Why Parsis love Western classical music

Europe’s classical music is trying for us to listen to, and very few Indians like it

By Aakar Patel in LiveMint.com

To understand a culture we must examine its classical roots. No real understanding of Europe or Europeans is possible without understanding Western classical music. In his autobiographical novel Youth, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee writes of his first encounter with Hindustani music. It comes as he watches Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy on successive nights in London. “Hitherto he has found in Western music, in Bach above all, everything he needs,” writes Coetzee, “Now he encounters something that is not in Bach.” And what is this that he discovers in Hindustani music? “A joyous yielding of the reasoning, comprehending mind.”

He buys a record by Vilayat Khan and it is consistent with the film’s music. He finds the same “hovering exploration of tone sequences, the quivering emotion, the ecstatic rushes… A new continent…”

Coetzee has access to a new culture through this music. It communicates what Western music does not. The question is: How?

Hindustani music is unique in two ways. One: It operates without one of the three elements of music, harmony. It is rich in melody and rhythm but does not harmonize two separate melodies. Because of this, Hindustani music is always a monologue. The singer, or sitar player, as in Pather Panchali, offers an individual’s expression. This makes Hindustani music introverted, giving it the qualities Coetzee discovers. The reasoning mind is set aside because one man does not reason with himself. If not reason, what does Hindustani communicate to its audience? The answer is: Emotion. And it does this especially efficiently for those of us who respond to the culture. One of the few times I feel religious is when I listen to the 36-year-old Jasraj’s muscular ode to Hanuman in Hamsadhwani, on his first LP from 1966.

Two: The primary theme of Hindustani music is melancholy, and loss. There is no optimism in it, and no army ever marched to dhrupad or khayal. Wagner moved Hitler to annex the Sudetenland, and Carl Orff’s O Fortuna makes me want to do the same. Hindustani makes us retreat within ourselves. But it is a melancholy that we are comforted by. The music I go to after having a few is always Hindustani: Aamir Khan (the other one) moving magisterially through Anandi Kalyan, or Rashid Khan, at a higher pitch, more pleading, in Bageshri.

In May 1957, Nehru wrote this to his minister for information and broadcasting, B.V. Keskar, enclosing a letter: “I have been rather worried at the progressive disappearance of Western music from India. Bombay is practically the only centre left, where this is encouraged. I think Indian music will profit by contacts with Western music. I know nothing about the person who has written this letter. But, as there appear to be few Indians who have studied Western music, I feel a little interested in him.”

The content of that letter is unknown, but its writer was Adi J. Desai, a Parsi.

Nehru’s worry was justified, though he was optimistic in assuming that Western classical would survive the exit of the English. Fifty years later, it is dead everywhere in India except South Bombay. And here it is dying as one community depopulates.

In the men’s room of the Tata-built National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) midway through a concert a couple of years ago, I stood between two Parsi men. Remarking on the enthusiastic sawing of a string quartet’s cellist, one said to the other: “Brahms ketlu majha nu utu, ne! (What a delight the Brahms was!)”

Nowhere else in India would you hear that other than at the NCPA, where the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) is based. Its patron will observe two things about the SOI: Its audience is Parsi, and its exponent is Catholic.

For an annual fee of Rs10,000, one may become a Friend of the SOI. Friends get two free tickets to only one concert in the year, but they get to talk to the performers after each show. And they get to attend music appreciation talks through the year.

There are 151 Friends of the SOI (www.soimumbai.in), and 94 of them are Parsi. At Western classical concerts, half the audience is Parsi. There are only 16 Indians (most of the remaining 74 are Kazakh) good enough to play for the SOI, and 11 of them are Catholic.

Hindus and Muslims are put off by Western classical music. Why? Because it does not have the repetitive choruses we respond to. But mainly because its essence is actually to be found not in melody but in harmony. Since that is missing from our music, and from our culture, it is difficult for us to “get” Western classical. To know what Hindustani sounds like with harmony added, listen to the work of Calcutta’s V. Balsara (Parsi), especially his composition in Bilawal.

Parsis have been immersed in Western classical music for a long time. Zubin Mehta’s father Mehli formed the Bombay Symphony Orchestra in 1935 when Anna Pavlova toured India. The question is: What attracts Parsis and Catholics to Western classical music? They understand harmony, and have internalized it, truly.

This becomes clear when we observe the geography of these two communities, South Bombay and Bandra, the two most civilized parts of India. They are able to keep the anarchy of India out of their neighbourhoods without being policed. Unfortunately, because they are very small communities, their influence is eroding and soon they will be run over. At NCPA concerts, the disappearing Parsi can be discerned every year from the rising number of people who clap between movements thinking that the “song” is over.

The only reason Bandra is becoming like the rest of India slower than it would is a rule that prevents non-Catholics from buying property in its heart.

One last question needs answering: Why are Parsis and Catholics attracted to harmony where the rest of us aren’t?

Aakar Patel is a director with Hill Road Media.

  • Siloo Kapadia

    It seems that too many Parsees love anything that is deemed “Western.” I am not surprised that so many of us love their music as well.