Understanding India’s roots of Western classical

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By Frederick Noronha

P1120174Western Classical music first came to India as a extension of the colonial encounter, but over time it has become “an essential part of Indian culture”, says scholar Sebanti Chatterjee who has recently done her M.Phil on the subject.

Chatterjee’s study is a comparative study of the practices of Western Classical Music across three areas — Mumbai, Kolkata and Goa.

But while Western Classical has stayed a “marginalised presence” in India, musical elements of this genre “get comfortable absorbed in other musical styles — both in the realm of indigenous and Western music”, comments the scholar.

With the curiosity of the scholar and the soft-spokenness of a research student, the young lady plans to shortly take on her Ph.D. in this rather unusual field – Western music in India.

Tracing its history, she notes the importance to understand the Western Classical music scenario in late eighteenth century Anglo-Indian society. The 1760s and 1770s saw rise of all male musical clubs with limited access granted to the ladies, such as Catch club. In the 1780s there was a lucrative business of supplying Anglo Indians with music and instruments.

There was a noticeable professional merging of roles of a performer, teacher or a retailer. “Calcutta like ‘Golden Goa’ two centuries earlier, with its cosmopolitan environment attracted many freelance musicians. The concerts and musical events were held in theatres, churches, old court house, ‘harmonic tavern’ modeled on the performance pattern in London,” comments Sebanti.

A short period during 1780s enjoyed amalgamation of Indian and European musical styles which produced ‘Hindoostanie air and nautch music’ which faded away after considerable success.

There were other developments along the way. For instance, the debate over the playing of the Sitar — the method propagated by musician Krishnadhan Bandyopadhyay modelled on the Western notation system, and the ‘akar matrik’ or vowel sign notation devised by Jyotirindra Nath Tagore for transcription of Indian music — which assumed central importance in the musical life of 19th century Bengal.

She told this writer: “My research interests in Western classical music took an academic turn when I got the MA level JU-Sylff scholarship for a year, under the Jadavpur University-Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund, Tokyo. In 2009, I found out that the Max Mueller Bhavan was doing a teachers’ training programme for Indian educators teaching Western classical music. They were focusing on Goa, Bangalore, Mumbai and Kolkata.”

Incidentally, Chatterjee’s M.Phil concentrates on music pedadgogy — classroom teaching, methods, applications.

It talks about music and socialization. Then she goes on to the German music pedagogy and subtleties associated with it. Next, she moves to her own ethnography. She adds: “I spoke to select music teachers across Kolkata, Mumbai and Goa to know about individual methods. Finally I look at (Goa-based medico Dr) Luis Dias’ street childrens’ orchestra, Childplay, based on El Sistema, as another approach to music pedagogy. Apart from the pedagogy, I talk about performance, politics, patterns and spaces surrounding it across Kolkata, Mumbai and Goa.”

Chatterjee says she had specifically restricted herself to Mumbai, Goa (Panjim), and Kolkatta. “I found that Kolkata does not have the musicians and audience for opera, voices but has a great appeal in chamber music, orchestra music, solo instrument and quite a developed nature of Classical guitar. Mumbai is commercially and aesthetically quite advanced but does not have much urge for the classical guitar while it excels in opera, orchestra, chamber music, solo music, voices. Goa embraces all kinds of music. It perhaps lack the commercial zeal. Otherwise classical guitar, opera orchestra, voices — everything is well nurtured and appreciated in Goa.”

She notes that Goa is unusual in that it has a State-funded Western classical music learning centre. It also promotes all kinds of music that falls within the genre of Western classical music.

She says the people she interacted with in Goa “each had a different story to contribute” — Myra Menzies, Dr Luis Dias, pianist (Professora Margarida) Miranda, Rui Lobo (guitar), Teresa Figueiredo (cello, Kala Academy), Ashley Rego (violin), Elvina Fernandes (viola), Maria Gorretti (violin).

Her work falls under the category of sociology of music. Chatterjee adds: “I have done an ethnography of select music institutions — which are sites of learning and performance. I have ofcourse accorded equal importance to the various agencies — the musicians, audience, sponsors and have come up with the concept of ‘Auditory Bargaining’ which involves a discursive process amongst these three agencies in determining a concert schedule. I have not looked at the role of music critics who also have a considerable part to play in ‘Auditory Bargaining’.”

She feels that, academically, Western classical music in the Indian context is under-researched.

She says respondents told her that prior to the be3ginning of their performing careers in the 1960s and 1970s, “there was a thriving musical life in Bombay.”

Says Chatterjee: “If Christian institutions were important in giving Western music a grounded space, then the Diaspora was influential in providing a different register and facilitating in the process of new movements of ideas, instruments and people.”

Others have also pointed ou how Jazz was imported to India when African blues were wedded to the European music and instruments. The Maharajas and the British endorsed this music to bring life to social gatherings. Local groups — such as Goans who had migrated to Bombay in sizable numbers — made significant musical contributions. Anglo Indians were the other community who had a good knowledge of Western classical music. Both quickly adapted to jazz.

Earlier bands had Whites gaining the top spots eventhough Goans comprised the core of the band. With Pianist Sonny Lobo as the leader, the first ethnic Indian band was hired by the Taj Mahal Hotel, the Mecca for band music. Goans also introduced Western harmony to the Hindi Film Music Industry.

Chic Chocolate famously known as the Louis Armstrong of India also introduced dance music into this industry. In 1975 Jazz India was formed to support local and foreign jazz artistes. 1978 onwards Jazz Yatra, an international Jazz festival attracted the best talents from all over the world, the scholar points out.

She traces the growth of its trajectory. Rock music gained momentum mid 1960s. She adds: “Goans are still leaders when it comes to imagining differently about Western classical music. They have come up with the first guitar guild and also the concept of street children orchestra. The only lacuna the Goans probably have is their lack of commercial impetus and planning.”

Chatterjee can be emailed via sebanti@gmail.com


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