For Elise and for Justice

“Who’s Elise?” my son suddenly asked me one day out of nowhere. “You’ll have to be a little more specific,” I replied.

But then I saw that he had a score I had given him to sight-read a while ago.  

It was, of course, sheet music for the popular piece ‘Für Elise’ (For Elise) that has crept into ringtones, hotel lobbies and elevator music and is one of Ludwig van Beethoven’s most popular compositions.

The work has the formal title Bagatelle No. 25 in A minor (WoO 59) for solo piano. The term ‘bagatelle’ literally means “a short unpretentious instrumental composition” as a reference to the light style of a piece. In Beethoven’s usage, it refers to a short piece of music, a character piece, typically for the piano, and usually of a light, mellow character. Beethoven’s bagatelles are arguably the best examples of the form.

The WoO stands for  Werke ohne Opuszahl (“Works without opus number”), a German musical catalogue prepared in 1955 by Georg Kinsky and Hans Halm listing all Beethoven’s compositions that were not originally published with an opus number, or survived only as fragments.

The ‘Für Elise’ bagatelle was only discovered in 1867, four decades after Beethoven’s death by another Ludwig, German scholar Ludwig Nohl, who lives on in music history mainly for the find and as a Beethoven scholar. It is thought that Beethoven meant to add the piece to a cycle of bagatelles.

Nohl had affirmed that that original autograph manuscript (now lost) had the inscription: Für Elise am 27 April [1810] zur Erinnerung von L. v. Bthvn” (“For Elise on 27 April in memory, from L. v. Bthvn”).

So to return to the original question: who was Elise, the dedicatee of the bagatelle? The jury is still out, but there are three prime candidates.

German musicologist Max Unger believes Nohl may have incorrectly transcribed the manuscript title, which may actually have read “Für Therese”, referring to Therese Malfatti von Rohrenbach zu Dezza (1792–1851),

Beethoven's "Elise" was the name of Therese Malfatti, incorrectly  transcribed because of Beethoven's bad handwriting

Beethoven’s friend, student and one-time love interest (he is thought to have proposed to her in 1810, but that she turned him down to marry a more ‘sensible’, ‘secure’ choice, an Austrian nobleman Wilhelm von Droßdik instead). The bagatelle was found among her personal papers, so it is not improbable that it was meant “for Therese”, and a copying error led the trail to “Elise” instead.

Enter candidate number two: Could “Elise” have been German soprano Elisabeth Röckel (1793–1883),

What is the meaning of Beethoven's 'Für Elise' – and who was Elise? -  Classic FM

also a friend of Beethoven (her elder brother Joseph August Röckel, played Florestan in the 1806 revival of Beethoven’s opera Fidelio). All of seventeen at the time Beethoven is believed to have written his arguably most famous tune, and whom he also wished to marry, according to German composer and musicologist Klaus Martin Kopitz. She was called “Elise” for short as well. She would eventually marry another friend of Beethoven, the Austrian composer and virtuoso pianist Johann Nepomuk Hummel (1778 – 1837). The friendship between the two composers endured many highs and lows (Beethoven’s genius hugely eclipsed Hummel’s own career) and Hummel would improvise at Beethoven’s memorial concert at the latter’s request. Bizarrely, the couple saved a lock of Beethoven’s hair, which is now in the Beethoven Center of the San Jose State University.

But perhaps not as bizarre as all that, or maybe even worse: Russell Martin, in his book ‘Beethoven’s Hair: An Extraordinary Historic Odyssey and a Scientific Mystery solved” writes in the very first page that “By the time he was buried, Beethoven’ head was shorn by the many people who wanted a lasting memento of the great man.”

The Peculiar Tale of Beethoven's Hair | Books & Manuscripts | Sotheby's

In 2020, Kopitz published an extended English version of his original research in German in The Musical Times, titled ‘Beethoven’s ‘Elise’ Elisabeth Röckel: a forgotten love story and a famous piano piece.’ He makes a compelling case for Elisabeth Röckel being the “Elise” in question: she was called “Elise”, was a close friend, knew Beethoven during the timespan of all the available sketches and source material for WoO 59, and departed from him in April 1810, the time of the dedication. She ticks all his boxes. That Beethoven laboured over it for two years possibly signifies it could have been a true labour of love. Kopitz also speculates that “Elise” is implicitly spelt out using German terminology for music notes (E flat is the enharmonic equivalent of D sharp; E flat written as ‘Es’ in German and sounds like ‘S’). But he also concedes: “Of course, everyone may form their own opinion.”

Lastly, how about another “Elise”? Another German soprano Elise Barensfeld, born Juliane Katharine Elisabet Barensfeld (1796 – after 1820),

enter image description here

was put forth as a possibility by another German musicologist Rita Katherine Steblin. Barensfled was another friend of Beethoven although it isn’t clear how close; possibly she was his piano student. She would have been just thirteen at the time of the dedication.

“Für Elise” was in the news earlier this month for very non-musicological reasons, however. When Russian police arrived to arrest ophthalmologist Dr. Anastasia Vasilyeva,

The Kremlin's crackdown - When the police came for Anastasia Vasilyeva, she  played Beethoven | Prospero | The Economist

the head of a medical union linked to opposition leader Alexei Navalny, breaking down her front door at 3 am Moscow time, she was prepared (as The Economist put it on 1 February 2021) “not with her lawyer, or a suitcase packed for a spell in detention, but with a highly polished performance of Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ on her white, upright piano.” The scene that unfolded “combined the political farce of Armando Iannucci with the high camp of Pedro Almodóvar”. In the video that went viral, you watch and listen to Vasilyeva continue playing while an officer asks her to sign a paper to surrender her phone and computer for inspection. “You could applaud”, she tells the policewoman after her performance.

Music as protest is not new to Russia or to Soviet Union before it. An eloquent case in point is Dmitri Shostakovich who had to stash many of his compositions away from Stalin’s censors, and leave tantalising encoded defiant statements right under the censors’ noses in the works that did get published.

Beethoven’s music has been a mine of inspiration for protest, but usually the go-to pieces have been his revolutionary symphonies, notably his Third, Fifth and Ninth. This is the first time one of his lighter miniatures has been called into service for this role. The reasons Vasilyeva chose it might be practical ones: she had to work with what she had to hand (her upright piano) at short notice; it might have been a piece she particularly loved, or could summon up the wits to perform at 3 am at an obviously very stressful time for her (she is still under house arrest and not allowed to give press statements).

But what is intuitively clear is this: 250 years after his death and close to two centuries after his death, if Beethoven in the after-life could see how his music (even his bagatelles!) is still being turned to, in order to strike a blow for Justice and Freedom, one can almost hear him chuckling in approval and delight.  A caged bird can still sing, whether in India or in Russia.     

(An edited version of this article was published on 28 February 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Classical Music of Chick Corea

On 9 February 2021 the world of jazz bid a tearful goodbye to ‘iconic jazz composer, keyboardist, bandleader, and occasional percussionist Chick’ Corea (born Armando Anthony Corea), who died at 79 of cancer at his home in the Tampa Bay area of Florida, US.

But like so many great musicians across genres, his initial solid foundation was in classical music, and that remained an influence for the rest of his life.

As his father (also Armando) was a jazz trumpeter, Corea was surrounded by various jazz styles, ranging from Dixieland to bebop.

Although Corea was introduced to the piano by his father at age four, and the initial years were ‘exploratory’, at eight he began taking formal lessons with concert pianist Salvatore Sullo, who opened up the world of classical music to him.

Today Sullo seems to be remembered solely as the instructor to his famous pupil, but he seems to have been quite the celebrity in his own right. He performed with the Boston Pops Orchestra under the renowned Leopold Stokowski. A New York Times review of his recital on 10 March 1935 at the city’s Town Hall declared that “Virtuoso Spirit” was “displayed in music of Classical, Romantic and Modern Periods.” It continued: “He has clear technic [sic], a clear articulation when he does not yield to excitement and rush tempi.”

Another review in the Boston Globe, dated 18 April 1953 by Cyrus Durgin, reported that Sullo’s playing “represents genuine musicality and a formidable technic.”

Such accolades shouldn’t be surprising, given that Sullo himself had studied with the great pianist-pedagogue and conductor Alfred Cortot (1877-1962) through whom Sullo (and therefore Corea) could trace a pedagogical lineage to Frédéric Chopin.  

He was also “foreign judge” at “Final Degree Exams in Principal Conservatories” in his country of origin, Italy, in 1965 and 1967. It was Sullo who first sparked Corea’s interest in musical composition.

Interestingly, at the same age that Corea began studying with Sullo, he also took up drums, which perhaps inevitably would influence his use of the piano as a percussion instrument. It shouldn’t surprise us therefore, that he was drawn to the music of Béla Bartók (1881-1945) who regarded the piano similarly. Shades of Bartók can be heard in Corea’s miniature works such as  ‘Piano Improvisations’ recordings of 1971 (issued in two volumes) and his wonderful 1983 recording ‘Children’s Songs’ which would lay the ground for larger compositions later.

In a 2013 interview to the ‘Santa Fe New Mexican’, Corea shared his memories of his years studying with Sullo: “My good teacher Mr. Sullo kindly showed me into Mozart and Bach’s world. He also showed me a little bit of Chopin and a few other legendary gentlemen of that era. It was my first exposure to classical music. I remember mostly enjoying watching him play — he had a lot of fun when he played. My favorites through the years have been Scarlatti, Mozart, Scriabin, and Bartók. More recently Henri Dutilleux. But that is only a short list.” 

That “exposure to classical music” must have prompted Corea at nineteen, in 1960 to enter the prestigious Juilliard School of Music New York but he would drop out after about half a year to pursue jazz.

Corea makes some interesting points at the 2013 interview, for instance, thinking of music in broader terms: “The ways that styles of music are categorized has never been of much use to me. I have learned to stay close to the streams of creativity that most attract my interest, no matter how they’re labeled…. I do best when I don’t consider musical style while I’m writing — only effects and results are important to me.”

Or take this reflection: “I always thought that if the great European classical composers had had more contact with the African and Spanish folk elements in music, they would have thrived even more.”

He readily admitted his debt to Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, whose orchestrations “grabbed his attention” when he was young, and “sounded like jazz” to him. “I consider it a great skill that I would like to improve upon to be able to make a large orchestra sound so fluent and beautiful.”  

In another interview in 2001, Corea spoke of the influence of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin (1872-1915) on his music, notably in his ‘Trio Music Live in Europe’ album (1984): “I like Scriabin’s music, I spent quite a bit of time through the years at home at the piano with scores of great composers and Scriabin is one of the composers whose music attracted me. I began to try to perform some of his early preludes, as a kind of contrasting element to put into the performance.”

In 1983, Corea wrote a Septet for Winds, Strings and Piano for performance at the Lincoln Center New York, in which the New York Times music critic Donal Henahan detected trace of Poulenc, Milhaud and Satie.     

Corea composed his first piano concerto and an adaptation of his famous signature piece ‘Spain’ for piano sextet and full symphony orchestra and performed it in 1999 with the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

In 2004, he would write his first work without keyboard, his String Quartet No. 1 for the Orion String Quartet and performed that same year by the ensemble at La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest in Wisconsin.

The festival’s artistic director, violinist Cho-Liang Lin said it was a “testament to Corea’s versatile talent” that he was able to rise to the challenge of writing a work of the “most difficult form of all classical music, the string quartet.” 

For those interested, there is a video recording on YouTube of Chick Corea performing his piano concerto with the Boston Pops Orchestra, Keith Lockhart conducting.

It also has audio tracks of him playing the same work and ‘Spain’ with the London Philharmonic under the baton of Jeff Ballard.

You can also hear the full album of his ‘Piano Improvisations’ and a 50-minute footage of the Orion Quartet rehearsing his String Quartet at La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest 2004. The give-and-take, back-and-forth between composer and musicians in the creative process is fascinating to watch and listen. I thought I heard the influence of Astor Piazzolla in the first movement, about 14 minutes into the clip.

In the video, Corea speaks of how important rhythm is to him, especially in jazz, but he seeks it in all music that he finds appealing. He quotes Duke Ellington’s song title ‘It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.’ 

You certainly get the ‘swing’ feeling in all rhythm-imbued five movements of the work, which Corea chose to call, intriguingly, ‘Adventures of Hippocrates’ (after a robot-like character named ‘Hippocrates’ from L. Ron Hubbard’s sci- fi series Ole Doc Methuselah).

Of all Corea’s classical music compositions that I had access to, I feel this one is most likely to enter the performance repertoire.

(An edited version of this article was published on 21 February 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The Django of the Violin: Clayton Haslop

Even if you’re not much of a movie buff, you’ll have seen at least one or more of these films:  Titanic, A Beautiful Mind, The Mask of Zorro, A Perfect Storm, Apollo 13, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Matrix, Jurassic Park III, Benjamin Button, Up, Star Trek, The Incredibles, Mission Impossible II, Alias, Lost.

That means you’ve heard the violin-playing of Clayton Haslop in these and innumerable others, even more so if there were violin solos (pay attention to them the next time you get Ratatouille and Up on your cable TV).

A student of the legendary violinist-pedagogue Nathan Milstein (1904-1992) in his youth, Haslop joined the professional world of music as a teenager when he was invited by Sir Neville Marriner to join the first violin section of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He quickly rose to be one of the leading violinists of his time. He has played internationally and at home both as soloist and as a member of several recognized ensembles including the Los Angeles Piano Quartet, the New Hollywood String Quartet, and the Haslop/Sanders Duo (violin and guitar). He has served as Concertmaster of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles Music Center Opera, Dallas Opera, Santa Barbara Symphony, and several festival orchestras. He has also served as concertmaster for the Oscar Academy Awards.

Haslop has performed on over a thousand motion pictures and currently serves as concertmaster in studio orchestras for today’s renowned film composers ranging from James Horner to Alexander Desplat to Don Davis, Michael Giacchino and many more.

Haslop’s warm tone colour has been compared by the San Francisco Chronicle to Arthur Grumiaux, another violin great of a generation ago. He has been called “a consummate musician with amazing versatility and style.”

Studio orchestra musicians don’t get enough credit, and are often taken for granted. But most of them are top-notch musicians; just as Haslop studied with Milstein, others like him have been the students of Jascha Heifetz, Mischa Elman and other pedagogues of superlative caliber.

Sadly, around the age of forty, Haslop began to struggle with a medical condition called focal dystonia, a relatively rare neurological disorder (affecting 30 in every 100,000 people in the US) that can result from overuse or repetitive stress and tends to affect musicians, golfers and other activities involving repetitive strain. The disorder can affect the hands, causing the fingers to curl into the palm or extend outward without control.

Haslop began noticing weakness in the left ring and little fingers (what bowed string-players term the third and fourth fingers). After a few months, he realized it must be focal dystonia. He knew of the condition as it had also afflicted the American pianist Leon Fleischer (1928-2020), causing him to lose the use of his whole right hand. Fleischer was still able to teach, and to play works written exclusively for the left hand, such as Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.  

For a while, Haslop was able to adapt his technique and still employ the affected fingers to some extent. He got by in this way for about twelve years, still actively playing on the professional circuit. He could practice differently and anticipate problems in advance and make adjustments. He could continue to perform the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky violin concerti as soloist in this new way.

But then, quite literally, “to add insult to injury”, as he put it in an interview to The Strad magazine, he dislocated his left shoulder in  a skating accident, weakening the ulnar nerve  that came into play for motor control of those very fingers. Now it was not just the unwanted contraction and curling of those fingers from the dystonia, but even lifting them off the fingerboard became difficult.

This could have been a career-ending stumbling block, and Haslop was understandably devastated. But then, he thought of the great jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt (1910 -1953), who had to reinvent his guitar-playing technique after extensive burn injuries also deprived him of his left ring and little fingers. In fact, Reinhardt’s peak years with violinist Stéphane Grappelli and the Quintette du Hot Club de France, were actually after that fateful injury.

Reinhardt’s example offered hope to Haslop.

“I can’t play everything I used to,” says Haslop. Yet incredibly, he is still able to play quite a few of the fiendishly challenging Paganini caprices and several other repertoire works that would daunt many a fully-fingered violinist.

Haslop has been challenged to rethink many basic technical issues, such as position shifts, getting around the fingerboard, keeping the same tone ‘colour’ when crossing strings, fingerings, playing in half-positions and using extensions much more than he did in the past. “Having just two fingers to play with actually increases your choices of fingerings.” For instance, in any given position, Haslop has taught himself to play many more notes with his second finger than he would have done with the use of his other fingers. “It opens the mind to possibilities and options. I feel like I’m more musical. I get inside the music more.”

Haslop reckons that the left middle finger is the best finger for one’s “sound” and considers himself relatively fortunate that the dystonia didn’t affect his left index and middle fingers instead of the ring and little finger.

He admits there were “dark times”, low periods when he was ready to quit and file for disability pension, particularly after the shoulder injury. “That’s when I decided to do the Django.”

“I owe a lot to Django Reinhardt”, he acknowledges. The difference between the genres, jazz and classical music, meant that Reinhardt could improvise riffs and licks that suited his situation. In classical music, one has less room for maneuvers in following a pre-notated score. 

There are times when Haslop’s mind switches back to his earlier playing days, and he experiences something akin to the “phantom limb syndrome” of an amputee, where he thinks he’s using his third or fourth fingers but is actually playing using the second. 

Incredibly, Haslop is still working in film studios, such is the high regard for his musicianship in the professional circuit. Colleagues and employers are aware of his medical condition, but the power of his playing is undiminished. Occasionally, he can will the affected fingers into action, but it’s a weaker sound, so he prefers to re-finger the music. The nature of studio recordings allows him to rest fatigued muscles between takes so they are ready for the next take.

Whether one is a musician or not, Haslop’s story is a compelling one and will inspire anyone going through some form of disability, encouraging them to push past limitations and keep striving despite all odds.

For those interested, Haslop’s two-fingered performance of the Tchaikovsky violin concerto (one of the most loved and among the most difficult in the repertoire) is on YouTube and The Strad website.

This Valentine’s Day, I thought it would be refreshing to highlight a different sort of passionate love, for the violin, for music and for matters of the Art, even triumphing over a seemingly crippling condition to achieve it.    

(An edited version of this article was published on 14 February 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

The ‘original’, Chinese Aladdin

The influence of Hollywood and Walt Disney studios is inescapable, I guess even more so when you are parent to a child. Whether reruns of the controversial 1992 animated musical feature film (controversial for its Orientalist and Islamophobic casting of the characters and storyline)

Image result for aladdin 1992

or its more recent (even more controversial for the above reasons and for its choice of leading roles) 2019 live-action remake,

or images from those films on schoolbags, lunch boxes, they assail you at every turn.

To be fair, the films do have catchy tunes, and I got swept away by them too when the 1992 film was released. My cousin’s bride sang ‘A Whole New World’ at their wedding shortly after it was released.

But what surprised me, and I can’t have been the only one, was the depiction of Aladdin as Middle Eastern, whereas the storybooks of my childhood told me he was Chinese. Do any of you remember that?

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_20200823_155855472.jpg

Then you will also remember the catchphrase ‘New lamps for Old!’, the line used by the ‘bad guy’ in the fable (a sorcerer, not a Vizier or Wazir as in the Disney version) to trick Alladin’s unsuspecting wife to part with the magic lamp at some point in the story. I waited in vain to hear the line in the film.

“New Lamps for Old” was such a pervasive catchphrase from the fable that it entered popular culture. Indian poet-philosopher Aurobindo Ghosh (1872–1950) had used it as the title for one of his publications in 1893,

Image result for new lamps for old by aurobindo ghosh

his critique of the Indian National Congress of his time. An editorial remark even clarified “It is not used in the sense of the Aladdin story, but was intended to imply the offering of new lights to replace the old and faint reformist lights of the Congress.”

A Punch cartoon in the British press (15 April 1876) adapted the Aladdin catchphrase, depicting    Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli in ‘Oriental’ attire as a travelling salesman, offering Queen Victoria the imperial crown of India, “in a spoof cartoon on an Arabian Nights tale (Aladdin’s new lamps for old)” with the caption “New crowns for old ones!”

Image result for new lamps for old  Punch cartoon in the British press (15 April 1876

“New lamps for old” was representative of the Aladdin fable. So its omission in both the Aladdin films was quite conspicuous.       

I found the storybook from my childhood during this lockdown and the images accompanying this column are from there.

The opening song in the 1992 film is called Arabian Nights,

an obvious reference to One Thousand and One Nights,

Image result for One Thousand and One Nights

a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age, between the 8th and 14th centuries. But one learns something new every day: the story of Aladdin, and even the story of Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, is actually ‘orphan tales’ and not actually part of the collection. Aladdin has no authentic Arabic textual source, and was inserted into the French translation of the collection (Les mille et un nuits,

Image result for Les mille et un nuits
Image result for Antoine Galland

published in 12 volumes between 1704 and 1717) by French orientalist and archaeologist Antoine Galland

Image result for Antoine Galland

after an encounter with a Maronite storyteller from Aleppo, Antun Yusuf Hanna Diyab. Galland inserted the fable into his book without acknowledging Diyab, who may well have been the source of more such ‘orphan tales’, certainly of the Ali Baba fable.

So in the Diyab story, and the one in my childhood storybook, Aladdin is an impoverished boy ‘somewhere In China’. His father has died, but his mother and he struggle to make ends meet. An evil sorcerer woos Aladdin, claiming to be his late father’s long-lost brother. Unlike the Disney films, there isn’t any magic carpet; that’s such a typical Middle Eastern cliché. There’s a magic ring instead, and a magic lamp, and two jinnis (genies), one each from the ring and lamp, although the genie of the lamp is the more powerful.

There’s no Jasmine; instead it’s Badroulbadour, ‘full moon, a metaphor for female beauty, which is common in Arabic literature and throughout the Arabian Nights. She’s the daughter of ‘the Sultan’. In my storybook version, she’s just ‘the princess’, daughter of the ‘Chinese Emperor.’

But why was a Syrian storyteller’s setting in faraway China? It would most likely have been used in the abstract sense to depict an exotic faraway land.

And why an Islamic name (Western mispronunciations  and misspellings obscure the fact that its is a form of a large class of names ending with ad-Din, therefore Alāʼ ud-Dīn, Allah-ud-Din, Alāʼ al-Dīn and similar transliterations, all meaning  “nobility of faith” or “nobility of creed/religion”) in China?

It could be artistic license of course, using a familiar name to the audience for whom it was intended. But then again, one shouldn’t forget that there have been Muslim communities for some 1300 years, virtually soon after the birth of Islam itself, a fact that Chinese government today wishes to obscure and erase, part of a disturbing global worsening Islamophobia.  Islamic communities have been known to exist in the Silk Route region of China since the Tang Dynasty.

Perhaps Aladdin in the tale was Uighur? I remember studying in geography class in school about the Uighur (also spelled Uyghur) community of central Asia. 

Image result for uighur china
Image result for uighur china

However the persecution of the Uighurs in China has progressively worsened, with at least 120,000 (and possibly over 1 million) detained in mass detention camps. Police surveillance has even invaded their private homes, and innocuous things such as owning books about Uighurs, growing a beard, having a prayer rug, or quitting smoking or drinking can be viewed as signs of “religious extremism”.

Aladdin could also have been from the Hui people, another Islamic community in China also with a troubled relationship with the Chinese authorities on account of their faith.  

Image result for hui people china

The setting of the Aladdin fable could also have been Turkestan (encompassing Central Asia and the modern Chinese province of Xinjiang in Western China).

Image result for Turkestan

The fable, like many good fables, has several variants, but the bare bones are similar: a poor down-at-heel boy or soldier finds a magical object (ring, lamp, tinderbox) that grants wishes. The magical item is stolen but gets retrieved with the help of another magical object. 

Unfortunately both Walt Disney versions of the Aladdin fable tend to ‘Americanise’ it far too much. This is a failing of most American film adaptations of stories from other parts of the world. One can understand the need to pander to a very large North American audience, but it still seems like overkill.

So in both versions Aladdin and the genie of the lamp have the gumption, chutzpah and street-smart lingo better suited to Brooklyn than fictitious Agrabah, while the rest of the characters are cardboard cut-out Orientalist stereotypes of a Western gaze that has changed very little over at least two centuries now. Princess Jasmine is (gasp!) a free-thinking women in a land stifled by veils and sabres.

With lyrics in the very opening of the 1992film “Oh, I come from a land- from a faraway place- Where the caravan camels roam. Where it’s flat and immense and the heat is intense. It’s barbaric, but hey, its home”, the scene is set for further Islamophobic typecasting of the Arab world. Disney had two opportunities to build a bridge between cultures, but seems to have further widened the chasm.        

(An edited version of this article was published on 07 February 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

A Date with History

A history website reminded me last 15 November of the 136th anniversary of the infamous Berlin conference (15 November 1884 to 26 February 1885),

Berlin 1884: Remembering the conference that divided Africa | Conflict News  | Al Jazeera

which formalized what historians call the ‘Scramble for Africa’ or the ‘Rape of Africa’,

The Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 | Africa's Great Civilizations | PBS  LearningMedia

with representations by imperialist European powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, France, Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Russia, Sweden-Norway and the Ottoman Empire) and the United States, but not one representative from Africa itself. It led to the carving of a whole continent by the imperial powers among themselves, drawing arbitrary lines on a map (sowing the seeds of conflict and impoverishment that persist in some shape or form) that left ‘independent’ only Ethiopia and Liberia.

Around the time I got this reminder, I was spell-bound by Ethiopian-American writer Maaza Mengiste’s 2019 novel ‘The Shadow King’ that was shortlisted for the 2020 Booker Prize. It was my first introduction to her work, and I’m hooked. Every sentence she writes is sheer poetic delight.

Maaza Mengiste's new novel “The Shadow King” out on September 24.

‘The Shadow King’ is set during Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, shining a light on the women soldiers not usually credited in African history. It is a historical period that I knew very little about until I began reading the book. But it can be viewed as an expansionist sequel to that Berlin conference.      

Coincidentally, I also came upon passing references to Polish-English writer Joseph Conrad’s 1899 controversial, much-debated semi-autobiographical novella ‘Heart of Darkness’

Heart of Darkness eBook by Joseph Conrad | Rakuten Kobo

in relation to social justice, while reading up on a seemingly unconnected topic, Konkani tiatr. Whether sympathetic or not to Conrad’s viewpoint, it is set in a post-Berlin-conference Africa and the horrors unleashed because of it.

Its after-effects would be felt in Portugal and in Goa too.

Among the points in the General Act of the conference was the principle of ‘effective occupation’, to prevent powers from setting up colonies in name only. This meant having a presence on the ground in the claimed territories.

In 1885, the Portuguese government prepared a Mapa cor-de-rosa, (“rose-coloured map”, or Pink Map) to represent Portugal’s claim of sovereignty over a land corridor (present-day Zambia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) connecting its colonies of Angola and Mozambique, creating a coast-to-coast empire from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean.

Mapa Cor De Rosa | Fans teilen Deutschland Bilder

To bolster its territorial claim, it had already sent several ‘scientific’ ‘exploratory’ expeditions led by Alexandre de Serpa Pinto

Alexandre de Serpa Pinto - YouTube

and others, even prior to the conference. Portugal laid ‘historical’ claims based on ‘discovery’ or those based on ‘exploration’, instead of the ‘effective occupation’ clause of the Berlin conference.

The Pink Map was endorsed by all participating countries at the conference, except for Britain, despite being Portugal’s longest-standing ally, gong back centuries to the Treaty of Windsor (1386), sealed by the marriage of King John I of Portugal (House of Aviz) to Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster.

Treaty of Windsor (1386) - Wikipedia
History's Unparalleled Alliance: the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty of Windsor,  9th May 1386 - History of government

Among the many reasons for Britain’s objection was the interference the Pink Map posed to Sir Cecil Rhodes’ ‘Cape-to-Cairo’ Red Line (a railway line linking Cape to Cairo, effectively bisecting the whole African continent).

Cape to Cairo Railway Project - Wikipedia
Route – Cairo2Cape

Matters between the two powers came to a head with the 1890 British Ultimatum, delivered on 11 January 1890 to Portugal, demanding withdrawal of Portuguese claims to disputed areas, including some territory that had been considered Portuguese for centuries.   

1890 British Ultimatum | 3 Minute History - YouTube
The nadir of alliance: The British Ultimatum of 1890 and its place in  Anglo-Portuguese relations, 1147--1945 | Semantic Scholar

The British Ultimatum was seen in Portugal as a breach of the Treaty of Windsor. The capitulation to mighty Britain’s demands by the unfortunate King Carlos I (who had ascended to the Portuguese throne just weeks before, on 19 October 1889) was viewed by anti-monarchists and republicans in Portugal as a national humiliation.

On 1 April 1890, the disillusioned septuagenarian Portuguese trader-explorer António Francisco Ferreira da Silva Porto, who had unsuccessfully petitioned decades before for Portuguese military occupation of ‘discovered’ areas, self-immolated after wrapping himself in the national flag, in Kuita, Angola.

The financial crisis caused by the bursting of the Encilhamento economic bubble after the first Brazilian Republic was set up two months previously (15 November 1889) only increased public unrest, although republicans in Portugal were inspired by the overthrow of the Brazilian monarchy.  

A military uprising against the monarchy took place in the city of Porto on 31 January 1891 with the rebels declaring a republic from the balcony of the city’s seat of government, the Paços do Concelho.

January 31, 1891 – A revolution that ended in bloodshed – Hey Porto

Although the rebellion was quickly put down, it was the first big threat to the monarchic regime and a sign of what would come almost two decades later, with the formation of the First Portuguese Republic following the revolution of 5 October 1910.

After the Republic was established in 1910, the road in Panjim extending from the then-existing River Navigation department (Repartição de Navegação Fluvial), where the garish casinos are today, to the Phoenix Fountain (Fonte Feniz) Mala-Fontainhas was renamed Rua 31 de Janeiro (31 January Street).

The Latin Quarter of Panjim - Fontainhas

Its earlier name was Rua 4 de Abril (4 April Street) to honour the birthdate of the Portuguese Queen Dona Maria II (Mary II 4 April 1819 – 15 November 1853, r. 26 May 1834 – 15 November 1853), called Mother of the City of Nova Goa as Panjim was elevated to the status of a Cidade (city) during her reign, on 22 March 1843.

There are two establishments that I know of on 31 January Road that reflect these important chapters in our history. One is the Barberia República,

hair salon in panjim.goa. india, Stock Photo, Picture And Rights Managed  Image. Pic. ZD8-1946475 | agefotostock

my go-to place for a haircut (and if I’m feeling self-indulgent, a shave and a maalish) which still has some of its old-world charm, the misspelled signboard notwithstanding. The current staff couldn’t tell me since when it has had the name, but it’s worth finding out.

The other, of course, is the more famous 31st January bakery (Confeitaria 31 de Janeiro, or Savoy), again my go-to place, for birthday cakes and Goan delicacies, and one of the oldest bakeries in the city.

A date with history - The Navhind Times

The establishment of the First Republic in Portugal had ramifications here in Goa. On 20 April 1911, guarantees of religious freedom and separation of church and state became law in the Republic, which meant equal opportunities for all faiths in education and employment everywhere, including Goa.

Portugal had become a constitutional monarchy after the end of the civil war (War of the Two Brothers or the Miguelite War) in1834 which extended constitutional rights to its people. These rights were extended universally in 1910 beyond Portugal throughout its empire, whose people were now viewed as citizens instead of subjects.. Although the Republic was short-lived, toppled in 28 May 1926 by a coup d’état leading to the Estado Novo dictatorship, the Portuguese citizenship bestowed on Goans from then on has changed the destinies and fortunes of successive generations. The thriving overseas Goan diasporas particularly the latest wave in the UK are testament to this.     

Isn’t it ironic? The squabbling between two European imperialist powers (allies temporarily turned foes) over outrageous spurious territorial claims on another continent (Africa) set in motion a cascade of events that has caused people from a third continent (ours) to generations later reverse-colonise those very same now-faded ‘powers’. To add to our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s comment: Sirf Goa ke log nahin, hamaara itihaas bhi bahut ajeeb hai!  

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 January 2021 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)