When I was younger, Mumbai (then Bombay) beckoned to me like a magnet. The Big Bad City was the closest metropolis geographically, and it offered so much that Goa didn’t: the fast pace, the double-decker buses, the street food. And it had a much more vibrant cultural calendar.

The cultural landscape of Mumbai was strengthened immeasurably by the creation of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) in 2006.


The story of its genesis is an interesting one. In 2003, the Chairman of the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) Mumbai Mr. Khushroo Suntook happened to be on a visit to London. While strolling along Jermyn Street, he chanced upon a performance in the local church (St. James’ Piccadilly, coincidentally also the concert venue for an orchestra I continue to play in on return visits to England, the Corinthian Chamber Orchestra) of an ensemble of 20 Kazakh musicians, and was blown away by the virtuosity and overall high standard of their playing. Suntook and the leader of the Kazakh ensemble Marat Bisengaliev met backstage, and a beautiful friendship began between them.

A couple of years later, Bisengaliev brought the Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra to the NCPA. It was then that Suntook shared with him his idea of forming an Indian orchestra. Suntook’s rationale for this was, in his own words, ‘to provide a platform of excellence for Indian players to perform at an international level.’ Bisengaliev was incredulous at first, as he knew full well what a huge and long-term undertaking this would be, but he gradually became an enthusiast too.

The SOI was born in August 2006, and has had 14 concert seasons since then. In its short lifespan, it has collaborated with internationally renowned soloists such as Tamas Vasary, Stephen Kovacevich, Raphael Wallfisch, Andrei Gavrilov, Dmitri Sitkovetsky, and John Lenehan. It has also collaborated with eminent conductors including Charles Dutoit, Evgeny Bushkov, Karl Jenkins, Adrian Leaper, Johannes Wildner, and Alexander Anissimov.

The SOI has presented great masterworks including Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The NCPA and SOI have also presented large-scale productions such as Giacomo Puccini’s lavish operas Madama Butterfly and Tosca, and the classic Cav & Pag duo (Pietro Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggero Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci) and a concert version of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

To quote from the orchestra’s website: “As India continues to establish itself as a global economic power, the creation of first-rate cultural institutions working towards international recognition will be a vital component of the nation’s growing prestige on the world stage. In creating the SOI, the NCPA is leading the initiative to develop India’s international cultural profile alongside countries such as China, Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, all of which have established symphony orchestras.”

And this is true. Much has been made of the top emerging economies of the world BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa). But one conspicuous area India lags behind in is the development of a robust classical music infrastructure. Brazil has many orchestras, the flagship ensemble among them the Sao Paolo Symphony Orchestra currently under the baton of Marin Alsop, and at least one world-famous opera house, the Amazon Theatre (Teatro Amazonas) built during the Belle Époque in Manaus, in the heart of the Amazonian rainforest.

Russia’s musical legacy of course is legendary, with the Bolshoi and Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) ballet companies, and scores of top-notch orchestras (the Moscow Philharmonic, Moscow Virtuosi, Saint Petersburg Philharmonic) and concert halls, where so much music history was made.

China has been making up for lost time with a vengeance, and the disastrous Cultural Revolution, where anything remotely ‘Western’, from Bach to the Beatles was anathema is long forgotten. Today, musicians trained in China are able to compete with their Western counterparts and ‘beat them at their own game.’ Musicians either of Chinese origin or descent have crept into the orchestral fabric worldwide (New York Philharmonic, Munich Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, San Francisco Symphony, Bavarian Radio Symphony, etc). But they are in their highest percentage in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Twelve of the 97-member strong ensemble are Chinese, and many are graduates of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music. India has no institute of higher learning of this calibre, for music. China has invested heavily in music education and performance over the last few decades, leaving India well in the shade. It boasts state-of-the-art concert halls and opera houses (seven of them in Beijing alone) complete with gleaming pipe-organs. As Zubin Mehta pointed out in a recent NDTV interview, many concert halls do not even have a resident orchestra, but such is the forward thinking that the provision has already been made for a future orchestra which will inevitably arise.

Even South Africa, a far newer nation compared to the rest of the BRICS, has a few decent orchestras (Cape Philharmonic, Johannesburg Philharmonic, KwaZulu-Natal Philharmonic Orchestras) and concert halls (Cape Town City Hall, Linder auditorium). The Cape Philharmonic hosts the now globally-famous annual Cape Town International Music Festival, an endeavour that generates a huge source of revenue to the local and national economy. Their outreach education programme extends well beyond the city limits and into the townships.

Viewed from this perspective, the efforts of the NCPA and the SOI are to be hugely commended. It is due to them that the public in Mumbai (and beyond, for those willing to make the trip) for a few hundred rupees can listen live to a Puccini opera performed to a very high standard, complete with lavish sets, or to a Mahler symphony, or a Liszt piano concerto.

More importantly, the SOI becomes a platform for our own youth to perform, to get trained, and make a livelihood out of their music-making. Three Goans (Eshvita Nazareth, Ashley Rego, Elvina Fernandes) have played in its string section, and several Bombay Goans continue to be in their ranks. All will readily testify that their stint in the orchestra vastly improved their technique and broadened their musical horizons.

The NCPA chairman will be in Goa this coming week to meet with us at Child’s Play (India) Foundation, and with the Kala Academy Chairman. A partnership between Goa and the SOI can be the beginning of another beautiful friendship.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 17 November 2013)