Ring in the Symphony


October 3, 2008

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Bombay | Mumbai | Music

By Anil Dharker

Zubin Mehta will be in Mumbai again this month and whichever orchestra he brings with him and whatever music they play, the frenzy is always the s

ame. For a lot of Mumbaikars (and they are not all Parsi), western classical music begins and ends with the letters Z and M.
In this unlikely scenario was born two years ago the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). The people who thought of this were Khushroo Suntook, vice-chairman of the National Centre for Performing Arts, and his chairman, the late lamented Jamshed Bhabha. They found an unexpected ally in a brilliant Kazakh musician called Marat Bisengaliev.

Two years later, the orchestra is in its fifth season of concerts, but one glaring fact remains: in the SOI, there aren’t too many Indians. There has been a concentrated effort to find local musicians, but in spite of talent scouting and several auditions, there are now only 14 of them, which is a small number in an orchestra of nearly a hundred.


The question which someone can legitimately ask is this: if there’s such a dearth of talent in the country, and if the interest in western classical music is so very limited, is it worthwhile to fight against such heavy odds?

You can answer that question in two possible ways, and your reply will define your own worldview: if you are insular and complacent (or even chauvinistic) about our cultural heritage, you will say, don’t bother. However, if your worldview is broader, if you want to leave the window of your house open to the different winds that blow outside, you will say, yes, every effort is worthwhile.

Let’s look at it this way: music is one of the oldest arts. It took root in every culture without prompting, and flourished through the centuries. But what is significant is that only two of the many musical traditions emanating from different cultures went beyond acceptance and survival to become highly developed and complex art forms. Indian classical music is one, and western classical music is the other.

In interviews, Zubin Mehta has gone into the question of why western classical music hasn’t struck roots in India. “It’s because we have our very own and very strong music traditions, Hindustani and Carnatic. This is in contrast to China or Japan where there has been a discontinuity from their old classical traditions.” Fair enough reason, but the question to be confronted now is that in a world becoming smaller, where Indians move easily from one country to another, where there is transfer of know-ledge in every possible field, should we continue to say that our own musical world is enough, that we want to keep western classical music out, that we don’t want to listen to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms? So what if the western world has welcomed Indian classical music from the time of Ravi Shankar and continues to do so?

Though no one is actually saying it, the government by its actions is implying it. Countries like Malaysia and Singapore, and even Pakistan and Sri Lanka have formed orchestras with either grants from their governments or subsidies in the form of tax relief. Here the government instead takes a large chunk of ticket money through entertainment tax and gives very little by way of tax breaks for donors and sponsors.

At the same time the success of the programmes given by the SOI and the Mehli Mehta Foundation (set up in honour of Zubin’s father), show that a core of music enthusiasts survives, and it’s gone beyond the traditional Parsi and Catholic circles. Fighting odds, the two outfits not only bring in some of the world’s best musicians, but have also been training local musicians and spreading musical awareness in schools and colleges. Their efforts are energetic but small. They need help to enlarge them, so that the small circle of fortunate people who have access to the wonderful world of western classical music can become larger.

Original article here.