On 11 June 2010, a bright midsummer evening in Moscow, the spectacular crystal chandeliers in the opulent Hall of Columns are ablaze with light in celebration of Russia Day. It is the finale of the Festival of the World’s Symphony Orchestras, and the audience of tuxedoed sophisticates is hushed, focused on the familiar music ringing in their ears. Now it is Beethoven’s ultimate masterpiece, the 9th Symphony, so central to music history that the original format of the compact disc was expanded from 10 to 12 cm specifically to fit it. The audience sighs almost imperceptibly when the ‘Ode to Joy’ – undoubtedly one of the most familiar and famous single pieces of music ever written – rings out, the rousing chorus on which the official anthem of Europe is based.
But look closer and you realise there is something decidedly unusual about this orchestra. They are not Russians, or Germans. In fact, they are not from any of the cultures that sustain Western music, or even from East Asia, which has embraced it so successfully in recent generations. This is, in fact, the international debut of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), a four-year-old operation sponsored by the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai – the ‘fulfilment of a dream’ for Khushroo Suntook, the NCPA chairman.
‘I grew up listening to the “Ode to Joy” and Beethoven’s 9th,’ smiles Ashley Rego, a 25-year-old violinist who has been with the SOI since its inception. ‘Moscow is known for producing the best string players in the world, so playing here is a great honour.’ Rego is one of several Goans who play full-time for the SOI, but a close look at the rest of the players reveals that Indians constitute just a handful of the 109 members. In fact, the SOI is a grab-bag of musicians from 14 different countries, with a particularly large contingent representing Kazakhstan, the home country of the SOI’s music director, Marat Bisengaliev. Indeed, when this ambitious new venture was launched, in 2006, there were only 10 Indians recruited to play in a crowd of musicians from the former Soviet Union. After four years, there are now 15 Indian regular players – a bit more than ten percent of the total contingent, but still a considerable distance from constituting a ‘national’ orchestra worth the name.
The Moscow concert does constitute a milestone for the SOI, however, and bodes well for the future development of a culture of Western classical music in the Subcontinent. But forgotten in all the hoopla about this ‘pioneering Indian orchestra’ is that it comes only after long decades of deliberate stifling of Western classical music in India, and a full 52 years after the first proper symphony orchestra in India was founded – and then disbanded. What is more, the Indian Symphony Orchestra that performed several times in 1958, under the baton of the visionary Anthony Gonsalves, was constituted entirely of Indians, and even played a repertoire of ‘raga-based symphonies’ that remains completely unique in the history of Western classical music.
Indeed, most people do not realise that so-called ‘Western music’ was being played by Indians in India, and was already well established hundreds of years before the sitar was invented or tablas made an appearance in what would much later become enshrined as Hindustani music. Wrong-headed nationalists like to trumpet the credentials of the music that emerged from post-Mughal North India as somehow more ‘Indian’ than, say, a violin concerto. But this is an absurd and ahistorical argument, completely ignorant of the history of India’s Western coastline.
East is east?
For thousands of years, the Konkan and Malabar coasts have been engaged in trade and cultural exchange across the Arabian Sea. Trading communities ranging from the Mediterranean all the way down the East African coastline came and went from the ports of this ‘spice coast’. Christianity had established permanent roots in India before it arrived in Europe, and there were significant Christian communities all along the Konkan and Malabar coastline many centuries before England, Spain or Portugal saw their first convert.
So there must have been so-called ‘Western’ music played in this part of India long before the Portuguese naval officer Alfonso de Albuquerque seized Goa in 1510, many years before the first Mughal set foot in India. However, it is the spate of church-building that he set off that really gave the music Indian roots. The Portuguese proved indifferent to most kinds of education; however, they did see a need for many musicians to play church music, in the wake of the coerced conversions that created hundreds of thousands of Konkani Catholics during the 16th and 17th centuries. Within months of his conquest of Goa, de Albuquerque was already beseeching the king of Portugal to furnish organs for the churches that were coming up apace all over the new Estado da India. Within a generation, Western instruments were rooted in Konkan Catholic practice, and church services were accompanied by the same mix of instruments as in Europe: cornettos, violas and harpsichords.
By the 17th century, the native Goan’s expertise in church music had already become legendary. In 1683, the Italian traveller Sebastiani attended a mass in the Basilica of Bom Jesus, in Goa, and marvelled: ‘It was celebrated by seven choirs with the sweetest instrumental interludes. I felt I was in Rome. I could not believe how proficient these Canarese [referring to Goans] are in this music, how well they perform it, and with what facility.’
The centrality of music to the distinctly Goan mode of churchgoing was underlined by an historic 17th-century decree by the Vatican. Rome declared that, unlike the rest of the world, only the diocese of Goa would be allowed to use instruments (violin, clarinet and bass were specifically named) in religious ceremonies that commemorated the three days of great mourning that culminate in Easter Sunday. This indicates the extent to which these instruments had become ingrained in the Goan way of life – a full hundred years before the first sitar put in an appearance.
The musical history of the Goans was again dramatically influenced in another direction, when the British occupied the territory during the Napoleonic Wars that culminated in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. During that period, the British were delighted to encounter the Goans, who had no dietary taboos and thus often became cooks for the colonialists. They were also familiar with Western clothing, so many became tailors across the Empire. And there were very many who could play Western instruments, so thousands picked up their violins and trumpets, learned to play ‘God Save the Queen’, and trooped out of Goa to become professional musicians in Rangoon and Karachi, Aden and Singapore. In this way, Goan musicians moved all across the British Empire, even to London’s famous Ritz Hotel, where a Goan pianist still tinkles away at teatime each Sunday.
Via the prism of this history, it is ironic that the Symphony Orchestra of India of today has just a handful of Indian musicians scattered among a host of foreigners. It certainly did not have to come to this: there was a Goan orchestra playing at the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay as far back as 1916; and another during the 1920s called the Bombay Chamber Orchestra (albeit led by a German, Edward Behr), which received huge acclaim from foreign visitors. Later, Dominic Pereira became the concertmaster of another promising fledgling orchestra full of Goans, the Bombay Philharmonic. Without interference, these musical shoots would have certainly flowered into a first-rate indigenous classical orchestra. But narrow nationalistic politics stifled the opportunity, and generation after generation of piano and violin and trumpet players from India were silenced, or forced to migrate to the West.
Some became subsumed into Bollywood. Writer Naresh Fernandes has brought that period to life in a series of landmark essays. He writes
Until the 1980s, India had no pop music save for Hindi film songs. Millions memorized and hummed the compositions of C Ramachandra, Shankar and Jaikishan, Laxmikant and Pyarelal and SD Burman, whose names rolled by in large letters at the beginning of the movies. But the Sound of India was actually created by Goan musicians, men whose names flickered by in small type under the designation ‘arranger’. It’s clear. The Hindi film classics that resound across the subcontinent and in Indian homes around the world wouldn’t have been made without Goans.
The last serious attempt to form an indigenous orchestra in India was also the most promising. It came from this world of Goans in Hindi cinema, the brainchild of Anthony Gonsalves, revered teacher of a generation of Bollywood composers. An acknowledged musical genius, Gonsalves developed an abiding love for raga-based music. He immersed himself in creating symphonic music based on Indian classical traditions, and wrote several pioneering pieces of music in this vein, including ‘Sonatina Indiana’ and ‘Concerto in Raag Sarang’. In 1958, Gonsalves footed the bill to constitute 110 musicians into the Indian Symphony Orchestra, who made their debut in the quadrangle of St Xaviers College in South Bombay.
The photographs from that day are extremely impressive, but also heart-breaking when seen in hindsight. A hundred and ten beautifully dressed Indian musicians playing symphonic music with tremendous gusto, with an impossibly young-looking Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey singing along with great intensity. Standing majestically atop his lectern, baton in action, Gonsalves is poised and leonine. He looks very, very happy. But that is where the story ends, with a giant door slammed on the future of symphonic music in India. Nationalistic paranoia held that Goan musicians such as Gonsalves were suspect because they had ‘foreign names’ and played ‘foreign music’. Walt Disney instead came calling for this brilliant composer, and asked him to score a movie for them with Indian governmental involvement. But ministerial clearance never came: Gonsalves has often repeated the story of the day that the information minister told him point-blank that ‘Christian musicians cannot represent India.’
Gonsalves was crushed and bewildered by this questioning of his ‘Indian-ness’. He disbanded his orchestra, and went abroad for a lost decade before returning to retirement in total isolation in a Goan village by the sea. His unique raga-based symphonies have never been performed again, and the musicians in his orchestra scattered into obscurity. One day, his symphonies are certain to be rediscovered, championed as great pioneering works, and played in India – perhaps even by Bisengaliev and his crew of Kazakhs and other nationalities in the SOI.
It was a combination of historical ignorance, juvenile vindictiveness and cultural insecurity that killed off Anthony Gonsalves’s attempt to root symphonies in the Indian musical lexicon. The same forces conspired to enact the blanket ban on all imports of Western musical instruments, which held sway for four decades before finally being relaxed in 1995. Yet ‘demand for the music never went away,’ says Christopher Gomes, the managing partner of Furtado’s Music, which has remained in the vanguard of music education in India since 1865. ‘There were always many students who wanted to play the piano or violin, but there simply weren’t enough instruments remaining after 1947 to allow the music to spread naturally’. However, since the rules began to change in 1995, he says demand has rapidly accelerated. ‘Now we’re seeing that young people envision their future in music,’ Gomes says. ‘It’s only going to get better from here.’
Goa is certainly one place where Western classical music is re-growing its roots. The soprano Patricia Rozario is a Bombay-born musical prodigy with Goan roots who persevered to study Western classical music during the difficult days of the instrument ban, and eventually made her way to the Guildhall School of Music. She is now established as one of the leading operatic singers in the UK, with a unique style (she often wears a sari on stage) that has inspired a host of the best contemporary composers to write works especially for her. In 2009, Rozario decided to nourish her roots, touring Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Goa to identify young singers with potential. ‘There is a great deal of promising talent in India now,’ she says, ‘and there is also much more interest in this kind of music, which can only grow with exposure.’ Rozario is committed to returning each year to continue training singers, and has also promised to help them seek training abroad when merited.
At the other end of the Subcontinent, in the hillside cities and towns of Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, is another hotbed of vocal talent. Like Goa, the roots of this movement can be traced back to the church. The Northeast’s tryst with Christianity dates back to the rainy June day that the paradoxical figure of Thomas Jones walked into Cherrapunji, in what is today Meghalaya. A carpenter’s son from Wales, Jones was an avowed evangelist, but did not actually convert a single person while he was in India and was eventually kicked out of his own church. Yet Jones distinguished himself – and aggravated colonial authorities – by tirelessly dedicating himself to the material improvement of the Khasi community. The hundred years after Jones’s death saw the Khasi, Garo, Mizo and Naga turn to Christianity in a massive wave – and, again, alongside the religion came the music.
Shillong, the capital of the Indian state of Meghalaya, has been called ‘India’s rock capital’ for many years, and famously comes to a near-standstill every 24 May when the local legend and Khasi icon, Lou Majaw, celebrates Bob Dylan’s birthday with a concert. But the choral tradition of the city remains virtually unknown, even though the Shillong Chamber Choir has toured all over the world, and won a series of prestigious awards. Yet right alongside Neil Nongkynrih’s sophisticated ensemble (see accompanying story by Teresa Rehman) are thousands of other wonderful singers all across the Northeast, who have gone unrecognised to date. There are now serious choirs throughout this area, featuring singers with world-class talent. With a little recognition and support, the future could be very bright indeed.
Earlier this year, we saw what could lie ahead. A young Naga singer, Sentirenla Lucia Panicker, was awarded the highest grade of her graduating class at the Berklee College of Music, the finest institution of its kind in the US, and brought the audience at her graduation to its feet with a soul-stirring vocal performance. She says she intends to return to Nagaland, to pass on what she has learned to another generation. Without the kind of interference that destroyed the best hopes of generations that came before Panicker, it is young musicians with her kind of drive who signify a hopeful future for serious music in India – and allow us to dream of a day when the Symphony Orchestra of India actually has more than a handful of Indians in it.
~ Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer based in Goa.