and end up in a timber yard?

Dipcadi concanense (Dalzell) Baker is a perennial “tuberous herb with large white flowers” endemic to the Western Ghats region and is already listed as ‘Critically Endangered.’ The airport project will accelerate the extinction of this plant and untold numbers of other as-yet-undocumented species, and any untapped medicinal potential will be lost to science and future generations forever.

Enough forest cover has been lost already to mining, and despite the stipulation that the mined land be “restored to its original state” afterward, this has not happened. Instead we revel in photo-ops of tree-planting ceremonies of short-lived scrawny saplings at each Vanamahotsav. We are a nation of hypocrites.

The irony peculiar also not just to Goa is the simultaneous denudation of forests, known repositories of precious ground water, throwing away our own vital resource within our borders whil entering into protracted disputes with our neighbours over water rights.

In the 2017 BBC documentary ‘My Passion for Trees’, Oscar-winning actress Dame Judi Dench explores the amazing lives and histories of trees, their remarkable communication systems and demonstrates that trees are truly social living beings, “a real community that help each other, humans and the planet.”

Each tropical tree sequesters a minimum of 50 lbs (22.6 kg) of carbon each year in its trunk, branches and root system, producing life-nourishing oxygen in exchange. More than 50% of a tropical tree’s woody biomass is sequestered carbon, which is why tropical trees are so important in the fight against global warming and climate change.

There is mounting scientific evidence that trees are sentient beings, that they look out for each other. A tree having its leaves eaten by an herbivore is capable of emitting ethylene gas, warning other trees of imminent danger. They register pain when even a tiny caterpillar nibbles on a leaf.

Trees “scream” at ultrasonic frequencies when under extreme water deprivation. In the BBC documentary, a sophisticated machine enables one to “hear” water ascending up a tree trunk xylem under the bark.

To give an idea of ecosystems we stand to lose each time forest cover is erased: There are more life forms in a handful of forest soil than there are people on the planet. A forest is teeming with life, more than we know.

I remember Fr. Bismarque Dias forcefully making the point at a heritage conservation conference in 2011 that forests, woodlands and wetlands, hills and water bodies are heritage too and should be zealously safeguarded.

In his election campaign Kindness Manifesto, Fr. Bismarque presciently anticipated the core philosophy of our current Pope Francis’ path-breaking, hard-hitting ‘Laudato Si (Praise Be to You): On Care of Our Common Home’, his 2015 encyclical on the environment and climate change. I have written about this in specific relation to Goa before.

Pope Francis pulls no punches in criticizing our capitalist obsession with production and profit: “The principle of the maximization of profits, frequently isolated from other considerations, reflects a misunderstanding of the very concept of the economy. As long as production is increased, little concern is given to whether it is at the cost of future resources or the health of the environment; as long as the clearing of a forest increases production, no one calculates the losses entailed in the desertification of the land, the harm done to biodiversity or the increased pollution.”

He is scathing in his observation on the loss of forest cover in particular: “The earth’s resources are being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. Different species contain genes which could be key resources in years ahead for meeting human needs and regulating environmental problems.

It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

Indeed we don’t.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Adieu, Didier Lockwood (1956-2018)!


I was deeply saddened to hear of the untimely death on 18 February, 2018 of one of the greatest jazz violin legends, Didier Lockwood, aged just sixty-two, following a heart attack. He had played a concert at Bal Blomet in Paris just a day before.


Music lovers will remember his electrifying performance, hosted by Alliance Française at the Kala Academy open air auditorium some decades ago (late 1980s or early 1990s). Those were heady times, with concerts at that venue that will stay with me for life. The Didier Lockwood concert is certainly up there with the best of them. I know one has a tendency to romanticize the past (and I am particularly guilty of this sin) but I remember it as truly magical, with a starry night sky as a canopy and a bright moon adding even more atmosphere in the amphitheater to Lockwood’s virtuosity.

It was my first exposure to live electric jazz violin, and I was fortunate to hear it played so superbly. For the better part of my growing-up years, I had listened to many of the violin greats of the western classical world, but the audio cassette, the explosion in accessibility to music via labels like Magnasound and Times Music, and of course concerts like these, opened new vistas.

Around this time, (as I had described in an earlier column) I had also discovered “Conversations”, the mind-blowing collaborative album between L. Subramaniam and Stéphane Grappelli, which also was an entry point not only to Indian classical violin, but also to other jazz violin greats, particularly Jean-Luc Ponty, who I now learn was the inspiration for Lockwood.

Didier Lockwood was born in Calais in 1956 into a family steeped in music and the arts; his father (of British descent) was a violin teacher, his mother an amateur painter and his elder brother Francis was a jazz pianist.

His father was not only his first violin teacher, but seems to have been a charismatic champion of music in the local community. “Thanks to music, he saved lots of kids who might have ended up in jail,” Didier Lockwood would later recall. Perhaps it was this debt and recognition of the life-changing significance of music education that would inspire the formation of ‘Le Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood’ in 2001.

Didier Lockwood entered the Calais Conservatoire aged just six. Lockwood’s phenomenal technique and prowess on his instrument can be traced back to his rigorous schooling in the Carl Flesch method while studying here, which he put to good use in his jazz career.

He joined the Orchestre Lyrique de Théâtre Municipal de Calais when he was thirteen. At sixteen, he won First Prize for violin at the Conservatoire National de Calais, as well as First National Prize for composition of contemporary music for “prepared violin” (“violon préparé”) at La Sacem (Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique).

He was poised to move on to the Paris conservatoire for further study, when he discovered the liberating, exhilarating joy of improvisation from his brother. Jean-Luc Ponty was a strong influence here. It was on listening to Ponty’s playing on album ‘King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa’ that Lockwood first took up electric violin. He joined the French progressive rock group Magma at the age of seventeen.

Then the gravitational pull of jazz grew even stronger.  Several of Lockwood’s obituaries describe him as the “spiritual son” of Stéphane Grappelli (1908-1997), a nickname given by Grappelli himself. Lockwood was playing at a jazz festival in 1976 when Grappelli first heard him. Obviously impressed, he invited the young Lockwood to accompany him on a tour of Europe.

In a 2008 interview to Radio France, Lockwood acknowledged, “That was the start of my career, the launchpad that got me into the world of popular jazz.” Grappelli would become Lockwood’s teacher and mentor. In 2000, Lockwood would dedicate a much-acclaimed tribute album to Grappelli. It is well worth a listen. While the doffing of the cap to Grappelli is unmistakable, Lockwood’s distinctive sound is nevertheless still clearly evident.

There is a touching story of an instrument being emblematic of the goodwill and bonhomie between so many jazz violin legends and becoming a thread that connects them.  The great but tragically short-lived French classical and jazz violinist Michel Maurice Armand Warlop (1911-1947) was also orchestra leader of some of Grappelli’s first recordings. In 1937, he gifted one of his violins (known today as ‘the Warlop violin’) to Grappelli, who in turn gave it to Jean-Luc Ponty, who would then present it in 1979 to Lockwood.

Lockwood’s international career spanned around 4500 concerts and over 35 record albums. He also wrote two operas, a concerto for piano and orchestra, two concertos for violin, lyrical works and music for films and cartoons.

He drew inspiration from sources beyond his instrument, such as jazz saxophone (John Coltrane) and guitar (John McLaughlin).

Lockwood was never too far away from classical music. He married twice, both times to sopranos, first to Caroline Casadesus and then Patricia Petitbon.

Tributes have poured In from French President Emmanuel Macron, and from the music fraternity all over the world. President Macron described him in a tweet as “friend and partner of the greatest, as much keen to bind cultures as to transmit to the greatest number. His radiance, open-mindedness and immense musical talent will be missed.”

French classical violinist Renaud Capuçon said “France has lost an exceptional musician, a man of rare qualities” in the passing of “incomparable” Didier Lockwood.

Lockwood’s enduring legacy that will live on after him is his creation, ‘Le Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood’ (CMDL). His website explains how he felt the particular need to do this after his childhood experience of pedagogy at the conservatoire, which while technically sound, was “too theoretical and rigid.”  Such an education only taught him “to reproduce a virtuoso technique to the detriment of all personal creativity.” While “not denying the need to acquire the solid technique of classical teaching”, he asserted that the modern musician “must know how to approach all musical style.”

Lockwood would say to his students, “Jazz is the body, it is an internal dance.” He danced it to the very end.

(An edited version of this article was published on 4 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Bridge of Voices


In October 2014, I was one among 150 delegates from 28 countries (and the only one from India) chosen to participate in the first of its kind, a four-day International Sistema Teachers’ Conference organised by Sistema Scotland in Stirling. It offered me a unique opportunity to meet like-minded individuals also committed to music education and social empowerment, from a wide range of locations around the world: Australia, Austria, Canada, Croatia, Denmark, England, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Netherlands, New Zealand, Romania, Scotland, Serbia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Arab Emirates, USA, Venezuela, Vietnam and Wales.

Among that vast community of nations, the Swedish contingent stood out pretty prominently. They kept breaking spontaneously into song at every opportunity, and their infectious enthusiasm got the rest of us singing as well.

One particular song, sung as a canon, became almost the anthem of the conference: “Baboomba”, sung as a Mexican wave, punctuating by rhythmic claps rippling across the hall, or wherever we happened to be.

This is where I first met Cecilia Öhrwall from El Sistema Södertälje, close to Stockholm, Sweden. She already had a connection with India, and had been visiting and working with a music school in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. She was planning a return trip to India the following year and suggested visiting us at Child’s Play India Foundation in Goa.

Cecilia Öhrwall has composed music for film documentaries and arranged music for choir and orchestra. For over twelve years, she has been playing flute and singing in and writing songs and arrangements for the trio ‘Lite men rätt’ with Esbjörn Öhrwall (guitar) and Ylva Nilsson (cello).

She has been pedagogue at El Sistema Södertälje since its inception in 2012.

Her first visit was with a double-bass playing colleague Katarina Lindgren and her son in 2015. We had just begun a choir project in Santa Cruz at the time, and Cecilia worked with the choir, while Katarina played Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf’s Concerto in E major (Krebs 172) for double-bass, with piano accompaniment, to a small audience in the village.

Obviously impressed with our work, Cecilia returned in 2016 with her 14-member strong choir, the Sångföreningen Qöhr. The choir works to create a platform for children and youth, building bridges over cultural differences, social inequality and national boundaries. It works closely with “Dörren” (The Door), a youth programme that offers young people creative opportunities through singing, theatre, dance, photography, etc. Cecilia is choral director of the Dörren choir as well, and together with Maria Peters of the Gränslösa roster –Voices without Borders, a choir where refugees integrate with the local population quite literally and figuratively, in harmony.

Many of you will remember the delightful benefit concert for Child’s Play of the Sångföreningen Qöhr in 2016 at Menezes Braganza, in which the choir sang a diverse range of repertoire: the spiritual Roll Jordan Roll, Karl Jenkins’ Adiemus, Hey Jude, Ernst Toch’s Geographical Fugue, Cat Stevens’ Peace Train, Sunny by Boney M, David Bowie’s Life on Mars, a host of Swedish pop songs and more. The concert also featured our Child’s Play children’s and community choirs, and a joint performance of the Sångföreningen Qöhr and our children singing three songs together.


Their benefit concert (today 25 February in aid of Child’s Play, also at Menezes Braganza 6 pm) promises to be just as exciting, running the gamut from classical music to Latin American favourites, and from Stevie Wonder to Swedish pop, and much more.

The concept of making music through ensembles, both orchestra and choir, is central to the ethos of Child’s Play India Foundation. Exactly a month ago, we were happy to welcome our new choral director Claire Hughes from England, with vast experience conducting choirs in England and the United States.

Claire grew up in the South of England, where her interest in music was first expressed through Musical Theatre. Her further studies in music began at the University of Birmingham. Here she found a passion for choral music and learnt more about rehearsing and conducting choirs. As a choral singer, she performed with the Proms Youth Choir, Birmingham University Singers and CBSO Chorus, appearing in the First night of the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall and Choir of the World competition at the International Eisteddfod, among other exciting performances. Her conducting experience started with the University SSA Chamber Choir, leading concerts with them at the Elgar Concert Hall and St George’s Church, Edgbaston. She also held the position of Musical Director with the University of Birmingham Gilbert & Sullivan society in her final year of study.

After the completion of her first degree, she travelled to the USA to pursue a master’s degree in Choral Conducting at Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. She sang with three prolific college choirs and was the Graduate Assistant Conductor to Westminster Schola Cantorum. During her time in this position, Schola Cantorum toured the states of Maryland and North Carolina, as well as collaborating with Julliard school at the Lincoln Center in New York. Claire had previously been involved with the Mostly Mozart Festival, again at the Lincoln Center; this involvement was as one of twenty-five conductors in the World Premiere of a thousand-voice piece by David Lang. Her experience with young voices includes her position on the teaching staff for the Westminster Vocal Institute, a summer camp for young aspiring choral singers. She was fortunate to perform in a wide variety of projects as a choral singer in the USA, singing at Carnegie Hall and David Geffen Hall in New York, and the Verizon Center in Philadelphia, under the batons of Sir Simon Rattle, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Jane Glover CBE, to name a few. With the Westminster Choir, she toured the Southern states, worked as a Choral Artist at the Spoleto Festival USA, and performed at the World Symposium on Choral Music, on tour of Spain and Catalonia. Her choral experience extended to early music as a member of Westminster Kantorei, an early music ensemble who featured in the Boston Early Music Festival last year. Their debut album, Lumina, was released in September and is available online.

Claire is thrilled to use her skills and experiences to help enrich the lives of children in Goa and to introduce them to the sense of community that comes with singing together. She was been working at the Child’s Play projects in St. Inez and Caranzalem, and some of them will join the  Sångföreningen Qöhr onstage for ‘Flowers and Love’, a heartwarming song written based on a poem by an eight-year-old Swedish child Adam Andersen, that has become the unofficial anthem of El Sistema in Sweden.

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Vale a Pena!

How times change! Today everyone flocks to handicrafts emporiums, leaving traffic bottlenecks up-and downstream from their location. But those of my age will remember how in our childhood, itinerant vendors would walk past our houses with baskets on their heads overflowing with the most ingenious, intricate hand-made toys and display items.

I remember in particular miniature models of ships, complete with decks, masts and sails, made from wood and bamboo. It was a cherished favourite of mine for years. But I also remember the single-stringed violins (I now know them to be called ‘kingri’, in many ways a bowed variant of the ektara) upon which the vendors would play so lustily the prevalent Hindi film (the term Bollywood hadn’t yet gained currency) top hit tunes.

Kingri is Indian instrument

Image result for kingri

We were already learning the violin by then, so the allure of these vendors, playing these melodies so effortlessly, and on a single string as opposed to our ‘western’ violin’s four, and with an arched bow that had much more in common with an archery bow than the one that accompanied my instrument, and all this while balancing a basket on their heads, was quite irresistible.

And to add to the challenge of the kingri, the single metal string was being stopped, and from a much greater height than a conventional violin, not by a fleshy finger-tip, but (precisely because of this greater height) by the proximal nail fold, the portion where the fingernail disappears into the finger after the lunule. It’s an acquired skill, and a mighty painful one for a beginner. I can vouch for this. And the concave shape of the bow makes the bow-hold quite awkward to those of us schooled in conventional violin-playing.

The instrument is propped not under the chin like a regular violin, but held against the chest, even closer to the heart. Unlike the violin which has pegs around which its four strings are tethered and tuned, the kingri is a ‘spike fiddle’, with a spike serving the function of a peg, bored into a thin stick that serves both as fingerboard and part of the body, ending proximally in a semi-globular resonator cavity (‘sound-box’, often a halved coconut shell) that has a membrane of dried animal hide stretched over its mouth upon which the tiniest ‘bridge’ lifts the string off its surface.

I was reminded of this on the second day of the splendid Monte Music festival earlier this month. This has been for me the most uplifting edition of the Monte festival in recent memory.

The first act on the second day featured the Laihui ensemble from Manipur, which had three of its five members playing the pena, belonging to the same ‘family’ of instruments as the kingri. It was my first encounter with the pena.


The pena is believed to be the most ancient among the musical instruments of the Meitei, the majority ethnic group of Manipur. Its name is believed by some to have its etymologic derivation from the Sanskrit ‘vina’, and its corruption to the Bengali ‘bina’, and thence to ‘pena’. Other accounts trace its ancestry to the Chinese spiked-fiddle family Huqin, to which the erhu, zhonghu and gaohu belong.

Image result for erhu Erhu

Image result for zhonghu Zhonghu

Image result for gaohu Gaohu

I came across another ‘relative’ of this fiddle ‘family’ at the last day of the equally wonderful Sur Jahan World Peace festival, among the instruments of the Ethiopian-Italian ensemble Atse Tewodros. It is called ‘Masenqo’ and is very similar to the kingri.

Image result for masenqo

In Yehudi Menuhin’s beautifully written book ‘The Violin: An illustrated history’, he charts the history of the violin from its origins in the bow and arrow, through to the Stradivarius. It is easy to imagine how the instruments of the single-stringed fiddle family, with the very arched bow, fit into this lineage, and one can only speculate how the instrument evolved and was disseminated across continents and oceans along ancient trade and migration routes.

What I found most interesting about the pena was the unusual shape of the bow. While made of wood, it has a curved flourish made of metal where the conventional violin bow would have had a ‘tip’. Image result for pena manipur instrumentAnd while the bow hair is made of horse-hair like a western bow, the strands are loose, not drawn taut. The right hand grips the bow in a fist, so that the bow is quite literally ‘pulled’ and ‘pushed’ across the string, which is traditionally also made of horse-hair.


With this dependence on and inspiration from the horse being so vital to the composition of the instrument, it is perhaps not surprising that there are equestrian references in the folklore of the Meitei people as well.

For instance, from among the five Manipuri folk songs that Mangka Mayanglamban sang at the Monte, ‘Loi Okpa’ stood out for its particular feistiness. It recounts in ballad-form the story of princess Thoibi returning from exile as punishment for refusing to marry a suitor named Nongban who had been picked out for her in a matrimonial alliance, but then fleeing on horseback to the home of her true love Khamba.

And the last folk song ‘Khonjom Lan’ was a history lesson for me, an energetic retelling of the 1891 Anglo-Manipur war. There is so much of our subcontinent’s history that we do not learn in school. There was nervous laughter and some squirming in seats when Mangka enquired if there were any ‘British’ in the audience. She then sweetly reassured them, “But British won, so no need to worry.”

That became a matter of some homework for me. The Anglo-Manipur war (known in Manipur as the War of Independence) began as a petty rivalry between princes over succession to the throne, and things escalated quickly when one faction sought British intervention.

Image result for khongjom war memorial

Image result for khongjom war memorial

Khongjom hillock is 44 km from Imphal, and has a war memorial commemorating the site where 400 Kangeilpak soldiers of King Kulachandra fought the British (350 infantrymen, 44 cavalry and 2 cannon) on 23 April 1891, in a valiant yet unsuccessful defence of Manipur. The Manipuri army battled to the end, resorting to hand-to-hand fighting when ammunition ran out, with a loss of 128 lives on the Manipuri side. The day is celebrated in Manipur every year as Khongjom Day.

Image result for khongjom battle

Image result for khongjom battle

We were extremely privileged to hear in the Laihui ensemble Mangka’s unassuming father Mayanglamban Mangansana Meitei (seated, centre, in the picture below), a much-respected performer, exponent and champion of the pena.

Image result for Mayanglamban Mangansana Meitei

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Michiel Sweerts in Goa


Last December I was reminded that I’ve completed four years writing this column, with over 200 articles, and (touch wood!) not missing a single Sunday.

It’s always good to get feedback from readers. I get this from my circle of friends, family and acquaintances, but it’s gratifying when you hear from a reader far beyond this circle. Sometimes it is someone who has read it online in another part of the world, and the topic was of particular interest.

Sometimes, it is a visitor who happens to read the Sunday paper. Some months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to find a reader from Bangalore, Sunil Murthy, at my doorstep.  He had read my article on the Italian composer Giacomo Carissimi (1605-1674), and subsequently visited my website and read other contributions, particularly on art.

I am grateful to him for bringing to my attention the interesting life story of Flemish painter and print-maker of the Baroque period, Michiel (sometimes also spelled Michael) Sweerts (1618-1664), who lived his final years in Goa, and is probably buried somewhere in the Cidade de Goa, Old Goa to us today. This year happens to be his birth quatercentenary.


I often take visitors to Old Goa, and when one walks around several shrines, notably the Sé Cathedral, but so many others, like the church of São Caetano, one can’t help wondering who painted those beautiful paintings, on canvas or wood panels. This is why it was so exciting to attend a talk given a year ago at the Santa Monica church and at the Fundação Oriente by the scholars and conservationists Dr. Vanessa Antunes and José Pestana.

They discussed many prominent artists working in Goa in the 16th and 17th centuries, of which I had previously heard of just one: the master engineer Júlio Simão, sometimes spelled Simonis (1565-1641). But all the other names, the sculptors Babuxa and Santopa, the painters Aleixo Godinho, João Peres, António da Costa, Manuel Simões, Garcia Fernandes, the ‘canarim ‘Janes’ and Salvador de Bonifácio (the last active in Baçaim, modern-day Vasai), the goldsmith Jerónimo da Costa, the masons Manuel Coelho and João Teixeira, the gilder António da Costa, and so many others, were a real revelation.

It was so wonderful to regard the magnificently-restored ‘Burial and Assumption of the Virgin Mary’, ascribed to Aleixo Godinho (c. 1630), still gloriously on display at the Santa Monica church. It was the first time (for me, at any rate) that a painting in Old Goa had a definite artist’s name attached to it. How marvelous it would be if we could learn the names of the painters of every last painting, wood panel and mural in the old city!

One also couldn’t help speculating about so many aspects of the nitty-gritty of their work here. For instance, did they bring their own pigments and colours with them, or did they experiment with local materials available? How much did the contemporaneous painters mingle and interact with each other, share ideas and compare notes, as it were? If so, Sweerts would almost certainly have been in this circle.

The more recent lecture series by the scholars and Professors Walter Rossa and Luisa Trindade also opened my eyes to an important fact: when we read about “the Portuguese” in the old documents, they didn’t necessarily originate from the narrow confines of Portugal’s borders as they might have been then, but would also have embraced the elites in far-flung colonies including Goa, and also those from other parts of Europe but making common cause with the Portuguese in their dominions. So even Saint Francis Xavier (who was Spanish, coming from Navarre) in his letters, seems to sometimes describe himself as “Portuguese”.  If Sweerts made any artistic contribution to the city, he too would be regarded as “Portuguese” despite his Flemish origin.

But too little is known of Sweerts life history, let alone its final chapter in Goa. We know of his birth in Brussels in 1618, to David Sweerts, linen merchant, and Martina Ballu. Although nothing is recorded about his early years, he would have become acquainted with the work of the Great Masters such as Peter Paul Rubens and others in Brussels. During his years in Rome (1646-1656), he became linked to the group of Dutch and Flemish painters of low-life scenes known as the Bamboccianti. He created such a high reputation for himself that he was called into the service of Prince Camillo Pamphilj, nephew of the then-reigning Pope Innocent X. The Pope bestowed upon Sweerts the title of Cavaliere di Cristo (Knight of Christ).

For unknown reasons, at the height of his career in Rome, he returned to Brussels, where he opened an academy for artists and tapestry designers, and played a critical role in the formation of a Netherlandish academic tradition. He then seems to have undergone a deep spiritual transformation, joining the Missions Étrangères, a Catholic missionary organization, who were followers of Vincent de Paul and committed to proselytizing in the East. In 1661, He helped supervise the building of a ship in Amsterdam that would take him and others from the Missions Étrangères on their eastward journey.

Details get progressively sketchier after that. In December 1661 he was in Marseilles, in January 1662 in Palestine (yes, the Holy Land was known as Palestine even then, contrary to what some segments of the world media would have us believe), from where he sailed for Alexandretta (today Iskenderun in Turkey) along with bishop François Pallu (founder member of the Société des Missions Étrangères de Paris) and other priests. Sweerts produced some paintings in Syria, but on the onward overland journey, he is said to have become ‘mentally unstable’ and was dismissed by his companions somewhere between Isfahan and Tabriz in Persia. From here, he somehow travelled to Goa and was given refuge (perhaps in the Professed House, or in the New College of Saint Paul?) by the Jesuits there.

Just how unwell was Sweerts? Was it merely delirium from an illness he had contracted during his travels, and did he recover well enough to resume work in Goa? If so, are his paintings out there in plain sight, and we just don’t know it? Sweerts has been ‘rediscovered’ by the art world only in the last century, as one of the most intriguing and enigmatic artists of his time. It would be no exaggeration to state that he was the finest Western painter of his age to visit India.

We live in exciting times, as more and more information is revealed about this fascinating period in our history, rather like the dust and grime being delicately taken off a precious old masterpiece. I have a feeling we will hear (and see) more of Sweerts pretty soon.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Tale of Two Cities


It’s official: the acoustic in Margão’s Ravindra Bhavan auditorium is far superior to that of Panjim’s Kala Academy indoor auditorium. I rarely visit the Ravindra Bhavan due to the distance, and more recently the horrendous traffic jams getting there from North Goa.

I had long suspected this to be true, from the first time I heard a performance (Musica Fiorita, 2011) there, and more recently when I performed on stage last December at the Prof. Micael Martins tribute concert.

But the perfect opportunity for a controlled comparative study presented itself with the back-to-back performances in two consecutive days of the same orchestra, Das Bundesjugendorchester (the National Youth Orchestra of Germany) at both venues, first in Panjim then in Margão. And it helped that they played many works (Jón Leifs’ ‘Geysir’, Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance no. 1, and Johann Strauss II’s ‘Thunder and Lightning’ Polka) in both. No question of observer recall bias in such a short span of time.


In many respects, the design concepts in both places are similar. Both suffer from unnecessary loss of sound upward and sideways due to the lack of a shell. But Ravindra Bhavan doesn’t have such a cavernous backstage space as the Kala, so the sound loss is smaller. Furthermore, it’s a newer venue, has a lower ceiling, and it does have some wood lining in the audience area, so perhaps this helps the sound quality. And it doesn’t have the badly placed exit-doors of Panjim, with even more dead space leading out of it. What is undeniable is that it is a far better listening experience.

The audience behavior at the German concerts in both places, however, left much to be desired. While I applaud the enthusiasm of the organisers for ‘bringing music to the masses’, an objective I heartily share, there have to be ground rules. Those who took the trouble to turn up well in advance shouldn’t have to pay the price and have their experience marred by others who saunter in well after the start time of a performance. Perhaps there is some merit in tagging seat numbers even to free passes, and ensuring that only those with valid passes do get in, even if they are released democratically, first-come, first-served. If this can be enforced at IFFI, it can be done elsewhere. Standing and sitting in the periphery and aisles is a noble ideal, but in my experience it doesn’t work in practice, not in Goa. There are Stehplätze (standing-places) in German-speaking countries for classical music concerts, but even these are finite, few in number, and those occupying them behave themselves really respectfully, grateful for the opportunity to hear great music for free, or almost free.

One can understand first-time concert-goers not knowing everything about concert etiquette, and I do not at all belong to the anti-clapping-between-movements police, but do even basic courtesy, common-sense and respect (being silent and not fidgeting when performers are playing their hearts out on stage) have to be taught?  Some of us act collectively in public places as if we are at home, but a concert venue is also a shrine to high art, and we have to treat it so.

The unflattering acoustic in the Kala, and the stark absence of hushed quiet necessary to fully appreciate the opening of Leifs’ ‘Gysir’ in the nether regions of the register of the bass tuba and then the rest of the orchestra, made the work incomprehensible in Panjim, and for no fault of the orchestra. But it came vibrantly alive in Margão.

Margão got preferential treatment, with a whole extra half-hour of concert length. For so many reasons, the Margão concert was much more enjoyable, and I am so glad I made the trip, along with our young student Irfan Shimpiger, who was visibly moved by the performance. The choice of concert repertoire added much to this. All the young soloists really shone.  Irfan is working on the J. S. Bach Double Violin Concerto in D minor (BWV 1043), so to hear it played so immaculately, not just by the two soloists, but also the moving bass line especially in the last movement played so sensitively by the lower strings in the sparse forces appropriate for a Baroque work, was an eye- and ear-opener for him.

January has been a glorious month for orchestral music in Goa, what with the Czechs first and the Germans close on their heels. We got even more Dvořák from the Germans: his ebullient Serenade for winds, cello and double-bass, opus 44, and his eloquent Rondo for cello and orchestra in G minor, opus 94, all of which remind us what a brilliant orchestrator and tune-smith he was. If you were at any of the concerts, chances are that his melodies stuck in your head (they certainly did in mine), elbowing away even Johann Strauss for your ear-worm space. The Rondo in particular caught Irfan’s fancy, as he hummed it all the way home.

Mention must be made of Mozart’s ravishing Clarinet concerto; it was a pity we heard just the first movement. Ignaz Moscheles’ Concertante for Flute, Oboe and Orchestra isn’t standard concert repertoire, and it is a charming work.

The Margão concert was also memorable for me, as it was the birthday of young Anthea Luna-Marie Dias, (Winston Collaco’s student), who had just received the good news of getting a Distinction at her ATCL violin exam, no mean feat for an eleven-year old! It only underscores how much potential our children possess. Imagine what a marvelous music landscape Goa would be if we had more teachers of the caliber of Winston and even higher, across all the orchestral instruments. I invite you to dream this dream with me, because this is precisely what Child’s Play India Foundation ( is trying so hard to do, and can do with community support.

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again:  Much has been 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.

Only when we invest in early (and I mean at the primary school level and all the way up) and consistent teaching of the highest level in all disciplines, strings, woodwinds and brass, can we effect real change. Until then, mere catchphrases are empty rhetoric.

(An edited version of this article was published on 04 February 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Jolly good show!


If memory serves correctly, it was sometime during the tenure (1992-1997) of Shankar Dayal Sharma as President of India that the acoustic shell over the stage of the Kala Academy indoor auditorium was dismantled, on the instruction of his security detail, as a ‘security risk.’ The costly equipment was then forgotten about completely, abandoned to the sun, rain and wind on the Kala Academy lawns, and damaged beyond repair. And it was never replaced.

So many decades hence, it is difficult to recall how much better the hall acoustics were when it was in place. But the auditorium is not a joy to perform in, for unplugged music, and especially classical music. The sound waves emanating from the stage get unnecessarily lost, upwards, and sideways into the open wings, instead of being harnessed and directed forward and outward, to the audience. Add to this the glaring absence of reflective wooden paneling around the hall, the abundance of sound-dampening carpeting and upholstery, and one would think there is a deliberate conspiracy to sabotage the valiant efforts of the performer(s) on stage.

0Concert Scent of Far Away in Zlin Congress Centre, 2017, Jana Chauhduri Piano

Debashish Chaudhuri and his band of Czech-mates made beautiful music on that stage despite these odds.  The Martinu Czech Philharmonic was in top form that evening. This was evident even at morning rehearsal; despite a later start than scheduled due to unforeseen circumstances, the unflappable Chaudhuri made the most of the remainder of the session by putting the orchestra through its paces for just a few sections of the movements of each work on the programme.

As one would expect, Czech composers were well-represented in the programme. Má Vlast (My Homeland) is a set of six symphonic poems composed by Czech composer Bedrich Smetana (1824-1884). Of these, the second symphonic poem Vltava is the most familiar, evoking the sounds of the Moldau, one of Bohemia’s great rivers, and was performed by this orchestra in India during its historic visit in 2016, the first by a Czech orchestra in 57 years.  This time, we heard the fourth poem ‘Z českých luhů a hájů’ (From Bohemian fields and meadows). Chaudhuri at morning rehearsal had the orchestra play though the fugal passage on muted strings, about three minutes into the work, through which hazy mist the quartet of pastoral horns break through like warm fingers of sunshine at dawn, followed by woodwinds, and then the whole orchestra sings a paean to nature, the very heart of this composition.  Chaudhuri’s credentials as a Czech music specialist were clearly evident here, utterly at ease with the music and the orchestra.

This was followed by the two major works on the programme. First it was the turn of Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943) with his mighty second Piano Concerto in C minor, opus 18. Here soloist Jana Chaudhuri demonstrated how one needn’t pound the instrument with brute force and yet produce the ‘big’ sound required of this endearingly popular war-horse of the repertoire, particularly the epic build that launches the work. This was almost certainly the Goan premiere of the work (as it was of the Dvořák symphony that followed). The orchestra were equal partners in this most sensitively conducted performance with loving detail to contour and dynamics; particular mention must be made of the clarinet in the slow movement, who phrased the famous melody with supreme artistry.

The pianist’s encore offering was another Rachmaninoff work, his Polchinelle in F sharp minor, the fourth of his set of five piano solo pieces (opus 3), rendered playfully with the necessary wry wit and humour written into this character piece, based as it is on the Commedia dell’arte character Pulcinella.

We then returned to the orchestra’s homeland, with the Eighth Symphony in G major (opus 88, B. 163) by Antonin Dvořák (1841-1904). Chaudhuri drew a truly exhilarating account of this most cheerful and optimistic of Dvořák’s symphonies from the orchestra. It is a work I know well, from my vantage point in the violins of the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra London. There are too many ‘favourite’ bits to mention:  the grand, sweeping opening melody in the cellos, in G minor, instead of the expected major, with a bridge passage from the principal flute then plunging us headlong into the Allegro con brio of the rest of the movement; the descending-scale passage in the second movement above which the woodwinds sing with gusto, and with the roles reversed further on in the movement; the lilting Slavonic Dance-like third movement with its positively mischievous coda ending in an afterglow of string sheen just when you thought the woodwinds had said the last word; and the joyous finale, but at times intense, almost angry in its momentum in its quest for resolution.

We had even more Dvořák in the orchestra’s charmingly rendered encore offering of his Humoresque, and Chaudhuri harnessed the ecstatic audience’s energy for applause  well  in the next piece (Leroy Anderson’s ‘Plink Plank Plunk!’) by ‘conducting’ the centre, left and right swathes of the auditorium to punctuate the pizzicato piece in time to his baton.

The usual audience ‘problems’ were sadly evident: empty seats due to passes bestowed on cronies who didn’t bother to show up, while those who badly wanted passes couldn’t get them; ushers bustling up and down even when the music was playing; that damned door-banging; mobile phone ring-tones; and people chatting heedless of the disturbance they were causing.

The history of the Martinu Czech Philharmonic Orchestra made interesting reading. It was founded in 1945 as the Bata National Enterprise Symphony Orchestra! Yes, the same Bata, the shoe company that seems so quintessentially Indian to us but is actually Czech. In 1955, the Tomas Bata Memorial Building was “repurposed as the ‘House of Arts’ for the orchestra’s needs.”

This is a wonderful example of corporate philanthropy and support for the arts leaving a legacy that will live on, and spread far and wide. The time is ripe for such corporate philanthropic support of orchestral initiatives in India, particularly those tied directly to grass-roots music education. Camerata Child’s Play India would welcome the corporate sponsorship of its Principal Chairs, which would be filled by musicians who would not only play in the orchestra and train a cohort of players in that instrument, but also teach at grass-roots and help create a wider pool of musicians that would, when they came of age, be eligible to audition and gain entry into professional orchestras and ensembles. As Chaudhuri said in his interview to me, there is no better time than now to work towards this goal. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if orchestras of the calibre of the Martinu Czech Phlharmonic could be home-grown? It is an achievable goal, if we are willing to invest in it.

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 January 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Amazing Story of Joey Corpus (1958-2017)


Joey Corpus

I first heard of Joey Corpus, the Filipino-American violin pedagogue who passed away last month, from a visiting violinist from London some years ago. A seasoned orchestral musician and violin teacher, she would make periodic trips to New York City to take lessons from him. I was intrigued that although based in London, a city steeped in music, she still found it worthwhile to invest the time, effort and expense to learn from him.

I looked him up, and it was a truly fascinating story. Joey Corpus was born in Manila, the eldest of six children, to a family in which music mattered a lot: his father Hector was a jazz pianist, and both grandfathers were violinists. But he was just ten when he and his mother Anita Aguilar Corpus were involved in a tragic car accident that killed her and left him a paraplegic.

Joey was the nephew of renowned artist Federico Aguilar Alcuaz, and was set upon becoming a visual artist himself, having apprenticed with his uncle for a while, even selling a few pieces of his work, though, as he admitted in an interview to, “I wasn’t very good at it.”

Then, at age thirteen, he discovered his grandfather’s violin, and “thought it would be great to learn how to play it.” This was a child who, at age eight, prior to his accident, had been told that he was “hopeless” at piano.

The violin needed repairing, and his father took his time doing it, so a year went by. As Joey himself told it at the interview, “The reason for this delay was that as a kid I’d taken piano lessons. After a year my teacher told my father to save his money. She said I had no musical talent whatsoever! So when I expressed an interest in playing the violin my father assumed it was just a short-lived whim. “

This story only reinforces my dislike of the word “talent” when describing a child’s musical potential, and how crushing it can be when a child or a family is told that the child doesn’t possess this mysterious commodity. A child may merely be a slow learner, or not possess enough interest at that particular point in their life, or not being taught in a stimulating way.

Thankfully, that verdict didn’t discourage Joey Corpus in his pursuit of the violin. “Even after a year of piano I didn’t really know how to read notes. I knew where middle C was, found it on the violin, and taught myself how to read notes, and to vibrate.” In six months, he played Elgar’s Salut d’Amor well enough to win an audition and begin formal violin lessons. But he was still largely self-taught, and not by choice. “For reasons still not completely known to me I was rejected by a couple of teachers. But I wasn’t going to let that deter me, so I worked things out on my own, with lots of help from the Flesch and Galamian books.”  He does add that he wouldn’t recommend teaching oneself, and that it was only necessity that prompted him on that path.

He won a violin competition aged 15, which caught the attention of Edgar Schenkman (from the Juilliard School of Music), who was visiting the Philippines. Schenkman offered Corpus a full scholarship to go to New York and study with the great violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay, but he was physically still too unwell from his accident injuries to undertake the twenty-hour flight.

As he could only sit up a few hours a day during his recovery period, Corpus taught himself to practice even while lying down. “I would lie on my side, my left elbow propped up, and just practise because I like to do it so much. I would practise scales and rhythms. I practised a lot by just looking at the music.” This problem-solving capability was a training ground for when he would become a pedagogue himself. “Truthfully, I did not think of ‘career’, I just wanted to learn how to play better. That was my idée fixe,” he said in an interview.

In 1982, aged 24 and with a scholarship from the Philippine government, Corpus began to study with Jascha Brodsky at the New School of Music, Philadelphia. As he said in an interview to The Strad magazine, “I don’t mean to be arrogant, but many of the things I was learning I had sort of figured out, or come to very similar conclusions, working on my own.”  He very quickly began to teach at the school himself, and was much sought-after by colleagues for advice in solving problems in their own playing.

Joey Corpus earned a formidable reputation as a violin pedagogue, and was known in the world of string-playing as the ‘Underground Guru’, or the ‘Secret Weapon’, in working intensively with professionals, preparing them for auditions. His roster of celebrity students reads like a Who’s Who of the violin world, and includes Lara St. John, Louise Owen, Wen Qian (assistant concertmaster of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra), Chuan Yun Lee, and Katharine Gowers.

Something that Lara St. John said to the press about Corpus’ teaching resonates within me deeply: the importance of scales. “When I was a kid, I thought I was being made to do scales as a punishment. Joey explained to me that intonation is all in the ear. If your scales are not in tune, your ear is not learning and you will play out of tune. I had an instant realisation of what he was saying.”

Too many of us in our growing-up years also look upon scales as ‘punishment’, but that training to our inner ear is so crucial, and it can be achieved by slow, thoughtful, attentive practice of scales.

Joey’s brother Rolando Corpus paid an emotional tribute to him at the memorial service. In particular, he reminisced that 2017 was the 50th anniversary of the car accident that changed the family’s lives so drastically, but there was not an ounce of self-pity in his brother’s attitude to life: “Fifty years tethered to a wheelchair. Fifty years of wheeling himself around. Of not being able to reach things. Of always looking up during a conversation. Of not being able to get in and out of a bed or a car in under 3 minutes. And yet, in all the years I’ve known him, he never questioned why his life was different. Not once did he ever complain about the struggles of daily life, or complain that he couldn’t do this or that, or that life for him was harder than most. Not once did he ever show self-pity. He took what was given, accepted it, and made the best of it.”

Joey Corpus is an inspiration to us all, in so many ways, and on so many levels.

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 January 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)



“It is a great privilege to perform in Goa”


0Debashish Chaudhuri, Martinu Czech philharmonic

Calcutta-origin conductor Debashish Chaudhuri will conduct the Martinu Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in Panjim on 17 January as part of the celebration of 70 years of Indo-Czech diplomatic relations. He spoke to me in a candid interview.

  1. It is a great privilege for us to have you and the Martinu Czech Philharmonic Orchestra perform in Goa. What are your thoughts on performing here, where western music has been rooted since the 1500s (thanks to the Portuguese colonial influence), much longer than the rest of the Indian subcontinent?

It is a great privilege to perform in Goa. As you well pointed out, the roots of European music in Goa are very deep and strong and Goa has been the birthplace of some of India finest musicians, many of whom I have had the pleasure to work with in Calcutta. It is thanks to Mrs. Rashmi Jolly, the honorary consul for Maharashtra and Goa of the Czech Republic and her tireless efforts, organization and energy that has made this dream a reality.

This is my first visit to Goa. I have heard about Goa from my parents since I was a child. I hope to acquaint myself with your audience and am really looking forward to it.

  1. I am fascinated by the biographies of musicians, and your story is particularly interesting. At what point in your life did you know that you wished to pursue music as a career? Was it a role model perhaps in the family, or a concert, or was it a gradual realisation? 

I have always been extremely passionate about music, even before I could walk. This love was kindled by my parents who both love music. There was always some music playing in the house. Even my grandparents were music-lovers. In Bengal its quite normal to have songs sung in the house through the year. All my grandparents played something or another, even my parents, though none professionally or even publicly.

I have a rather strong will, so when I decide on something, nothing deters me. This is an asset now as a conductor. India isn’t typically a country where society would encourage a musical career with the same enthusiasm as in the west, not even in Calcutta. I recall several people discouraging me when I decided to concentrate on music alone. Fortunately, and I am grateful to God for this,  my parents and some other very key people believed in me. My parents, despite the uncertainties ahead, had the foresight and knew me well enough to let me follow my dreams.

Music truly, deeply fulfilled me. I knew well before my teens that music had be a part of my life. I don’t mean that I wanted to be a conductor at once at that early age. My family didn’t listen to classical music. I have gone though a lot of instrumental and choral music in my early years. My job at St James as well as the association with All India Radio and Calcutta School of Music gave me a lot of experience in the field of accompaniment and arranging. So it was professional actually a lot before I even left school. That naturally led me to the classical genre where I soon found and discovered the role of a conductor.

  1. Having grown up in India, and then studied and majored in music abroad, you are aware of the situation on ‘both sides of the fence’. How can India improve the local conditions (as neighbouring China has done and is doing so spectacularly) so that we can have children exposed to great music from an early age, and home-grown musicians attain world-class levels, and be gainfully employed in their profession right here? There is perhaps no better time for us economically than now, to achieve this. 

You are absolutely right, there is no better time than today. This cannot be achieved overnight but will take a generation at least and must have political and social will. In China, the state allows them to make decisions in music and sport which can be enforced in a far more disciplined way than is possible in most democracies. Having said that let us also not forget the rich old and deep Indian classical music culture that we have which is far more advanced than any other Asian nation’s classical music culture. So the challenge to establish such a presence of European classical music is an enormous one in India. It must start at schools, early on. In Calcutta, hardly any schools have music classes or music teachers. Unless it is made part of the regular curriculum and students shown the importance, it is impossible to expect this to become reality. Music still has a role here as something you do “for fun” alone.

I am not saying that everyone becomes a musician, but some amount of musical exposure builds future audiences and that enriches culture.

0Debashish Chaudhuri

  1. Any advice for youth(and their parents) who realise that they really have a passion for music? Too often we end up gravitating towards ‘more practical’ options, even though our heart tells us otherwise. 

Follow your heart, with tremendous dedication, perseverance and be prepared to put in much hard work, and face disappointments and not get discouraged. If it is to be, doors will open and the way becomes clearer. Your aim should not be goal but the journey.

Today we look upon a lot of famous people with awe. We see them as they are now. But we don’t know what they went through and were prepared to do to get there. So if you want to achieve anything, not only in music, you mustn’t be afraid and just don’t give up.

  1. I love your motto: “My greatest passion is to make music the medium of joy and elevation for both, the orchestra and the audience.” Beautifully put! Could you elaborate? 

Orchestral music is all written out. Just reading it will create the basic sound structure that was intended. Most people will hear it, be happy and go away. Then there is the other way, to really interpret it, put in a lot of your energy, heart and soul and make that same music come alive in a different way. The audience always responds and is emotionally touched. It is something they will never forget. That is my goal.

  1. Any plans to return to Goa, and perhaps collaborate with music education initiatives like ours (Child’s Play India Foundation 

I am always open to collaborations if they are beneficial to the development of music in India. There is a lot of potential for knowledge in this field from the Czech Republic due to their rich history and experience. It is a matter of funds and will to bring either Czech teachers here, or Indian students to attend courses in the Czech Republic. Teaching is a two-way process; harder than finding the teachers is to find students who can show that kind of perseverance and dedication. India has a lot of talent and a lot of people. We can explore ways of furthering their abilities.

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 January 2018 in the Navhind Times Goa India)