Bowie, Rickman and Classical Music

Both were English, and at the top of their profession. Both died aged 69, within days of each other from cancer this month.

David Bowie of course is an icon: singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, painter and actor. But his connection with classical music is not that well-known.

David Bowie cello

What do you give your seven-year old son for a Christmas present? It’s a question I’ll have to deal with this Christmas, and it will probably be a book, or a toy. But if you’re David Bowie, the answer was quite simple: you take on the narrator’s part in Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. The music was performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, with Eugene Ormandy conducting. The music album was released in 1978 on the RCA Red Seal label. Bowie was signed on almost as a last-minute choice, as both Alec Guinness and Peter Ustinov had been offered the part and turned it down.

The album crept to 136 on the US Pop Albums chart. Rolling Stone magazine in its review described Bowie’s contribution as “engaging and benevolent” and that he had “found his most charming guise since Hunky Dory [Bowie’s much acclaimed fourth album]”.

It really is a remarkable recording, and can still be found online for those interested. Bowie’s understated elegant style is a delight, and the lush sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra makes it a real winner. The album was released on vinyl LP, and has on the flip side Benjamin Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. The record was specifically geared to “introduce children to the sounds of the individual instruments in the symphony orchestra”, to quote verbatim from the sleeve notes, and it succeeds in this objective admirably. One can well imagine a teenager in the 1970s wanting to listen to this record because his/her pop idol Bowie was on it. Perhaps it was a good thing Guinness and Ustinov were not interested, after all.

The album invites inevitable comparisons with the more recent version of Peter and the Wolf with Sting as narrator, and Claudio Abbado conducting the Chamber Orchestra of Europe (1991). This is video as well of course, and I am still a fan of this recording, but having now listened to Bowie, I find my loyalty in question. The Bowie recording was re-released at Christmas 2013 on CD, with another bonbon, Tchaikovksy’s Nutcracker suite.

Bowie’s music became the unlikely muse for American composer Philip Glass. When commissioned to write a symphonic cycle, his very first symphony (1991) was inspired by music from Bowie’s eleventh album “Low” (1977). “Low” was written at a difficult time in Bowie’s life, when he was trying to shake off a cocaine habit. The title is believed to be at least partly a reference to Bowie’s “low” moods during the album’s genesis. The album cover has a profile picture of Bowie under the title, a clever pun on “low-profile”.

 

Glass, in a video conversation with Bowie, describes his composition as a “symphonic homage to a very important record at the time, a record that went completely beyond the niceties and categories of pop music and pointed in a different direction.”

Glass’s three-movement symphony takes one Bowie theme for each movement. The outer movements (“Subterraneans” and “Warszawa”) are inspired by tracks that feature on the original 1977 album, while the central movement “Some Are” uses thematic ideas from a bonus track in the 1991 CD release of “Low”.

To those interested, I would recommend listening to the three back-to-back, first to the original Bowie and then to what Glass does with the “material”, as he calls it. It is a very accurate tribute. Bowie, in his turn admits that he was influenced very much by Glass’ music while writing “Low”.

One hears, in addition to Bowie and Glass, the imprint of Aaron Copeland as well as the repetitive structures and rhythms of Indian music. Glass had worked in the 1960s with Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha, which had a profound effect on his musical thinking.

In the video conversation, Glass comments “People think of pop music and classical music as if these are fixed categories. Well, actually the people that work in these fields… ” he trails off as Bowie, nodding in agreement completes his thought: “… very rarely feel the confines of that.” Glass continues: “It’s more fluid than that. To me, a composer who works in, let’s say, concert music who isn’t aware of what his contemporaries, his colleagues are doing, is just out of touch with the world”.

As if to prove this point, classical guitarist Rupert Boyd who performed in Goa recently, acknowledges the influence of David Bowie upon him: “Whenever I’ve been asked which living person I’d most like to meet, I’ve always answered David Bowie. I hoped that one day I’d bump into him at a bar in the East Village, and have a chat over a beer. Hunky Dory & Ziggy Stardust have been soundtracks to my life, and are two of the albums I’ve listened to most often. I listened to Blackstar [Bowie’s final album, recorded while he was battling cancer] a few days ago, and at the time, now ironically, was startled by how full of life he sounded. I listened again today, and wept over the track Lazarus. “This way or no way, you know I’ll be free”. I just can’t imagine singing those words, knowing this would be it. It is the role of art and the artist in society to help us understand life and mortality, but to both so secretly, yet publicly, sing about his own illness is heartbreaking. Lazarus. The title says it all. R.I.P. David Bowie”

Glass returned to Bowie for “material” in his fourth symphony, subtitled “Heroes” (1996). Its six movements are symphonic reworkings of themes by Glass, Bowie and David Eno (from their 1977 album “Heroes”).

Alan Rickman has a less direct connection with music. But he starred as Judge Turpin in the film adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s musical, “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”. He also features in a song by Alan Leonard titled “Not Alan Rickman”. He was Master of Ceremonies announcing the various instruments in Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells II” (1992). He recites a Shakespearean sonnet on the album “When Love Speaks”, and features on a music video by Texas called “In Demand”.

Rickman, heartthrob of female fans everyhere, took time out from his villain roles to feature in a romantic music drama “Truly madly Deeply”. He took cello lessons to play the character of Jamie, a cellist who returns as a ghost after his demise to comfort his grief-stricken lover.

Alan Rickman cello

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Sir András Schiff selects: Julian Clef, piano

Sir András Schiff is beyond question one of the world’s greatest living pianists, as well as conductor, pedagogue and lecturer.

As pedagogue, he has been described by The New York Times as “a discerning judge of young pianists”. With effect from 2014, each year he selects three outstanding rising young pianists from around the world in a concert series titled “Building Bridges” curated by him.

It is a matter of huge pride for India that in the very second year of this initiative, Schiff has selected Kerala-origin Julian Clef, in addition to Schaghajegh Nosrati (Germany) and Jean-Sélim Abdelmoula (Switzerland).

Julian Clef  

Clef has already performed two (8 December 2015 in Berlin, 10 December in Frankfurt) of the six concerts scheduled in this series. The remaining four are scheduled in New York (this will be his US debut, in March 2016), Zurich and Brussels (May 2016), and Düsseldorf (June 2016).

Schiff reminisces on his choice: “When I first heard Julian Clef at a master-class playing Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, his performance moved me profoundly.” Such high praise is not conferred lightly, and Clef would have been among scores, if not hundreds of other aspirants vying for Schiff’s choice of three for the 2015-16 season.

Clef’s concert recital programme in the “Building Bridges” series features the Appassionata, as well as Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Opus 117 and Prokofiev’s Sonata no. 8 in B flat major, Opus 84.

For some time now, Clef’s playing has attracted the attention of not just Sir Schiff, but other discerning stake-holders in the classical music world far and wide have also been sitting up to take notice.

His performance of Beethoven’s First Piano Concerto in C, opus 15 in November 2015 at London’s Barbican Centre with the Guildhall Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michail Jurowski was hailed by critics as “wonderfully poised… technically flawless and unfailingly sensitive”.

In January 2015, he gave a successful debut performance with the Philharmonia Orchestra under the baton of Michael Collins in the Royal Festival Hall at London’s South Bank.

Another great pianist of our time Benjamin Firth had this to say about Julian Clef, several years ago: “Julian has a musical and pianistic maturity well beyond his years. He gives performances of great beauty, without mannerism or distortion. Already very experienced, he is totally composed on stage and he possesses a remarkably relaxed technique with which he brings the music so vividly to life”.

In June 2012, Clef was tipped as a “Rising Star”, “A Great Artist of Tomorrow” by BBC Music, a widely respected magazine in the classical music world.

In July 2012, he was invited to András Schiff’s masterclass at Beethoven-Haus, Bonn. He was allowed the rare opportunity to play on Beethoven’s own Broadwood 1817 instrument while there. Presumably it was this encounter that first brought Clef to Maestro Schiff’s attention.

In September that year, he featured at the prestigious Dvořák Festival in Prague, sharing billboard space with the top guns of the classical music world, from our very own Zubin Mehta and the Staatskapelle Dresden to the Capuçon brothers, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra. It was a tacit acknowledgement of the regard that Clef had begun to garner for himself in the unforgiving, perfectionist world of classical music.

His stunning Gold Medal-winning performance at the Royal Northern College of Music Manchester in 2011 got him snapped up by the leading international music management company Hazard Chase, which represents the world’s renowned artists and also has on its list Piers Lane, Benjamin Grosvenor, and Martin Roscoe (piano); Pinchas Zukerman (violinist and violist); Viviane Hagner, Jennifer Pike, and Anthony Marwood (violin); Julian Bream (guitar); and the Brodsky  and Endellion string quartets.  

On the Hazard Chase website, Julian’s manager James Brown describes that concert: “Within moments of Julian starting his recital, I had no doubt that he was a very special artist. It was an easy decision to offer him representation….I hope we will also be able to play a significant role now, delivering the major career he so richly deserves”.

That richly-deserved major career seems to be shaping up nicely, surely and steadily. It is an unusually remarkable trajectory for someone who had no formal piano tuition until the age of sixteen.

For several years now, almost from the first time I heard Julian Clef perform in Goa in 2010, I have lamented the fact that the national media and India in general does not make a bigger deal over such a prodigious talent. I have written about him before in the Goan press, but despite pitches to various publications, the mainstream Indian press is not interested, nor are the TV channels.

So it is rather ironic that a TV crew from NHK World (Nippon Hoso Kyokai), Japan’s public broadcasting company has been to India and overseas over the past year to film a feature programme on the story of Julian Clef. The documentary will be aired on 29 January 2016; the exact time will be mentioned on the channel’s website nearer the date, for those interested. NHK World is available on most satellite TV here.

There is a woeful deficit in the attention (let alone patronage or support) we give our rising stars in music compared to China, where young pianists like Yuja Wang, Yundi Li or Lang Lang are fêted as superstars and inspirational role models for China’s children and youth.

At return visits to Thiruvanthapuram, Clef has been compelled to perform upon an upright piano, as the state does not have a concert grand piano. Unless this situation has changed in the last year, it may well still be so. In an interview to London’s Asia House in January 2015, Clef stated: “There is no grand piano in Thiruvananthapuram….You can get more colours and tones and so on from a grand and more possibilities dynamically; the sound is quite different.”

This embarrassing lacuna must be addressed, not just for Clef to perform upon, on visits to his home state, but for music to flourish at home as well. There is so much that needs to be done for the cause of music in India; we can start by making a much, much bigger fuss over Julian Clef and the heart-warming story of his rise to worldwide prominence despite so many odds.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

My past articles about Julian Clef:

https://luisdias.wordpress.com/2013/07/22/julian-clef-transcendental-honesty/

https://luisdias.wordpress.com/2013/07/19/julian-clef-prince-of-the-piano/

https://luisdias.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/julian-clef-rising-star/

https://luisdias.wordpress.com/2010/07/25/julian-clef-move-over-lang-lang/

Parthie time!

I am sure music lovers immensely enjoyed both concerts organised by Opus Gala as part of their Indo-German Confluence IV Music Festival. I certainly did.

Given the rarity of a woodwind and brass quintet actually pitching up to Goa for a recital, I’d like to dwell a little on this.

Both the works played by the quintet (Max Vogler & Annika Smith, oboe; Thomia Ehrhardt, bassoon; and Felix Hüttel & Constantin Glaner, French horn) were termed Parthie (Parthia in English), also sometimes spelled as Partie in German. These are variants of the term Partita, which in the seventeenth century was a term used for a collection of dance tunes which were played consecutively, and which afterwards were taken to form suites. We know the term better in the context that Johann Sebastian Bach used it, as synonymous with “suite” in the Six Partitas for clavier and the three Partitas for solo violin, and for three sets of variations on chorales for organ.

By the 1750s, the term partita for a multi-movement work was replaced by the term ‘divertimento’, and after around 1760, the term Parthie in particular usually referred to a work for winds, often titled Feldparthie (partita for the ‘field’, or for outdoor performance, as the sound produced by wind instruments carries well in open spaces). Alternative terms included harmoniemusik or cassatio (cassation). Although it had its origins in dance, movements could have abstract titles as well, as is true in the case of both the works we heard at the concert.

Such music served purely as background to outdoor dinners, garden fêtes, hunting parties and military occasions.

And for a representation of this specific genre, a composer from the Besozzi family could not be more appropriate. The Besozzis were an extensive family of oboists from eighteenth-century Naples. Carlo Besozzi (1738- 1791) was an oboist composer, much like his father and uncles; other family members were proficient at bassoon and flute as well. There are at least eleven oboist composers of note in the Besozzi family. And Carlo Besozzi was the most highly regarded among them; we know this from the testimonies of his contemporaries (including English music historian Charles Burney and Leopold Mozart), the higher salary he received in comparison to his colleagues in the Dresden Kapelle in which he played, and the fact that he was given much leeway to play concerts as soloist in other cities, a privilege not accorded to his peers.

We heard Besozzi’s Parthia in D major (sonata no. 11) and Franz Josef Haydn’s Feldparthie in D major. Both are four-movement works, and both have contrasting slow-fast-slow-fast movements, with almost identical names: Allegretto-Adagio-Tempo di Minuetto-Presto in the Besozzi, and Allegro-Adaagio-Minuetto-Presto in the Haydn.

The forces for which these works were written might point to a pre-clarinet era, or possibly an indication of the instrumentalists available to the composers at the time of writing. Also, the Germans and Austrians generally preferred oboes to clarinets, compared to England or France.

Parthie time

Such ensembles of wind musicians were called Harmonien (Harmonie in the singular), with about five to eight players, employed by an aristocratic patron. If they played indoors at banquets, the music was designated Tafelmusik. The Austrian Emperor had his own Harmonie for his dinner and after-dinner entertainment, and so it fuelled a copycat tradition among the lower aristocracy and wealthy middle class to have their own in-house Harmonie as well. In the finale of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni during the banquet scene, his private Harmonie performs popular operatic excerpts for the Don’s pleasure. Not to be outdone, the working class began to hire Harmonie for special occasions such as weddings. Before long, musicians were forming impromptu similarly-comprised bands and wandering the streets of Vienna as they played. Mozart was pleasantly surprised to hear his own E-flat serenade playing below his window. He writes to his father (3 November 1781): “At eleven o’clock at night I was treated to a serenade performed by two clarinets, two horns and two bassoons–and that of my own composition . . . These musicians asked that the street door might be opened and, placing themselves in the centre of the courtyard, surprised me, just as I was about to undress, in the most pleasant fashion imaginable with the first chord in E-flat.”

The Haydn Feldparthie would have been written either for his first full-time employer Count Morzin around 1760, or shortly after 1761, in which year Haydn became Vice-Kapellmeister for the Prince Paul Anton Esterházy, and when the Prince also established a six-member Harmonie.

The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) dealt a heavy blow to the finances and therefore the lifestyles of the aristocratic set, and by the mid-1830s, the tradition of such performances had been abandoned. One could say the Parthie was over.

But one hopes that the party will start for us in India. We lag behind not just the world but even in the South-East Asian arena (one has only to look across at border at China, to say nothing of South Korea, Japan, Malaysia) in the pedagogy of all orchestral instruments, and the gap yawns widest when it comes to woodwind and brass. This is often hard to comprehend in the rest of the world; they assume that a country as big as ours certainly ought to have this. When I pointed this out to my counterparts in the US at a music conference, one of them suggested the idea of an instrument ‘petting zoo’, i.e. letting young children hear woodwinds play, and touching and literally getting a ‘feel’ of the instrument to inspire them to take it up. But then I had to re-emphasise that there just aren’t any teachers for these children, even if they did get inspired by splendid concerts such as the one we enjoyed recently. Concerts are wonderful for exposure and creating awareness and broadening horizons, but education has to be available as well. As the German dignitary described in detail in his speech before the concert, his country sets great store upon education, and at an extremely early age. India has to do this as well, urgently. We have to create a whole cohort of teachers that can begin to teach children. Education is a much harder sell for sponsorship, and a much longer haul.

(An edited version of this article was published on 17 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Music Performance in Times of Illness

 

We took a short Diwali break to Hong Kong this year, our first overseas trip after our son entered primary school, and with extended family. We had barely landed when it became apparent that the city authorities and the general public as well were on red alert. The fear was not of terrorism, but of a much more “invisible enemy” than that, a virus.

As we entered the arrivals area, an airport health worker pointed a sensor at both the children in our group, presumably to screen for fever. Many airport personnel were wearing surgical masks, a sight that we would gradually get used to on the streets, on public transport and in public spaces.

While we waited in line to get our passports checked (I was surprised to find they don’t stamp your passport but give you a tiny slip of paper which you are supposed to guard with your life, but nobody asked for when we flew out), an impersonal voice advised us to report to a doctor if we had “respiratory symptoms” or “contact with camels or birds”.

Hong Kong was living in dread of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), caused by MERS-coronavirus (MERS-CoV), and against which there is currently no effective vaccine, or specific treatment. The city has a 23-page preparedness plan on MERS. A visit to the Hong Department of Health’s ‘Centre for Health Protection’ website revealed comprehensive information on prevention, personal and environmental hygiene, and travel health advice.

The paranoia was palpable everywhere. If someone sneezed or coughed in a public place, one would see looks of undisguised fear as people turned away from the source, and those who were already wearing masks adjusted them a little more firmly in a desperate bid to protect themselves.

This is a region that has dealt with health crises like this one before. The bubonic plague killed thousands in Hong Kong in 1894. The 1968-69 Hong Kong flu pandemic killed one million people worldwide, and infected 500,000 Hong Kong residents, an estimated 15% of the population there. In 1997 six fatalities were confirmed from the H5N1 influenza (avian or bird flu) virus. In much more recent memory, the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2002-2003 had the majority of cases in Hong Kong, with 9.6% fatality rate. Its causative organism, like MERS, was also a coronavirus. In fact, MERS has been dubbed as “Saudi Arabia’s SARS-like virus”. So one can understand the cause for alarm. With nine deaths due to MERS already reported in South Korea in June, Hong Kong was taking no chances.

In public lavatories, there were disposable plastic covers on toilet seats, with signs assuring you that they were being changed hourly or even more frequently. Hand-sanitising solution dispensers were provided free at ticket counters, and staff members were often seen using gloves as well as masks. The masks actually impeded communication, and in more than one instance, the person on the other side of the counter had to drop their mask for a few seconds so they could be better understood.

Although our trip was planned with the children in mind (and therefore whole days out to places of interest to them, such as Ocean Park and Disneyland), I fortunately managed to squeeze in one symphony concert. The Hong Kong Philharmonic was embarking on a Beethoven symphony cycle, and our visit overlapped with just the first of the series, in which they would be playing first his Eighth symphony, and then his game-changing Third (‘Eroica’).

But at every turn, one was faced with the measures being taken to ward off MERS, even in the hallowed interior of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, residence of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. When I exchanged my printed record of my online booking for my ticket at reservations counter, the lady behind the desk was not wearing a mask, but there was a bottle of hand sanitising solution on either side of the window, and she cleansed her hands after completing the transaction.

Door handles had signs next to them, informing the public that they were being disinfected hourly, and I actually watched the staff do this, on the hour.

I wondered if the fear of ‘unnecessary visits to crowded public places with poor ventilation’ might extend to concert-goers and affect box office sales. It did not seem to be the case, but at both the pre-concert talk and the concert itself, there were quite a few people in masks scattered in the audience.

Mercifully, the orchestra musicians and conductor Jaap van Zweden appeared on stage unmasked, and gave us a robust performance of both symphonies. I was about a year too late to hear Ricardo de Mello (son of the legendary violinist Adrian de Mello) in the violins of the Hong Kong Philharmonic. He was recognised by his peers as the longest serving member of the orchestra when he retired in order to devote his time to teaching. Although we couldn’t meet in person due to his busy teaching schedule and our kiddie-driven schedules, we had a long conversation on the phone.

I was hugely impressed by the acoustic and the grandeur of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre’s concert hall. On returning home, a friend bequeathed to me back-issues of a reputed magazine “Violins and Violinists” spanning several decades. An entry dated 25 June 1956 covering the visit of the Los Angeles Philharmonic to Hong Kong reads: “It is a great regret that there is no concert hall in Hong Kong, so that what was played could not be heard to best advantage. The concerts were given in a playground which is good enough for a match or a circus –never for a concert performance!” Yet Hong Kong addressed this lacuna in 1989, with a concert hall (2019 seats) and an additional Grand Theatre (1734 seats) for large-scale opera, ballet and musicals. In contrast in India, apart from the NCPA in Mumbai, there isn’t to my knowledge any other purpose-built acoustically sensitive concert venue to be found. This is a major stumbling block preventing the world’s big orchestras from including India more often in their Asian tours. Also, concert halls are tied to resident orchestras; one begets the other. If we want more home-grown high-quality orchestras, apart from high-level teaching, there also have to be ‘homes’ for them to play in.

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Letter to the Editor

Just in case any casual visitor to my website is wondering why there are so many posts on the brutal murder of Fr. Bismarque Dias: it is at least in part because I’ve been sending the same text as Letters to the Editor to the mainstream press, but they are consistently being overlooked and not appearing in print.

I reproduce yet another Letter to the Editor that I dashed off yesterday, but was not carried. Rather than hold my breath in false anticipation yet again, I am publishing it here:

Dear Sir,

This is with reference to the report ‘Crime Branch to go ahead with lie-detector test’ (Herald 7 January 2016, page 1).

The whole investigative process into the unnatural death of Fr. Bismarque Dias has been colossally clumsy, with serious, unforgivable lapses that are glaringly evident.

The absence of alcohol in Fr. Bismarque’s remains already give the lie to the boys’ account that ‘most of the beer was drunk’ by him. This should put all their testimony into question. They ought to have been considered prime suspects or accomplices to murder from the very beginning, but for reasons best known to the investigative authorities, inexplicably haven’t. Their unconscionable delay in even attempting to search for Fr. Bismarque after he allegedly went ‘missing’ ought to have tipped off the police that these were not reliable witnesses.

There has been huge negligence in collecting circumstantial evidence (fingerprinting of the beer bottles, bottle-caps, the collection and sending for analysis of the blood-stained patch of earth at the scene), evidence which should have led the investigation in a completely different direction.

In fact, the presence of all those beer bottles (which we now conclusively know were not consumed by Fr. Bismarque) ought to have led the investigators to at least consider the possibility of many ‘players’ involved in the unnatural demise of Fr. Bismarque.   

Fr. Bismarque had filed a complaint at the Old Goa police station that he was receiving death threats, just days before his unnatural demise. Isn’t this suspicious? Why have the people named by him not been interrogated? Why have others who he bravely fought against over the years in order to protect Goa’s ecology, also not been interrogated, as they would also have had a strong motive in wanting him out of their way? 

Even if one were to accept the verdict of death by drowning, it still by no means excludes the possibility of foul play in the unnatural demise of Fr. Bismarque.

I quote from a forensic medicine text:

“Proving that an unknown assailant in some way aided the death of another by drowning is difficult to establish and can usually only be established if there are physical wounds such as cuts or bruises or indeed in an eye-witness has seen the event take place”.

The only witnesses if any, at the site of Fr. Bismarque’s unnatural demise are patently unreliable. The physical wounds seen by eye-witnesses after Fr. Bismarque’s body was extricated from the water have been summarily dismissed, even though at that time an independent body of experts ought to have been called in. To try and explain them away as due to ‘aquatic creatures’ seems rather facile, especially since the  body did not in retrospect spend that much time in the water.

It should not have taken such a long time to have excluded the presence of blood on Fr. Bismarque’s vest. Has the vest been returned to the family with the stains still intact? If not blood, then what, pray tell, caused those stains?

There are far, far too many unforgivable lapses such as these in the whole investigation. The shocking unnatural demise of Fr. Bismarque Dias and the clumsy investigation that followed will go down as a black period in Goa’s history.

I take this opportunity to publicly offer my deepest deepest condolences to the sorrowing family of Fr. Bismarque Dias. The people of Goa grieve along with you, and we will never ever, ever forget him!

Best wishes,

Luis Dias

PS: Please publish this letter. I have sent you letters regarding this in the past few weeks but they have not appeared in print.

Just stay on the bus!

The New Year is an opportunity to take stock of our lives, whether we are on the ‘right’ path, and for resolutions to improve ourselves in some shape or form.

As 2015 drew to a close, my attention was drawn to a theory for creativity put forth by Finnish-American photographer Arno Minkinnen that was news to me, although it apparently has been around for some time; 2004 to be precise, although an article in London’s The Guardian in 2013 gave it “greater exposure” (the Guardian’s pun, not mine).

I’ve never been to Helsinki in my life, but if I do get there, the first place I’d like to check out is its bus station. I am sure there are far more interesting things to see and do in Finland’s capital city, but my desire is motivated by the fact that this theory is based upon the layout of the bus station and the routes that begin from it: the Helsinki Bus Station Theory.

Helsinki bus station theory

Apparently, the Helsinki bus has some two-dozen platforms laid out in the shape of a square, in the heart of the city. But all the buses that leave the station take an identical route out of the city for about a kilometre or two.

Minkinnen uses this as a metaphor for the creative path of a photographer, but it could apply equally to other creative pursuits.

All along the common route for the buses in that first stretch of a couple of kilometres, the bus stops are the same. Minkinnen asks us to imagine that each bus stop represents a year in the creative life of a photographer. Three bus stops (or years) down the line, you’ve accumulated a body of work, and take it to a curator, who points out that others have been on the same route. Frustrated, you get off the bus, take a cab (“because life is short”) back to the bus station and start over on another route, only to have the same experience repeated over and over, three or four or five bus stops later. You keep trying to be “different”, “original” to set yourself apart, and yet you keep getting compared to others.

But if you stay on the metaphorical bus, the routes soon diverge and branch out into different directions, far removed from each other. And when that happens, much further down the route, critics begin to sit up and take notice, according to Minkinnen, not only of your current work, but of what you were doing even at the beginning, when you were being ignored or overlooked. In effect, “you regain the whole bus route”. This would not have happened if you had got stuck in the vicious cycle of getting off one bus and onto another and yet another, in a desperate bid to somehow be noticed and make your mark.

I couldn’t help thinking how true this was, as I read my friend Vivek Menezes’ passionate article “Another record for Vasudeo Gaitonde and Goan Art” in another section of the press recently. The paintings of Vasudeo Gaitonde and Francis Newton Souza today fetch millions, but as Menezes reminds us, “both died almost penniless, in near-solitary circumstances, almost totally ignored by the same Indian “art” establishment that now feeds greedily off their corpus”.

But even through their “most humiliating travails”, Souza and Gaitonde didn’t “get off the bus”; they stayed the course. And although recognition has come post-humously, the common thread of their unique vision is now readily apparent, even in early works that were panned or worse, overlooked by critics at a time in their careers when they would have needed encouragement the most.

This certainly would have been Minkinnen’s conclusion, and it applies well to Souza and Gaitonde:

“At the end of the line—where the bus comes to rest and the driver can get out for a smoke or better yet a cup of coffee—that’s when the work is done. It could be the end of your career as an artist or the end of your life for that matter, but your total output is now all there before you, the early (so-called) imitations, the breakthroughs, the peaks and valleys, the closing masterpieces, all with the stamp of your unique vision. Why? Because you stayed on the bus.”

The Helsinki Bus Station Theory has been debated, discussed and written about a lot, with many drawing conclusions often almost as diverse as the bus routes that the fleet of buses from the station eventually take. For example, Oliver Burkeman in his 2013 article in the Guardian seems to think that “the Helsinki theory suggests that if you pursue originality too vigorously, you’ll never reach it.” But I would read it differently. I think that the Helsinki Bus Station Theory tells you not to pursue mindless ‘originality’ for all the wrong reasons i.e. just so that some critic or other stake-holder in your art or profession or field will be favourably impressed. I think the take-home message is that if you have a creative idea, a philosophy, a principle that truly motivates you, something you fervently believe in, then you should pursue it fully, regardless of other people’s opinions, helpful or otherwise. Stay on the bus until the end of the line. I wish you a pleasant bus journey this New Year! Shubh yatra!

(An edited version of this article was published on 3 January 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A gross miscarriage of justice

The shoddy and biased way in which the whole investigation into the murder of Fr. Bismarque Dias has been conducted is a textbook case of how to ‘stitch up’ the evidence to produce a pre-planned ‘verdict’ by devious sleight-of-hand.

First we were asked to believe that Fr. Bismarque consumed excessive amounts of alcohol, and then ‘entered the water’ for the ‘first’ time and the ‘second’ time, all of these ‘times’ determined solely on the testimony of the ‘boys’ who allegedly were with Fr. Bismarque and ought to have been regarded as prime suspects or accomplices to murder but for inexplicable reasons haven’t. But this is passed off as fact, in particular by a section of the press and television that quite conveniently is owned by people with interests in real estate and mining, two industries that Fr. Bismarque strongly opposed when they broke the law and harmed the environment.

Then, when the alcohol intoxication myth was dispelled by forensic evidence from the viscera study, we were, against all logic, asked to believe that the absence of alcohol actually proved the absence of foul play. How exactly it did this, could never be explained, not in any logical manner.

In fact, all those empty bottles ought to have tipped the police off that there were many others involved in the death of Fr. Bismarque. If he didn’t consume the alcohol, it must have been consumed by others who should at the very least be brought in and interrogated. We have seen no attempt by the police to look into this angle at all. 

And now, the latest conjuror’s trick is the diatom test, the magic wand that seems to prove beyond doubt (as all the papers gleefully proclaim on their front pages) that there was “no foul play”. How exactly? All it proves is that Fr. Bismarque met his end where he was found. It cannot tell us anything more than this.

All circumstantial evidence, including the blood-stained patch of earth by the water body where it is almost certain Fr. Bismarque was beaten and tortured, the finger-printing of the bottle caps and other material evidence at the site, all have been deliberately botched. The eye-witnessed injuries on the body of Fr. Bismarque have been discounted, and very little can be done now about this, as time will have taken its inexorable course on these findings. And now, in the absence of all of these, we are left with one measly diatom test and efforts will be made to close the case on the ‘strength’ of this alone.

Fr .Bismarque had filed a police complaint that he had received death threats from some people, just a day or two before he met his tragic end. Why have these people not even been rounded up and interrogated? What about all the others that Fr. Bismarque had opposed over the years, politicians, builders, mine-owners, all of whom would have had a very strong motive? Why haven’t they been called in for questioning?

Those of us who knew Fr. Bismarque knew that he had not left the church of his own volition, but had been asked to leave. He said this explicitly to me more than once. Why are we now being asked to believe that he ‘voluntarily’ left the church when he didn’t? There is a taped record of a telephone interview where he clearly admits that he did not want to leave the priesthood. 

How is one supposed to have justice if there are forces at work that can manipulate all the institutions that are meant to be unbiased and impartial?  

The murder of Fr. Bismarque, and the woeful spineless handling of the investigation into his death will go down as a black patch in Goa’s history. The people of Goa are angry, upset, disappointed and depressed in every possible way by this gross miscarriage of justice.

Avian diplomacy from the Estado da Índia to the Mughal court

 

Those of us who have friends or relatives in the US will know how important the turkey is to the festive meal at Thanksgiving and the Christmas season. Much fuss is made over this in American films and TV sitcoms. Indeed, Thanksgiving is often colloquially called ‘Turkey Day’, so important is it to the traditional dinner. The rationale for this is that the bird is believed to have been among other food items native to the ‘New World’ served by the Native Americans to the Pilgrim Fathers, the earliest settlers from England. It is thought that if Benjamin Franklin had had his way, the turkey would have been the national bird of the United States of America instead of the bald eagle! He considered the bald eagle of “low moral character” compared with the turkey. How he came to this conclusion is anyone’s guess.

I wondered at the strange name ‘turkey’ for a bird indigenous to the Americas, but didn’t look further into it. But then I was intrigued when I came upon a Mughal painting in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. It was titled ‘The Arrival of the Turkey from Goa’, from the Jehangirnama, Ustad Mansur, ca 1612.

turkey goa ustad mansur

In his memoirs, the Jehangirnama, Emperor Jehangir refers to the “Franks (Firangi, the generic term for people from the West) of Goa” only twice. In the second instance, he commands Muqarrab Khan to set out for Goa to recover compensation from the Portuguese for having attacked Mughal naval vessels.

The first instance is actually a shopping expedition, also assigned to the trusty Muqarrab Khan. Jehangir writes that in 1612 he commanded Khan “to go to the port of Goa and buy for the private use of the government certain rarities procurable there… without looking at the face of the money at all (regardless of cost).” So Goa was an important entry point for exchange of goods and exotica between the ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Worlds (the so-called Columbian exchange). Other sources describe it as a gift from the Portuguese viceroy. In 1612, this would have been either D. Ruy Lourenço de Távora (1609-1612) or D. Jeronymo de Azavedo (1612-1617).

Jehangir was an animal lover and collector of exotic pets. He describes in detail his prize ‘rarity’ from Muqarrab Khan’s shopping excursion: a bird “larger than a peahen and smaller than a peacock… Its head and neck and the part under the throat are every minute of a different colour. When it is in heat it is quite red – one might say it had adorned itself with red coral – and after a while it becomes white in the same places, and looks like cotton.” He goes on to describe its wattles, and how it would puff itself up to make a display.

This tendency of the turkey was already known in England around this time, for Shakespeare makes mention of this in his comedy ‘Twelfth Night’ (1601-2). In Act 2 scene 5, the servant Fabian says of the vain Malvolio: “Contemplation makes a rare turkey-cock of him. How he jets under his advanced plumes!” Shakespeare does not need to elaborate on the reference, so presumably it was already common usage by then. Turkeys had reached Spain by 1512, and by 1541 were already a source of meat in England, so much so that Archbishop Cranmer included it in a list of items ‘good Christians’ ought not to over-indulge in at feasts. Good advice even today!

Whether diplomatic gift or shopping purchase, Jehangir was pleased enough with his acquisition that he commissioned a panel from his court artist Ustad Mansur. Ustad Mansur was the leading nature painter at the court of Jehangir, expert at faithfully reproducing intricate details of plants, birds and animals, and his skill is superbly evident here. His paintings are invaluable not only for their artistic perfection but perhaps even more so for their scientific accuracy. Jehangir bestowed the title ‘Nadir-ul-‘Asr’ (Miracle of the Age) upon him.

Ustad Mansur is also the earliest artist to depict the dodo, (flightless bird from Mauritius and extinct since 1681) in colour, and a very important source of information to zoologists. This bird also arrived at Jehangir’s court as a diplomatic gift from Portuguese Goa, in 1610. Obviously, the custom of gifting exotic animals and birds was an important part of diplomatic relations between the Estado da Índia and the Mughal court of Emperor Jehangir.

Mansur’s painting of the dodo found its way into the collection of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences and created a sensation when displayed again at the XII Ornithological Congress in Helsinki in 1958. It now resides at the Hermitage, St. Petersburg. The painting is unsigned, but attributed to Ustad Mansur.

The etymology of the turkey bird is quite interesting. It is thought that the name could have arisen when Europeans in the Americas incorrectly identified it as a type of guinea fowl, which typically came from Turkey. “Turkey fowl” got shortened to “turkey”.

Another possible origin is the fact that turkeys were introduced to England after having been domesticated and reared in the Middle East, by merchants who were called “Turkey merchants” as much of the Middle East was part of the Ottoman empire, with its seat of power in Turkey.

To confuse matters further, Indian traders got in on the act, leading many to think that India was the bird’s source of origin. Thus, in a supreme twist of irony, in Turkish, the bird is known as ‘hindi’ (‘from India’). In French, the turkey is known as ‘dinde’, short for ‘oiseau d’Inde’ or ‘poulet d’Inde’ (Indian bird or chicken). There are similar words suggesting an Indian origin for the bird, in Catalan, Italian, Maltese, Armenian, Georgian, Polish, Russian, Hebrew and Yiddish.

The Dutch word for turkey is ‘kalkoen’, derived from Calicut. Through the Dutch, a corruption of this word has crept into Sinhalese, Indonesian, Danish, Estonian, Norwegian, Swedish, Finnish, Lithuanian and Icelandic. In India it is called ‘peru’; the Arabic name means ‘Greek chicken’, while in Greek it is called the ‘French chicken’.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 December 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Justice for Fr. Bismarque Dias!

2015-12-18 12.47.59

 

Will it ever come? What should one do to keep up the pressure and not let the government get away with shielding his murderers from justice?

A sense of complacency seems to have set in, along the lines of “These things happen”, “What can you do?”, etc.

But the fact remains that a man, a gentle, kind but outspoken, forthright, honest “straight-as-an-arrow” man that so many of us knew and loved, has been brutally tortured and murdered, in his backyard, in our backyard, and nothing is being done about this outrage. There is a long list of suspects, of people who had plenty of motive in “getting rid” of this persistent “thorn” in their side. But the police do not seem to have even begun investigating this lengthy list.

One does not need to be a forensic expert to know that when there has been an unnatural death, especially when the victim is someone who of his own accord had reported death threats to the police literally hours before, one has to examine ALL possible angles and probabilities and include everyone (including those who allegedly spent the last hours with Fr. Bismarque and whose testimony is being given so much weight; maybe especially so) as suspects and accomplices to murder, until it can be proved beyond a shred of reasonable doubt that they are innocent. All those whom Fr. Bismarque had opposed over the years, and who therefore would have something to gain from his ‘disappearance’, should be prime suspects. This is sheer common sense, obvious to a child. If the investigation had gone sincerely and efficiently and speedily along these lines, we would have known who did it, the killers would have been sentenced, and Fr. Bismarque Dias would have had the Christian burial that he deserves and that his family would like to give him. But there has been no closure of this kind, and instead there is a raw gaping wound on the collective psyche of the people of Goa.

We have to shake off any creeping sense of resignation and helplessness, and continue to speak up and keep this unresolved issue alive and in public discourse.

We are being taught a lesson. We are being taught that if the ordinary people of Goa dare to expose the wrongdoings of the rich and powerful, if we have the temerity, the nerve, the audacity to try to defend our beloved Goa for ourselves and our children and our children’s children, (something that we are well within our rights as citizens of a democracy to do, a basic human right), then we can be “disappeared”, we can be summarily executed in a Bombay ‘gangland-style’ torture-killing and dumped in a river, in the same way that garbage is just chucked into our water bodies. We are being told we are nothing but garbage, and being treated as such. Ordinary citizens do not matter, only corporations and institutions and “important people” in governments and political parties, money and muscle power do.

This is the unspoken message behind the killing of Fr. Bismarque Dias. It is a chilling, sinister message, a warning, a threat, an ‘example’: This is what we do to those who dare to rise against us. Aiz Bismarque-ak, Faleam tuka.

What are we to do? Are we to meekly have this lesson taught to us? Or should we teach them a lesson of our own, that we will not be cowed or bullied or threatened or harassed?

So many questions. Where are the answers? 

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