The Baggage of Culture – II

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.

Baggage of culture II

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)

Love and The Pilgrimage to Petrarch

It’s funny how themes keep recurring in my life, and one has to connect the dots to get a much larger picture that I didn’t know was there. It’s really wonderful when this happens.

Let me explain. In my England years, from the moment I got there, I became a devotee of the annual BBC Proms music festival. And I think in 2000, they added the Poetry Proms to the festival at the Serpentine Gallery, with readings by leading poets (I remember in particular Ruth Padel) prior to the evening concerts. This really whetted my appetite for poetry. I went to as many Poetry Proms as I could after that.

So when Stephen Fry (who I admire greatly anyway) released his book The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking The Poet Within in 2007, I went out and got a copy. It was the first time I had read such a lucid, easy, witty description of technical aspects of poetry such as metre, rhyme and form. It is still a book that I return to often.

In its back pages, under an ‘Incomplete Glossary of Poetic Terms’, I came across this description of a Petrarchan sonnet: “A sonnet form addressed from Petrarch’s original cycle of poems to his Laura: the octave rhymes abba abba and the sestet in English can be anything from the original cdecde to cdcdcd, cdcdee and other variations.”

Hmm. Sounds complicated? Well, the alphabets abcde refer to the lines in the stanza of a poem. Elsewhere in the glossary I found explanations to what an octave and a sestet meant in poetic terms, with an octave being as one might guess the first eight lines of (usually) a Petrarchan sonnet, and a sestet a stanza of six lines or the final lines of (usually) a Petrarchan sonnet. Don’t you hate it when the explanation of a word leads you to other words that lead back to the original word? Who the blazes was Petrarch? And ‘his’ Laura? Curiouser and curiouser.

Life took over, and I didn’t dwell on it further. Then, back in Goa, more recently I attended a poetry session by Jeet Thayil at the Goa University, and he referred to the Petrarchan sonnet as well. I felt it was time to look him up.

I learnt that Italian Renaissance scholar, poet and humanist Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) (anglicised as Petrarch) popularised the sonnet form that comes to bear his name today. It has 14 lines, the first part an octave, the second a sestet. The octave presents a ‘problem’, while the sestet offers its ‘solution’, containing a dramatic shift (‘volta’) in the argument, often at its beginning.

I came across the Petrarchan sonnet again while reading up on Shakespeare in his quatercentenary year, when the structure of his sonnets was compared to it.

More recently, Landeg White in his lecture Camões: Made in Goa at the Fundação Oriente spoke of the influence of the Petrarchan sonnet upon the poetry of Camões.

In the introduction to his book ‘The Collected Lyric Poems of Luís de Camões’, translated by him into English, White says: “The greatest of these debts [owed by Camões] is transparently to Petrarch.”

He gives examples of sonnets by Camões derived from Petrarchan originals, and comments “As in Petrarch, language itself is a central theme, for while both poets insist on the absolute primacy of personal experience, both poets recognize their dependence on verse idioms to understand love, and to reproduce the same feelings in their readers.”

Ah, love. This leads us to Petrarch’s Laura. His Il Canzionere (Song Book, also known as Rime sparse or “Scattered Lyrics or Rhymes”) contains madrigals, songs and sonnets in praise of his idealised love Laura, whom he first saw in 1327 (even the date of the sighting in known: 6 April, of all days Good Friday) in the church of Sainte-Claire d’Avignon (thankfully after he had already given up his vocation as a priest!), awakening in him a lasting passion. Laura was a married woman and refused to become his mistress.

 

Little surprise then that Camões’ own song ‘Aquela cativa’ (“The Captive” or “Stanzas to the slave Barbara”) is a poem in the Petrarchan manner. But it is disturbing because she is his captive, and in White’s words “dark-skinned, with black hair and non-European features…. a female prisoner whom the soldier-poet has made his apparently reluctant concubine….a situation of gross sexual exploitation, reflecting the cruel realities of early colonial conquest.”

In 2011, the birth bicentenary year of Franz Liszt, in preparation for my presentation and articles about the composer, I had listened again to and read up about Années de Pélérinage (Years of Pilgrimage), his set of three suites for solo piano. In the second suite Deuxième année: Italie (Second year: Italy), the fourth to sixth movements are settings of three of Petrarch’s sonnets (47, 104 and 123) that he added earlier written for voice and then transcribed for solo piano. Their inclusion in Lara Saldanha’s matinee piano recital just before the close of 2016 brought them into focus and recollection. The sonnets are given good company by Liszt, preceded as they are by Sposalizio (inspired by Raphael’s painting The Marriage of the Virgin) and Il Pensoroso (inspired by Michelangelo’s statue The Thinker).

And they are followed by his famous Dante sonata, inspired by a reading of Dante Alighieri’s famous epic poem Divina Commedia (Divine Comedy).

Dante was a friend of Petrarch’s father. Liszt seems to be travelling backwards in time, from Raphael (1483-1520) to Michelangelo (1475-1564) to Petrarch to Dante (1265-1321).

The three Petrarchan sonnets 47, 104 and 123 all speak of love for a woman, thought to be Laura although not mentioned by name. But in Liszt’s version of sonnet 104, he added her name to the song text. The transcriptions of the sonnets for solo piano are believed to be among Liszt’s earliest attempts “to introduce poetry into the music of the piano with some degree of style.”

I’ll leave you with the English translation of Sonnet 47, although the Petrarchan format is intact in translation. The original Italian is so much more lyrical and eloquent, of course. To say that Laura had an impact upon Petrarch would be a not-so-poetic understatement.

Sonnet 47

Blest be the day, and blest the month, the year,
The spring, the hour, the very moment blest,
The lovely scene, the spot, where first oppress’d
I sunk, of two bright eyes the prisoner:
And blest the first soft pang, to me most dear,
Which thrill’d my heart, when Love became its guest;
And blest the bow, the shafts which pierced my breast,
And even the wounds, which bosom’d thence I bear.
Blest too the strains which, pour’d through glade and grove,
Have made the woodlands echo with her name;
The sighs, the tears, the languishment, the love:
And blest those sonnets, sources of my fame;
And blest that thought—Oh! never to remove!
Which turns to her alone, from her alone which came.

(An edited version of this article was published on 12 February 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Baggage of Culture – I

Many consider time spent on Facebook a frivolous waste, but like many things in life it is what you make of it. I have found, as other writers have, that it often offers up food for thought, writing ideas and opportunities, can actually be educational provided one double-checks facts, and can provide far-reaching connections that have been most fruitful.

Recently I was moved by a video shared by London’s The Guardian titled “Slum Ballet”. It is a heartwarming clip about a ballet school in a Nairobi slum. As the text narrative accompanying it explains: “Living in Africa’s largest slum doesn’t mean you can’t learn ballet. Every week after school this classroom in Kibera, Nairobi is transformed into a bustling ballet studio”.

slum ballet

Pamela, 13 years old, is quoted as saying “When I was young, I saw ballet on TV, I liked the dance and the pointed shoes, and I wanted to be a ballerina since then.”

The film explains that the youth (about forty of them) mainly practice barefoot, but also use donated shoes for advanced techniques. Their dance teacher Mike Wamaya is a former professional dancer. “The children we work with go through a lot of challenges…but when they dance, they develop hope for a better life”, he says. Some have won school scholarships through dance, while others have joined professional dance schools. Some of the older students now train at Dance Centre Kenya. Over Christmas they performed Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet at the Nairobi National Theatre.

I shared the video on my timeline, expressing the hope that someday Child’s Play India Foundation could bring such an initiative to India as well. If one highly-motivated professionally trained dancer could achieve this in a Nairobi slum, it is not too far-fetched to envisage the same miracle here as well.

I got a response from a South African musician-journalist friend who is also committed to music education and social change through music. She drew my attention to a recent controversy in her country regarding ballet being viewed (by some) as “Eurocentric and colonial”, and solicited my viewpoint. “What are your thoughts and how would it be perceived in India?”

Does this sound familiar? It was interesting to see that other post-colonial states have similar issues as we do. I read up on the controversy. Apparently, after “82 years of partnership”, Cape Town Ballet had been booted out of its University of Cape Town premises due to objections by a group of students.

Ironically, the student group were from the contemporary and African dance streams, which had been included in the curriculum at the encouragement of the executive director of the ballet company.

This is not a new debate. The ‘culture wars’, the pitched battles between ‘our’ music and culture and ‘theirs’ have been raging from the moment the imperial powers left their colonies around the world. This reminded me of a wonderful book “Soul Music: The Pulse of Race and Music” by African-American novelist (and now a friend as I’ve corresponded with her at some length after reading the book) Candace Allen.

In her book, she visits and describes her experiences in places as far-flung and diverse as the United States, Palestine, Venezuela, Scotland, the streets of London and Kinshasa.

She describes her experience of and participation in the Black Arts Movement, the artistic branch of the Black Power movement prominent in the 1960s and early ‘70s. With the benefit of hindsight, she is able to look back on those years. She chose an undergraduate thesis ‘Towards a Black Aesthetic in Visual Communications’, and she writes: “My first pass at its opening chapter was a categorical dismissal of the entire Western artistic tradition as bankrupt, dictatorial and antithetical to all grounded human values, to which my advisor’s only counter was ‘Isn’t this a bit harsh?’”

Further on she writes: “We knew nothing of irony and would have despised it if we had, but ironies abounded. The African fabrics in which we decked ourselves were of Dutch-manufacture and Indonesian design on British-woven stuff. Our African beads generally originated in Venice. Our interest in Black music and history were creating a bonanza for white record companies and publishing firms as they reissued the likes of Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday in handsome new packaging and brought long-lost texts by black writers back onto the market. We bought eagerly with no thought of provenance.”

This is such an important point. How complete can a rejection or boycott ever be? And if not complete, how meaningful is it really?

In another chapter Allen writes: “Though the said ideal was to break down class barriers within the community, so much of what was Black was defined by working class, oppressed conditions, survival mechanisms and sensibilities. Could there be only one way of being Black, listening Black, painting Black, conjuring Black? Only one true way to pure Soul?”

She also categorically addresses ballet: “My mother opposed my studying ballet…but she had no problems with my seeing ballet…I allowed no racial identification to interfere with my love of what the human body in choreographed motion could achieve and the music through which they manifested this glory. Balanchine [iconic choreographer and father of American ballet] might declare that ballet dancers had to be small-headed, flat-butted and have complexions comparable to the inside of a peach, I didn’t care. I was confident enough in my knowledge that he was wrong, had seen so much evidence to the contrary in life and on stage, that I ignored this dismissive, and yes, ignorant part of his character and continued to relish what he produced. I just wanted to feel it, explore and learn it such as I could.”

This ridiculous notion of a balletic ideal, this “credo of the perfect dancer” espoused by Balanchine, that there is some utopian phenotype most suited to ballet, and that others fall short is so dated and frankly, racist. It is precisely to demolish such a myth that I feel that people of all origins should study this art form even more avidly.

This is certainly what American ballet dancer Misty Copeland did on encountering prejudice on account of her skin colour and body structure. When at puberty her body began to fill out making her breasts fuller, she was told diplomatically to “lengthen” so as not to “lose your classical line.” In her memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”, she writes: “My backup plan was to out-dance everyone, to be so technically perfect and unbelievably lyrical in my movements that all anyone would be able to see was my talent, not my breasts or curves or the colour of my skin.” It worked. “They came to see… that my curves are part of who I am as a dancer, not something I need to lose in order to become one.”

Copeland and Michaela dePrince in Amsterdam have some similarities with the “Slum Ballet” children.

They have both taken a “Eurocentric” and “colonial” dance form, and not only made it theirs, but excelled in it. This in my view is a far better response to a self-defeating, knee-jerk rejection of it.

(An edited version of this article was published on 5 February 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Bread and Circuses

Someone once remarked to me at a social function how wonderful it was that we were having so much by way of art, music, poetry, literature, sport, and culture in general, such a lot of it that one was at a loss for choice. And she was right, of course.

But the phrase “bread and circuses” did come to mind as well. “Bread and circuses” (from the Latin ‘panis et circenses’) is a figure of speech which in politics has come to mean “the generation of public approval, not through exemplary or excellent public service or public policy, but through diversion, distraction or mere satisfaction of the immediate, shallow requirements of a populace.”

Bread and circuses

The term was coined by the satirical Roman poet Decimus Iunius Iuvenalis, better known as Juvenal (active in the late 1st and early 2nd century AD), in reference to the ploy of providing free wheat and costly, blood-and-gore circus games and other forms of popular entertainment as a means of gaining and holding on to political power. It is a distracting device that has been successfully employed through history: it has been said of the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar that he diverted the minds of his population from his excesses by offering them “football, fado and Fátima.”

There is nothing ‘shallow’ about the arts, music or sport of course, but when we get a barrage of festival after festival, quite a few of exceptionally high quality, but do not get the governance and comprehensive planning and delivery of basic amenities to our populace, the discrepancy is glaringly evident.

This is obvious to even a short-term visitor to our state. We had over a hundred delegates from eleven countries descend upon Goa for the recently-concluded ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development) festival, at which I was invited to deliver the keynote address. While all of them were awestruck by Goa’s natural, built and intangible heritage, even during their short stay here they came face-to-face with issues that bedevil residents all the time: garbage disposal, sanitation, noise pollution, parking problems, a poor public transport system, exorbitant taxi fares and the lack of a basic airport bus shuttle transfer system in what despite everything is still India’s hottest and most iconic tourist destination.

The whole ethos of the global ABCD movement is one of “strengths-focussed, place-based and community-driven development”, the “power of communities, neighbourhoods and residents focussing on their assets, capacities and opportunities, as opposed to their needs, deficiencies and limitations.” I must admit that this definition flummoxed me when I first encountered it. Whenever I think of community-driven development for Goa, I can’t help thinking first of what I perceive to be our basic needs, and what is lacking in our day-to-day living (and we have enumerated just a few already above).

So let’s look holistically at assets, capacities and opportunities and at our strengths, the USP (unique selling point) of Goa and our communities. If we are truly honest with ourselves, we have to admit we have taken a wrong turn in our vision for the future. Our USP is our natural beauty, our unique position in history and our intangible heritage of art, music, dance and culture. It is the reason that the plethora of festivals, conventions, workshops, symposiums etc are held in Goa in the first place. It is this that we should safeguard zealously and jealously, instead of trying to mimic vacuous templates like Las Vegas.

The development should be holistic, inclusive, and should maintain our sensitive ecological balance. The pride we have for our land should be instilled and shared by all of us, not just a few communities, societal layers or enclaves.

Goa is poised at a crossroad like never before. If we choose the right path, we could become such an exemplar for the rest of the country (a true ‘Goa model’) and indeed the India-Pacific region. But if we choose our status quo, generations after us will hold us accountable for aiding and abetting Goa’s decline through complacency.

Which brings us to the opportunities we have before us. The looming election can be a watershed moment in our history if we collectively vote for true, clean, honest, positive, wholesome change. It is a change Goa sorely needs. It is a change that ought to have come so much earlier. But better late than never.

It is time to rethink the image of ‘brand Goa’ we are putting out into the ether, be it for tourism or in the more general sense. Goa is already taking centre-stage as a hub for the arts, literature, music, dance, and creativity in general, and for sport. But if we have a government that fails to deliver on basics, and that fails to protect what is still left of our natural heritage, this will by default be reduced to just ‘bread and circuses.’

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

“The Learning never stops!”

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US-trained Goan-origin pianist Evelyn Dias was recently in the city for a recital and spoke to the Navhind Times about her roots, musical upbringing, and her work as performer and teacher.

1. Tell us a little about your Goan roots

My mum’s side of the family came from Anjuna and my dad’s side from Panjim. My aunt and uncle, who are both siblings of my parents, still live in Goa. My sisters and I visited Goa many times as children. I remember seeing the large living room of the family house for the first time. I was so impressed! I have many fond memories of picking green mangoes and cashew fruit up the hill in Anjuna. Even now when I return to Goa, I feel a sense of belonging that I have never felt anywhere in the world.

2. How did you get started on piano? How old were you?

The first piano in our house was a wedding gift to my parents. I wanted to play it for as long as I can remember. My sisters (who are a little older than I am) had lessons and I couldn’t wait for my turn. Although I wanted to start earlier, I finally began music lessons at the age of 6. My dad was a big influence. He often played his classical music LPs at home. He was also a violinist and a member of both the Cantata choir as well as the Paranjoti chorus. Going to his concerts at the N.C.P.A. and other venues across the city was something l looked forward to. Without doubt these experiences inspired my love of music.

3. Tell us a little more about your career path. How and when did you decide to go to the US?

I studied Economics and Statistics in Mumbai but realized quickly that those subjects didn’t make me happy. Since my sisters had already left the country, I wanted to stay behind with my parents. Eventually though it became clear that I was denying my dream of being a professional musician.

I still remember my first day in music school in the U.S. in August 2001. It was a theory class of 80 students and I was the happiest one there!

I consider myself fortunate to have had wonderful teachers at both the University of Iowa and Northwestern University. An “invested” teacher can make a huge difference. In addition exposure to great musical performances is vital to the growth of a musician. Completing my doctorate in the Chicago area was an excellent experience. I took advantage of affordable student tickets and am lucky to have seen/heard many of my musical heroes in concert.

4. Having returned to India, what is your impression of the music ‘scene’ here?

Upon my return to India, I have been delighted to observe many more musical activities and opportunities than were available to me when I was a student. From the increased number of visiting artists to the growth of music schools and programs, music students today have much more access than ever before. In addition the vast amount of recordings, scores and information available on the internet can supplement learning. It is my hope that curiosity for information and initiative to keep improving standards continues.

5. Describe your experiences of playing here in Goa.

I have enjoyed coming back to Goa to perform. The concert with Madeleine Mitchell was my third opportunity to play here. In addition to meeting wonderful people, these concerts have allowed me to explore parts of Goa that I have never seen before.

6. You’ve had an insight into the current situation regarding teaching at Child’s Play. You’ll agree there’s a lot of potential on so many levels? Tell us about the experience.

The highlight of my recent trip to Goa was a meeting with the teachers and students of Child’s Play. I attended a few lessons/classes and was really moved by the experience. I witnessed dedication and investment from the teachers and the joy that music brings to the students. The impact of music in the lives of both students and teachers is undeniable especially in the case of students who come from challenging backgrounds. I thoroughly believe that music/training should be for everyone and not an elite few. I hope to return to Goa to work with Child’s Play in the months ahead.

7. Lastly any advice: for the music student in general, the piano student in particular, to music teachers, and to parents and the wider public. What can we all do to take India further along the path where music education and the flourishing of music in general are concerned?

I would encourage students and teachers of music to avail of every possible opportunity to perform, to go to concerts and to refine their craft. Even if they don’t intend to make music a career, there are so many benefits to studying/playing music. Recent research has proven the positive effects of music-making and listening on our brains. Parents play a vital role in supporting young musicians – taking them to lessons, concerts and ensuring consistent and thoughtful practice. Although the process is long and sometimes difficult, every professional musician knows that the learning never stops!

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Buzz section of the Navhind Times on 25 January 2017)

Conversations in Belgaum

One of the high points of my second year MBBS in 1985-86 (apart from being part of the Medical Ball committee, the Annual Day team, St. Luke’s Medical Guild, the chapel feast and so much else) was the field trip organised by the Microbiology department to Belgaum. I am not sure if this is still a 2nd MBBS rite of passage.

The purpose of the trip was academic, of course, but a party atmosphere infected us from the moment we got on the Goa Medical College bus that would take us there and back. It was the first time, for me at least, that our whole class would be going so far from home, and for a few days. The sense of freedom and abandon were exhilarating.

I’m embarrassed to admit that I remember very little of the scholastic portion of the trip. I have a vague recollection of being shepherded into the stony interiors of (I think) the Vaccine Institute there at the end of a long, leafy, tree-lined path. Our focus in particular was rabies, the rhabdovirus and the anti-rabies vaccine. But there any virology-related recollections come to an abrupt end.

What I do remember is spending almost all our pocket money on collective ice-cream binges at a place called Kaveri. Fortunately I still had some money left over on the last day when, quite by chance, I happened upon a small store in a side-street selling audio cassettes. It was so tiny that one could have easily missed it, and there was nothing particularly appealing about it. But something drew me in.

And there, on a shelf amidst a whole sea of cassettes from perhaps Kannada blockbusters, was a cassette whose cover bore a picture of two violins facing each other, with a frisson of finger-like blue bolts of static electricity leaping between them. Emblazoned across it below the Music India Ltd logo, was one single word in large type: CONVERSATIONS. At the foot, in smaller type, were two names I had head of but not so far listened to: L. Subramaniam and Stéphane Grappelli. Two violin legends from two different worlds, on the same soundtrack! And considering that the album was released in 1984, it was still “hot off the press”.

conversations

From that moment on and the whole bus journey back to Goa, I listened to that cassette on my Walkman over and over. I would go on to listen to it so often that I wore out the cassette tape and had to replace it with another copy from Sinari’s. To say it blew my mind is a gross understatement. In one fell swoop, it had opened the doors for me to Indian classical music, jazz and to fusion of all kinds. And the 1980s were a good time for pushing boundaries, with the audio cassette boom of Music India Ltd, Magnasound, Times Music, as well as HMV, EMI, etc.

And as if by serendipity, without even meaning to, I became a Subramaniam groupie of sorts. In the years that followed, I heard him perform twice in Goa (once at the Kala Academy, and the second time at some hotel in Bogmalo if I remember right), then in Mumbai, and some years later in London as well.

And it was interesting for me to note that L. Subramaniam is also a medical doctor, having acquired his MBBS degree from Madras Medical College. Although he subsequently immersed himself fully into music, his first love, his name still appears as “Dr. L. Subramaniam” on his albums and on publicity material. Medicine’s loss has certainly been music’s huge gain.

Why “Conversations”? Because of the playful, witty exchange between Subramaniam and Grappelli of course, each in their own idiom, their own ‘language’ but understanding each other perfectly. But there is another reason for the title.

To quote from the liner notes: “”Conversations” began as a conversation between Subramaniam and Grappelli in the green room of the Théâtre des Champs Elysées when Grappelli had come to attend a concert of Subramaniam.”

The longer version of this story is even more interesting. Subramaniam and Grappelli had each heard of the other, but had not actually met. So when Grappelli turned up in Subramaniam’s green room before his concert, Subramaniam was naturally excited and asked Grappelli whether he would be at his concert. Grappelli tried to make a tactful excuse, but eventually had to reveal that he had tried unsuccessfully to get a ticket to Subramaniam’s concert but it was sold out. In an interview to the press in 2007, Subramaniam reminisced how keen Grappelli was to come to the concert: “He asked for permission to stand at the side of the stage and listen. But the French organisers would have none of it. Finally, the director of the organising forum gave up his seat for Stéphane. That was the beginning of our friendship which resulted in the famous album Conversations, which was released in 1984.”

It was not just a two-way conversation, however. When allowed a ‘speaking’ role, there is an eloquent santoor quasi- soliloquy by Manoochehr Sadeghi in the track titled ‘Illusions’; and there is a really sensitive supporting cast of guitars, keyboard, bass, drums and percussion as well. It would have been awesome to have been a fly on the wall for that recording session. Subramaniam’s violin is not only held differently, but tuned differently to Grappelli, with its lowest string plumbing the rich depths of the viola range, lending a doleful, soulful edge to Subramaniam’s sound.

If you visit cyberspace (YouTube in particular), you learn how much this album, especially the eponymous track, means to people of all ages from all corners of the world. For some it was a student-days anthem, played over and over again to combat pre-exam tension; another recounts how it could calm their unborn child in the womb, and work as a lullaby after he was born as well.

For me, like a Pavlovian reflex, each time I hear or even think of the “Conversations” album, I am taken back to that tiny shop in Belgaum, and the heady return bus journey to Goa has this as its soundtrack in my memory.

Listening to Grappelli in “Conversations” was my entry point into jazz violin, and I subsequently discovered Jean-Luc Ponty, Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and Didier Lockwood. But Grappelli for me is truly the “grandfather” of them all. Similarly, although I make no pretence of understanding or delving into Indian classical music to a similar degree, this album encouraged me first to listen to the ‘serious’ classical music oeuvre of L. Subramaniam, and from there to others like L. Shankar, and from there to other instrumentalists and vocalists as well. I have to say that for me, Indian classical music is at its most bewitching when at a live performance; a recording doesn’t draw me in in quite the same way. I feel the energy in a live setting, and it is a collective energy, drawn from others in the audience, even though I may not know them. I can listen to western classical music on my own, but I appreciate Indian classical music better at a live concert. But it is a journey, and it all began on bus back from Belgaum to Goa.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 January 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)