Madre de Deus: the Goan connection

When I began reading British historian Peter Frankopan’s 2015 best-selling book ‘The Silk Roads: A New History of the world’, I had an inkling that Goa would feature at some point(s) in it. And it does, several times. So no surprises there.

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But the book not only re-emphasised what was already common knowledge, but also shed new light on historical episodes involving Goa that certainly I had hitherto not been aware of.

Take the story of the ‘Madre de Deus’, for instance. It made me look it up further, and there hangs a truly exciting tale.

It was the year 1592, nearly a century after the Portuguese 1510 conquest of Goa. Goa was experiencing its ‘Dourada’ phase, and the Armadas da Índia (Portuguese India Armadas), large fleets of ships did the Carreira da Índia (“India run”) annually back and forth between Lisbon and Goa. The timing of these trips depended on the monsoon wind. It was a southwesterly wind (i.e. blew from East Africa to India) between May and September, and became a northeasterly (from India to Africa) between October and April.

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Typically the ships would commence the return journey from Goa in December-January, groaning under the weight of spices, silks, textiles and precious stones and other booty. Once in the Mozambique channel, they would catch the Agulhas Current to round the Cape of Good Hope. In the Atlantic, their sails would catch the southeast trade winds to the west of Ascension and Saint Helena as far as the doldrums, then sail almost straight north to the Azores islands, where they would catch the prevailing westerlies, sailing due west into Lisbon.

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Since 1580 (and this would prevail until 1640), the Iberian Union had joined the crowns of Portugal and Spain, which put the 1373 Anglo-Portuguese Treaty into abeyance. The Anglo-Spanish war (1585-1604) was in full swing, with Spain still smarting from the rout of their mighty Armada in 1588 (which had actually set sail from Lisbon) by England. Portuguese vessels were now fair game for the English Royal Navy.

Ever since Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church in 1534 to form the Church of England in order to marry his mistress Ann Boleyn, England found itself isolated from the rest of Christendom, while Spain assumed an ever-increasingly dominant role within it.

The 1494 Tratado de Tordesillas (Treaty of Tordesillas) had neatly divided the ‘newly discovered lands’ outside Europe between the Portuguese Empire and the Crown of Castile, with the approval of the Pope.

Now, with the Iberian Union of these two, plundered riches from both halves of the world poured into Iberia, while England, which didn’t recognize the treaty, looked on enviously.

But whether it was Aztec gold or Indian spices or Chinese silks, the riches arrived by sea, and this is where England struck, and often.

In June 1592, the English pursued the 800-ton Portuguese carrack ‘Santa Cruz’ and ran it aground onto one of the Azores islands. Under threat of torture, the Portuguese crew revealed that a fleet of five ships (including the Santa Cruz) had departed from Goa, and that the others were expected soon: ‘Buen Jesus admiral’, ‘Madre de Deus’, ‘San Bernardo’, and ‘San Christophoro’.  ‘Madre de Deus’, captained by Fernão de Mendonça Furtado, was the largest of the fleet, a thirty-two gun vessel of 1,600 tons, one of the Portuguese crown’s greatest and one of the largest sailing ships ever built.

She was sighted on 3 August, and engaged by the much smaller, perhaps aptly-named ‘Dainty’. Others: ‘Golden Dragon’, ‘Roebuck’, ‘Foresight’ and ‘Prudence’ joined the attack as the ‘Battle of Flores’ (so named as it took place off Flores, one of the Azores islands) progressed.

Madre de Deus

The ‘Madre de Deus was boarded at 10 pm after bloody hand-to-hand combat, its decks strewn with bodies. It was nearly destroyed when a cabin filled with ammunition caught fire, but saved by quick English action on account of her precious cargo.

Capt. John Burrough, who along with Sir Walter Raleigh had led the expedition, wrote in his report:  “God’s great favour towards our nation, who by putting this purchase into our hands hath manifestly discovered those secret trades & Indian riches, which hitherto lay strangely hidden, and cunningly concealed from us”.

Among these riches were chests filled with jewels and pearls, gold and silver coins, ambergris, rolls of the highest-quality cloth, fine tapestries, 425 tons of pepper, 45 tons of cloves, 35 tons of cinnamon, 3 tons of mace and 3 of nutmeg, 2.5 tons of benjamin (a highly aromatic balsamic resin used for perfumes and medicines), 25 tons of cochineal and 15 tons of ebony.

There was also a document, printed at Macau in 1590, containing valuable information on the China and Japan trade, which was “enclosed in a case of sweet Cedar wood, and lapped up almost a hundredfold in fine Calicut-cloth, as though it had been some incomparable jewel”.

The haul from the Madre de Deus, which was then towed into Dartmouth harbor on England’s south coast, was reckoned to be at last half a million pounds, worth more than half of England’s regular annual imports at the time.

While at Dartmouth, it was subjected to looting on “an industrial scale”, from “all manner of traders, dealers, cutpurses, and thieves from miles around.”  By the time order was restored by Sir Walter Raleigh, the cargo’s value had shrunk to £140,000.

Despite this, ten freighters were needed to carry the treasure around the coast and up the River Thames to London. Thanks largely to the haul from the ‘Madre de Deus’, the expedition yielded the reigning monarch of England Elizabeth I a 20-fold return on her investment.

Nevertheless, lessons has been learnt: When later ships were brought into the Thames for unloading, the dockers were made to dress in “suits of canvas doublet without pockets, to reduce opportunities for theft.”

The other result of this incident was that England saw first-hand how staggering were the riches of the East. The Macau document became the template for voyages that would eventually lead to the establishing of the East India Company in 1600.

Isn’t it ironic? A ship that set sail from Goa gets ambushed by the English off the faraway Azores, and becomes the stimulus for what would eventually be the British rule over the Indian peninsula?

I try to imagine the port in Goa (today’s Old Goa, surely?) where such a large cargo was loaded. Who did the loading? Who were the traders responsible for the cargo; were they Portuguese descendentes, mestiços, or native Goans?  How did they deal with such a catastrophic loss? Was the cargo insured against such eventualities? It was a colossal gamble, loading such a precious consignment in one ship. Even setting aside enemy raids (and it was wartime, so a clear and present danger), there was always the risk of shipwreck due to stormy weather. Did it change the way future shipments were sent out?

So many unanswered questions.

(An edited version of this article was published on 16 December 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

 

 

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Things I learned from my Daddy

This column is overdue by little over a week. My father, Dr. Manuel Francisco Dias (27 November 1928 – 21 August 2000) would have been ninety this year. Although it is almost two decades since he left, all too soon, all too suddenly, it still seems like it transpired much more recently. Time has managed to dull the pain from a stab to an ache, but it’s still there.

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In so many ways, he influenced the person I am today. I could write reams about this, but I’ll confine myself to a few vignettes:

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I was inescapably surrounded by music. The very few memories of my toddler years in Berlin (then West Berlin, West Germany) involve staring transfixed at the glow of the bulb on our Philips record-player as I listened to music. In our Panjim home, there was even more music-related paraphernalia: the old family gramophone, stacks of shellac records, 78s, and later additions of 45s and LPs; the impossibly weighty spool- tape-recorder, precursor of the audio-cassette. The music spectrum included the earliest Hindi films, Konkani, and lighter fare, but the bulk was western classical music. The earliest ‘song’ Daddy taught my brother Victor and me, was the Ode to Joy chorus from the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, in German: “Freude, schöner Götterfunken…”

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To this day, I know that text by heart.

As if that weren’t enough, there were books about composers and operas, and record-sleeves, many in German and Portuguese and even other languages, but enough in English for me to try to make sense of the new sound-worlds. My impromptu ‘listening hour’ was in the afternoon, as the family rested. I began with nursery-rhyme records, moving on to light music, then Strauss waltzes, and then on to ‘heavier’ music, which initially I didn’t care for so much, but over time and repeated listening, grew on me. If Daddy caught a familiar segment, he would come in and ‘air-conduct’ with me, and if I had trouble understanding something on the record-sleeve, he’d explain it to me. He’d translate the lyrics of the songs of Edith Piaf, Amália Rodrigues and Heintje for me as the music played. Each time I hear those songs, I can still hear him do that.

One song that he could never sing without a lump in his throat or tears welling in his eyes, was ‘Adeus korcho vellu’. That effect has rubbed off on me too.

Our violin lessons were a throwback to his own lessons, from legends like Dominic Pereira and Micael Martins. One of my violins is a family heirloom, put together by my great-uncle Eng. Luís Bismarck Dias, from whom I got my own name.

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On my tenth birthday, I was crestfallen to receive from Daddy, not an age-appropriate story-book or toy, but an unabridged copy of the epic ‘Os Lusíadas’ by Luís Vaz de Camões, in the original Portuguese, no translation. (This was a typical Daddy trait: presents to others were actually gifts for himself!). “It’s by another Luis!”, he told me cheerfully, ignoring my disappointment.  But then, on our regular trips to the old Central Library (Livraria Central, Pangim), he’d put the epic into context against the marvellous azulejo tableaux by Jorge Colaço in the entrance, and the cantos, stanzas and pictures would come to life as he recited them with much melodrama.

Today, I’m grateful he made that gift.

The house was, and still is strewn with books everywhere, in English, Portuguese, German, French, and to lesser degree in other languages. He introduced me to Shakespeare’s plays, and could recite many extracts from memory. I read Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas and so many others due to him.

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I still remember the excitement when the full set of Encyclopaedia Britannica arrived in the 1970s, the ‘Google’ of its day. We’d pore over the atlas together, and he’d explain the strategic importance of the Suez canal, and hoe geography influenced history, and so many connections between seemingly disparate disciplines.

With me perched on his lap in his armchair,  Daddy quite literally showed me the world.

Everything he read, even borrowed library books, was underlined or marked by him. I found it very irritating then, and hid books from him that I treasured myself. But today, as I unearth his scribbles, almost on a daily basis, like time-capsules from decades ago, I feel he’s still communicating with me.

We had father-son tiffs galore, and I would give him the silent treatment, sometimes for days. His peace offering would usually be an earmarked newspaper or magazine article that he thought would interest me, left by my afternoon tea-cup. And so the ice would be broken.

He was obsessed with hanging porcelain plates on the walls, and we would be roped into the logistics. He loved to hand-paint outlines of drawings and paintings by Picasso, Chagall, Toulouse-Lautrec, on those plates. And he’d hang framed reproductions of the Great Masters on the verandah walls. Our task was to take them down when the breeze was too strong, and then put them back again. They were my entry-point into art, as were the paintings and sketches (each with their own little story!) of Angelo da Fonseca, a family friend and fellow Zuenkar.

He hero-worshipped the leading lights of the Independence movement, and pictures of Nehru, Gandhi and Ambedkar jostled for space alongside close family relatives, as if they were close family members themselves.

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He didn’t believe in owing anyone anything, and even a utility bill had to be paid at once, as soon as it arrived, as if it were a ticking time-bomb.

When my brother and I were very young, much too young, he’d quiz us: “What can never be bought or sold?” The answer: “Integrity of character.” We would repeat it uncomprehendingly. But it stuck in our psyche.

Although Daddy’s family was among the first to own a motor-car in Goa, and during his childhood had three of them, he showed no inclination to learn to drive himself, or to buy one for his own family. I suspect he was more inclined to either public transport, or to walk or cycle. In his Wadia college days in Poona, “Mr. Dias” was a familiar sight on its streets, seen cycling here, there, everywhere.

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I can still picture him in my mind’s eye, wheeling our first red bicycle into the house, and thus beginning our own love-affair with cycling. And how he loved to walk! Until the last decade or so of his life, one had a tough time keeping up with his brisk pace.

His stories of childhood pranks (many of them cycle-related) and memories of trips to the family property in Tontem, hearing the growl of tigers at night, are legion.

His knowledge of local history and family history was phenomenal, and I deeply regret not paying more attention when he attempted to tell us about this. This would usually happen at mealtimes, but when we were growing up, it all seemed much too abstract and faraway compared to all the interesting things at school and with friends. I can now remember only snatches of his monologues. The loss is mine, all mine.

Eclipses, comets and other celestial phenomena were major events in our house. We’d go armed with Xrays (many of them over each other) to view solar eclipses, and binoculars to gaze at nocturnal spectacles. It was more fun than any school assignment ever was.

We went through an arborics phase as well, collecting pieces of driftwood, roots, branches that variously resembled snakes, the human form, and the countenance of Jesus with crown of thorns.

His love of sprouted moong dal allowed us to watch the stages of germination of seeds.

Daddy was also my ENT doctor. He’d periodically sit us on his lap, and clean our ear canals of wax. Funnily enough, that’s one of the things I miss very much after he passed away

Although I didn’t realize it at the time, Daddy was extremely methodical. I see it now in the way he organized his books on bookshelves and in bookcases, and in the way family documents were filed away.

He wasn’t much of a cinema-goer, yet I remember him taking me to see Tchaikovsky’s ‘Swan Lake’ on Cine Nacional’s big screen; ‘The Great Waltz’, a biopic of the Waltz King, Johann Strauss II; and ‘Animal Safari’, which awakened a lifelong interest in wildlife, and a desire (still-unfulfilled) to visit that continent. ‘African Safari’ has an amusing side-story: Daddy wasn’t used to queuing for a ticket, and some misunderstanding led to us going to see ‘Pocket Maar’ instead! Daddy was furious, and marched me off (although I wanted to stay!) as soon as the film began.

Daddy wasn’t a church-goer either, but boy, did he know his Bible, in several languages! He could quote chapter and verse, and tell you which episodes in Jesus’ life were described in which Gospel, and the chronological order of Popes through history and so much more.

When I entered MBBS, he relived his student days vicariously through me, constantly poring over my textbooks (which I absolutely forbade him from underlining!), and offering aide-memoires. One that he found particularly funny was how to remember that the left heart valve was called ‘mitral’: “Remember, bishops wear a mitre, and bishops are never right!” and he’d laugh at the joke every time.

When I got to England in 1998, the streets were littered with connections to him: Covent Garden, the Globe and Stratford-upon-Avon, Baker Street (Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes), the National Gallery… I had the expectation that at some point my parents would come over, and we’d visit all these together. But in 2000, he was gone. Numb with shock, I came home to bury him, and returned to work. On a free weekend, I visited the National Gallery, and when I got to Caravaggio’s ‘The Supper at Emmaus’, I sat down on a viewing-bench. The floodgates opened and I wept uncontrollably as I hadn’t done before, knowing that we’d never experience all this together.

But he lives on in my son Manuel: the book-craziness, argumentativeness, love of chess, and the “I-need-to-be- alone, just- to-think” moments. Happy 90th, Daddy! Always remembered, never forgotten.

(An edited version of this article was published on 09 December 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

It’s all about the Bass(line)!

Child’s Play India Foundation will enter its tenth year of existence in 2019-2020, a milestone we wish to celebrate very much.

From its inception, the strengthening of cello pedagogy has been uppermost on our mind. This is a dire need not just for Child’s Play for just for Goa, but for the whole country.

If you were to think of those in your family or your neighbourhood or in your circle of friends and acquaintances who play or are learning to play a musical instrument, chances are very high that the instrument is guitar, violin, keyboard or piano. Cello students are numerically extremely scarce, not just in Goa, but elsewhere in India as well.

This has huge repercussions when it comes to music-making. The bulk of the chamber and ensemble repertoire (certainly string chamber music and orchestral music) in western classical music necessarily requires cello. The paucity of cello pedagogy on the ground makes it difficult to have string trio (violin, viola, cello) or quartet (two violins, viola, cello), piano trio (violin, cello, piano) or piano quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano) music repertoire to even be contemplated, let alone studiously approached and performed. This deprives the music student community and the wider public of a vast chunk of the classical music oeuvre.

In ensemble playing as well, across India, upper strings (violin, viola) vastly outnumber cello, which, besides the obvious imbalance in register and harmony, limits the choice of repertoire that can be performed. In addition, a strong cello (and double-bass) line forms the firm foundation for the rest of the orchestra. One can have the most wonderful upper-string sections, but if the bass-line is weak or suffers from poor intonation, the whole musical ‘edifice’ comes crumbling down.

Although Child’s Play has had a cello project since 2013, it struggled to take root due to a lack of continuity and of a really qualified cello teacher. But in the past few months, with the arrival of Danish cello pedagogue Gry Nørby, our cello project has really begun to flourish. We currently have twenty-four cello students, drawn from the ranks of our children at two of our locations, Hamara School St. Inez and Auxilium School Caranzalem, and also from the wider community and a plucky handful of adult learners as well, all of whom just happen to be women!

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So, although our upcoming Christmas concert ‘Joy to the World’ on Saturday 8 December 2018 at Menezes Braganza hall 6 pm (donation passes available at Furtados Music stores and also at the door just before the concert) rings in the Christmas season, coming as it does in the very first week of Advent with a lot of Yuletide cheer, it is also a celebration of that magnificent sonorous instrument, the cello!

We will showcase the versatility of the cello, first as a member of the orchestra, with a robust cello section (aided by a double-bass, itself a relative rarity on our concert stage!). We will also have as many of the twenty-four cellos that can possibly be crammed onto the Menezes Braganza stage playing a Nordic traditional folk song.  A smaller group will also play for us ‘The Happy Cello Player’ by Adam McKenzie.

Nørby will also highlight the cello as a solo instrument when she plays for us the Swan from French composer Camille Saint-Saëns’ humorous musical suite and ballet ‘Le Carnaval des Animaux’ (The Carnival of the Animals).  And when it comes to unaccompanied cello, what could be a better example than a movement from one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six cello suites, considered by many as the pinnacle and most spiritual of his oeuvre.

We will also get a taste of the cello in chamber music when Trio Frangipani (Luis Dias, violin; Rasmus Nørby, viola; and Gry Nørby, cello) perform Franz Schubert’s String Trio in B flat major, D. 471.

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Schubert wrote three string trios between 1814 and 1817 (around the same years he was taking composition lessons from Antonio Salieri), all of them for some reason in B flat major. D. 471 was begun in September 1816, but he completed just the first movement. This is hardly surprising, if you take into account the fact that Schubert was such a prodigious, prolific composer, that he was working on so many compositions simultaneously, that even he found it hard to keep track. In 1816 alone, he composed over two hundred works (that we know of and have survived), including at least two masses, several smaller sacred works, over a hundred songs and lieder, his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, one overture, two concert pieces for violin and orchestra, three string quartets (one of them lost), at least four works for piano and one or more instruments, four other works for strings, winds and brass instruments, several piano sonatas (some lost) and other piano works, and God alone knows how much more that was unfinished or lost —  all while working full-time as a teacher in his father’s school. Whew!

This is a youthful work (he was just nineteen!), written for home rather than for public performance. It has some similarities with his Fifth Symphony, also in the same key, and from the same year.           The young Schubert was heavily influenced by Mozart, and we see it here too, with the use of three-bar and five-bar phrases and circle-of-fifth progressions, but with an early Schubertian fingerprint, what in jazz would be termed a ‘tritone substitution’ in the final cadence, possibly inspired from popular music of his time.

The concert also features the Child’s Play chorus singing an array of Christmas carols and songs, some of them in English, Konkani, Portuguese and (why not?) Danish as well. So come along to an evening of Yuletide fun to get into the Christmas spirit!

(An edited version of this article was published on 02 December 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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My Daddy (27/11/1928 – 20/08/2000) would have been ninety tomorrow. Happy 90th birthday, Daddy! You left too soon, too suddenly. But you live on through the next Manuel. I see many glimpses of you in him — the book-craziness to the point of distraction, the argumentativeness, the need for solitude ‘to just think’, the love of chess, and many other such lovable, sometimes maddening traits. Always remembered, never forgotten! ❤️

Who wants to Live Forever: The extraordinary musicianship of Freddie Mercury

I don’t how long Inox Porvorim has been around, but I was never tempted to visit until a few days ago, to see the much-anticipated ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, the 2018 biographical film about the British rock band Queen, whose flamboyant poster-boy was, of course, Freddie Mercury (1946-1991).

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I wasn’t surprised to find so many familiar faces, young and old, in the auditorium. Queen’s music speaks across generations. And the big draw, on-screen as in real life, was Freddie Mercury.

The film didn’t disappoint, and the karaoke-style lyric texts certainly helped. I found the narrative a little disorienting, but I guess one does have to leap across time to cover such a vast career. I’m not sure how critical Bulsara Sr. (Freddie’s father) was of his son in real life. I’ve not come across explicit references, but I’m sure the film was well-researched.

 

The moments that truly moved me (to tears sometimes) were his awareness of his sexual orientation, the press hounding him about his lifestyle, and his devastating loneliness.

This is a Queen biopic, of course, so the songs from Mercury’s “break” period from the band don’t get screen-time. But the lyrics of Mercury’s solo song “Living on my Own” were certainly autobiographical: “Sometimes I feel I’m gonna break down and cry”; “I’m always walking too fast”; “Nowhere to go, nothing to do with my time”; “Everything is coming down on me”; “I go crazy”; “I don’t have no time for no monkey business”; I get so lonely”; “Got to be some good times ahead.”

What  amazes me about Mercury’s music is his impressive pianistic skill and his remarkable grasp of harmony, chord progression, polyphony, counterpoint and so many aspects of music that elude others with even a conservatory education.

The film and so many Mercury biographies just gloss over this crucial incubation period in his life.   But apparently the headmaster at St. Peter’s English boarding school Panchgani realized little Bulsara had a gift for music, and persuaded his parents to pay for piano lessons (an instrument his parents had started him on a year before, age seven) in addition to his school fees. This early encouragement and endorsement from such an authority figure must have been such a confidence-builder to the eight-year old. How different would Mercury’s life have been if this headmaster had not been so perceptive, or been indifferent? What if his parents had brushed away the advice and dismissed music as a frivolity?

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The unsung heroes in Mercury’s life are this headmaster, his piano teacher(s), the director of the school choir and theatre company who gave him his first taste of music, of the stage and acquiring a stage presence. Sadly we don’t know their names. At Panchgani, he got to Grade IV level in both piano and theory. The lessons spanned just a few years, but must have given him a good musical foundation.

He and four school-friends formed a band, the Hectics, with him at the piano. Right then, a friend recalls he had “an uncanny ability to listen to the radio and replay what he heard on piano”.

London of course would have been a huge eye-opener in 1964 when the Bulsaras fled there from Zanzibar. They probably had a piano at home, and Mercury taught himself guitar. Much of the music he admired was guitar-oriented: Jimi Hendrix, the Who, the Beatles, David Bowie and Led Zepellin.

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Freddie Mercury

How did he attain such phenomenal heights as songwriter, instrumentalist and singer with no real formal training? He was self-deprecating about his pianistic skills, to a fault. I know comparisons are odious, but in terms of sheer complexity, inventiveness, the colour and textural richness of his compositions, the poetry and wit in his lyrics, his pianism, his staggering vocal range (bass low F (F2) to soprano high F (F6)) and control, he far surpasses the likes of someone like Elton John for example, who did have the benefit of studying at the Royal Academy of Music and from private tutors. Take as exhibit A just the Queen Greatest Hits album, where 10 of the 17 tracks were his: besides ‘Bohemian Rhapsody, there’s ‘Killer Queen’, ‘Somebody to Love’, ‘We Are The Champions’, ‘Bicycle Race’, ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love.’ One doesn’t need to dissect or analyse any of them to know they’re pure gold, but they are, each in their own different way.

 

 

 

I think the secret was his deep passion for music. This meant that he would have spent hours at his instrument, whether voice, piano or guitar, practicing, experimenting, pushing boundaries all the time. He was constantly thinking in musical terms. The inspiration for ‘Crazy Little Thing Called Love’ came to him while soaking in the bath-tub of a Munich hotel; he asked for the piano to be brought to the tub, and wrote it all down in ten minutes!

The other aspect is a spin-off on that same love for music: no genre was out of bounds or uninteresting for him. He probably listened to all kinds of music, on the radio and television, on his player, and live at pubs, theatres and concert halls. Too many musicians become ‘specialists’ too soon, and their growth is stunted precisely because they shut themselves off from such richness from those quarters. All genres, from opera to rockabilly, progressive rock, heavy metal, gospel and disco bled into his work. Music for him was not compartmentalized, but one great continuum.

I always thought Mercury was buck-toothed (his nickname in school was ‘Bucky’!); the film enlightened me about his supernumerary incisors: While most of us have four (two each in each jaw), he apparently had twice as many, certainly in his upper jaw! Whether this really widens the vocal range or not, I can’t say. But he never got any corrective dental work, precisely because he didn’t want to take even the slightest chance it could adversely affect his vocal range.

In an earlier column, we saw how impressed operatic soprano Montserrat Caballé was with his voice. The Who lead singer Roger Daltrey called Mercury “the best virtuoso rock ‘n’ roll singer of all time. He could sing anything in any style. He could change his style from line to line and, God, that’s an art. And he was brilliant at it.” David Bowie praised Mercury’s performance style, saying: “Of all the more theatrical rock performers, Freddie took it further than the rest… he took it over the edge… I only saw him in concert once and as they say, he was definitely a man who could hold an audience in the palm of his hand.”

Over a quarter-century after his tragically premature death, Freddie Mercury still holds us all in thrall. It’s A Kind of Magic!

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

 

The sea dogs!

I was walking with a small group of people through the historic city of Old Goa when I noticed a tiny little furry head peeking out of the lady’s handbag, almost like a fashion accessory. It was a little dog!

“It’s Portuguese!”, the visitor from New York told me triumphantly. It seemed an apt point in the discussion (the Portuguese chapter in Goa’s history) and the right place to make the declaration, as I later found out.

She told me about the elaborate formalities, the vaccination schedule and quarantine protocol her dog (named Wiley) had to undergo before being allowed into India. The lady was employed in Mumbai, and Wiley accompanied her on her travels everywhere. Like some other dog-mad friends of mine, she and her companions too had to make special travel arrangements based on which hotels would let pets in Apparently the Taj Holiday Village Candolim does accommodate pets, so that’s a big star in my book for them.

I must confess I don’t know very much about dogs, especially the pedigree dog breeds. So I had to go home and look this one up: the Portuguese Podengo.

Portuguese Podengo Pequeno

The Podengo is found in three sizes: Pequeno (small), Médio (medium) and Grande (large). Within each size type are two varieties: smooth (also referred to as smooth coat) and wire (also referred to as wire coat, wirehaired, longhaired or rough coat). All of these types are called ‘Portuguese Podengo’ as a ‘breed,’ although none of these six types are interbred.

Wiley is a rough-coat Pequeno and four years old. I’m told converting dog-years into human-years isn’t that straightforward so I won’t even try, but the Pequeno variety has an average lifespan of approximately 15-17 years.

The Podengo is one of the world’s oldest dog breeds. It is a multi-sensory (sight, sound and scent) hound. They are believed to have first been brought to Portugal over two thousand years ago (one historical account goes back to as far as 700 B. C.) by Romans and Phoenicians, and according to a reputed pet website, “these primitive dogs have not changed much since ancient times”, flourishing in Portugal for centuries. Despite its uncertain origin, it is considered the country’s National Dog and has the distinction of being of being the symbol of the Portuguese Kennel Club (Clube Português de Canicultura or CPC).

A 10th-century Visigoth tomb decoration depicting a Podengo with a rabbit in its mouth now adorns the front façade of the 14th-century Cathedral of Tomar.

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The first written reference to these dogs hunting rabbits is in 1199 during the reign of Portuguese king Dom Sancho I.  From this date, there are many records relating to them as hunting dogs even being used in royal hunts of this nature.  The Portuguese Podengo however owes its popularity to the most humble people who embraced it as a hunting dog.

The etymology of Podengo is not so straightforward. But the word was used at least as early as the 11th century (in Latin texts) to refer to pack-hunting dogs. Other sources variously claim the word means “rabbit-hunting dog”, or “running hound”. Its origin could be Old Galician, or Old Portuguese, either from a pre-Roman substrate of Iberia, or from Suevic or Gothic tribal languages.

Carla Molinari, President of the Clube Português de Canicultura believes that the name comes from the Latin root ‘pede’ for foot, a reference to the dog’s light-footedness and running ability.

Going by the adorable features of a dog like Wiley, you really wouldn’t attribute a killer instinct to it. But appearances can be deceptive. The Podengo is a hunting (and killing, if the prey is manageable enough) machine.

Packs of the Portuguese Podengo Grande are typically used to hunt large game such as deer and wild boar; Médio for wild boar and rabbits; and the Pequeno for rabbits.

The Portuguese Podengo is believed to have accompanied the Portuguese explorers of the 15th and 16th centuries on their voyages and conquests. While the Pequeno was predominantly taken on account of its skill as ratter and mouser, and therefore was invaluable in ridding the ships of vermin and disease, and guarding food stores. The other sizes were useful for hunting when the crew came on land.

They would have been regular passengers on the Carreira da Índia (“India run”) undertaken by the Armadas da Índia (Portuguese India Armadas), the fleet of ships dispatched annually from Lisbon to Goa. It isn’t something that I’ve come across so far in my reading of the historical records. Perhaps they were deemed too insignificant to find mention?

So why isn’t the Podengo breed more widespread throughout the world? Well, remarkable similarities to the Podengo persist in many breeds found along the sea routes of the discoverers. And some sources suggest (ugh!) that the dogs, when they outlived their usefulness, ended up in the sailors’ cooking pots as well! So much for being man’s best friend!

Wiley of course made the trip first to Mumbai and then to Goa by air rather than by sea. Nevertheless, as he strained at his leash, trotting lightly through the streets of Old Goa, was there a sense of familiarity, of déjà vu, passed on through his DNA ancestry spanning several generations and centuries? Does is seem far-fetched to you?

The concept of “genetic memory” gets discussed a lot by psychologists and scientists today. Genetic memory is a memory present from birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience, and is incorporated into the genome over long spans of time. It is based on the idea that common experiences of a species become incorporated into its genetic code, not by a Lamarckian process that encodes specific memories but by a much vaguer tendency to encode a readiness to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli. Its proponents believe that human intelligence is the result of accumulated genetic memory. If this could hold true for humans, why not for dogs  as well?

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

The Psychopathology of Hate

“They’re all like that!” Are we all guilty of, at some point in our lives, having made such a sweeping generalization?

It could be something somewhat playful and seemingly harmless, like the endless memes on social media about gender differences. “Men are like this, women are like that.”

It gets much more sinister when opinions get entrenched about differences based upon anything, be it gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, or the “outsider”.

When this morphs into hatred, it can actually transform our brain as well. This was the subject of a recent article (31 October 2018) in the New York Times titled “The Neuroscience of Hate Speech” by a psychiatrist, Dr. Richard A. Friedman.

Dr. Friedman was reacting to the mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh on 27 October 2018 by 46-year old Robert Bowers who told police he “wanted all Jews to die”, and that “they [Jews] were committing genocide” to “his” people.

While neighbours and acquaintances described him as “normal” (one neighbor even said “The most terrifying thing is just how normal he seemed”), his trail on social media reveals a totally different picture. Here, he had hurled all sorts of abuses at the Jewish people, ranging from “children of Satan”, “an infestation”, to “filthy” and “evil.”

Does this sound familiar? Any of us who spends even a little time on Facebook or Twitter or other social media sites here in India will find such vitriol directed variously at women, Dalits,  people from minority faiths, the differently-abled, or those holding sexual orientations different from theirs, or anyone deemed “anti-national”, that very amorphous group.

It is mind-boggling how, under cover of cyber-anonymity, often using fake profiles, but sometimes not even this fig-leaf, the most hate-filled venom can be spewed with seeming impunity. And while the establishment can swing into action at the most innocuous posts devoid of any hatred but deemed “seditious”, the hatred of others is allowed to thrive and fester.

As Dr. Friedman says in his NYT article: “Of course, it’s difficult to prove that incendiary speech is a direct cause of violent acts. But humans are social creatures — including and perhaps especially the unhinged and misfits among us — who are easily influenced by the rage that is everywhere these days.”

It’s already happened, much further than anyone could have imagined. Nigeria has used current President of the US, Donald Trump’s threat (to open fire on the migrant caravan approaching the US southern border) to justify its own fatal shooting of rock-throwing protestors.

Three 2017 Polish studies by Soral, Bilewicz and Winiewski explored “the effects of exposure to hate speech on outgroup prejudice.” Their conclusion? “Frequent and repetitive exposure to hate speech leads to desensitization to this form of verbal violence and subsequently to lower evaluations of the victims and greater distancing, thus increasing outgroup prejudice.”

Part of the problem is the “normalization” of what is usually socially condemned behavior. A relevant example is the attitude towards lynchings or mass murder through ‘rioting’ here. It is disturbing to note how many, even within our own circle of acquaintances, otherwise “normal” people in every other respect, just brush this off: “These things happen from time to time. What can one do?”

Dr. Friedman in his NYT article also touches upon the effect of hate-mongering politicians (and we have our own home-grown counterparts here in India) on their supporters and those who are roused to a frenzy by their hate speech. He was responding to the attempted bombing of critics of Trump by “an ardent supporter.”

He cites another study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences which demonstrated that threatening language can directly activate the amygdala (the almond-shaped set of neurons located deep in the brain and shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions), making it hard for people to “dial down their emotions and think before they act.”

When Dr. Friedman asks whether Bowers and those implicated in the bombing attacks against critics of Trump were roused by the latter’s inflammatory, paranoid hate speech, it is worth looking at parallels closer to home.

In a paper titled “Us versus Them: Social Identity Shapes Neural Responses to Intergroup Competition and Harm”, Cikara, Bottvinick and Fiske discuss how distrust of an “out-group” is linked to anger and impulses toward violence. Not surprisingly, this is especially true when a society faces economic hardship and people view “outsiders” as competitors for their jobs. Again, this strikes a chord with us in India, where violence breaks out in one state targeting people from another state who are viewed as the “other” for precisely such reasons, and politicians take advantage of such feelings of vulnerability for electoral gain. This also explains the exaggerated paranoia towards Rohingya Muslims, stoked by almost rabid, hysterical television anchors of some irresponsible TV channels.

Cikara, psychologist and co-author of the above paper, said as much to Dr. Friedman: “When a group is put on the defensive and made to feel threatened, they begin to believe that anything, including violence, is justified.”

Trump, in dehumanizing immigrants (“These aren’t people; these are animals”) could have taken lessons from Adolf Hitler himself, who called Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and vast swathes of people from Eastern Europe “untermensch” (“sub-human”). The Hutu regime used similar language in the run-up to the 1994 Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi minority.

Thinking of a group of people as sub-human leads to little or no empathy for those people. Both these psychological conditions are conducive to violence. A call to violence by a rabble-rouser in such a tinderbox situation can result in mass violence on an industrial scale, as history has shown us. And when such violence is sanctioned by a higher power, it is easy to “rationalize” is as “merely obeying orders.”

Another co-author, psychologist Susan Fiske, in an article in the Greater Good Magazine, “Science-based Insights for a Meaningful Life”, writes: “Both science and history suggest that people will nurture and act on their prejudices in the worst ways when these people are put under stress, pressured by peers, or receive approval from authority figures to do so.” But although prejudice is hard-wired into our brains, “the good news is that we can still learn to override our prejudices and embrace difference.”

MRI brain imaging by British neuroscientists has shown that hatred activates the regions of the brain associated with aggression and the motor regions that would translate this aggression into action. “The hater may want to exercise judgment in calculating moves to harm, injure or otherwise extract revenge.” The cold-blooded logic and planning in these “calculated moves” surprised even the researchers.

Hatred

The findings (“The Neural Correlates of Hate”) are so specific and unmistakable that they might even have possible legal implications, for example in places where hate crimes face tougher sentences.

Hatred is more than just a runaway emotion; it is a pathological condition that can transform our brains, harm others immeasurably, and consume us as well, as inexorably as a cancer.

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

Remembering Fr. Bismarque

Three years have lapsed since the brutal murder of Fr. José Bismarque Desidorio Dias. His killers are still at large.

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The judicial process has so far not delivered justice by apprehending any of them, but one cannot help making the observation that one by one, those who stood to gain from having him out of the political and activist equation, are themselves being felled by various forms of incapacitating illness or being forced into political wilderness in a theatre of the absurd. Coincidence? Or Divine Retribution? I wouldn’t like to comment.

A senior politician who positively gloated so callously in the immediate aftermath of Fr. Bismarque’s murder, literally days later: “There is no rule that people should not die. People have to die, no?” is himself plagued by illness and betrayal from within his own ranks.

I guess there is “no rule” that politicians shouldn’t die a political death either. “People have to die, no?”

What would Fr. Bismarque have made of the surreal political impasse Goa has been thrust into? A headless government beset by fractious infighting among coalition partners and among individual MLAs and politicians; a complete absence of any coherent governance? And an impotent opposition? Just when one begins to think it can’t get any worse, it does.

It’s at times like these that I miss the optimism of Fr. Bismarque all the more. It was the strength of his conviction in the innate goodness that we all possess, that no matter how bad things are, it’s never too late to turn things around, that gave me hope, and I’m sure he did to so many of us.

Fr. Bismarque differed from many activists in that he realized the importance of being part of the political and electoral process in order to effect positive change. Not for him the ‘apolitical’ stance. He truly believed it was only possible to change the system from within, by being an active part of it. He didn’t buy into the pessimistic notion that politics necessarily has to be a dirty business, and that it would eventually sully even the most honest, upright man or woman due to the bargains and compromises that would need to be made along the way.

There are many even today who regard his approach as naïve or unrealistic, but given the mess we are in today, I think they might want to tone down their judgment. We have seen the folly of placing our trust and giving our vote to ‘national’ mainstream political parties. Whether one votes one or the other, it makes no difference as the candidates just frog-leap at will across political divides, scorning all of their own fervent electoral promises. And history has shown us that ‘national’ parties of whatever hue or flavour, controlled from on high, don’t really care about Goa’s interests, which always take a distant back seat to the interests of the party or its industrialist cronies.

The new political entrant in the last election, AAP (Aam Aadmi Party) wasn’t given even the benefit of a chance that other parties had been given when they first entered the fray. All sorts of reasoning were put forth in order to withhold a vote to them: “They’re too new and inexperienced” (Well, every party has to begin somewhere. It’s hard to have a track record unless one is first allowed on the track); “They’ll split the vote” (Actually they won’t, not if sufficient voters vote for them); “Beware of them; you don’t know who they are!” (Well, look what you got instead). All Goa has been left to repent at leisure. Whether or not AAP would have delivered is a moot point that could only have been answered if they had been given a chance in the first place. Goa has given third, fourth and fifth chances to absolute scoundrels and turn-coats, but couldn’t give a first chance to AAP. How will we vote the next time round? Will we ever learn?

‘Regional’ parties purporting to uphold ‘Goenkarponn’ sold those same Goenkars down the river in the some of the most shameful melodramatic backroom dealings in Goa’s history.

How different would our socio-political landscape have been had Fr. Bismarque been with us today? Is it pointless to indulge in such an exercise? What is certain is that he would have been actively opposed on all fronts to the various evils Goa’s politician-industrialist nexus has rained down upon us. Not for nothing did he earn the nickname ‘Flying Squad’, for the speed at which he was on hand the moment news of a fresh danger was revealed. Many other activists (and understandably so) focus their energies on a specific cause or geographic area; Fr. Bismarque was quite literally everywhere.

Many scoffed at his Kindness Manifesto as too philosophical, as empty platitudes out of sync with on-the-ground issues. But he was driving at something much deeper, much more revolutionary, which went to the core of our collective mindset. In his Manifesto, rather than another predictable list of promises, the, he was asking us to change, to treat each other, all living beings and the environment with Kindness. He asked us to pledge to “Be Kindness, live Kindness; to be Kind to ourselves, to others and to the environment.”

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This strong belief in our inherent limitless capacity for Goodness and Kindness, is something for which I will always remember Fr. Bismarque. And every time I think of him, I shall try to renew the pledge I made during his Cumbarjua campaign trail. If more of us also do this, his legacy will live on. Isn’t this what not just Goa, but the rest of our country and indeed the world needs right now, more than ever?

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Can we continue to ignore the reports of Madhav Gadgil, the fate Kerala recently suffered, the micro-plastics in our food chain due to the out-of-control plastic menace everywhere, the stark water shortage staring us in the face (while greedy politicians in the ruling dispensation and in the opposition, and their industrialist cronies attempt to compound the problem even further by restarting mining, which caused our environmental nightmare to start with)?  This whole “we-have-to-carry-on-because-jobs-depend-on-it” argument is a spurious one. If any industry from mining to casinos, harms a society or its environment, it should be called into question. We can find creative alternatives to livelihoods; we cannot find alternatives to the water we (and generations after us) need to drink, or the air we breathe, or the soil we grow our crops from. This is what Fr. Bismarque fought for so valiantly, and so should we.

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

Sharing a video interview with Fr. Bismarque Dias with me, six years ago:

 

We will love and remember you forever, Fr. Bismarque! We will never forget you. ❤

 

 

Colonel Bogey!

When was the first time you ever heard the Colonel Bogey march? If you’re a Don Bosco past pupil and from around my generation, it almost certainly was at the school march-past, played by the school brass band.

Whenever I think of a “march-past”, as if on cue, this tune starts playing in my head like a Pavlovian reflex. And vice versa; when I hear the Colonel Bogey march, I remember school and the march-pasts. I used to love participating in whole march-past shebang, the drills and the actual parade, just to be able to hear this tune being belted out with gusto by the school band, many of whose members were my own classmates. If the march-past ended while Colonel Bogey was playing and they had to end it abruptly, I used to really feel cheated. They played other marching ditties as well, but none (to me) as jaunty as this one. I can still picture Mestre Cota conducting the band in the porch area of the old Oratory building, as we marched past on the ground in front of it.

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I asked my band classmates what the tune was called, and seriously thought they were pulling my leg when they told me.

I used to be so envious of my band classmates; all I had was a measly violin and bow made of wood, horse-hair and strings, whereas they had shiny metal contraptions with convoluted tubing, complex valve mechanisms and keys. And their band could really pack a crash, bang and wallop that could drown out anything a bunch of strings could do.

The band project, if I’m not wrong, was the initiative of Mestre Santana Cota from Santa Cruz, a very versatile musician indeed. From my own personal recollection, I’ve heard him play the graceful pedal-propelled pump organ in the choir loft of the São Tomé chapel (which sadly sometime in the late 1970s was unceremoniously replaced by the electronic keyboard, a far cry from the delicious ground-vibrating sonority of its predecessor); I was also privileged to share a music-stand with him, playing violin for many a midnight Christmas mass and school operetta in the days of Fr. Bonifacio at Don Bosco; and of course he trained and conducted the wind band at Don Bosco (instructing each member to play their respective instrument, from flute to clarinet, saxophone, trumpet and French horn) and his native village of Santa Cruz.

The Don Bosco school band project was a wonderful after-school music education programme at a time when such terms had not yet gained currency. Looking back on the reasons for its success, there are several factors: a. The school authorities gave it their whole-hearted support. There was a dedicated band rehearsal room on the first floor of the boarding section, where the college section exists today. It also served as storage space for the instruments.  b. The band had a very good raison-d’être because there were opportunities galore for it to perform: in addition to march-pasts on school sports days etc, there were also major feasts, like the feast of Don Bosco, Mary Help of Christians, etc, and even if I remember right, after football matches c. The band members were largely boarders, although there were some day-scholars as well. This meant that there was complete control of practice schedules, and attendance at band practice was written into the after-school time-tables of those boarders in the band. You could only miss band practice if you were seriously ill; exams and the run-up to them didn’t affect music lessons, unlike now, where parents are known to take children off music lessons for a whole year, “to focus on their SSC” or HSSC or some other academic milestone. d. The most important reason, certainly, was the passion and dedication of Mestre Cota for music, his patience in teaching a motley group of boisterous boys of peri-pubertal age (no mean task, I can tell you! I have often watched their rehearsal sessions) for what must have been at best a modest salary, that sustained the school band for so many years and was the envy of other schools all over Goa. It was a labour of love for him.

The downside of a whole music education programme built and sustained by just one person as its linchpin of course meant that with his demise, it ground to a halt. It would be so wonderful to revive Mestre Cota’s initiative and take it to even greater heights.

But there are many learning points from that band project: If the parent organization (the school or children’s shelter) is really keen on music education, really gives it importance and sets aside protected time each day for it, and if it is led by competent, motivated and passionate teachers, the sky is the limit. And its continuity should be ensured by long-term, really forward-thinking planning.

The ‘Colonel Bogey March’ was composed in 1914 by British Army bandmaster Lieutenant Frederick Joseph Ricketts under the nom de plume Kenneth J. Alford, as service personnel at the time were not encouraged to have professional lives outside the armed forces.  Urban legend has it that the march took its name from a military man and golfer who whistled a characteristic two-note phrase, a descending minor third interval instead of shouting “Fore!” A descending minor third begins each line of the opening melody. Bogey is no a golfing term meaning “one over par.”

The march, in D flat major, is in rondo form, which means the opening ‘verse’ recurs, a total of three times, interspersed with two different contrasting ‘verses’: A-B-A-C-A. The B section is in the relative minor (B flat minor), while section C modulates to the subdominant major (G flat major) of the ‘home’ key of D flat major.

The march got a new lease of life during the Second World War, when its tune was set to lyrics basically making rude references to the unmentionables of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen Göring, Himmler and Göbbels.

It really entered popular culture after it featured in the 1957 British-American epic war film ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ directed by David Lean and which uses the historic setting of the 1942-43 construction of the Burma Railway by the Japanese, using prisoners of war.

After the film, it is often customary to whistle out the main tune even in performance.

It also seems to have ‘inspired’ Indian film composer S. D. Burman to use an adapted version of Colonel Bogey in the opening lines of the song ‘Yeh Dil Na Hota Bechara’ from the 1967 spy thriller heist film ‘Jewel Thief’ featuring Dev Anand and Vijayantimala.

The descending minor third at the start of each line is reversed into an ascending minor third, but the rhythmic meter of the initial melodic lines is the same as in Colonel Bogey, as is the march-like tempo.

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

‘The Gandhi Requiem’

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Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem was sung last month at the BBC Proms. War and Peace have been among its themes this year in view of the centenary of the end of the First World War. But I’m surprised that, although the BBC is wonderful at noting all major milestones, no mention was made of this work’s Gandhi connection during its broadcast, despite it being Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

I wrote about it for Scroll.in. Read the article by clicking here.