Beauty, Goodness, and above all Truth: The Life and Music of Fr. Bismarque Dias

The True, the Beautiful and the Good: these three, timeless ‘eternal verities’ have been acknowledged and extolled through humanity, in the East and West. In fact the Catholic Church teaches us that God Himself is Truth, Goodness and Beauty. Section 41 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “All living creatures bear a certain resemblance to God, most especially man, created in the image and likeness of God. The manifold perfections of creatures – their truth, their goodness, their beauty all reflect the infinite perfection of God.”

Few people I have encountered in my life reflected these three principles of Truth, Goodness and Beauty as radiantly as Fr. Bismarque Dias. I only got to know him in 2009, about a year after returning to Goa. From the very beginning I sensed that this was no ordinary priest, no ordinary man.

His love for nature, for the simple things in life, his appreciation of the fragility of our life-giving ecosystem, were quite transparent to anyone who met him even fleetingly.

My wife and I got involved in his election campaign for the Cumbarjua constituency in 2012, and will forever cherish being on his campaign trail, and contributing our tiny mite with poster design, social media blitzes, interviews and whatever press coverage we were able to garner. He may have lost the election, but he was up against the muscle and money power of his opponents (people we met in the constituency told us explicitly of being offered bribes and threats to vote against Fr. Bismarque), but even so, the result was a powerful message to the status quo: if an honest, upright independent candidate could get such popular support even though he had thrown his hat in the ring rather late, and with absolutely no strings attached in terms of financial patronage from any political party or corporate clout, then he could be a real force to reckon with the next time round.

It was Fr. Bismarque Dias who had given me hope that all was not lost for Goa; that we needn’t wring our hands at the seemingly downward spiral nosedive of corruption and greed and a total absence of moral values that our beloved land seems to be taking. This is something he always maintained: that we the people can turn things around. And this doesn’t have to be by antagonising anyone, be it a person, a group, a party, a consortium. We can engage even those who disagree with us, in dialogue. He really deeply believed this, and said this many times, in conversations, in speeches and in interviews. So despite the inept handling of the investigation into what seems increasingly to have been his gruesome murder, we should nevertheless not lose sight of his message.

He proved by living example that politics need not be a dirty game if you yourself are clean. And this alone is quite a radical thought that must have made, and still be making some “regular” politicians lose sleep at night. For if more people like Fr. Bismarque join the fray and by sheer weight of their numbers push the political debate towards honesty, transparency, accountability, and uprightness, towards never losing sight of the greater good, then it could be goodbye to the status quo and the lucre that comes from being the “usual” politician.

The other thing that moved me was Fr. Bismarque’s propagation of Kindness with a capital K, not only as a nice thing to do, but as his Election Manifesto, his election plank. Far from being an idealistic platitude, this is the very core of everything that he and every citizen with a conscience wants for Goa, for India, for our planet.

Fr. Bismarque’s Kindness Manifesto was a watershed in politics: instead of empty promises and tall claims, it begged forgiveness from the mother Earth for our transgressions against her and her children and living beings, and a pledge to protect both by “Being Kind, and Living Kind.”

Think about it: every social ill, from rampant mining to deforestation to sand mining, even to the garbage problem, the problem of speeding, drunk driving, the road traffic accident and death rate, the parking woes… all have at their root a basic lack of kindness, or courtesy, for one’s fellow human beings, for other living creatures, for the environment, for future generations of life on Earth.

So by reaching into our innate resources of kindness (for we all have this wondrous capacity within us), we will unerringly strive in the right direction, because our moral compass is pointing where it was meant to do. This makes sense at every level, from the microscopic to the cosmic.

Fr. Bismarque’s message presciently anticipated the core philosophy of our current Pope Francis’ revolutionary second encyclical “Laudato si” (subtitled ‘On Care for Our Common Home’), of 24 May 2015. In it, the Holy Father critiques consumerism and irresponsible development, laments environmental degradation and global warming and calls on all people of the world to take “swift and unified global action.”

Fr. Bismarque devoted and “gave” his life, in the most literal sense safeguarding our tiny state against precisely these: irresponsible development and environmental degradation.

Fr Bismarque Singing Crusader

It brings a tear to my eye to watch videos on Sudeep Dalvi’s page of Fr. Bismarque and the Musical Warriors, to “hear” as if he is still with us, sing and strum his guitar with such gusto, fervour and sincerity. One line in particular keeps ringing in my head: “Goenkara, sarke vaten choll”

Amen to that. Rest in eternal peace, dear Father. Your message is timeless, just like the Truth, Goodness and Beauty you radiated in our lives and consciousness. We will never forget you.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Magnnim tujea pasot, Padr. Bismarque!

2015-11-21 18.41.51

The emotional floodgates really opened for me when we spontaneously began the rosary in Konkani while awaiting our fate outside the Anjuna police station (after being rounded up and shoved into police vans even BEFORE any of us had even gathered or begun protesting).

Bismarque black flag

It suddenly struck me that the last time I had said three Hail Marys was with my mum the night of 5 November when news broke that Fr. Bismarque Dias had gone missing, and I told mum to pray with me that he would come to no harm. And now we were saying five decades for him, almost three weeks after his death (a horrible death by torture), and the tears just wouldn’t stop. We grieve you and miss you so much, Fr. Bismarque. But all our tears cannot bring you back.

Death and the Violin

Death has often been personified in art, literature and poetry. The most common image that comes to mind would be The Grim Reaper. But through a lot of history, a skeletal figure playing the violin, or indeed the violin (or fiddle) itself, has been the emblem of death. How and why is this?

The violin has long been seen as “the devil’s instrument”; the “devil as fiddler” theme crops up in folklore. The modern violin as we know it evolved in the 1500s, and when used as a folk instrument often accompanied dancing, which was frowned upon in the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. Dancing itself (and therefore the violin by association) was regarded as the “work of the devil”. In the Renaissance period, the violin as Death’s (or the Devil’s) accessory appears in paintings.

The seemingly superhuman skill required to play the violin to a virtuosic level led to the concept of having made a “pact or deal with the devil” (as in Goethe’s Faust and Mephistopheles). A famous case in point is Niccolò Paganini (1782-1840). Rumours abounded that he had sold his soul to the Devil, or indeed was Satan incarnate; even that the used the “guts of murdered women” to string his violin! There is no evidence that Paganini started these rumours, but he seems to have done little to dispel them. His career benefited from such rumours, as people flocked to hear and watch him, often paying huge sums of money. In England a children’s rhyme ran: “Who are these/Who pay five guineas/To hear a tune of Paganini’s? Pack o’ ninnies.”

But it was on account of these rumours, and the fact that he hadn’t received the last sacrament before his death (when he was offered it, Paganini felt it was premature, and he died a week later before a priest could be found), he was denied a Catholic burial in Genoa. It took five years and a Papal appeal to allow his body to be laid to rest appropriately.

Another virtuoso violinist-composer had a different association with the Devil: Giuseppe Tartini (1692-1770) apparently dreamt he had made a pact with the Devil for his soul. He then gave his violin to the Devil, and heard “a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, and played with great art and intelligence”. Upon waking, he tried in vain to write it all down, but even what he did remember was “the best I ever wrote”, which he called the “Devil’s Trill”, a concert favourite of violinists everywhere. True or not, it’s a good publicity story.

Saint-Saëns’ tone poem for orchestra Danse Macabre is based on an old French superstition: Death summons the dead from their graves every year on Halloween midnight, playing his fiddle (represented by solo violin in the tone poem, tuned down (scordatura) to play the ‘devilish’ tritone) as he does so. The skeletons (represented by xylophone) dance for him until dawn, and then return to their graves only to emerge the following year at the same time.

Gustav Mahler’s Fourth Symphony in its scherzo second movement also employed a solo violin with scordatura tuning, but with strings tuned higher than usual. It gives a ghostly hue to the representation of Freund Hein (“Friend Henry”), the skeletal German personification of death (invented by poet Matthias Claudius). Freund Hein also plays a “danse macabre” or Totentanz, (in this case Mahler’s scherzo movement) “tempting his flock to follow him out of this world.” Mahler’s inspiration for this was taken from and 1872 painting “Self-Portrait with Death playing the Fiddle” by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin.


It’s a haunting painting: the artist seems to be listening intently as the menacing, maniacally smiling skeletal figure of Death playing the violin whispers something in his ear. A bony hand grips the bow while it plays on one lone string, a reminder of “time running out”. Death seems to have “outplayed” Böcklin, who seems to realise that this self-portrait will “outlive” him, living on long after his death. The space is cramped, as if there is room just for Death and him, nothing else. Böcklin is flesh and blood as he paints, and we get a sense of this as he thrusts his palette “out of the painting” into our space, mixing paints almost in real time; but he will eventually be reduced to a skeleton himself. The rag in the painting that he used to wipe his brush seems to represent how Death will “wipe” us all out of existence.

Böcklin had become obsessed with Death after the tragic demise of his infant daughter Maria, and this must certainly have struck a chord with Mahler, who shared this preoccupation with Death. He lost eight siblings in their childhood, and lost his parents and sister in the space of one year; this obsession would only intensify in his later years, seeping increasingly into his music.

“The Devil went down to Georgia” is a fast-paced bluegrass song about the Devil’s unsuccessful attempt to steal the soul of a young man named Johnny, in a fiddle-playing contest. If the Devil wins, he gets Johnny’s soul; if he loses, Johnny gets a golden fiddle. Sounds like a terrible deal, if you ask me. Who’d want to play on a metal fiddle, gold or otherwise? Anyway, Johnny emerges triumphant, singing “Cause I told you once, you son of a gun, I’m the best that’s ever been”.

The melody (“Lonesome Fiddle Blues”) was originally written by American jazz, swing and bluegrass fiddler Vassar Clements, and adapted to the more popular song by the Charles Daniels band.

A thrilling sequel to the song features on Marc O’Connor’s album Heroes, with guest performances by Travis Tritt (the devil), Marty Stuart (Johnny) and with Johnny Cash as narrator. Johnny is now grown and still has his golden fiddle, and is challenged by the Devil to a rematch on account of Johnny’s “sinful pride”. It’s not clear who wins, but the line “Johnny’s still the best that’s ever been” seems to say it all.

(An edited version of this article was published on 15 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Answers please!

Fr Bismarque Dias


Before we all swallow the “asphyxiation due to drowning” story about the tragic end of our friend Fr. Bismarque Dias, and the truth also gets asphyxiated and drowned,

A few nagging questions:

1. How does a man who is known by so many of us to be a good swimmer, suddenly drown in waters he knew and loved all his life, on his own island, in his own backyard?

2. We who knew him, knew that he was not a drinker. A glass or two at the very most from my recollection, more as a social thing than for the drink itself. Why would he act so completely out of character and consume “15 beers”, or “most of two cartons of beer”, as the press almost gleefully proclaimed at the drop of a hat?

3. What sort of investigative journalism is this that takes the statement of suspects and passes it off as fact? Why was there not even a murmur of scepticism in the report, about how things do not really seem to add up?

4. Does anyone really drink 20 beers in one night? I’d like to meet the person who does. I’ll bet he’s not a priest who spent all his life leading by example, a beacon for the youth and loved by them for his simple, vice-free existence.

5. We are being actively encouraged to believe that Fr. Bismarque Dias somehow brought about his own demise by reckless actions that we all know are completely out of character for him. Who is foisting this upon us and why?

6. Fr. Dias not returning home to dinner as he had said he would (Herald, 8 November), is also mysterious. He was not the sort of person to cause unnecessary anguish to his mother or the rest of his beloved family. How come he didn’t call to say there was a change of plan?

7. Who are these ‘two boys’? We as the public have the right to know. We are being told they are village boys, another report says that one is a ‘migrant’, another a ‘local’. Why the mystery? How does it hamper the investigation just to know who these mysterious ‘boys’ are, and why everyone seems to be taking their version as fact, as the gospel truth?

8. We’ve all been on picnics. If one of your party is missing, do you just assume that that person has ‘gone home’, and do nothing about it until the next morning? Especially after you ‘knew’ that person had gone into the water after ‘drinking’, which is what the ‘boys’ themselves are saying? Why such a long delay in reporting someone ‘missing’?

9. Why is the police not finding these holes in their story, and why are not the ‘boys’ at least provisionally being regarded as murder suspects until exonerated by forensic evidence?

10. If it is really “asphyxiation due to drowning”, could we have a little more to corroborate this? It certainly doesn’t tally with the statements of those interviewed on Prime Goa Channel who clearly stated they saw injuries and bleeding from the groin and genitals, and evidence of a blow to the head.

Answers, please.

The end of “The best of All Possible Worlds”: The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake, Voltaire’s Candide and Bernstein’s operetta


What a difference a day can make! This year, 1 November (All Saints’ Day) marked the 260th anniversary of the 1755 ‘Great’ Lisbon earthquake, one of the deadliest earthquakes in history, measuring an estimated 8.5-9 on the Richter scale. With its subsequent fires (many of them starting from church candles lit for All Saints’ Day) and a tsunami, it almost totally devastated Lisbon and surrounding areas. Its tremors were felt throughout Europe, as far as Finland and North Africa, according to some even to Greenland and the Caribbean, and recent evidence shows the tsunami waves might have reached the Brazilian coast.

Along with the staggering loss of human lives, much of the city’s artistic, music and literary legacy was irretrievably lost with the destruction especially of the 70,000-volume royal library. “Bury the dead and take care of the living” was the advice of prime minister Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo (later to be known as the Marquês de Pombal) to his king D. José I. Lisbon was cleared of debris on a war footing, and a new, ‘perfectly ordered’ city, with big squares, rectilinear large avenues and wide streets was built. The ‘Pombaline’ buildings were among the first seismically protected constructions in Europe.

The earthquake had a seismic effect also on prevailing beliefs and philosophy. The fact that it had struck on a holy day was seen by some as a manifestation of divine wrath, although, perhaps tellingly, Lisbon’s red-light district in the Alfama suffered little harm. The earthquake shook the foundations of the European ‘Age of Enlightenment’, and left a deep impression on the French writer-philosopher Voltaire. In addition to a 180-line “Poem on the Lisbon disaster” (Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne) written soon after, he published in 1759 his magnum opus, the satirical novella ‘Candide, ou l’Optimisme’ (Candide or, The Optimist), which has as its basis the Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years’ War. In both works, Voltaire rejects the philosophy of theodicy, a term coined by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz in his assertion that the actual world is the “best of all possible worlds”, thus attempting to reconcile the presence of evil and suffering in the world with an omni-benevolent God. In the words of German philosopher, sociologist and composer Theodor Adorno, “the earthquake of Lisbon sufficed to cure Voltaire of the theodicy of Leibniz”. In the novella, Candide is a student of Baron Pangloss (who is a self-proclaimed follower of Leibniz) and tries to apply his mentor’s thinking to events such as the Lisbon earthquake but eventually fails, thus being ‘painfully cured’ of his optimism. The book created a scandal, and was banned but became a best-seller nevertheless. A historical lesson perhaps, on the futility of bans.

Other thinkers influenced by the calamity were Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who felt the high mortality was due to dense populations in cities, and argued for a more naturalistic way of life; and Imannuel Kant, whose book on the subject is regarded as a milestone in seismology.

But the forerunner in seismology was the Marquês de Pombal himself, who, in addition to toiling at Lisbon’s reconstruction, also sent out a questionnaire to every parish in the country, with key questions on the chronology of local events and scale of the destruction. The responses are archived in the Torre do Tombo, the national historical archive, and present-day scientists have been able to reconstruct the event from this data.

Voltaire’s satire provided the inspiration two centuries later for Leonard Bernstein’s eponymous operetta. Although it failed to create a stir at its 1956 premiere, it rests among his many successful stage works today. Its overture has earned a place in the orchestral repertoire, one of the most frequently performed orchestral compositions by a 20th century composer. It incorporates tunes from four songs from the operetta, starting with “The Best of All Possible Worlds”. The New York Philharmonic paid tribute to their Laureate Conductor Bernstein by playing this overture without a conductor at a 1990 memorial concert, and it is a tradition they observe ever since.

What effect did the 1755 Lisbon earthquake have on Goa? Goa may not have felt its ground tremors, but it received its aftershocks in other ways. When the Marquês de Pombal instructed the Governor of Goa D. José Pedro de Câmara (1774-1779) to develop Pangim as the new capital, his newly-reconstructed Lisbon with its broad and spacious roads in grid pattern and large squares, became the template for Pangim (today Panaji).

The Marquês de Pombal had shown quick decisive action in the country’s worst crisis and D. José I fell increasingly under his sway. In the reforms initiated by him (Pombaline reforms), he abolished slavery in Portugal and her colonies in India. During his tenure, the Inquisition (autos-da-fé) was suppressed. The Marquês could not have wielded such authority had he not proved his mettle in the aftermath of 1 November 1755.

Pombal gained even more favour with D. José I after his ruthless backlash at the nobility after a failed assassination attempt upon the king in 1758. Pombal took this as an opportunity also to diminish the power of the clergy. His anti-Jesuit campaign at home in Portugal also saw the expulsion of the order from Goa into British India, with the eventual establishment of the many Jesuit-run schools and colleges that dot India today.

Other Pombaline reforms regarding education, employment and race relations (his 1761 decree and 1774 instruction) also achieved fruition in Goa.

D. José I’s daughter and eventual successor D. Maria I on the other hand, disliked Pombal intensely; the very mention of his name could induce a fit of rage. She issued one of the first restraining orders in history against him. A devout Catholic, she was opposed to his expulsion of the Jesuits. Upon ascending the throne, she removed all his political powers and reversed most of his reforms. Some of these actions indirectly contributed to the revolt of 1787 in Goa.

(An edited version of this article was published on 8 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Have Instrument, Will Travel?

When I left to work and study in England in 1998, my biggest source of anxiety was my violin. It is no Strad or Guarneri, but to me, it is a precious heirloom. I worried, not so much about taking it with me out of India, but about the questions I’d be asked upon bringing it back into India. It could be misconstrued as an overseas purchase, and I’d perhaps then be unfairly required to pay customs duty on it. I therefore tried to persuade immigration officials in Mumbai to document that I was taking it out of the country, but they steadfastly refused to do this. So it was a huge relief that I was not accosted when I returned home a decade later.

My concerns might seem a tad paranoid, but such situations keep cropping up. I was reminded of this when The Strad, the premier monthly music magazine for the string music world reported recently that Russian customs officials had seized Czech Philharmonic Orchestra Josef Špaček’s violin (an 1855 Jean-Baptiste Vuillaume) as he was trying to leave their country. They alleged that he had failed to fill out proper documentation for the instrument when he entered Russia. Apparently there has been a spate of precious instruments leaving Russia in place of cheaper ones brought in. Špaček understandably refused to travel without his Guillaume, and the story ends well, as the paperwork was eventually sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction. It nevertheless created a storm in the music world, as musicians fly around the world all the time with their instruments, and this now adds yet another perplexing dimension to the issue of travel.

Cellists are routinely penalised for carrying their instrument on board the aircraft and not checking it into the hold. It is now standard practice for them to buy an extra seat just for their instrument, which raises costs for everyone concerned, from the musicians themselves to the impresarios needing to pay their expenses for performing on tour.

I have seen amateur cellists travel with soft cases and then try to cram their cellos into overhead bins, but not all airlines allow even this, and the risk of damage is high.

One cellist lost her job in an orchestra for failing to carry her own instrument on tour, as she worried about possible damage when it was checked into the hold.

Prejudice against cellists can take bizarre forms even on land. A Hong Kong music student was threatened with a fine for carrying ‘oversized luggage’ on the city’s Mass Transit Railway. Such incidents are on the rise, with all ‘oversize’ instruments under suspicion. In South-East Asia, the guzheng (Chinese zither) faces this discrimination, and I am sure sitars, tanpuras and veenas must be difficult to travel with as well, in India.

Two months ago, double-bassist Karl Fenner had his instrument wrecked by SouthWest Airlines.

In 2008, Canadian musician Dave Carroll had his $3500 Taylor guitar broken by baggage handlers’ rough treatment when he flew United Airlines. He had checked in his guitar because of the difficulty with getting bulky instruments as carry-on luggage. When United Airlines reacted indifferently to his loss, he responded with a song and music video “United Breaks Guitars” that quickly went viral, with 150,000 views in a day and 15 million at last count in August 2015. United suffered a terrible fall in its reputation and its stocks. The successful campaign (now a trio of protest songs and videos) spawned Carroll’s book, “United Breaks Guitars: The Power of One Voice in the Age of Social Media.”

Last year, a Swiss youth orchestra were denied access onto a Singapore Airlines flight, not even allowing violins and violas as carry-on baggage. Another nightmare with checking in instruments apart from damage is the airlines sending them on to the wrong destination, or having them arrive too late to play a scheduled concert.

The other issues with travel are theft and loss. On the two occasions that violinist Hadar Rimon performed (and marvellously at that!) in Goa, I was struck by how she wouldn’t let her instrument out of her sight for even a second. There are enough historical precedents to warrant her watchfulness. The story of the brazen theft of the great violinist Bronislaw Huberman’s ‘Gibson’ Stradivarius at Carnegie Hall, no less, in 1936 is well-known in the music world. The story is stranger than fiction, but suffice it to say it surfaced nearly four decades after Huberman’s death in 1947. It is now in the more-than-capable hands of Joshua Bell.

Last September, the principal violist of the London Symphony Orchestra Edward Vandenspar accidentally forgot his ₤300,000 antique instrument and two bows, each worth ₤35,000 on a London train. Had it not been for CCTV on the train and the promptness of the British Transport Police, the story might not have had such a happy ending. Another London musician Zami Jalil, was not so lucky, when last June a London cabbie made off with his violin, viola and two bows, worth about ₤11,000.

I have an absent-minded musician friend who forgot a borrowed violin on a Mumbai train, and luckily retrieved it amid high drama, chasing after the train filmi style by road to get on it a few stops later. I also know of another who never got back his violin after forgetting it on a train in South India.

But surely pianists can’t have travel woes. They don’t travel with their instrument, do they? Well, not most of them: the great pianist Vladimir Horowitz took his Steinway concert grand piano on his historic 1986 tour of the USSR. András Schiff frequently tours with his exquisite 1921 ‘Wilhelm Backhaus’ Bechstein piano. Great pianists can literally command such an extravagance, as the transportation costs are huge.

The downside can also be huge, as Krystian Zimerman found to his chagrin, when US customs officials at New York’s JFK airport, in their post-9/11 heightened paranoia, confiscated his concert grand piano, and then proceeded to destroy it — just because they felt “the glue smelled funny.” Not funny enough to make Zimerman laugh, though.

(An edited version of this article was published on 1 November 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Tale of Two Ballerinas: Misty and Michaela

I can recollect only one instance where western classical ballet was danced by a whole (although modest in size, obviously for logistic reasons) corps de ballet in Goa: it was a visiting troupe from the erstwhile Soviet Union sometime in the 1980s. It is a world we have little contact with, and more is the pity.

In the ballet world, two names are in the news lately: Misty Copeland and Michaela DePrince. Both are viewed as “black” ballerinas in a historically “white” art form, with the odds heavily stacked against them for this unfair perception, and nevertheless rising to the top of their profession despite this.

Misty Copeland (born 1982) describes her experience in her memoir “Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina”: “Ballet has long been the province of the white and wealthy. Our daily toe-crushing exercises make pointe shoes as disposable as tissues, but they can cost as much as $80 a pair. I came from a family that didn’t always have enough food to eat, let alone money to spend on a hobby, and it wasn’t until I was 13 years old that I could even take my first ballet class. Most of my dance peers had grown up immersed in the arts, putting on their first tutus not long after they learned to talk. They had summered in Europe, while I didn’t get my first passport until I was 17. Their families had weekend homes. I had spent part of my adolescence living on the floor of a shabby motel with my single mom.

But I also stood out in another, even more profound, way. I was a little brown-skinned girl in a sea of whiteness.” When at 19 she was promoted to American Ballet Theatre’s corps de ballet, she felt “constantly judged” by the other dancers and even some of the instructors. When due to puberty her weight increased and her body began to fill out making her breasts fuller, she was diplomatically told that she needed to “lengthen”, “just so that you don’t lose your classical line.” Nutritionist advice was suggested, but at her own cost, something she couldn’t afford in New York.

“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,” she writes. It worked. “They came to see things my way, that my curves are part of who I am as a dancer, not something I need to lose in order to become one.”

Misty Copeland

Copeland was up against a racial stereotype, that black people somehow do not possess the ‘physiognomy’ required of western classical ballet. I was horrified to hear a similar statement made at a prestigious music conference, that Indian children could not start learning to play stringed orchestral instruments as early as their South-East Asian counterparts, because “their physiognomy is different”! Such absurd assertions fly in the face of any scientific evidence, but are still quite deep-rooted. I challenged the person who said this, but he was unmoved.

This June, Copeland became the first African-American woman to be promoted to principal dancer in the American Ballet Theatre’s 75-year history.

Michaela DePrince is an even more “unlikely ballerina”. The life story of this 20-year old reads like a film script, and it is not surprising that MGM this year acquired the movie rights to DePrince’s own book “Taking Flight: From War Orphan to Star Ballerina”. Born to a Muslim family (her birth-name is Mabinty Bangura) in Sierra Leone, she was orphaned at 3 in its civil war; her father was shot by rebels and her mother died from starvation. In the orphanage where she was taken to by her uncle, she was called “devil’s child” as she suffered from vitiligo. Salvation then literally “blew” into her life, a magazine swept by the breeze to the orphanage gate, with a “fairy-like creature”, a white ballerina in pink tutu, on its cover. “I’d never seen anything like that before, so I took the cover off and put it in my underwear because I had nowhere else to put it… I kept the picture with me every day until I got adopted. It kept me going and believing and looking forward to something, because I was going through so much at the time. I thought I was just worth nothing and nothing’s going to happen. This person in the photograph symbolized hope for me.”

Her one friend, a kind teacher who explained the picture to her, was hacked to death by rebels before DePrince’s eyes, and she narrowly escaped a similar fate. An American Jewish couple adopted her and took her to the US, where she began realising her dream. She encountered discrimination too: at eight, she was told she couldn’t play Marie in The Nutcracker because “America’s not ready for a black girl ballerina,” and a teacher said that “black dancers weren’t worth investing money in”.

Michaela DePrince in Black Swan, Photo by Rachel Neville_4(1)

Today, she is the only dancer of African origin in the Dutch National Ballet, Amsterdam, having joined the company last year. Once labelled “devil’s child” and perceived as unsightly, she was featured in a two-page spread in Glamour magazine’s August issue. This year, she finally traced the dancer on the magazine cover who inspired her: French prima ballerina Magali Messac, now retired, and a meeting is in the offing. “Michaela’s story—the magic of it, but equally the hard work and belief in her dream—is remarkable,” says Messac in a press interview. “She will inspire other young girls to dream high and believe in themselves.”

This is true of both Copeland and DePrince. Both have made history, defying overwhelming odds and demeaning stereotypes to get where they are today. Neither succumbed to the notion that western classical dance was “alien to their culture”, whatever that might mean. Copeland and DePrince are role models, “opening the doors for others”, amply proving that race, genetics, and geographic location have nothing to do with the ability to excel in anything.

Ultimately, what makes all the difference is the quality of teaching, how early it is imparted, and how avidly it is desired and imbibed by the recipient. Nothing else matters.

(An edited version of this article was published on 25 October 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Cycling and Music: Pump and Circumstance

  Too few of us cycle either as a means of transport or for sport today. In my school days, bicycles choked the stands along the sides of my school building, Don Bosco, and the school ‘run’ involved hordes of school-children and parents pedalling to and fro.

I still cycle in the ‘flat’ portions of the city, which allows me to get a lot of work done without parking hassles, and it is good exercise. And when a steady pace and rhythm has been set, I often find a tune cropping up in my head to go with it. There is something about the regularity of the pedalling, its ‘cyclicity’, that leads one to think of music. The tunes that come to my mind are not my own, but it is not difficult to imagine how it would stimulate a composer.

And this is precisely the case with British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). If one goes to his birthplace museum in Worcester, one would find upstairs in his ‘Hobbies’ room, memorabilia from this abiding pastime of his. You will see pictures of him as a distinguished gentleman, kitted out in bowler hat or flat cap, and in tweeds and leather gloves (yes, gloves were recommended gear!), and sporting his trademark ‘handle-bar’ moustache, and holding his prized possession, a Royal Sunbeam bicycle. Ever a lover of wordplay and the cryptic, he named it ‘Mr. Phoebus’, the synonym in Greek for Apollo, god of light or the Sun, a reference to “Sunbeam”.


Incredibly, the bicycle as we know it today is only about a century and a quarter old. The Dandy horse (1817), a “walking machine” which for the first time put two wheels in tandem, led in the 1860s to the velocipede (with the addition of a crank shaft and pedals). Josef Strauss, son of the famous ‘waltz king’ Johann Strauss II wrote a Velocipede Polka in its honour. A decade later saw the “penny-farthing” (a reference to the huge inequality between the front and rear wheels) and then the “golden age of bicycles” in the 1880s, with the Rover bicycle and its brilliant idea of attaching a chain and pedal to the rear wheel. The bicycle became much more accessible, although still expensive. It would be really interesting to learn when the bicycle first entered Goa, and whether it caused a stir. Did it arrive early enough to be an aristocratic pursuit, or later on, when it was more affordable?

Anyway, back to Elgar. He was bitten by the bug very quickly. His younger lady friend, school headmistress Rosa Burley wrote: “In the summer of 1900 I went cycling with some cousins to Scotland where we had a thrilling time which was duly reported to Edward [Elgar] by letter. The result was that when I returned to Malvern I found that he had bought a bicycle which he had been taught to ride by Mr. Little of Birchwood and on which at the first opportunity he wobbled round to The Mount with the suggestion that I should go for a ride with him.”

“Mr. Little” Henry Little, was the local squire and Elgar’s landlord. Cycling was so much in its infancy then that one could actually sign up for cycling lessons! And the lessons must have been quite funny to watch. Elgar wrote some years later to his publisher friend August Jaeger (whom he would immortalise as the famous ‘Nimrod’ in his Enigma Variations): “The best way to learn to bike is to have a good strong strap around your waist & let your coacher grab that: that’s how I learnt”.

Elgar spent ₤21, 11 shillings from his ₤200 commission for his choral masterpiece ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ to buy Mr. Phoebus, a tidy sum, equivalent to buying a little car today. And although he got off to a wobbly start, he would more than recover his investment, bicycling thousands of miles through the Malvern Hills, and documenting his routes in red on maps that are on display at the birthplace museum, although his bicycles have sadly vanished.

However, cycling for Elgar was also a social activity. He enjoyed female companionship, and cycling allowed him to spend lengthy periods of time, often entire days in the company of single attractive young women without raising eyebrows. Some of these companions creep into his compositions, notably Dorabella or Dora Penny (Variation 10 in the Enigma), who would cycle long distances from Wolverhampton to Malvern, to spend time with Elgar. We have already seen how a male cycling companion Jaeger also found mention (Variation 9) in the same work. Variation 3 pays tribute to Oxford don and friend Richard Baxter Townshend, who Elgar writes of as a rather idiosyncratic cycling buddy, on one occasion inviting him for a ride, and then cycling far ahead, but thanking him at the end for a lovely outing! He would cycle through town constantly ringing his bell as he was a little deaf and perhaps assumed that it made sense t let others know of his presence in case they were deaf as well. Elgar uses plucked strings and their woodwind doublings to depict his bicycle bell.

Elgar was a fair-weather cyclist, getting on his bike only during ‘cycling season’, from March to October. He wouldn’t venture out in the rain, but on a good day, his outdoor excursions must inevitably have influenced his composing. Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Mahler and so many others took walks in the countryside to commune with nature, but Elgar was exposed to the elements on his bicycle. Beethoven carried a notebook for his sketches and ideas, but Elgar composed in his head, often even while having a conversation. He would then cycle home and write it down. Cycling came into his life at the right time, offering him outdoor respite from composing Gerontius. His ‘cycling works’ (works conceived and worked out on his bike) include his first symphony, his oratorios The Apostles and The Kingdom, his Introduction and Allegro for strings, and of course the Enigma Variations. The inspiration for the majesty and grandeur, the scale and scope of his music can be understood by taking in the vistas he would have encountered on his bicycle in the Malverns, and one can ‘hear’ his exhilaration whooshing through the country lanes in his Introduction and Allegro.

Cycling became less important in Elgar’s life for all-too-familiar reasons: more traffic (especially his London years), the convenience of the motor-car especially when travelling with family, and advancing age.

But let that not deter us. We can still get on our bikes, perhaps with Queen’s ‘Bicycle Race’ ringing in our head. Ring-a-ding ding! Safety first though. Let’s spare a thought for French composer Ernest Chausson who died instantly on hitting a brick wall riding downhill.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 October 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Life lessons from Frank Huang

In 2013, I wrote a piece “Full circle with the New York Philharmonic”, where I described my (and the nation’s) excitement at the visit of the New York Philharmonic with Zubin Mehta at its helm to India in September 1984. I had just gained admission to medical school that July and begged my parents to let me go to one of the Bombay concerts. I had until then not ever heard any orchestra perform live, let alone one of the world’s unquestionably greatest orchestras. My relatives magically got me a ticket to one of the three concerts, no mean feat even today where visiting orchestras are concerned. 

It was my first encounter with the New York Phil’s ‘new’ concertmaster (he had been appointed in 1980) Glenn Dicterow, whom I met backstage. I’ve been lucky to hear the New York Philharmonic in London a few times during my decade in the UK. I’ve heard increasingly about Dicterow’s reputation as a pedagogue, from my musician friends on both sides of the Atlantic. And 28 years later in 2012, when I visited the US as part of an Indian delegation of musicians and people interested in music education invited by the US State Department, I braved post-Hurricane Sandy winds to hear the orchestra at their Avery Fisher Hall residence, and among the concerts I went to, I was incredibly fortunate to hear them play Brahms’ Double Concerto, with Dicterow as one of the two soloists, especially since he had announced earlier that year he wished to step down as concertmaster to concentrate more on teaching.

And now, in with the new. Last month, the orchestra announced that Frank Huang would be taking Dicterow’s place as concertmaster. Such positions are not filled lightly. In an interview to the New York Times, the New York Philharmonic’s music director Alan Gilbert explained: “The concertmaster, more than any other member, really shapes the persona of the orchestra…..I’ve made a lot of appointments, but this is obviously the most crucial.”

frank huang

The story of Frank Huang’s life trajectory gives us pause for thought.

He was born in Beijing China to musician parents: his father a pianist, mother a violinist. When he was two, they left him in the care of his paternal grandparents so they could go to the US to further their music education. He joined them in Houston at the age of seven. Five years with fawning, indulgent grandparents had ‘spoiled’ him to an extent. Huang describes himself as a ‘wild kid’ when he arrived in the US. Now he suddenly had to live by bed times and school times.

His mother started him off on violin lessons at once. Like many seven-year olds, it was not an easy undertaking. He confesses, “I never understood why it was important when I was little – I did not love music the way I do now……There were some years when I was close to giving up on the violin. Even though I was technically good at the instrument, I never felt it was something I could not live without.”

But his parents’ ‘encouragement’ (perhaps a polite term for ‘nagging’ and ‘keeping up the pressure to practice’) kept him going through the confused, turbulent years through to adulthood.

Huang was an “outdoorsy sort of kid”. “I loved sports, and violin doesn’t go very well with any of that stuff, especially basketball, which was my favourite, because you can jam your fingers and get hurt.”

But – and this is the important thing that parents and children must realise — it got better and easier with time: “Gradually, over the years, when I learned more and more about how to get a good sound, when it wasn’t horrible to hear myself, it got a little easier”.

So: learning points? Even though at seven, Huang had a relatively “late” start into music (if you read the biographies of many musicians, quite a few of them began at four or five, in exceptional cases even earlier) the constancy of his music instruction after that obviously yielded fruit. Contrast this with the average age our children take up an instrument; it is usually much later. The entry age of admission at the Kala Academy is eight. Precious years are lost, during which we have the most prodigious learning capacity we will ever have in our lives. In early childhood our rapidly-morphing brain is so malleable that neuroscientists call it ‘plastic’, having the ability to sculpt itself into the perfect vehicle for learning new things from language to music. This is essentially the underlying principle (coupled with nurturing with love) for the Suzuki ‘method’. “Genius is no more than childhood recaptured at will”, wrote the French poet Charles Baudelaire in the 1860s. Neuroscience today would back him up substantially.

The other point is the quality of teaching Huang received from childhood. After his mother Lilan Huang, he was tutored by violin pedagogue Fredell Lack, who remembers Huang as a “sweet kid”, an “amazing talent”( he performed as soloist with the Houston Symphony aged eleven!), with absolute pitch and a remarkable memory. But as Lack emphasised, ‘talent’ alone is just not enough; Huang stuck with it, in contrast to other kids not willing to practice as hard. After Lack, he went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Music with Donald Weilerstein, and then with Robert Mann at the Juilliard, New York.

It is unfair to compare Goa with Houston, Cleveland or New York, but the general level of pedagogy in India lags far behind even our Asian neighbours, notably China. And there has perhaps never been a better time in our history to address this seriously. Our kids do not lack for ‘talent’ or potential, but we need to nurture this with the right milieu and first-rate teaching.

The last, very topical, point is that Huang, being Chinese-born, and by definition a ‘migrant’, has risen to the level of concertmaster of one of his host country’s finest orchestras. Commendable no doubt, but there is the simultaneous irony that the marginalised sections of the US population (native Americans, blacks and Hispanics) are conspicuous by their relative absence in music and other spheres in their own country, while migrants to the US achieve so much more in less than a generation. If every child across the socio-economic spectrum, whether in the US or here, could receive the same nurturing, encouragement and love, the world would be a much better place.

(An edited version of this article was published on 11 October 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)


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