Playing Mozart in Mumbai

Perfect symphony Members of SOI during a rehearsal
Perfect symphony Members of SOI during a rehearsal
Photo courtesy: NCPA

Zane Dalal is a tall, slightly thickset man who appears as if he’s used to commanding attention. Even without a baton in his hand, when he talks, it seems like he’s conducting an orchestra. His fingers point outwards and his arms slice the air as he demonstrates the soundscape of Mumbai. Sitting on a bench in a shady spot at the sprawling National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai, he’s trying to answer the question, what is the biggest challenge in sustaining a professional orchestra of Western classical music in a country like India? Various sounds waft in from outside, of waves crashing against rocks, car radios blaring Hindi movie songs and the sound that takes over the city for a fortnight every year at the end of monsoon, the Ganesh Aarti. “Do you see what I mean? We are putting together an orchestra of Western classical music in a country where the soundscape is not Western at all. When my musicians step out of the rehearsal hall, they leave behind that world to enter another. That is the psychological challenge we face,” says the resident conductor of the Symphony Orchestra of India.

Western classical music in India is accorded the status of a quixotic hobby — impractical, unsustainable and needless. Zubin Mehta’s concert in Kashmir earlier this month was the one time that politics ensured that names like Tchaikovsky and Haydn made it to the front pages of newspapers. One of the few heartening things to have happened to Western music in India is the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), the country’s only professional orchestra, formed by the NCPA Mumbai, in 2006, with about 80 members drawn from 25 countries, of which only eight are Indians. At seven years, SOI (which has performed internationally and is a member of the Alliance of Asia-Pacific Region Orchestras) is a mere child in the world of orchestras, where the ones from Europe trace their history to more than hundred years, and Asian ones like Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo have been around for decades. When the question of countries like South Korea, China and Taiwan producing virtuosos and sweeping Western music with new energy comes up, there are stock responses, why bother with Western classical when we have a tradition of Hindustani classical? Why compete with China and South Korea when they have financial and institutional support from the state?

Carol George, a 32-year old violinist and member of SOI from Kochi, explains the isolation and sometimes the absurdity of pursuing a career in Western classical music in India. “When people ask me what do you do and I tell them I’m a violinist, they ask next, what else do you do?

Nobody here understands that this could be a profession.” The son of an engineer, George took up the violin when he was eight. “There was no one I could point out to my family that this is how I want to go about being a fulltime musician.”

Most youngsters who do take up Western classical music drop out after a few years due to the rigour of daily practice combined with worried parents who see no future in it. The SOI is hoping to change that. Dalal says that for an orchestra to survive it needs to feed off music schools and conservatories, of which hardly any exist in India (Delhi, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Chennai each have a music school dedicated to Western classical). Since last year, the NCPA has been working with a number of children as part of its education programme. The results will be seen in another 10 years, says Dalal, when a new generation of Indians can join the SOI. “I’m often asked why do we mostly see foreign faces in an Indian orchestra? We take Indian musicians, but only if they match the standard of an international professional orchestra. This is not an amateur effort and we are not going to put Indian faces there for the sake of a photo op.” The education programme serves a dual purpose, it also ensures a younger audience for an art form that, in India, attracts only the older generation.

The current season of SOI at NCPA, Mumbai, will end on 30 September


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