Video Volunteers Goa very kindly made a video documentary about the work of Child’s Play India Foundation!
Do come to our concert this Sunday (17 December 2017, 6 pm Menezes Braganza hall Panjim Goa India).
Video Volunteers Goa very kindly made a video documentary about the work of Child’s Play India Foundation!
Do come to our concert this Sunday (17 December 2017, 6 pm Menezes Braganza hall Panjim Goa India).
As I listen to BBC Radio 3 such a lot, I couldn’t resist the temptation to join an online group called ‘The Society for the Promotion of Correct Pronunciation on Radio 3.’ For the most part, I’ve just been a fly on the wall there, learning a lot about pronunciation of names of composers, operas and other matters largely musical. It has been very interesting, reading the reactions often to programmes I had just listened to.
So I read detailed debates and discussion regarding articulations, stresses, emphases, accents, vowels, sibilants, consonants, concerning most languages commonly encountered in opera, oratorios, and other choral and vocal works: Italian, German, French, Russian; and a smattering of other European languages too.
But I noticed one gaping lacuna: on the few occasions that Indian names or terms pitched up on Radio 3 programmes, or indeed even place-names further afield in the Middle East, they passed without comment, even though they had been repeatedly mangled. So I posted the following on the Society’s page:
“It’s SAA-vitri, not Suh-VEE-tree, and it’s PAAR-vati, not Puh-VAA-ti, thank you very much, dear overseas radio presenters. It’s a lazy assumption that stressing the second syllable of any Indian word is the correct way to pronounce it. And it’s not Shank-CAR (for Shankar) either. Or Muh-HASH (for Mahesh) or Rum-MASH (for Ramesh). And moving over to another country, it was never Bag-Dad. But it’s been mangled for so long that it’s become common usage. Still wrong, though. It’s really not that difficult to pronounce words properly. Not taking the trouble signifies either laziness, or a post-colonial hangover (“we’ll say what we bloody well like!”) or both.”
I was referring to references to Gustav Holst’s opera Savitri, to the token Indian girl Parvati at Hogwarts in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, to Ravi Shankar, and to Baghdad in the discussion of William Walton’s oratorio Belshazzar’s Feast. I had heard them mispronounced so often and no-one else on the group, or elsewhere, was pointing it out.
I was, however, gobsmacked when the reaction from a member of the group, ironically surnamed England, was: “Could this inappropriate post be deleted, please?”
I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was inappropriate about my post. Perhaps the remark about a “post-colonial hangover” had ruffled England’s feathers a little? ‘England’ was offended!
Thankfully the administrator of the group stepped in quickly enough, to say there was “nothing in your comment that would cause offence. It is suitably rigorous.” A few other members also spoke up in my defence, and England withdrew into a sulky silence. The last time I checked, he’d left the group.
But it brought into focus the double-standard regarding pronunciation and diction. There is an expectation on the part of peoples of the formerly-colonised world to ‘correctly’ pronounce words, names and place-names in English and many of the commonly used European languages (French, Italian, and to a lesser degree, German and others), but very little effort is made in the reverse direction.
Some years ago, a famous English writer was reading extracts from his books at a literary venue in Goa. Among several examples, he chose one passage where he mimicked an Indian’s accent in clumsily attempting to pronounce the name of an English cricketer, with hilarious double-entendre consequences. But he made a dog’s dinner of every Indian term, name and place-name in the same extract, and seemed to be oblivious to this irony, until someone in the audience pointed this out to him.
Similarly, we’ve all listened to overseas cricket commentators refer to Gavas-CAAR and Ten-dull-CAAR, and even worse contortions of the names of Pakistani and Sri Lankan players, but this is taken as the ‘norm’.
When I began living and working in England, I found people from ‘my’ part of the world (and not just India) who had learned to adapt to the host country’s ‘difficulty’ with their names. So my South Indian colleague had learned to answer to ‘Nathan’ instead of Ranganathan, Harish had become ‘Harry’, Raveendran was ‘Rav’, Mohammed had been shortened to ‘Mo’, and (this took the biscuit in my opinion) Acharya was answering to ‘Archie’!
There are two episodes from ‘Goodness Gracious Me’ (the popular sketch comedy TV show featuring Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal, Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia that explored the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life) that deals with Indian names. In one episode, the Kapoors prefer to be called ‘Cooper’ in a farcical attempt at social climbing, and outdoing the British in British-ness. (Not too long ago, on a BBC TV programme, Indian and Pakistani officials were referring to the problems in ‘Cashmere’, presumably just to match their host’s pronunciation of Kashmir!).
In the other sketch, the setting is a white-collar firm of some sort in Mumbai, at which an Englishman named Jonathan has just begun work, but there’s a hitch: all the locals have difficulty pronouncing ‘Jonathan’, so they decide to christen him ‘Janardhan’ instead!
At one hospital posting as O&G Registrar, I walked into delivery suite early one morning to find the senior midwife having a go at my Pakistani junior colleague because she had mispronounced an English consultant’s name: “It’s Davies, not Davis. Not that difficult, is it?” she said, rolling her eyes.
I decided to speak up for my colleague. I felt the midwife was nit-picking (I had found nothing amiss in my colleague’s pronunciation of ‘Davies’, at least to my ears); and she ought to have been the last person to give lectures on correct pronunciation, as she had been distorting my colleague’s name (and mine, and about everyone from ‘our’ part of the world, which meant anywhere but the UK or Europe, I guess) since the time we had begun our stint at the hospital. She was quite deaf to her own phonetic, linguistic double-standard.
So, as the song goes, should we “just call the whole thing off” when it comes to pronunciation, or is there a middle ground? How does one pronounce names, places, or just words that fall remotely outside one’s own comfort zone?
In my view, a first-time slip due to ignorance or clumsiness is only human. But it is laziness not to even try, when it is a word you will encounter and/or need to say often, and common sense tells you that people from that part of the world enunciate it differently, and their version is therefore the norm we ought to follow. Conversely, I think it is only decent and courteous to make this effort.
To give an example: German visitors to Goa often pronounce Calangute as‘Kalangooter’; perhaps they subdivide the word into two, and they therefore pronounce the second half as they would the German word ‘gute’ (for ‘good’). But if the same individual visits frequently or takes up residence here, and persists in this mispronunciation, either the person doesn’t get around that much, or is too lazy to make an effort. If the latter, it is unfortunate.
(An edited version of this article was published on 29 October 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
On our Independence Day 15 August 2017, an extra-ordinary late-night BBC Prom concert featured at London’s Royal Albert Hall: the complete, almost hour-long performance of “Passages”, the 1964 collaborative concept album of American minimalist composer Philip Glass (b. 1937-) and the great sitar virtuoso-composer Pandit Ravi Shankar (1920-2012). It was billed as the “first complete live performance” of the work, so not surprisingly the venue was packed for this historic concert.
The other draw would certainly have been the fact that Shankar’s own daughter and pupil Anoushka Shankar would be at the sitar. The other musicians were Gaurav Mazumdar (sitar and vocalist), Ravichandra Kulur (bansuri and vocals), Ameen Ali Khan (sarod), Sanju Sahai (tabla), Prashanna Thevaraja (ghatam, kanjira, morsing and vocals), M. Balachander (mridangam), Nick Abel (tanpura), Alexa Mason (soprano), Cathy Bell (alto), Peter Harris (tenor), Oliver Hunt (bass) and the Britten Sinfonia was conducted by Karen Kamensek.
“Passages” is a work I remember well from the heady days when I had joined the salaried workforce and made my monthly raids on VP Sinari near the Secretariat every pay-day directly after having cash in hand. I began to listen much more to Pt. Shankar after that introduction.
About fifteen years later, I got an opportunity to meet the maestro at this same venue, the Royal Albert Hall, through sheer chance. I had won an opportunity to participate in a BBC Proms music quiz, to be recorded there for later TV broadcast. I had heard through the music grapevine that Pandit Ravi Shankar would be coming to a concert that day, and persuaded the staff to let me meet with him. I was taken by an usher through a backstage service elevator to meet with him very briefly. He was extremely polite, and when he heard I was from Goa, he told me how much he loved visiting our land, and to my surprise, even exchanged a few pleasantries in halting Konkani with me.
“Passages has always been one of my favourite examples of collaboration, said Anoushka Shankar in a BBC interview. “This concert for me is a real treat. It’s a premiere of an album that people have loved, for nearly thirty years.” She remembers Passages being recorded when she was about 9 years old, and being fascinated by the way her father and Philip Glass each came up with themes and allowed the other to write music around them. Looking back, she feels it was ahead of its time, and probably a major influence of the way she is able to work between musical cultures, authentically, and with respect, which, to her, “Passages” is all about.
She revisited the album when she herself began composing music, and that was when the genius of the album was brought home to her. “It celebrates and sort of explores the separateness and togetherness of western and Indian classical instruments, in a way that only my dad and Philip Glass could have done.”
In 1964, Glass, having studied at Juilliard, received a Fulbright scholarship to study in Paris with the eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger. It was life-changing, not just on account of her influence, but also the exciting, stimulating milieu that Paris offered, from music to film and theatre.
In 1965, he was hired to transcribe the music of Ravi Shankar into western musical notation for a film. This experience changed his approach to composing in general, encouraging him to “drop the bar lines”, as he put it, “making all of the notes equal”.
In contrast to the Western approach to composing music, “which slices time in the same way one slices bread”, Indian music is created by a stringing together a succession of small units or beats.
Glass began studying with Shankar, and at some point in their friendship, they decided to work on a piece together, and ‘Passages’ was the result. According to Anoushka Shankar, each composer gave the other three pieces of music, and the collaboration began on the six pieces in the album: 1. “Offering” (Shankar); 2. “Sadhanipa” (Glass); 3. “Channels and Winds” (Glass); 4. “Ragas in Minor Scale” (Glass); 5. “Meetings Along The Edge” (Shankar); and 6. “Prashanti” (Shankar). The “seed of my dad’s brain” is found in the Glass pieces, and the other way around as well
Conductor Karen Kamensek has a lifelong attachment with ‘Passages’, saying it ‘blew her mind’ when it was first released. She began working with Glass at around the same time, in the 1990s, and secretly hoped that someday, she could perform the work. “This album has been in my life for so long that I’ve forgotten where the actual click came. It changed my world immediately. I think I was at university, and I said ‘I want to conduct this piece with Ravi Shankar.’ That was always a goal. And of course he passed away five years ago, and the honour is just as great to do it with Anoushka.”
With the help of Philip Glass and the Indian musicians, Kamensek prepared a performing score for ‘Passages’. She describes it as a “labour of love.” Ironically, to make the work playable for the musicians of the Britten Sinfonia, the bar lines had to be re-introduced.
“My score doesn’t look like their (the Indian musicians’) score, but you have to kind of have enough that means we can communicate with each other.”
The concert is now up on YouTube for those interested. The differences between the Indian and western musicians come through quit visibly: the orchestral musicians are slaves to their written score and to the conductor’s beat, while the Indian musicians are much more at ease, and have no need for playing from a score. But all of them seem to feel and revel in the music.
The Vedic prayer in the last segment “Prashanti” (Shankar) has a timeless message that seems ever more relevant in our own time: “Oh, Lord. Be benevolent to us. Drive the darkness away. Shed upon us the light of wisdom. Take the jealousy, envy, greed and anger from us, and fill our hearts with love and peace.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 24 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
“Would you mind Handel for a familiar name? There’s a charming piece by Handel, called the Harmonious Blacksmith.”
“I should like it very much.”
In this fashion is the protagonist and narrator (Pip or Philip Pirrip) christened Handel by Herbert Pocket, the son of his tutor, in chapter 22 of ‘Great Expectations’, the thirteenth and penultimate completed novel of Charles Dickens.
In my early years, I saw a few film adaptations and read the abridged version of Great Expectations, and they actually put me off the book for a long time, with their dreary depictions of the woeful tale of orphan Pip, ill-treated by his abusive sister and by society in general, and the nightmarish vision of Miss Havisham clad in her wedding gown, with her wedding cake still in the hall decades after her fiancé jilted her at the altar.
It is only more recently, thanks to so many classics being freely available on Kindle, that I ventured to begin reading the original unabridged novel. And it is turning out to be a very good read indeed. Despite the gloom of much of the storyline, Dickens injects much wry humour into the first-person narrative of Pip.
Pip apprentices with his brother-in-law Joe Gargery as a blacksmith when he gets older. This accounts for the nickname (“We are so harmonious – and you have been a blacksmith”, says Herbert to Pip), as Georg Friedrich Händel (later anglicised to George Frederick Handel) wrote a “charming piece” by this name.
Or did he?
“The Harmonious Blacksmith” is the popular name that has stuck to the final movement (‘Air and Variations’) of Handel’s Suite number 5 in E major, HWV 430, for harpsichord. It belongs to the set of his first eight harpsichord suites published in 1720 shortly after leaving his native Germany the same year to accept his new position at the Royal Academy of Music, London. But Handel himself did not give this particular movement its nickname. It gained currency only in the nineteenth century. Several theories therefore abound.
One version claims that Handel had once taken shelter from the rain in a smithy, and the sound of the hammer striking the anvil and got the inspiration for the tune. The ‘proof’ of this is the regular repeated ‘pedal’ note in the first variation, which is said to give the impression of a blacksmith hammering away. A slight ‘variation’ on this story is that Handel heard the blacksmith in the smithy humming the tune of the Air and incorporated it into his composition. Handel was known to ‘recycle’ melodies he came across in real life, so this sounds plausible as well.
But it is now believed that neither of these stories is true. In his 1836 book ‘Reminescences of Handel’, a good three-quarters of a century after Handel’s death in 1759, Richard Clark fabricated this neat story, even going to the extent of finding an old anvil in a smithy near Whitchurch, Edgware, and identifying one William Powell as the fictitious blacksmith (never mind the fact that he had in fact been a parish clerk). The makeover persists to this day: there still is a tombstone over Powell’s grave which reads “In memory of William Powell, the Harmonious Blacksmith, who was buried 27 of February 1780, aged 78 years. He was Parish Clerk during the time the immortal Handel was organist of this church. Erected by subscription, May 1868.”
Handel apparently did visit Whitchurch, smithy or no smithy, but he had already written the work much before this, so this cannot explain the nickname.
The actual reason for the title as for so many other musical works with interesting nicknames, might have more to do with advertising and money than anything else. The following is an extract by William Chappell (1809-1888) in the first edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music: “A few months after Clark’s publication the writer saw the late J.W. Windsor, Esq., of Bath, a great admirer of Handel and one who knew all his published works. He told the writer that a story of the Blacksmith at Edgware was pure imagination, that the original publisher of Handel’s lesson under that name (The Harmonious Blacksmith) was a music seller at Bath, named Lintern, whom he knew personally from buying music at the shop, that he had asked Lintern the reason for this new name, and he had told him that it was a nickname given to himself because, he had been brought up as a blacksmith, although he had afterwards turned to music, and that was the piece he was constantly asked to play. He printed the movement in a detached form, because he could sell a sufficient number of copies to make a profit.” Nothing sells like a good story, and veracity should not come in the way. Our media today have taken this philosophy to greater heights (or lower depths), with their own ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’.
William Chappell was a music historian (and partner in the London-based piano-manufacturing firm Chappell & Co.), so it is likely that his account is true. But to date, no copy of Lintern’s edition of the piece has been found. The earliest copy of music with the title ‘The Harmonious Blacksmith’, an arrangement for pianoforte duet, has the watermark ‘1819’.
So if not from a Harmonious Blacksmith pounding away at his anvil in his smithy, where did Handel get this tune from, then? As he so often did, Handel probably drew inspiration from himself. A passage in his opera ‘Almira’, written in 1708, is very similar. And others, from Beethoven, to Louis Spohr, Italian guitar-composer Mauro Giuliani, Francis Poulenc to Percy Grainger have mined the melody for their own use.
The Harmonious Blacksmith consists of the opening theme (Air) and five Variations upon it. At Child’s Play India Foundation’s annual monsoon concert (“Let the Children Play”, 23 September 2017, 6 pm at Menezes Braganza hall), two of our children, Irfan Shimpigar and Natsalene Estrocio, will play the opening theme of the Harmonious Blacksmith, arranged for two violins. So do come along; we promise to meet your Great Expectations Harmoniously!
(An edited version of this article was published on 17 September 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)
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).
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)
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 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.
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)
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”.
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)
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!”
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)
Some of you may recall the articles and presentation I prepared in 2010 for the birth bicentenary of German Romantic composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856).
While researching his life, I stumbled upon a story so bizarre that you couldn’t have made it up if you tried.
Schumann wrote his only violin concerto (D minor, WoO 23) in 1853, three years before his death, for his friend the young violinist Joseph Joachim.
Joachim never publicly performed this work, and retained the manuscript for the rest of his life. Joachim evidently felt the work was tinged with the mental illness that plagued Schumann in his final years and caused his suicide. In a letter, Joachim, while acknowledging that ‘certain individual passages bear witness to the deep feelings of the creative artist’, also writes of it possessing ‘a certain exhaustion, which attempts to wring out the last resources of spiritual energy.’
Schumann’s widow Clara and close family friend, composer Johannes Brahms obviously concurred, as they collectively excluded the concerto from the Complete Edition of Schumann’s works, consigning it to oblivion. Joachim entrusted the concerto manuscript with the Prussian State Library, Berlin, with the understanding that it neither be played nor published until a century after Schumann’s death i.e. 1956.
This is where it gets even more interesting. In 1933 in London, Joachim’s great niece, the violinist Jelly (pronounced Yéli) d’Aranyi apparently got a ‘message’ from Schumann’s spirit through a Ouija board requesting her to find the manuscript and perform the concerto!
She tracked it down to the library, enraging Schumann’s daughter Eugenie who forbade its performance.
To thicken the plot further, in 1937, American violinist Yehudi Menuhin was sent a copy of the score for his opinion, and he fell in love with it, terming it the “historically missing link” in the violin literature.
He also wanted to premiere the work. But the world copyright was held by Germany, now under Nazi control, and they were interested too. After the ban on all Jewish works as “degenerate”, and therefore the popular Mendelssohn violin concerto out of the repertoire, a replacement for it was urgently sought. Goebbels’ Department of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda thought the Schumann violin concerto would be the perfect substitute.
Thus began a three-sided race (d’Aranyi, Menuhin, and German violinist Georg Kulenkampff) to premiere the concerto. Kulenkampff gave the premiere in Berlin that same year, followed by Menuhin in the US and d’Aranyi in London.
Here is a recording Kulenkampff playing the concerto in 1937:
An interesting video compares the two performances:
Unfortunately I am unable to find a recording of d’Aranyi’s performance of the concerto.
An extraordinary story, which I shed light on in my Schumann presentation in 2010. Jessica Duchen, a versatile London-based author with a musical bias, used it as a springboard for a fast-paced detective thriller titled “Ghost Variations”, released recently.
The title is fitting not only because of the reference to the spirit of Schumann allegedly communicating with d’Aranyi, but also because the violin concerto shares a theme with a work ‘Geistervariationen’ (Ghost Variations) WoO 24, that Schumann wrote for piano, the melody of which he believed had been dictated to him by the spirits of composers from beyond the grave, but obviously was a theme from his own imagination that he had forgotten he had already used in the concerto. Brahms would later use this same theme in his piano work for four hands, ‘Variations on a Theme of Robert Schumann.’ Talk of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!
Duchen chose a ‘novel’ way of getting her novel published. Unbound (www.unbound.com) is an innovative way of bringing authors and readers together. How does it work? Writers pitch their ideas to Unbound, and if the team like it, they launch it on their website. The project is pitched to potential readers by the writer as well, and if the crowdfunding target is reached, the book gets published. Furthermore, the author receives a 50/50 profit split from each book sale, as opposed to 5-10% of the cover price from conventional mass publishers.
Watch her and other experts shed more light on the concerto’s history:
I am Duchen’s Facebook friend, and when she pitched the idea for her book on her Facebook page, I readily made a small contribution towards her crowdfunding target. Duchen made the target in just 12 days, drawing endorsements from far beyond just her circle of friends and wellwishers. And the reward for my support was that I was among the first to receive a digital (Kindle) version of the published book the day it was released.
The book is a gripping read, and you have to marvel at the detail in the research needed in writing it, and how Duchen manages to get under the skin of the characters in the plot, particularly d’Aranyi. I wholeheartedly recommend it to lovers of music and of good writing. In portraying 1930s Europe in free-fall towards a catastrophic world war, one can’t help see resonances with our own times.
In a recent article ‘Finding the Pearl: Why I wrote Ghost Variations’ for a writing website, Duchen describes her creative journey from the first draft of the novel in 2011 to its completion last year. She draws parallels between the 1929 Great Depression and the financial crash of 2008, and the witch-hunts, fear psychosis and insecurity, and the picking of vulnerable scapegoats upon which to pin the blame, however irrationally.
In her research for the book, Duchen had to scan newspaper archives from the 1930s, and what leapt out at her was the same “press-stirred hysteria” about “floods of refugees (then from Germany) that we are seeing today from Syria and from other conflict zones in the Middle East.
Back then, just as now with Trump and with the rise of the right-wing across the world, Hitler was at first derided as a joke by many who believed that “an unstable deluded fantasist could never take power”.
In her own words: “When I first began Ghost Variations I had no idea it would be as relevant as it has turned out… But perhaps 2016 was its moment after all, because this year brought us our own tipping point. We’re no longer on the cliff edge: we’ve tipped and we’re falling.”
Duchen summarises some lessons she herself learnt while writing Ghost Variations: “If you want to write about the inconvenient truths of today, sometimes it’s better not to hold up a direct mirror. Instead, refract the light you want to shed. Shine it through a prism of a past parallel, or a sci-fi or fantasy world. Good historical fiction doesn’t only concern the past.”
Yet she offers a positive message in conclusion: “I hope it shows there were, and there will be, people who see through lies, moral corruption and mortal danger and stand by higher principles. We’ve come through times of turmoil before; and despite huge, tragic sacrifices and horrors beyond comprehension, still people keep trying to do the right thing. There will be heroes and heroines, there will be life and there will be love. And maybe there is even a chance that in some unsuspected dimension love can last forever. Maybe that’s why I wrote this book.”
(An edited version of this article was published on 5 March 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)