I was delighted to be invited as chief guest and to play my violin at a tribute event last weekend in Margão to the late Prof. Micael Martins (1914-1999), great Goan violinist, tireless archivist, champion and orchestrator of Goan folk music and prolific composer.
Prof. Martins was a family friend; I remember him dropping in often, when passing through Panjim, to meet my father, who had been his violin student (and also of Martins’ own teacher, the towering violin pedagogue Dominic Pereira) in their Bombay years. He would talk about the project that was currently occupying his attention and time. On some of those visits to our house, he would sometimes pick up one of the violins in our house to illustrate a point. It left quite an impression; even in his later years, he played with great spirit and elegance.
In my years as a young doctor, I had the great privilege of playing several compositions and arrangements of Goan folk music by Prof. Martins, with the Gavana troupe at many locations all over Goa.
Leafing through his 80th birthday commemorative brochure that was recently presented to me by Dr. Rajendra Hegde of Goenkaranchem Daiz, one cannot help but marvel at the portfolio of staggering accomplishments by Prof. Martins especially in nurturing, promoting and extending the reach of the rich tradition of Goan folk music, from such humble beginnings in his native Orlim.
As elaborated in the seminal book “Song of Goa: Crown of Mandos” that Martins co-authored with José Pereira and António da Costa, it was church patronage of music education in parish schools that enabled the western music playing tradition to flourish and produce so many accomplished musicians, who distinguished themselves in Goa and much further afield.
During a recent visit to the archives of the Xavier Centre for Historical Research, Porvorim Goa, I stumbled upon a book by Rev Fr. Lourdino Barreto titled “Goan Vocal Music and its Appreciation” (1982, Tipografia Rangel, Bastorá Goa), where he is quite scathing and brutally honest in his observations.
While commenting that “Our motet and mando cannot bear comparison with their [western] counterpart in artistic merit”, with “the amateur-like simplicity in their structure attributed rather to incompetence than to proficiency in the art of composition”, he avers that “it is the Goan talent for performing music that obtained for Goa such renown.”
He then begs the question: “If Goa produced so many prominent artists in the past, why none now? If it had given so many performers, why not any composers?”
He answers by observing: “Obviously the opportunities given to Goans to develop their talent in each and every village in Goa exist no more, [and if this was the case in 1982, it is even worse today!], as also the occasions to show the talent provided for them in and around the Church. So it is that the innate Goan musical talent in the villages has been stifled. The cities with their music schools and private teachers’ lessons continue to offer the citizens to some extent facilities to develop musical talent. But the busy city life and lack of opportunities to show the talent hinder their progress and so the number of those who advance in training compared to those who undertake the training every year show phenomenal disparities”.
I couldn’t agree more. The collapse of the parish-church music schools, “the nurseries of Goan musical education” as Fr. Barreto calls them, has left a huge void which must be filled.
During the same visit to the Xavier Centre, I also came across a souvenir from an even earlier past: a concert brochure dated 25 May 1967, featuring a concert of “Music from the Konkan” at Cine Nacional, Pangim.
Among the performers were Prof. Micael Martins and his Orchestra, consisting of “30 top-notch players”. If one looks at the sheer numbers of Goan players in his orchestra and the Goa Symphony Orchestra that also performed the same evening, particularly lower strings (cello and double-bass), to say nothing of woodwind and brass (two each of flutes, oboes, bassoons, one clarinet, two trumpets and French horns), we have to ask ourselves whether we have progressed or regressed since then. It is an almost impossible task to find homegrown musicians able to play lower strings and several woodwinds and brass to a high enough level for serious high-quality ensemble music-making. Flying in overseas musicians (at considerable expense) for the odd concert here, and festival there, is not the solution; it only papers over the education crisis we urgently need to address.
The violin has been part of Goan folk music since the 1500s. It is an instrument long steeped in folk music tradition elsewhere in the world as well, with its beautiful tessitura that matches so closely the human voice, and its easy portability and handling.
But as Prof. Martins and so many other musicians who began to orchestrate Goan music well knew, one needs other strings (viola, cello, double-bass) and sometimes wind instruments as well to add breadth, depth and colour to our music. We need to revive the inherent strength we already possess in our violin-playing, but also build anew to create a strong pedagogical tradition across all the string register and winds.
It is with this intention, and with the additional purpose of providing social empowerment to disadvantaged children in Goa, and hopefully very soon in other parts of the country as well, that we created Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity that seeks to provide music education to disadvantaged children. We are currently in three locations in Goa, and hope to recruit and train more teachers to reach out to further locations deep within Goa and beyond. As Fr. Barreto observed, we in Goa do not lack in talent; Prof. Martins is a shining example of what can be achieved when such talent is nurtured and then taken much, much further. But it is incumbent upon us, Goan society, to provide the infrastructure for education and pedagogy, to a level that exceeds anything Goa has experienced before, to a truly world-class level.
Another exciting, glass-half-full way of looking at our predicament is that there has probably never been a better time to do this than now. India has attained the status of economic superpower, and can well afford the finance required to lay down this infrastructure. Music teachers from all over the world are interested in coming here to help us establish this, provided their financial terms are met. This is comparatively a much smaller enterprise than hiring overseas football players for league matches, and the dividends will accrue for posterity.
Much is written recently about a supposed ‘Renaissance’ in classical music in Goa. I will believe this to be true when Goa’s children are being instructed to play to a truly world-class level, across all instrument disciplines, and in every nook and cranny of the state. It is well within reach if we only make the financial and emotional investment and long-term commitment towards this objective.
(An edited version of this article was published on 10 December 2017 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)