A young, wide-eyed Anando Mukerjee leans on his toe, listening to his mother play the piano, the music of Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel echoing across the hallway. Now, as an accomplished Italian lyrico-spinto tenor preparing to deliver an operatic recital at Shikwa Haveli in Bagpath (Uttar Pradesh) on 15 February, he hopes to enthrall the audience with the same silken lilt of opera music that had so captivated him as a child.
Patna-born, Delhi-bred Mukerjee is India’s only internationally acclaimed tenor. A lyric tenor at that, which essentially means he has a voice powerful enough to be heard comfortably over an orchestra. Based in London, Mukerjee made his international debut as Rodolfo in Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème with the Belgrade National Opera in 2006, and there has been no looking back ever since. Mukerjee is least surprised at his own achievements, and neither is he frazzled by the increasing glare of the media spotlight. In fact, he’s thrilled at the prospect of garnering attention. “This particular genre of music will now resonate with India because it has an Indian face,” says the 30-year-old tenor.
His musical journey, Mukerjee says, began at home. “There was always music in the house. My father is a surgeon but he constantly interacted with the likes of Pandit Ravi Shankar and other great artistes. My mother is a trained pianist. She uses music mostly as a tool for therapy since she teaches children with special needs. She exposed us to classical music at a very early age.” Having spent a significant portion of his childhood, between the age of six and 10 in England, where he attended junior school, Mukerjee was exposed to western classical music early in life. “It’s such an important part of their culture… I was exposed to Mozart, Beethoven, Bach — the whole repertoire.” Once he returned to India to attend Delhi’s St Columba’s School, he began to play the piano as well. It’s easy to assume that any grand musical aspiration would have gripped Mukerjee by now. But the incident that ushered him into the realm of operas happened unexpectedly on a summer afternoon when he was listening to All India Radio’s classical music broadcast.
An incredibly high-pitched voice sang Here In My Heart. It was Al Martino on the radio singing what Mukerjee calls “a quasi-operatic song of the ’50s,” but admits that “it really was the trigger for me when I heard it. I thought that maybe I could produce this sound as well. And to my delight and surprise I found I could mimic it well. I began singing and learning all these operatic arias just by listening to them on the radio.”
Considering that at that point he had no access to operatic or sheet music, nor the possibility of attending conservatoires, the only thing that kept him motivated about music was his incredible tenacity and a desire to generate the sound he had felt so passionately about.
Eventually, Mukerjee joined Capital City Minstrels, a renowned Delhi choir group and sang with them for a long time. This is when he came under the watchful eyes of Sabrang, a non-profit organisation involved in educational outreach for classical artists. Anjan Ray, an acquaintance of his associated with Sabrang, asked him to sing at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. And soon enough, Mukerjee delivered his first opera recital in front of “a sophisticated audience in the home of western classical music in India” at the age of 19. He recounts the surprise on the faces of those present in the audience: taken aback by a young boy singing with a maturity and strength of voice that belied his age. “Our audiences are used to seeing an Indian playing a western classical instrument like the piano or violin or even clarinet, but it’s rare to see an Indian sing opera. However, that first experience at the NCPA was quite amazing.” And so was the experience, he says, of performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with the Symphony Orchestra of India much later in 2009.
Despite the laurels coming his way, his parents ensured that he finished his education. And so he went to Cambridge University on an Inlaks scholarship to study natural sciences, but dropped out of his PhD to train further in music. That training came not in the conventional form of attending a conservatoire. Instead he took private lessons from the likes of Kenneth Woollam and Richard Nunn at the Royal College of Music, London. Soon after, he came under the tutelage of Nicolai Gedda — an iconic Swedish operatic tenor, arguably the most widely recorded in history.
Today, Indian publications have declared him the most recognisable Indian face of western operatic music. But ask him about the genre’s lack of visibility in India, and Mukherjee is quick to refute the popular, more obvious notion that opera has no history, perhaps even no future, in India at all. “We had Celia Lobo, a distinguished operatic soprano. She was India’s first truly homegrown icon in the genre. In fact, Italian tenor singers were especially flown in to sing with her in Bombay. So there has been a tradition of opera. But yes, it was always an alien, western art form. It’s still niche.” There is a tinge of hurt bordering on disdain when he says that opera, being “an extremely esoteric art form…isn’t something people are normally attracted to. The sound produced is so strange, it’s not something most people have heard before.” And this is precisely why opera has always had a limited fan base in India with only small groups of people following it on a regular basis.
But does that make it an elite art form? Mukerjee dismisses it as a “perception block” that is set to change soon. In fact, he believes that the opera is for mass consumption. “It is mass entertainment, just like Shakespeare was mass entertainment during his time. If you look at opera, not England perhaps but certainly France, Italy, Germany and Russia, it exists there for the people, and is open to them in a way that’s highly accessible.” His excitement is palpable as he draws parallels with Bollywood, which, he feels, shares a similar ethos with the spirit of opera. “Both are melodramatic and colourful, and hence bound to find resonance in each other. There are so many songs in Bollywood movies anyway.” Mukerjee is convinced that one or two operatic pieces will fit right in. There may even be a Bollywood version of an opera, he says, sung in any regional language with Hindi subtitles. “I think that will catch on like wildfire!”
As he takes sips from his hot, steamy coffee at the lounge of New Delhi’s India Habitat Centre, our conversation meanders towards how opera as an art can be relevant to society. Though Mukerjee maintains he is an “apolitical” artist, he says he isn’t oblivious to the fact that art by its very nature cannot be so. He recounts a performance at the opera house in Mumbai in 2009, one year after the 26/11 terror attacks, when he chose to sing the improviso from Andrea Chénier, which itself is a political opera. The piece he chose was about freedom. “For the audience there, to see an Indian sing to them, as their own countryman, cutting across caste and religion, a song about freedom, was deeply moving.” And his resolve, he remarks, to tap into the political mood of the time when — and where — he performs, shall not wear out anytime soon. That is until he writes an opera himself, which is likely to be based on “some great story from India’s literary past like the Ramayana or the Mahabharata or even Mughal-e-Azam”.
For the time being, though, Mukerjee is happy performing. But will India have another Anando Mukerjee? He says that a certain kind of physique and vocal structure is necessary to be a tenor singer; a certain kind of exposure and education too. But that isn’t a thumb rule. It’s just a convention, a stereotype that is waiting to be debunked. And Mukerjee is convinced that there shall soon come a time when anyone from any background — urban, middle-class, rural — can nurture a dream of becoming the next big opera singer from India. To elucidate, he says, “If a chaiwala is, probably, going to be the next prime minister of India, there’s no reason why some little village boy cannot be the next Indian tenor.”