Those of you who came to Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual monsoon concert on 20 August 2016 at the Menezes Braganza hall will know we had visiting musicians from the Purcell School of Music and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with us for a brief stint.

Some of them (Matthew Higham and Jenny Clarke) were keen on familiarising themselves with local music during their visit. At our concert, they were introduced to ‘Sobit amchem Goem’, the much-loved paean to Goa, with lyrics penned by the famous Goan poet Manoharrai Sardessai.

I also decided to take them to a screening of Bardroy Barreto’s ‘Nachom-ia Kumpasar’, which has twenty of the legendary Chris Perry-Lorna cantaram.

Even so long after the film’s release, it still draws a near-full house each time, with many in the audience returning (as I was) to see it more than a few times. The film is not subtitled, so I sat myself between my guests and translated wherever necessary. But the songs were a different matter altogether. My guests were spell-bound through all of them; no translation required in the universal language of music. They admired the verve-filled playing and singing in the film soundtrack, but also the beautiful craftsmanship in the score-writing and orchestration of the songs. For days afterwards, I’d catch them jauntily humming to themselves a snatch of the melody from the songs.

As we walked home after the late show, they pressed me to explain portions they hadn’t fully understood. At the beginning and end of the film, as well as when Vijay Maurya’s Lawry Vaz pensively polishes off his trumpet before returning it to its case, the narrative touches upon the ubiquity of the Goan musician in Bombay’s music scene, creating history but being airbrushed out of it.

As the film’s Facebook page states, it is as much about the Goan musician in Bombay as about the protagonist couple (Lawry/Donna; Chris/Lorna): “Nachom-ia Kumpasar is a nostalgic musical tale set in the times these musicians lived and died in – unrecognized, unappreciated…and unsung.”

This month also happens to be the tenth anniversary season of the Symphony Orchestra of India in Mumbai. To mark this milestone, my friend Hannah Marsden wrote a piece titled “A Symphony Orchestra in Bombay” in Serenade, “India’s first online portal dedicated to the promotion, growth and awareness of Western classical music”.

Marsden is a PhD student from London, writing her dissertation on western classical music in Mumbai. She has spent much time collating material that produced her article. Just going by the photo credits, her sources include the Jules and Olga Craen Foundation, the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, the Symphony Orchestra of India archives, and the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation.

According to her research, the first orchestral venture in the “city that never sleeps” began in 1920, the initiative of Edward Behr, “a German citizen educated at the Royal College of Music London” who at the time was conductor of the Governor’s Band and leader of many light opera productions in Bombay. She quotes his June 1920 letter to the Times of India elaborating his idea of commencing a symphony orchestra: “….the orchestra would be for the people, it should be of the people also – that it should consist of Indians. Mahomedans, Hindus, Parsis, Goanese, Anglo-Indians, in short, of any musical talent to be found in this country strengthened by capable European players in different sections of the band.”

I found it interesting that the “Goanese” should find mention as an entity in their own right, and at the very birth of such an important musical endeavour in by then the most important city on India’s west coast.

Marsden points out the significance of the formation of such an eclectic ensemble: “A mixed religion, mixed ethnicity, mixed gender [Behr had also indicated in his letter that he “should take women as well as men”] orchestra would have, for its time, been a highly controversial and progressive notion. This level of cosmopolitanism was unheard of in European orchestras, and would certainly have been groundbreaking in Mumbai.” 

Behr’s initiative, the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, died out due a lack of funding in 1928, only to be revived again by virtuoso violinist Mehli Mehta (father of Maestro Zubin Mehta) and Belgian conductor Jules Craen in 1935.

Marsden’s article has a mention of the Goan contribution again in her reference to a contemporaneous local newspaper report: “The Bombay Symphony Orchestra, in which Parsis, Muslims, Hindus, Goans, Hungarians, Frenchmen, Germans, Austrians and Englishmen combine to produce harmony. Mon. J. Craen the conductor claims to lead the most cosmopolitan orchestra in the world.”

Reading both accounts (Behr’s letter and the above newspaper quote) however, I was aware of a curious pecking order, where “Goanese” or Goans feature third or fourth in line, in the description of the various groups that made up the orchestras. Could this really reflect the numerical strength of these component groups in descending order?

If the programme of the Symphony Orchestra of Bombay concert in 1952 (featuring Yehudi Menuhin as soloist, performing both, the Mendelssohn and Beethoven violin concertos in a single evening) at Regal Cinema is any indicator, Goan musicians formed a sizeable proportion of the ranks of that orchestra. I was able to count 30 names that were almost certainly of Goan origin among the 81 orchestra members.

As part of the research for her thesis, Marsden contacted me for information on Vere da Silva, Goan solicitor as well as violin virtuoso and conductor, who was a relative, and a huge influence on my own musical upbringing. I put her in touch with his family, and furnished whatever material I had at my own disposal.

Vere da Silva finds mention in her Serenade magazine article as well: “By 1955 the second Bombay Symphony Orchestra had fizzled out, as had its namesake before it. In 1957 it was briefly reformed by a Goan lawyer named Vere da Silva, under a new name, the Bombay City Orchestra, but again faded when da Silva left to pursue a career in law in the U.K.”

In this column two years ago, I had described the historic 1957 concert of the Bombay City Orchestra under his baton featuring the famous American contralto Marian Anderson. There is rare film footage in the University of Pennsylvania archive “Marian Anderson: A Life in Song” of an aria (‘Mon couer s’ouvre à ta voix’ from Saint-Saëns’ opera ‘Samson et Dalila’) performed at that concert.

Marsden’s general comment that “the story of the Symphony Orchestra in Bombay was one of passion but also one of frustration” and that “dedicated amateurs always played in Bombay’s orchestras for love rather than money” applies just as much to the Goan musician.

There are no further overt references to Goan musicians in Marsden’s article, but the Goan contribution in both the existing orchestras in Mumbai, the Bombay Chamber Orchestra and the Symphony Orchestra of India, continue to this day.

(An edited version of this article was published on 18 September 2016 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

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