When I attend a concert by a reputed orchestra either when they are on tour or when I happen to be overseas, I find myself scanning their ranks for people of ‘my’ (by which I mean South Asian) background. Unsurprisingly, the numbers are small, in stark contrast to those of South-East Asian (Chinese, Korean, Japanese) origin.
I was in the US in 2012, and a major orchestra was on stage, tuning up. There was one solitary Indian-origin musician in the violin section. But I realised with an even greater shock that there wasn’t a single African-American musician in the entire ranks of this quintessentially American orchestra. And when I thought about the other orchestras I had seen and heard during my visit, this seemed to hold true for them as well. If this is the situation in a country where people of non-white origin have lived for centuries, one can imagine how much more acute it is in the UK and Europe.
It is against this background that we must look at the formation in 2015 of the Chineke! Foundation, whose mission statement is “Championing Change and Celebrating Diversity in Classical Music”. It was created “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe.” The brainchild of double-bassist Chi-chi Nwanoku (born in London to a Nigerian father and Irish mother), it is in effect Europe’s first professional orchestra made up entirely of BME musicians.
Predictably this created a lot of controversy in the music world, with sanctimonious accusations of “reverse discrimination”. A renowned American concert violinist (herself half-Japanese, half-white) entered right into the eye of the storm when she posted on Facebook:”I wonder if you have to be black to solo with this orchestra? #reversediscrimination”. She apologised at once, taking the post down 20 minutes later, but not before it had been screen-saved and shared and discussed, with opinions polarised on either side. In a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation, some accused her of race-baiting, while still others felt she ought not to have taken the post down.
Even older, in the US, is the Sphinx Organization, founded in 1996 by American violinist Aaron Dworkin, dedicated to the development of young Black and Latino classical musicians. Dworkin was acutely aware of the lack of diversity both on stage and in the audience in concert halls and founded Sphinx to redress this under-representation. It has four main principles: Education and Access, Artist Development, Performing Artists and Arts Leadership. This ensures that a youth is supported at every stage of the process from a learning child to a career as performer and teacher.
Again, predictably, the bogey of ‘reverse discrimination’ or ‘reverse racism’ has been raised. But like the argument against reservations in India, it is a spurious one. It is spurious because in both cases, a false assumption is being made that an equal playing field exists for everyone, where race (or caste in India) is not a bias. The ground reality is that it more often than not is, even if at a subconscious if not always at an institutional level.
Another problem with under-representation of ‘other’ people in classical music, viewed by many as a ‘white’ art form, is that it perpetuates that very myth, and if efforts are not made to overcome this, as Chineke! and Sphinx are striving to do, it can become a self-fulfilling one.
Many orchestras pride themselves on holding auditions that are blind, offer equal-opportunity and devoid of any prejudice. But are they really? A 2008 article in The Guardian UK ‘Why are our orchestras so white?’ addresses this. “Why has multiculturalism not reached the orchestra pit?” For answers, the writer speaks to two Jamaican-born but UK-educated extremely capable young musicians, both of whom acknowledged race issues weighing against them when it came to employment.
A Black Labour MP and former Minister of Culture observed that the issue is even deeper, stemming from class and social deprivation: “The problem is that the model of taking your instrument home and practising every day for an hour doesn’t apply to inner city environments; it doesn’t apply to a lot of communities, it’s not just black communities. For my constituents, the idea they can take an instrument home to their council estate, to a house they share with many brothers and sisters, and practise on their own without the support of their parents, is just implausible.”
The issue of diversity, or the lack of it, in the classical music world is still raging on. Last year, the Baltimore Sun covered the three-day national conference of the League of American Orchestras, “representing a mostly white industry” in Baltimore, “a majority African-American city at a time of increased racial tensions and heightened awareness of economic and educational disadvantages.” It was the first time that diversity was the “overarching theme, the focal point” of their conference.
What about India? There is only one professional salaried orchestra, the NCPA Mumbai-based Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) in the whole Indian subcontinent. In contrast China, just across our border, has at least 22, Beijing alone accounting for nine and Shanghai four. Considering our centuries-long western colonial history and that we didn’t have anything like China’s Cultural Revolution (during which western musical instruments were destroyed and just listening to ‘western music’ could be construed a political crime) in our own post-colonial history, India has much catching up to do. The fact that China had a conservatory and a relatively robust orchestral tradition even before 1949 has certainly been its advantage.
A comparison of the ranks of the China Philharmonic Orchestra, which visited Mumbai last year with the SOI is also interesting: the CPO is fully Chinese, whereas Indian musicians form just a tenth of the SOI. This can only improve if India really, truly invests in both, a comprehensive robust grassroots and higher education in music in India.
There is scope for professional salaried high-calibre, world-class ensembles in other cities and towns in India. It currently sounds like a pipe-dream, but the conditions for it have never been riper. India is attracting the attention of musicians and teachers from far and wide. There is currently at least corporate money (through CSR) if not yet consistent state/central governmental support to finance it. India is a largely untapped audience and market for western classical music, with emphasis so far on just a few hubs (Mumbai, Goa, Pune, Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi), so the potential is huge. It will be a game-changer not just for live music concerts, but film soundtracks as well. The Sairat experiment should open our minds to wonderful possibilities.
And the ranks of these Indian orchestras will be filled by our disadvantaged sector, and empower it, if we start imparting music education to its children in a big way now.
(An edited version of this article was published on 19 February 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)