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.

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.

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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)

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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.

Michael_Sweerts_-_self_portrait_with_a_skull_c.1660

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.

Bundesjugendorchester

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 (www.childsplayindia.org) 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 Violinist.com, “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 childsplayindia.org)? 

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)

 

 

Lara Saldanha: Passionate about using music for social causes

 

lara saldanha press

Lara Saldanha is a young Goan-origin Indian-American pianist who has performed in the USA, Switzerland, France, Germany, China and India. She is currently pursuing a Master of Music at Mannes College of Music in New York City, studying with Vladimir Valjarevic. She has also studied with Alan Chow at Northwestern University and Serguei Milstein at Geneva Conservatory.

Music-lovers will fondly remember her matinee recital in December 2016. The maturity of her playing and her intimate knowledge of the background to each work when she introduced them were hugely impressive.

Meeting her after that concert, I was thrilled to find that she is also a musician after my own heart, in that she believes in using music for social causes, and making classical music more accessible to young people in particular, and to the wider public in general.

I was therefore delighted when she offered to play a benefit concert for our music charity Child’s Play India Foundation www.childsplayindia.org (today 14 January 2018, Menezes Braganza hall, 6 pm; donation passes at the door). I spoke to her about the concert she will play for us.

“I will be playing J.S. Bach’s French Suite no. 2 in C minor, F.J. Haydn’s Sonata in E-flat Major Hob. XVI/49,  Clara Schumann’s Sonata in G minor, and two of Olivier Messian’s Preludes”, she said.

“The pieces cross four centuries, but have many similarities. You can trace the evolution of style and form in classical music through this recital. For example, at the heart of the Bach suite is a gorgeous double minuet. The last movement of the Haydn sonata is also minuet, and Clara Schumann nods to the past in the third movement of her sonata–a movement entitled “Scherzo” but which is actually a rather mischievous minuet.”

“The Bach French Suite was likely written between 1722 and 1725. It is a collection of 18th century dances–an Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Air, Minuet, and Gigue. It contains a staggering variety of shades of colours and emotions.”

“The Haydn Sonata was composed in 1789-1790. The first movement contains Haydn’s signature mix of elegance and humor. The second movement is a study in extemporization. The great pianists of the classical era, unlike today, were all fabulous improvisers. We get a little taste of that in this movement. The simplest melody introduced in the first bars reappears with all sorts of elaborations throughout the movement, with a very dramatic, stormy central interlude. The last movement, as I mentioned, is a delightful minuet. “

“The Clara Schumann sonata was written in 1841-1842 but not published until 1991! She wrote the first and third movements as a Sonatine, a Christmas gift for her husband, the great composer Robert Schumann. She wrote the second and fourth movements in early 1842 to turn it into a larger-scale work. This Sonata sits at the intersection of two other great pieces of music written by Robert and Clara Schumann. Clara loved to perform Robert’s G Minor sonata, op. 22 and wrote to Robert in 1838, “I am endlessly looking forward to the second sonata. Your whole being is so clearly expressed in it.” Certain passages of her sonata seem to echo the feeling of his, but the language is uniquely hers. In Clara’s sonata, written at age 21, you can also see the beginnings of the G minor trio which was to come six years later. The trio is widely considered to be her greatest work and still is one of her few works in the mainstream repertoire today.”

“The Messiaen Preludes were written in 1928-1929 when he was just 20. They are influenced by Debussy’s Preludes, and yet already contain Messiaen’s unmistakable harmonic language. Messiaen was synesthetic, and so the two preludes are preceded by fascinating epigraphs. The inscription under the first, “The Dove,” says “Orange, with violet veins.” He describes the last, “A Reflection in the Wind” as “The small storm which opens and concludes the piece alternates veins of orange, and green with black stains. The central development section is more luminous. The second theme, very melodious, and wrapped in sinuous arpeggios, is blue-orange in its first occurrence, and green-orange in its second one. Violet, orange and purple dominate the entire piece.” “

I asked Lara to elaborate on Clara Schumann, as we rarely hear her works performed in recitals.  “She is an endlessly fascinating figure in so many ways: as one of the very few female pianists of the day who made performing her profession, as chief performer and promoter of her husband Robert’s compositions (she was much better known than him during their lifetimes!), as a musician highly regarded by all the great composers of her time–Brahms, Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, and as the daughter of the formidable pedagogue Friedrich Wieck. She was so unique for her era, and yet also bound by its constraints. She doubted her own abilities as a composer, as women were not thought to possess the ability to compose at the time. Consequently, and also due to that her stature as a performer made her the primary breadwinner for most of her life, her oeuvre is relatively small. Her elegant and harmonically adventurous works have fortunately experienced a revival of interest since the 1980s and 1990s, and have started to make it back onto concert programs.”

I also spoke with Lara about practice, an important topic at all levels in the pursuit of music. “Currently, I practice 4-5 hours every day. I start with an hour of scales and exercises in the morning. Like most kids, I didn’t like practicing scales growing up. In the last two years, however, I have found scales to be an invaluable laboratory. When you’re doing scales and exercises, it is an opportunity to work out technical issues isolated from the overlapping technical, artistic, and musical challenges you find in repertoire.”

“I devote another 30-60 minutes to various projects I’m working on–playing with singers, playing historical instruments such as the harpsichord and fortepiano,  or sight reading for example. The remaining time is devoted to whatever piece needs the most attention at any given time. Ideally a month before a recital, as recommended by my teacher, I start doing run-throughs of the program every day. This allows me to identify problem spots and fix them systematically. I also have a list of tricky technical spots that I have to practice every day.”

“When I was growing up, I practiced anywhere between 45 minutes at age 10 up to 2.5 hours in high school. That’s on the shorter side for an aspiring professional musician, but I was also academically inclined, and I’m a big believer in “quality over quantity.” It’s much harder to fit in practice as a child with school all day. What I used to do was alternate between my homework and practice in the evening. Do my math homework, practice a piece. Do my English homework, practice another piece. This kept practice and homework interesting!”

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 January 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

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.

navelcar

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)

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.”

carnegie-hall

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.

bethlehem-cartoon-mary-joseph-israeli-soldiers

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)