Music and Politics, and History and Education -II

 

In an earlier column, I had written about Maestro Daniel Barenboim’s unusual speech at the BBC Proms festival at the Royal Albert Hall London this July. He was at the helm of the Staatskapelle Berlin for two concerts, both of which featured the symphonies of British composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). After both concerts, Barenboim conducted the same encore, Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, better known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’, a piece that is a staple of the Last Night of the Proms (LNOP).

LNOP

Some of my musician friends in the UK sniffed that (as they saw it) Barenboim in choosing this particular encore was angling to be asked to someday conduct the LNOP. But I interpreted his choice differently. For this we have to connect the history of the piece with Barenboim’s speech.

The work is known as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ because these are the words its middle (“trio”, although not in triple time) section was set to. King Edward VII loved the tune when heard it, and thought it would make a great song, and the poet Arthur Christopher Benson wrote the lyrics: “Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the Free; How shall we extoll thee, who are born of thee? Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet.”

It is sung lustily to waving of Union Jacks all over the Royal Albert Hall, along with other ‘rousing’, patriotic anthems like ‘Rule Britannia’ (whose lyrics include ‘Britannia rules the waves; Britons never never never shall be slaves’).

Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March no. 1 rarely ever gets played out of its crowd-rousing setting, and it is rare indeed to hear it as an orchestral work, without the audience bursting into song in the middle section. Perhaps Barenboim deliberately wished to play it as an encore, to remind the listener to appreciate it, divorced from its imperialist (however dated) overtones.

After his second concert, Barenboim conducted yet another Elgar work, the ninth variation “Nimrod” from his famous Enigma Variations, which has become associated with solemn occasions in British history. It is played at funerals and memorial services of dignitaries and on Remembrance Sunday, the second Sunday of November, “to commemorate the contribution of British and Commonwealth military and civilian servicemen and women in the two World Wars and later conflicts”. I feel both encore choices were somehow tied to the message and spirit of Barenboim’s speech, exhorting the audience and listeners worldwide to remember the lessons of history.

But the challenge worldwide is to be objective and unbiased in learning lessons from history, and in educating our children about national and world history.

In Jeffrey Richards’ book ‘Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953’, a whole chapter is devoted to ‘Elgar’s Empire’. Richards makes the case (contrary to what many other musicologists and historians would have us believe) that Elgar was an unabashed imperialist. He goes on to say: “If the idea that imperialism is something to be ashamed of or embarrassed about is abandoned or it is accepted as a cultural and ideological episode in British history, then it can be accepted as an element – and an important one —in the makeup of our greatest composer.”

The composer Arnold Bax, who knew Elgar, writes of the “contradictions” that made Elgar “ingrainedly and invincibly English”: “his love of nature” and “somewhat melancholy mysticism” coexisting with “the precise opposite of these characteristics – the blare of jingoism and Kiplingesque and Rhodesian Imperialism so inalienably associated with the turn of the century and the period of Elgar’s most fecund maturity. Difficult as it may be to reconcile these contradictions, the fact remains that the impulse to turn out such things as Land of Hope and Glory, the Imperial March, the Coronation Ode, and the regrettable final chorus of Caractacus was an integral part of this man, a representative, even an archetypal Briton of the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign.”

Elgar’s response when his publisher complained about the jingoistic tone of the “regrettable final chorus of Caractacus” was: “England for the English is all I say – hands off! There’s nothing apologetic about me.”

The “wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set; God who made thee mighty, make thee mightier yet” lyrics were written around the time of the publication of the will of that champion of British Imperialism, Cecil Rhodes, in which he bequeathed his large fortune specifically for promoting “the extension of British rule throughout the world”, and added a long detailed list of territories which Rhodes wanted brought under British rule and colonised by British people. The reference to the extension of the British Empire’s boundaries may reflect the Boer War, recently won at the time of writing, in which the United Kingdom gained further territory, endowed with considerable mineral wealth.

It is important even in music appreciation to be aware of this background, to the teaching of a nation’s history, warts and all. It comes back to what Barenboim was referring to in his speech, of there being “not enough education”.  A YouGov poll in the UK last year found 44 per cent were proud of Britain’s history of colonialism while only 21 per cent regretted that it happened.

It is this lack of education perhaps that permitted former British Prime Minister David Cameron to say on his 2013 visit to India: “I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for.” Shashi Tharoor’s latest book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” would be quite a startling revelation to him. Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn’s 2015 statement, that British schoolchildren should be taught about the violent excesses of British imperialism, was a reaction to Cameron’s ignorant, tactless remark and to Tharoor’s “Oxford speech”.

It is a cautionary lesson for others, including ourselves, with the ridiculous, petty revisionism in the teaching of history in our own schools.  It can only explode in our faces someday.

Education in general (or the lack of it) can apparently alter the course of contemporary history as well. A study conducted by the University of Leicester reveals that had just 3% more of the population gone to university, the UK would probably not be leaving the European Union.  It looked at reasons why people voted Leave and found that whether someone had been to university or accessed other higher education was the “predominant factor” in how they voted.

How different would our own electoral history have been if there had been more education in our own population? The results of a similar study here in India would be quite interesting.

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Advertisements

Music and Politics, and History and Education

 

The BBC Proms festival, a summer season of daily orchestral music at London’s Royal Albert Hall, is currently underway, beginning, as it does annually, in mid-July, extending until mid-September.

Since returning from the UK in 2008, I’ve been listening on internet radio. This year, the Proms began with a political tinge: on the very First Night, Russian-German pianist Igor Levit strode onstage wearing an EU flag on his lapel, and his encore offering was Franz Liszt’s transcription of the Ode to Joy – the famous chorus which forms the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and is the European Union anthem.

Just a few days later, Argentinian-Israeli pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim (who also holds Palestinian and Spanish citizenship and is founder of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, a youth orchestra comprising musicians from Israel, Palestine, several Arab countries, and Iran) made a ‘spontaneous’ speech at the end of the second of two concerts at the helm of the Staatskapelle Berlin which featured the symphonies of British composer Edward Elgar.

barenboim music and politics

Barenboim stressed that his thoughts were “not political, but rather of a human concern. When I look at the world with so many isolation tendencies, I get very worried. And I know I am not alone.”

After giving an account of his years living in England, which he felt gave him “the impetus” to speak, he said, “I think that the main problem today is not the policies of this or that country. The main problem is that there is not enough education.” The audience responded with hearty applause.

“No German musician will tell you – ‘I am German and I will only play Brahms, Schumann and Beethoven’. We had very good proof of it tonight [referring to a German orchestra playing Elgar]…. If a French citizen wants to learn Goethe he must have a translation. But he doesn’t need a translation for the Beethoven symphonies….This is why music is so important. And this isolationist tendencies and nationalism in its very narrow sense, is very dangerous and can only be fought with a real great accent on the education of the new generation…..The new generation need to understand that Greece, Germany, France and Denmark all have something in common, called European culture. Not only Europe. Culture. This is the most important thing. And of course in this cultural community called Europe there is a place for different cultures. For different ways of looking at things. But this can only be done with education. And the fanaticism that exists in the world with religious backgrounds can only be fought with education.”

Predictably, a media storm erupted following Barenboim’s speech, with both critics and supporters, often betraying their own Brexit or Remain bias. But could we extrapolate some messages from the speech far beyond British shores as well? The recurrent theme in the speech was ‘Education.’ Wouldn’t an objective, unbiased education, particularly of history and at school, go a long way in creating a more balanced, humane world view?

The onus of education extends further than just the classroom, a point made by Sunny Singh in her critique of Christopher Nolan’s allegedly ‘historical’ blockbuster film ‘Dunkirk’ in the Guardian (‘Why the lack of Indian and African faces in ‘Dunkirk’ matters’) calling out the literal ‘white’wash of an historical event: “More than history books and school lessons, popular culture shapes and informs our imagination not only of the past, but of our present and future.”

“Does this removal of those deemed “foreign” and “other” from narratives of the past express a discomfort with the same people in the present? More chillingly, does it also contain a wish to excise the same people from a utopian, national future?” she asks.

Shashi Tharoor in the preface to his book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India” laments this lack of education: “The British public is woefully ignorant of the realities of the British empire, and what it meant to its subject peoples. These days, there appears to be a return in England to yearning for the Raj”. This was certainly my experience in my England years, with many British colleagues seeming to think it was a benign regime, with lasting benevolent legacies like railways, postal services and democracy.

But what about our own history education? Is there good reason why Dr. Ambedkar isn’t included in the pantheon of India’s national heroes in my eight-year-old son’s General Knowledge textbook? Why is caste, if its odious history is ever taught at school, airbrushed to look like it is a vestige of the past, and doesn’t exist even today? Can any evil be tackled if it isn’t called out in the first place?

In Amitav Ghosh’s book ‘The Iman and the Indian’, in the chapter ‘Empire and Soul: A review of the Baburnama’, he examines the autobiography of India’s first Mughal emperor Zahiruddin Mohammad Babur (1483-1530). It makes fascinating reading, and again is something you’ll not encounter in a school history textbook.

imam indianbaburnama

Ghosh writes: “The women in his book are strong-willed and independent; they declare their own agency without hesitation, in matters political and personal…The contemporary Muslim fundamentalists who would carry Afghanistan back to an idealized past in which women never stepped out of the house would do well to have a look at this classic of Islamic life in their part of the world. They would find that the Middle Ages were not quite what they imagine them to be.”

Ghosh writes further on: “Mughal rule also coincided with a great renaissance in Krishnaite theology…Far from suppressing the burgeoning activity in that area, Akbar and his nobles actively supported it…As a living practice, contemporary Hinduism would not be what it is if not for the practices initiated under Mughal rule. The sad irony is that the Hindu fanatics who destroyed the Babri mosque were attacking a symbol of the very accommodations that made their own faith possible.” The further sad irony is that many such aspects of history will be even more inaccessible to the schoolchild and the general public in the current political environment. Yes, Maestro Barenboim, the main problem here too is that “there is not enough education”, certainly not the unbiased kind. Indoctrination, on the other hand, is rife.

Coming back to music: it was Ghosh (in his Ibis trilogy) who made me aware of just how much the opium trade affected peoples on both sides of the colonial divide. Since then, each time I listen to Hector Berlioz’ opium-fuelled Symphonie Fantastique, I can’t help but think also of the exploited impoverished farmers in central India who probably starved (as they were forced to cultivate opium instead of food crops) so the drug could be indulged by Europe’s elite and intelligentsia.

(An edited version of this article was published on 03 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

 

 

Racism and Butchery in the guise of Surgical Innovation

As a medical student, I first came across the name of the American physician J. Marion Sims in our gynaecology textbooks. We learnt that he designed the double-bladed vaginal speculum, the Sims speculum, while perfecting his surgical technique for repair of vesico-vaginal fistulae, the abnormal passage created between the bladder and the vagina as a result of trauma, a complication of obstructed labour, among other causes. The resultant constant leakage of urine via the vaginal route can be emotionally and socially devastating to the sufferer. We were taught how the Sims speculum offered a better exposure to the vaginal walls compared to the Cusco bivalve speculum, and therefore the Sims speculum is preferred for gynaecological surgeries.

In my residency years, of course, one had to learn even more about James Marion Sims (1813-1883), with step-by-step details of the repair of such fistulae, pioneered by him. We learnt that his experience was largely obtained from enslaved African-American women, because they were for some reason (negligence, anybody?) more prone to obstructed labour. Even with this knowledge, one still assumed that with his name in the textbooks, that he was presumably some sort of saviour figure, and all his efforts were motivated by wanting to alleviate the suffering of his ‘patients’.

But writer-historian Harriet A. Washington’s 2006 book ‘Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present” blows the lid clean off the can of worms bearing Sims’ name. The revelation knocked the wind out of me; there would have been some lurking suspicion about the lack of ethics in medical ‘research’ upon a literally captive sample study in 1800s Alabama, but reading the gory details of the barbarous experiments of someone widely regarded as the ‘Father of Gynaecology’ was a numbing experience.

Sims needed living human guinea-pigs to test and improve his surgical technique, and Washington writes, he “knew that using white women to test such painful surgeries as might be effective against it was impossible.” But in the antebellum Deep South, he could experiment upon black women with impunity.

He “acquired” eleven women, many “borrowed” from their slave-owners after Sims agreed to pay for their upkeep. From 1845 to 1849, he experimented upon these unfortunate women in a shed in his backyard.

In his autobiography ‘Story of My Life’, Sims describes in meticulous detail his examination of and surgery upon black women he mentions by name: Betsey, Lucy and Anarcha.

In page 236, he writes: “I made this proposition to the owners of the negroes : If you will give me Anarcha and Betsey for experiment, I agree to perform no experiment or operation on either of them to endanger their lives, and will not charge a cent for keeping them, but you must pay their taxes and clothe them. I will keep them at my own expense.”

Matters such as privacy, modesty (each woman was stripped naked, and “mounted on the table, on her knees, with her head resting on the palms of her hands” when he examined them), and consent were not a consideration. The women had to be restrained by assistants and held down while he operated upon them without anaesthesia. True, the field of anaesthesia was not well-advanced at the time, but the use of ether was already known to Sims. But like many of his professional peers (white, of course), he believed that perception of the sensation of pain was linked to race and to class. Even a sympathetic biographer S. Harris writes in ‘Women’s Surgeon: The Life Story of J. Marion Sims’: “Sims’s (sic) experiments brought them physical pain, it is true, but they bore it with amazing patience and fortitude – a grim stoicism which may have been part of their racial endowment.” There was no scientific basis, however, for this belief.

Lest one tries to argue, as L. L. Wall has done in the paper ‘The medical ethics of Dr. J Marion Sims: a fresh look at the historical record’ (Journal of Medical Ethics 2006 Jun; 32(6): 346-350) that “it is difficult to make fair assessments of the medical ethics of past practitioners from a distant vantage point in a society that has moved in a different direction, developed different values, and has wrestled—often unsuccessfully—with ethical issues of sex, race, gender, and class that were not perceived as problematic by those who lived during an earlier period of history”, one has to remember that the practices of Sims were considered so barbarous even by his medical peers that they requested him to stop his ‘experiments’; others however praised his unorthodox methods. He then proceeded to defend his position, stating that the slave women were “clamorous” for his operation; that they “consented” and even assisted in his subsequent operations in holding down other patients. And this is the dominant narrative that has been passed down in the medical fraternity. Washington drily points out: “Slaves did not have to be recruited, persuaded and cajoled to endure pain and indignity; they could not refuse.”

But the tide against the ‘Father of Gynaecology’ is turning. In their 2013 paper ‘The Portrayal of J. Marion Sims’ Controversial Surgical Legacy’, Spettel and White describe him as “a prime example of progress in the medical profession made at the expense of a vulnerable population.”

Earlier this month, Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin told the media that two years after the state removed the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse, there are still monuments “on our Statehouse grounds that I find wholly offensive.” He was not, as one might think at first, referring to a statue of pro-slavery Confederate general Robert Lee, but to Sims. “The most offensive statue I find on our capitol wasn’t the (Confederate) soldier,” Benjamin said. “It was J. Marion Sims. There’s a statue of him here. It should come down at some point.”

Sims

Quite literally a fallen idol, then. How should the members of the profession react to his legacy, in the new light that has been shed on his dark past? Significant as his contributions to operative gynaecology may have been, to me at least, they are now tainted. It would be easy to argue that he gave the world the speculum that bears his name and countless lives were improved by his surgical techniques, but it is entirely plausible and logically inevitable that someone else, at a later date, in another part of the world perhaps, would have made these innovations, and not so controversially. If we continue to have J Marion Sims in gynaecology textbooks, the full history of his methods should be taught as well.  Spettel and White conclude in their paper: “This question is not solely of historical importance, as we will always seek to improve our operative ability. The ethics of surgical innovation, education and experimentation are still relevant today. It behooves us as a profession to discuss, debate or at least include mention of Dr. Sims’ controversial legacy in our literature.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Subsequent to this, I’ve come across news of protests elsewhere as well. This in New York:

Panjim, the capital city of filth

Our civic authorities must have a curious sense of humour bordering on malice, in choosing the garden of Dr Gen. Miguel Caetano Dias as a designated garbage dumping site. Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias was decorated, and had a statue put up to him, for eradicating the bubonic plague in Goa 1908-1910. And his eldest son Dr. Victor Manuel Dias was responsible for the Saneamento da Velha Goa (Sanitation Plan of Old Goa) 1948, which allows us to visit the city today, and the stress and exertion of which took its toll in causing his premature death just months later.

It is perhaps ignorance that has caused the CCP to choose this very site, but it is also the ultimate ignominious indignity, that the statue of Dr. Miguel Caetano Dias is condemned to the sight and stench before him every day. The champion of sanitation and public health is surrounded by a breeding-ground for vermin and disease. Could there be a worse slap in the face to the memory of a once-respected and loved public figure?

One really fails to understand the logic: garbage was never dumped in the heart of town before for later, periodic, erratic collection. Why now? We’ve been unable to get a satisfactory answer despite taking it up with the authorities. The ground staff in the garbage trucks plead helplessness; “take it up with those above.”

Will the much awaited telescope and microscope ever arrive, to see this problem and take action? Or is now a malodour-ometer required as well?

If anything, the filth has only proliferated and worsened since these pictures were taken and at the time of uploading this post.

Maria’s story

 

Last month I was commissioned to cover, for the national and international press the historic run of performances of Domenico Cimarosa’s 1792 comic opera in two acts, ‘Il Matrimonio Segreto’ at the recently restored and reopened Royal Opera House Mumbai, produced by Patricia Rozario’s Giving Voice Society, with an impressive all-Indian double cast comprising twelve of her voice students, and with musicians of the Symphony Orchestra of India. It was the first time a full-length opera had graced the stage of the over-century old Baroque-style opera house.

While interviewing various people involved in the production, I stumbled upon the heartwarming story of conductor Maria Badstue. I had been told that she was of Indian origin, and was returning to India for the first time in her life. That intrigued me, and I was keen to learn more. But her story bowled me over completely.

maria story

Maria was given up for adoption thirty-five years ago to an orphanage in the temple town of Pandharpur; when just a five-month old baby, she was adopted by a Danish family and therefore had the rest of her upbringing in Denmark, in the countryside, with little opportunity to meet others like her, from India.

Her Indian origin was no secret to her when she was growing up. However, up until the time that she was invited by Rozario to conduct the opera, she thought she was from Bombay (Mumbai). “My whole life, I’ve been told I’m from Bombay. Back home we have a big and heavy briefcase with all my adoption papers, and letters to and from the adoption agency. I have always been told that I am Danish, and I had never really taken a big interest in the ‘Indian’ part of myself. In my youth in Denmark I tried to ‘fit in’ as most youngsters do, I guess. Perhaps this is why I chose to push those thoughts about India away. So I actually didn´t open that briefcase until one week before I got here.”

Maria’s story resonated strongly within me as founder and project director of Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music education charity working with India’s underprivileged children. Our whole ethos rests on the untapped potential of India’s disadvantaged children and the transformative power of music in their lives.

One doesn’t know whether to be amused or irritated when presumably well-meaning members of the press and media ask me whether the children we teach “have difficulty” in learning to play a musical instrument and its repertoire. Some even go further and ask whether teaching them western music is appropriate, and whether it wouldn’t be a better idea to teach them “their own” music and culture instead. They then have trouble articulating what exactly they mean by this statement; quite a few of these mediapersons themselves learnt western music as children, or today have children and relatives and peers who do. The irony, the double standard, that it is somehow okay for privileged sections of society to immerse themselves in Bach and Beethoven and Vivaldi, but the underprivileged have to turn to “their own” culture, this nebulous ill-defined entity, instead, seems to be lost on them. It calls to mind the hypocritical double standard of the whole Medium of Instruction storm in a teacup, where “the masses” have to learn the vernacular languages and be the guardians and champions of it, but the leaders of these movements, who inevitably come from privileged backgrounds, can send their own children to private, English-medium schools, just as they themselves were educated in them. “Do as I say, not as I do.”

So Maria Badstue’s story is a shot in the arm; it proves, if proof ever were necessary, that any child from any background can achieve anything, in this case musical prowess to the highest level, if given love, nurture, encouragement, opportunity, the right milieu and the proper training. This is something we at Child’s Play aspire to. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if geography became an irrelevance, and when children from all backgrounds, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, could get the same opportunities and conditions here that allowed Maria to blossom in Denmark?

After beginning the correspondence with Maria Badstue, I attended a conference on children affected by mining, and during the course of the day, a hard-hitting film “Falling Through The Cracks: Children in Mining” was screened. Through the whole film documenting what amounts to criminal institutionalised child neglect and abuse, I couldn’t help thinking of the potential these children represented, if only we could collectively realize this and nurture it, and how it was just being allowed to “fall through the cracks” in the system.

Maria made this same point to me when I met her in Mumbai a few days later for two back-to-back performances of the opera. Although she had not been able to fit in a visit to the orphanage in Pandharpur as she had originally planned, due to the rehearsal schedules for the opera and the inconvenient train time schedules to get her to Pandharpur, she did visit the all-boys orphanage in Mumbai run by the same organization that also runs the Pandharpur (all-girl) orphanage. She met some eighty boys crowded into a very small living space, and saw India’s future potential in them, provided they were only given the opportunity.

We have remained in touch after her return to Europe, and she hopes to return to India, and specifically to visit and work with us at Child’s Play, in the near future.

“It would be a great personal and professional honour and a pleasure to come back and contribute in developing the scene of western classical music in India in any way.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Darkness and Shades of Grey

My godchild in the US turned 21 a few months ago this year. As a mutual acquaintance happened to be visiting and offered to take something for her, and because I know she loves reading about history, I scoured Broadway bookstore for something appropriate. And my gaze alighted on Shashi Tharoor’s latest book “An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India”.

Era of Darkness

As this year also marks the 70th anniversary of our Independence and of the end of British rule in India, it seemed a timely gift. I remember watching, and being hugely impressed by what is known today as Tharoor’s “Oxford speech” in 2015, which deservedly went viral; even political rivals conceded to the brilliance of his argument and congratulated him for his speech. When Tharoor mentioned in the preface that this book followed on from that speech, I was sold.

We all studied Indian history in school, but the scale of the loot (a loan-word from India, Tharoor reminds us, like so many other words that pepper the English language) and plunder of our country, the siphoning of our wealth and resources, and the sheer barbarity and inhumanity on the part of the British Raj towards our people while simultaneously and perversely feeling sanctimonious about being a “civilizing” influence, had never hit home quite as clearly or as hard as after  reading this wonderfully-written and researched book, helped along by Tharoor’s sparkling wit and turn of phrase.

Several things come to mind after reading “An Era of Darkness”. The chapter “Divide et Impera” (Divide and Rule) is in some ways the most thought-provoking. The seeds of discord of communal disharmony leading up to Partition, and of rigidly compartmentalizing us based on religion, caste (“caste reified by colonialism”, as Tharoor’s subheading puts it), language, so-called “criminal tribes”, and other absurd divisions, under the guise of collecting census data or cartography, were sown by the British; and by continuing to let these rifts fester and dictate our internal politics and foreign policy, we in the whole subcontinent are still, unwittingly or not, playing into the hands of those that planted those seeds over a century and a half ago. A South Asian region whose energy is dissipated by internal unrest and whose capital is diverted towards border tensions and disputes rather than on true welfare and progress only benefits those who profit from it, whether trade competitors or those who sell weapons to all warring nations in the region. Seventy years on, it is time for all of us to stop being pawns in an obsolete “Great Game.” Indeed, all three post-Partition siblings (although Bangladesh was ‘born’ later, also traumatically, but also as a far-reaching result of the same ‘Divide et Impera’) would be ‘anti-national’ if we persisted in squabbling rather than beginning to genuinely and peacefully co-operate.

Tharoor is scathing when he writes about the Partition at the end of this chapter: “Finally, what political unity [he is responding to the oft-repeated British claim that the Raj had the benevolent side-effect of ‘unifying’ India] can we celebrate when the horrors of Partition were the direct result of the deliberate policy of divide and rule that fomented religious antagonisms to facilitate continued imperial rule? If Britain’s greatest accomplishment was the creation of a single political unit called India, fulfilling the aspirations of visionary emperors from Ashoka to Akbar, then its greatest failure must be the shambles of that original Brexit –– cutting and running from the land they claimed to rule for its betterment, leaving behind a million dead, thirteen million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than in the tragic manner of its ending.”

He touches upon the teaching of history as well. It is shocking how little is taught in the British curriculum about the excesses of the Raj. This deliberate infliction of collective amnesia is deeply dangerous, in many ways to the British themselves, than to us. Tharoor’s last sentence in his book applies just as much to them, as to us, as to any people: “In looking to understand the forces that have made us and nearly unmade us, and in hoping to recognize possible future sources of conflict in the new millennium, we have to realize that sometimes the best crystal ball is a rear-view mirror.”

This removal of the rear-view mirror at home, in airbrushing the Mughal legacy from our children’s history textbooks, and the Nehru-bashing, for example, is therefore extremely worrying, and in fact counterproductive. In the internet age, even a child can fact-check what s/he reads or is told; and when our children realize they are being fed untruths, partial truths, distortions of the truth, or to put it in today’s parlance, ‘alternative facts’, it will erode any shred of trust they might have in what is being taught to them. Why are our leaders and policy-makers so frightened of the truth, of an unbiased balanced account of history?

The other thing that struck me (and this has been remarked upon before) is, how despite such a prolonged, sustained, extensive legacy of harm perpetrated by the British towards us in terms of geographic area and population numbers affected, we have excellent diplomatic relations with the United Kingdom, love cricket, speak, write and think in English, whereas in Goa, the reaction to anything Portuguese, be it a visit from a dignitary, or a celebration of Portuguese culture or of the language, still draws suspicion of a dilution of ‘Indianness’, whatever that might mean.  But playing and following cricket, and going to a Bollywood film that has more English in even its title than Hindi, doesn’t even raise an eyebrow, and is not at all a conflict of loyalty. The English language and cricket have been Indianised somehow, given honorary Indian citizenship, an permanent Aadhar card without even being asked. But the língua Portuguesa, fado and bacalhau are still ‘bandeiras vermelhas’ to some self-styled ‘nationalist’ ‘touros’.

Lastly: if the colonial experience has been (justly) termed an Era of Darkness, what shades of grey have we been living in, in post-1947 India and post-1961 Goa? What is our current swatch of grey? Darker or lighter than even a few decades before? We owe it to our children and generations after them, if not to ourselves as well, to strive tirelessly towards an Era of Light, with no place for hatred, violence or discrimination. Utopia or attainable realistic endeavour? You tell me.

(An edited version of this article was published on 13 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

How should we Listen?

How should we Listen

An article I was reading recently mentioned in passing, by way of illustrating quite another point, the change in the way audiences listened to music over time.

It argued that up until the eighteenth century, concerts “functioned as a pleasant soundtrack for aristocratic soirees”, and at concert halls and opera houses and the ballet, “the nobility would canoodle in their boxes, only half paying attention to the performers.”

This changed with the Industrial Revolution and “a rising capitalist class”: a shift occurred from entertainment to education. Audiences now sat still and silently concentrated on nothing but the music, stifling sneezes and coughs and any extraneous noises lest it break anyone’s concentration. The Germans of the time even invented a word ‘Sitzfleisch’ (‘sitting flesh’) “to describe the muscle control required for sitting absolutely still during a concert performance.”

It brought into focus something that’s been on my mind for a long time, and that I’ve been meaning to write about: how should we, collectively as an audience, here, and today listen to a concert? By this, I refer to a western classical music concert.

One hears two extremes if one speaks to a cross-section of people. On the one hand, I have been reminded of precisely this evolution of music performance and listening, and a fervent argument is made for going back to the ‘anything goes’ attitude that seems to have prevailed centuries ago, as some sort of historical validation. Going back to an imagined past seems to be trendy on so many levels in India, and it is true here too. Why not let people just be themselves, and abandon the whole stuffed-shirt image that classical music has undoubtedly acquired? Notch up a victory for freedom of expression!

The other extreme is the ‘Sitzfleisch’ brigade to the power of infinity. Sit perfectly still and become part of the furniture. And not just that; the cardinal sin of clapping between movements (sections) of a piece of music is to be countered by rounding upon the unfortunate blunderer with a Medusa glare that will petrify him/her for eternity.

The Naxos Record label specialising in classical music has an Education section on its website, with advice on how to enjoy a live concert, and has a whole section on ‘Coping with Snobs.’

And what does it say about them? It starts by saying that “snobs are everywhere, in every field”, but that “classical music snobs can be some of the snobbiest snobs of all. They assert their superiority by showing off their knowledge and declaiming opinions. Often their snobbery masquerades as helpfulness, but snobs have a way of making ignorance appear to be shameful.”

Which brings us back to the original question: how do we listen to a classical concert today? I think the answer comes down to sheer common sense. We would do well to comport ourselves in a way that 1. allows us to be at as attentive and concentrated as we can; and 2. is not distracting to those around us. Everything else follows from these two fundamental principles.

We derive the maximum benefit and enjoyment (yes, entertainment, even) and education from a good concert performance if we give it all our attention. True, some music was written for entertainment; divertimenti, serenades, cassations are good examples. But even here, attentive listening will reap further rewards.

The operative words for us are attention and concentration. In a world of texts, tweets, and emoticons, attention spans have shrunk considerably. All too often, our phones themselves are the biggest culprits, distracting us and those around us.

Attention spans have even affected concert programming. If one looks at concert programme lengths from even about a century ago, three hours or longer were not unusual. Today a concert exceeding 90 minutes might seem interminable. There are other considerations that affect concert lengths today, like factoring in commuting time for audiences after the concert. Without becoming a Sitzfleisch advocate, it is to our advantage to make the most of the hour or so of an average concert by savouring the moment. This involves, apart from sitting attentively, either switching off or silencing our devices so they neither distract us nor others around us. Rustling plastic bags or other items are a no-no too. This is not being fussy, but acknowledging the fact that in classical music especially, the notes and the music need the contrast of the quiet and the silences to be at their most eloquent. Composers like John Cage might well celebrate and bring ambient noise to centre-stage in some compositions, but for the vast majority of music, the silence is quite necessary. To quote Debussy, “music is the silence between the notes.” Mozart had made the same point even earlier.

What if we get bored in places during a concert? It happens. It helps to focus also on the visual element of a live concert. It could be the intensity of emotion on the faces of the musicians as they play or sing, or the way a theme, motif or melody is passed from one instrument or section of instrument to another. Or it could be the cues and baton technique of the conductor.

Cameras and camera-phones to record concerts have become a modern bane. Not only does one lose the live moment, but it distracts others, often including the performers themselves. SLR cameras, video-cameras, and several phones make clicking, whirring and beeping noises, further adding to the distraction. Add to that the flash element, and it becomes an audio-visual invasive intrusion. Furthermore, the recorded material is almost invariably terribly unfaithful to what your ears would hear and eyes would see in real-time. And lastly, it raises huge copyright infringement issues and many performers get terribly upset by this, and if they remember in advance, often explicitly forbid this.

At Child’s Play concerts featuring our children (our monsoon and Christmas concerts), we do try to avoid this, barring a videographer/photographer sometimes, and as unobtrusively as possible, to get archival footage necessary for our website, social media, and publicity purposes.

As for the clapping-between-movements police: many musicians do not really mind that much; I know quite a few who feel reassured that the feedback means the audience is being appreciative (and awake?). There are other musicians who do mind, and they often make it known in advance of the performance. Having a concert programme can help an audience ‘track’ the progress of the concert, and such concerts often find their applauses at the ‘right’ moments. Programme notes, or even better, a brief introduction by the musicians themselves, explaining the background to the work, and what to listen for, can immeasurably heighten the engagement and enjoyment of a concert.

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 August 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

My review of Domenico Cimarosa’s opera buffa Il Matrimonio Segreto at Royal Opera House Mumbai

In October 2016, I covered the reopening of the Royal Opera House Mumbai ROHM (after a hiatus of 23 years) for the national and international press. Although the newly restored and refurbished gem of a venue now suddenly opened up fresh exciting possibilities in India’s financial and cultural capital, I must confess I scarcely imagined a full-length Italian opera would grace its stage in less than a year.

Read the rest of the review here

Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company (UK) in Goa

Ever since the beginning of Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity working to instil positive values and social empowerment to underprivileged children in India that is now in its seventh year, we are on the radar of young musicians worldwide who want to work in this sector.

In December 2015, we were contacted by Abi Heath from England, a member of the Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company, a children’s musical theatre company, made up of a group of creative people, musicians, singers, actors and technicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), London. “We come together to create pieces of children’s musical theatre and then take our shows to developing countries, where we perform to children in schools, hospitals, orphanages and slums, or anywhere we can find them! We then work with the children, showing them the instruments and giving them the chance to experience live music, an opportunity many have never had before”, she wrote in her email to us. And about a week later I got a supporting email from our friend in London, Goan-origin pianist-pedagogue at Trinity Laban Karl Lutchmayer.

Thus began a chain of correspondence that led to their performing for our Child’s Play children in addition to other locations in Goa in August last year. The quality of their performance was so good that it seemed a shame that more children (and adults!) couldn’t have the experience. So when the Wind-Up Theatre Company got in touch again this year regarding a return visit, I resolved to have their performance in a more public, larger venue. And so their performance will be at Caritas Conference Hall St. Inez on 31 July 2017 at 6 pm.

I interviewed Elisabeth Swedlund for this article: “The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company was founded in 2012 by myself and my classmate at the Guildhall School from Romania, Ioana Macovei-Vlascceanu. I’d been running a summer camp for children in a very poor, very isolated village in Romania for the past 5 years, and had always profoundly wished to be able to bring something more artistic to children who lived in places where they have practically no access to culture, art, and multiculturalism – often in less affluent parts of the world. By fortunate coincidence, Ioana’s parents run a school which is in contact with many charities, and they organised our whole first project – performing in hospitals, orphanages, and rural schools around Bucharest. The experience was life-changing for the nine students involved – we went back to Romania (with eight extra Guildhall students, so seventeen of us), the next winter. Our university – and therefore Penguin – is very international. During our second project, Bozhana, from Bulgaria, offered to organise a project in Bulgaria – same with Carlos, our Colombian friend. Once we’d realised it was relatively easy, in this day and age of internet communication, to arrange performances around the world, we started to extrapolate to countries we really wanted to work/perform in. Five years later, after 13 projects, and over 10000 children performed to in more than 150 different places, we’re still going strong!”

Wind Up Penguin Theatre Company

The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company has so far visited Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. They create professional-standard musical theatre performances which they have then taken into refugee camps in Europe resulting from the current crisis in the Middle East, and to hospitals, schools, orphanages and special needs centres in the countries they have visited.

Swedlund talks in particular about the children in the refugee camps: “We very much can tell that the refugee children we perform to have witnessed violence and severe insecurity. They have extraordinarily high energies, and often people who work with them find it difficult to get them to learn, understand, behave. Artistic experiences, I feel, are crucial at this point: in our workshops, we use games and music/singing to channel children’s energy, enabling them to run, shout, play, in a safe space, all through being creative (which they often very much are).”

Any experiences that stand out it Swedlund’s memory? “I’ve had so many! At the time of this interview, we were performing in Victoria Square, a Square in Athens where many Syrian children play with their parents. A few children ran up to us and asked us about ‘the boy’ (the puppet we’d been performing with in our previous show). They also remembered ALL of the songs we’d taught them three months ago. It very much reminded me that, what I sometimes feel might be a ‘normal’ performance, can inspire children and stay with them, hopefully, in difficult moments.”

The troupe also has this endorsement from the Head of Music at the Guildhall School, Jonathan Vaughan: “The Wind-Up Penguin are a group of highly motivated students who are really interested in charity work. They produce really dazzling and colourful productions to entertain children throughout the world.”

How does Wind-Up Penguin choose its members? Swedlund explained “As the founder, for me, Penguin combines two equally important aspects: to bring professional-quality music and theatre to children in parts of the world where they don’t have access to art, and to inspire music and drama students to use their skills and training in an altruistic and world-focused way. We specifically advertise our projects to students from the Guildhall School and a few other performance universities of similar high level around London. The project leader (often myself) interviews the members – we make no distinction artistically, as we know that anyone studying in these universities automatically has a high musical/theatrical level. What we mainly look for is an interest and enthusiasm about discovering the world and helping others through art, and a willingness to work and live alongside a group of other eccentric artists for a couple of weeks!”

At their performance tour of India in July-August, last year, in addition to Goa, the Wind-Up theatre company also visited Mumbai, Hyderabad, Vijayawada, Tiruvannamalai and Chennai, logging in 31 shows and theatre workshops to over 5000 children.

So what will their performance involve? “It’s a cross arts show, incorporating a cappella singing, musicians, comedy theatre, balloons and puppets. It’s very interactive with the kids. All colourful and fun.”

“For me, Penguin is about inspiring artists, who often are on their way to a highly successful career, to perform with an altruistic view on the world. And of course – for children, through music, theatre, and laughter, to get inspiring, very much out-of-the-ordinary, and hopefully memorable experiences,” says Swedlund.

(An edited version of this article was published on 30 July 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)