Scep­tics be­lieved a cham­ber or­ches­tra would not sur­vive two years in a na­tion that lacks any con­ser­va­tory-grade mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion. But one has lasted 13. Ta­nia Bhattachar­ya finds out how

The National - News - - ARTS & LIFESTYLE -

It’s a balmy Sun­day af­ter­noon in late Septem­ber, and the Na­tional Cen­tre for Per­form­ing Arts (NCPA) in Mumbai is teem­ing with mu­sic en­thu­si­asts of all ages and na­tion­al­i­ties. But there’s a dis­tinctly in­ter­na­tional feel here. The night’s con­cert starts right on time, an­nounced by a bell, the old-fash­ioned way, and late­com­ers aren’t al­lowed in un­til the in­ter­val. As the Sym­phony Or­ches­tra of In­dia’s (SOI) per­for­mance pro­gresses, I re­alise I have never sat in a theatre where such si­lence pre­vails among the au­di­ence – not a sin­gle phone rings, no one talks, not even the chil­dren, and stand­ing ova­tions are re­served un­til the end.

As well as Ir­ish pi­anist Barry Dou­glas’s mes­meris­ing ren­di­tion of Brahms’s Piano

Con­certo No 2, led by Rus­sian con­duc­tor Alexan­der Lazarev, formerly of the Bol­shoi Theatre in Moscow, the or­ches­tra sails through the sprightly clas­sic

Petrushka by Stravin­sky over a thor­oughly en­gag­ing 100 or so min­utes. The bal­let is rich in rhythm and spirit, but to hear it via an or­ches­tra and still ex­pe­ri­ence it so vis­cer­ally is a tes­ta­ment to the qual­ity of the SOI, and a vi­sion born around 13 years ago to build a pro­fes­sional or­ches­tra in In­dia. “I never thought I’d end up in

In­dia,” says Marat Bisen­galiev, mu­sic di­rec­tor of the or­ches­tra. The Kazakh mu­si­cian is one of the world’s most feted con­tem­po­rary vi­o­lin­ists and also leads the West Kaza­khstan Phil­har­monic Or­ches­tra. In 2003, Khushroo Sun­took, founder of both the NCPA and the SOI, heard Bisen­galiev play in Lon­don and af­ter a cou­ple of his performanc­es at (NCPA) in Mumbai, in­vited him to set up a cham­ber or­ches­tra in In­dia.

To say it was a chal­lenge would be an un­der­state­ment. “We searched the length and breadth of the coun­try for mu­si­cians,” re­counts Bisen­galiev. “At the time, fully trained [west­ern clas­si­cal] In­dian mu­si­cians lived mostly out­side In­dia. We ze­roed in on a bunch of tal­ented adults who were self-taught and put them through an in­ten­sive crash course de­signed spe­cially to el­e­vate their stan­dard, which in­cluded the­ory lessons. They had to be­come wor­thy of a place in a sym­phony or­ches­tra, and the move paid off.”

Over the past few years, the SOI has trav­elled to Rus­sia, Switzer­land, Oman, the UK and the UAE to per­form with a va­ri­ety of artists. In 2015, the or­ches­tra opened the Abu Dhabi Clas­sics sea­son. More re­cently, the chil­dren’s or­ches­tra left such a deep im­print on Noura Al Kaabi, the UAE’s Min­is­ter of Cul­ture and Knowl­edge De­vel­op­ment, that she in­vited Bisen­galiev to set up a sim­i­lar model of mu­sic de­vel­op­ment in Abu Dhabi.

About eight of the orig­i­nal In­dian mem­bers are still part of the SOI, Mark Nunes, 56, be­ing one of them. The Mum­baikar long cher­ished the dream of play­ing as part of a clas­si­cal or­ches­tra, but un­til the SOI came along, he put his vi­o­lin and vi­ola skills to use in Bol­ly­wood and con­certs with the Mehli Me­hta Foun­da­tion.

Nunes bal­anced this with a ca­reer in fi­nance, which he didn’t en­joy. “I long crossed the age to at­tend a con­ser­va­tory, so I am more than con­tent be­ing a pro­fes­sional mu­si­cian in an or­ches­tra at this age,” he says. And Nunes’s en­thu­si­asm is in­fec­tious, his joy im­mensely pal­pa­ble. “We learned to pro­duce a dif­fer­ent tex­ture of sound, of very high qual­ity. How I play [the vi­ola] now is com­pletely dif­fer­ent from my ear­lier performanc­es.”

With­out a con­ser­va­tory-grade mu­sic ed­u­ca­tion in In­dia, crit­ics and scep­tics said the or­ches­tra wouldn’t sur­vive be­yond a cou­ple of years. “The ini­tial chal­lenges were huge,” says Zane Dalal, as­so­ciate mu­sic di­rec­tor of the SOI. “There was no sys­temic in­fra­struc­ture to sup­port a sym­phony or­ches­tra and in this colos­sal un­der­tak­ing, we could not fol­low tried-and-tested steps as we might have done in Europe or even the Far East and the Amer­i­cas. We had to build the steps be­fore step­ping on them and it was not easy. Also, the serendip­i­tous na­ture of the found­ing of the or­ches­tra could not have an­tic­i­pated the global re­ces­sion that en­gulfed the first eight years of our 13.”

With this in mind, Bisen­galiev set up the SOI Mu­sic Academy in 2012. “We’re slowly adding grad­u­ate stu­dents from the academy to the or­ches­tra,” he says. “Ev­ery stu­dent wants to be a pro­fes­sional and be­cause the na­ture of an or­ches­tra is very com­pet­i­tive, the qual­ity of play­ing has gone up. Ev­ery stu­dent in the academy gets in­di­vid­ual at­ten­tion; the classes don’t just stretch to 60 min­utes, stu­dents and teach­ers stay for as long and for as much as it takes.”

One such young prodigy is Prayash Biswakarma, 21, a vi­o­lin­ist who joined the SOI at 17. His sis­ter, Kush­mita, is also a part of the or­ches­tra as a vi­o­lin­ist (Bisen­galiev main­tains the team is evenly bal­anced be­tween men and women). Both sib­lings grew up lov­ing the in­stru­ment, thanks to their fa­ther. The Biswakar­mas’s in­duc­tion into the core or­ches­tra is also a win for north-east In­di­ans (they’re from Kalimpong) who have rarely been a part of the main­stream cul­tural fab­ric.

In fact, in­clu­siv­ity is at the very heart of the in­sti­tu­tion purely for mu­sic’s sake. “The art of or­ches­tral per­for­mance is all about to­geth­er­ness,” says Dalal. “The play­ers are con­nected by an un­seen force that can only be felt and grows stronger with time. Our strength is in the fresh ap­proach to mu­sic-mak­ing brought by our di­ver­sity; 26 na­tions are rep­re­sented on our ros­ter, and it is prob­a­bly more nec­es­sary and ap­pro­pri­ate in our cur­rent time to have or­gan­i­sa­tions that nat­u­rally tend to­wards in­clu­siv­ity and in­ter­na­tional co-op­er­a­tion.”

Ex­cel­lence is not a choice but a way of life for those in the SOI. “I didn’t know what a sym­phony or­ches­tra was be­fore I joined NCPA, nor did I un­der­stand sym­phonies, con­cer­tos, or the core of a com­po­si­tion,” says Prayash. “I’ve learned so much here, es­pe­cially from all the for­eign vis­it­ing artists. Clas­si­cal mu­sic is the best way to grow and build your abil­ity as a vi­o­lin­ist. If you can play clas­si­cal, you can play any­thing.”

In a bid to help stu­dents such as Biswakarma thrive, so­los are en­cour­aged. Biswakarma’s great­est mo­ment was play­ing As­tor Pi­az­zolla’s Bordel 1900.

If you think Gen Z’s love for Wag­ner, Rach­mani­noff or Bruch is sur­pris­ing, Dalal is quick to point out oth­er­wise. “Mu­sic for the most part is ab­so­lutely uni­ver­sal and speaks di­rectly to the lis­tener,” he says. “I have seen this first hand, in the ex­plo­sion of In­dian mu­sic in Europe and the US, and the re­ac­tion of women by the well of a Ra­jasthani vil­lage when they first saw and heard a cello. Our job is to break down these pre­con­ceived bar­ri­ers and al­low ac­cess to ev­ery­one.”

To this end, Dalal con­ducts work­shops and mas­ter­classes with stu­dents from var­i­ous schools through­out the year, in­clud­ing with blind and autis­tic chil­dren. “The long-term goal and an ex­ceed­ingly im­por­tant one has been to make sure the or­ches­tra was not sim­ply an im­port, but that it could grow nat­u­ral roots, con­nect­ing it to the fab­ric of Mumbai, the city we serve,” he says.

Bisen­galiev, too, is rar­ing to de­velop the or­ches­tra and the academy. “The dream is to at­tract In­dian mu­si­cians from Europe and the US, as well as make sure the kids in the academy stick with mu­sic for ca­reers.”

Of course, there’s still a long way to go. Most im­por­tantly, the SOI needs more qual­i­fied peo­ple man­ag­ing the academy as well as the or­ches­tra. But the jour­ney has been re­ward­ing, Bisen­galiev says, es­pe­cially as he has wit­nessed the mu­sic scene in In­dia change over the years through the life and growth of the NCPA. “The point has al­ways been to re­tain high stan­dards of mu­sic oth­er­wise peo­ple will turn away.”

We could not fol­low triedand-tested steps. We had to build the steps be­fore step­ping on them and it was not easy ZANE DALAL As­so­ciate mu­sic di­rec­tor of the SOI

The Sym­phony Or­ches­tra of In­dia is per­form­ing at the Na­tional Cen­tre for Per­form­ing Arts in Mumbai through­out its au­tumn pro­gramme of events


The Sym­phony Or­ches­tra of In­dia per­form­ing ‘Peshkar’ with tabla player Zakir Hus­sain, who com­posed the con­certo

Pho­tos NCPA / SOI

Zane Dalal, as­so­ciate mu­sic di­rec­tor of the Sym­phony Or­ches­tra of In­dia

Kazakh vi­o­lin­ist Marat Bisen­galiev, mu­sic di­rec­tor of the or­ches­tra

Noura Al Kaabi, Min­is­ter of Cul­ture and Knowl­edge De­vel­op­ment, with mem­bers of the chil­dren’s or­ches­tra in Abu Dhabi

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