By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dynamic Folk Music And Dance From Ukraine

Here's one of my reviews of a folk music-and-dance event in the course of the well-drawn-out Festival of USSR in India in 1987-88 :-


Siri Fort  --  Historic site where New Delhi's largest auditorium (2000+ seats) is located.  

Talkatora  --  Historic woodlands and garden in New Delhi, where its second largest indoor stadium (3000+) is situated.

Bombay/Madras  --  British-regime names of Indian cities now called Mumbai/Chennai.    

New Delhi
22 April 1988
(Extract from an article in my Friday column) 

Ukrainian folk ensemble

.  .  .  .  .  The Virsky Dance Company, a large Soviet ensemble specializing in Ukrainian folk music and dance, landed in Delhi on the hottest pre-summer day in 15 years.  But the dozens of dancers showed no apparent ill-effects, and looked fresh and energetic in their dynamic exertions in the cool Siri Fort auditorium on Sunday evening, when they gave the first of their four performances on successive days.  The music provided by a small group playing various resounding instruments, including folk flutes and an accordion-like Ukrainian fabrication, was as vigorous and full-blooded as the dancing.

Although several hundred people were present on the occasion -- including a large number of eager schoolboys in white uniform -- the audience looked rather small in the enormous auditorium.  The rows and rows of vacant seats created a negative ambiance.  It is true that this did not affect the liveliness of the proceedings ;  but when I talked to  some of the musicians during the intermission, they did sound somewhat disappointed. 

It will be recalled that the Moiseyev Dance Company had attracted a mammoth gathering of several thousands of people in the Talkatora indoor stadium on two successive days a few months ago.  The Ukrainian show is equally spectacular, and I wonder why it did not draw a full house in the Siri hall.  Was the publicity inadequate?  Was the pricing too high?  Or was there any other inhibiting factor?

The Festival of India Directorate would do well to look closely into the reasons for the unexpected and relatively thin attendance.   The USSR Festival in India is the result of extraordinarily painstaking efforts, and it is necessary that the largest possible number of people are able to have a taste of  the Soviet arts when the visiting artists are here . . . .

PostScript, 2016

Indelible impressions

My Friday music column in THE  HINDU's New Delhi edition in the 1980s and '90s was mainly about concepts and colors, traditions and trends, styles and standards, values and organization, and not about tiresome technical details --precisely as things had been earlier in Bombay and Madras, and have been afterwards in Madras.   

So, looking at the above text now, I can't understand why I didn't follow up my impression about the audience and survey the scene on any of the next three days when the Ukrainian dancers performed in the same venue, particularly because the show was spectacular and was certainly worth repeated viewing.  And also because the Soviet Republics were usually very efficient and effective in organizing their cultural events in India -- as was evident, for example, in the context of the twin Moiseyev shows a few months earlier, both of which I had attended.  

Perhaps my reflections on those two formidable events would be very relevant and interesting in this context ;  but unfortunately I can't find them in my old records.  There was no online edition those days, and the contents of the newspaper were all stored in microfilm, where I'll have to look for the missing article now.  

Anyway, so powerful and vivid were my impressions of these infrequent performances by energetic and colorfully dressed  folk musicians and dancers from Russia and Eastern Europe that the memories of watching those few live programs 30 or 40 years ago are still fresh in my mind -- like, for example, a vigorous open-air Moiseyev show I attended in 1972.   So let me tell that story next!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Swimming In Foreign Cultural Streams : Folk And Art Music And Dance From Soviet Union

In the Cyberian universe of ours today, all you have to do for swimming in foreign cultural currents is to press a button on a keyboard or touch the screen of a computer or cell phone -- and musicians, dancers or actors from anywhere in the world will instantly materialize before you and start performing. 

Things were totally different even 30 years ago, and in India's Capital city New Delhi we had to wait for months (or even years sometimes) for the kind of foreign music and dance we liked.  Here's an extract from a vintage review of mine, which will show you how precious such rare occasions were in our cultural life :-


Siri Fort  --  Historic site in New Delhi, where the city's largest auditorium is located. 

Rashtrapathi Bhavan  --  ('President's Home' in Hindi)  :   Imposing British-built red--stone palace in New Delhi, with impressive grounds and garden -- official residence of Viceroy during British rule, and of President of Indian Republic now. 

Nehru Stadium  --  Large indoor stadium, named after Jawaharlal Nehru, legendary freedom fighter and first Prime Minister of India.

Byelorussia  --  Byelorus in Russian (pronounced Byeh-lo-roos) -- means 'White Russia'.

New Delhi
27 October 1987

Speaking through music and dance

.  .  .  .  Masters of Soviet Art, held in the Siri Fort auditorium last Sunday evening, was the first indoor program of the Festival of the USSR in India (that is to say, after the inaugural open-air presentations in Rashtrapathi Bhavan and Nehru Stadium on Sunday) ;  and the fair presented was varied and condensed, giving us a preview of the kind of Soviet music and dance we would be encountering in several other programs spread over this whole week in Delhi.

Among other things, the 100-strong orchestra conducted by Alexandr Kopilov gave a polished recital of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italiano and the world-famous waltz occurring in the same composer's score for the ballet Sleeping Beauty.  Accompanied by the orchestra, Galina Borsseva rendered a lovely song from the opera Snow Maiden by Rimsky-Karsakv.  The orchestra then shifted to the spacious pit, and provided music for the Bolshoi dancers, who enacted a ballet sequence based on an orchestral version of some of Chopin's masterpieces, collectively called Chopeniana.

So far as the musical part of it is concerned, I must specially mention the spontaneous and vociferous applause which greeted the rendering of the immortal Chopin waltz which is best known to music-lovers as Opus 64, No. 2.  This exquisite composition, which so beautifully blends a sentiment of yearning with a sense of fulfilment, is too delidcate and fragile to be featured in a ballroom like the robust waltzes of Johann Strauss Jr.  If  its ethos is to be expressed in terms of  dancing, perhaps it can be done only in the ballet form, and who else in the world can do it better than the Bolshoi people? 

Folk music and dance

The gentle steps and movements of the Bolshhoi dancers were followed by some vigorous pounding and leaping by the Karoshky Folk Dance Ensemble from Byelorussia.  There were colorful costumes, with free-flowing blouses, skirts and sleeves.  There was much thumping on the floor by the heavy boots of the dancers, which constituted a rhythmic additive to the brisk tempo set up  by a small group of musicians playing an assortment of instruments like the accordion, folk fiddle, guitar, drums, xylophone and zither.  

The interest in the folk instruments increased when a group led by V. Nazarov appeared later.  Apart from the usual accordion, fiddle and drums, this ensemble featured a complicated stringed contraption from Ukraine, and a multi-reed panpipe from Moldavia.  The musicians set up a scorching tempo, which went well with the folk section of the program.

One of the delightful pieces projected during the evening was a sampling from the wide repertoire of the famous Moiseyev Folk Dance Company.  It was a scintillating dance called City Quadrille, performed by four couples robed in romantic costumes.  The men wore bright silk sirts, black trousers and knee-length boots, and a peaked military cap.  The women sported gorgeous gowns in different colors.  A seven-man orchestra provided some sizzling music for this sprightly and humorous exercise, which made us eagerly look forward to the full-length Moiseyev shows scheduled for this week-end. 

Foreign cultural streams

The concluding part of the program presented a very loud Armenian jazz orchestra, which sounded like a mid-century 'big band' from other parts of the world.  This phenomenon seemed to come as quite an anti-climax ;  but when a group of men and women singers joined the band and injected a choral element, the proceedings acquired some Soviet colors.
Organizing such a trans-national cultural festival is like capturing a series of powerful short-wave broadcasts from a distant foreign country.  The invisible and mysterious radio waves are present in the very air surrounding us, but we cannot breathe them unless we have the proper apparatus and the inclination to tune to the appropriate wave-length. 

The music and dance of the whole world constantly flow in many different streams, most of which are usually inaccessible to us ;  but every well-organized encounter with a rich and dynamic culture which exists abroad adds to our artistic experience and enhances our global vision.  In this context, the value of isolated but frequent visits by accomplished foreign artists must also be recognized.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Substantial Dose Of Authentic Russian Folk Music

Unlike the fairly frequent chamber music recitals given by visiting virtuosi from the West in New Delhi in the 1980s and '90s -- who usually either dispensed superior classical music to us in far-too-tiny doses in far-too-short programs,  or presented some bizarre styles of music which made no sense to us at all -- the infrequent foreign folk music and dance shows were usually very substantial affairs, particularly those from Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

As a prelude to my sharing with you the memory of a delightful experience of that kind, let me quote some thoughts from my reviews of a couple of other similar events which I had recalled earlier (Rustic Rituals, Romantic Reveries and Poppish-Turkish Folk Music  --  19/24 Nov. 2012) :-

Much of European folk music and dance is related to rituals performed in ceremonial contexts like weddings, childbirth and funerals, or the  advent of spring, summer, equinox, etc.  A substantial part of it has a functional character, and is used to serve as an aid to (or celebration of) agricultural and rural activities like ploughing, sowing, harvesting, spinning, weaving or cattle-breeding . . . 

Folk music and dance in their authentic milieu would generally involve the active participation of a large number of ordinary people belonging to any given community, whether rural or urban . . .  This is no doubt why even the modern ensembles which project these traditional arts on the stage tend to be fairly large in the case of folk dances . . . 
Folk music . . . usually has a universal appeal, whatever may be the country of origin.  Folk songs by their very nature are simple and unsophisticated, and are not expected to have any intellectual refinement.  Therefore it is not really necessary to understand the meaning of the lyrics for enjoying folk music.  

Moreover, the strange and unfamiliar language of foreign folk songs even lends a touch of mystery to the music, and adds to its appeal.  It was interesting to see how enthusiastically our folk music was received in France and the U.S. during the recent Festival of India organized there . . .

Now, read on!

New Delhi
29 July 1988

Continuing impression of Soviet folklore

It is an excellent idea that the USSR Festival in India should come in waves, instead of hitting us like a cyclone.  It gives us some scope to have repeated exposure to the different facets of Soviet culture without getting mentally fatigued, and such recurring experiences are necessary for enhancing our familiarity with those art forms.

This is particularly true of folk music and dance.  While a daily folk-arts program over a fortnight is likely to become quite tiresome and may prove to be counter-productive, a substantial series of such events, spread over several months, does cumulatively consolidate our impressions in a positive way, giving us a worthwhile insight into the foreign cultural tradition -- which is precisely what such a festival is meant for.  Let us hope that even after the current festival commitments of the USSR are over, the Soviet Cultural Center in New Delhi will organize similar shows from time to time, not only in the Capital but all over India, so that the popular impressions created by this tremendous effort will not gradually fade away in the future.

Course correction

Ushering in the third phase of the festival, the organizers had announced a twin-event to take place in the Kamani Hall last week, featuring the Karagod Folklore Ensemble from Russia and a variety entertainment group from the USSR's Asian Republics.  The latter ensemble, whose music is said to be tradition-derived but with a jazzy outlook, could not perform because some sophisticated equipment needed by them had not been cleared by the Delhi Customs  .  .  .  and the whole evening was devoted to an extended performance by the Karagod Ensemble. 

Personally, I did not mind this at all.  Being an old-timer, I do prefer to have more of the original Soviet culture as I knew it or used to visualize it in my younger days, and less of the jazzified and pop-oriented music of this Glasnost era. 

The Karagod Ensemble specializes in performing the traditional folk songs and dances of Southern Russia, with a great deal of bantering between the performers (four women, six men).  The accent is on a continuous and elastic exchange of witty remarks and razor-sharp repartees, all expressed in vocal music, accompanied by folk instruments.  The dancing is rather marginal, meant to be an aid to artistic interaction and not a visually refined activity, although the costumes are elaborate and colorful.

Humorous show

Few people among the audience could have understood the precise meaning of whatever was being sung, but the humorous element which dominated the performance was never lost on the gathering.  To add spice to the show, some of the gorgeously-dressed women artists stepped down, walked along the aisles, and dragged a few men and a young girl up to the stage -- and made them participate in some of the group dances, no matter how clumsily.  This added greatly to the spectators' sense of involvement.

All told, the program, which was unexpectedly prolonged, turned out to be a very substantial dose of authentic Russian folklore.  Short of actually visiting a village in Southern Russia and personally taking part in the public merry-making, one could not perhaps get a more vivid impression of the fascinating tradition.

PostScript, 2016

Jazzy & jarring

Talking about jazzified and pop-oriented Russian folk music, you may find it interesting to read (or read again!) my comments in  Jarring Trend Ruins Russian Folk Music  (8 Jan. 2013). 

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Shepherd's Flute And Sheepskin Pipes Create Authentic Balkan Atmosphere

Just as in the case of European secular music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras, the authenticity of the folk music of any country in the world in present-day performances depends a great deal on the integrity of the instruments used.  The closer they are in character to the original folk instruments of the culture and times  concerned, the more faithfully and convincingly do the true character and colors of the traditional folk art seem to materialize.

This was the impression we had consistently obtained whenever earnest and well-accomplished  foreign folk music-and-dance groups came over to perform in New Delhi -- as, for instance, on the following occasion :-

New Delhi
28 November 1986

Folk dance and music from Bulgaria

The Indian Council for Cultural Relations organized an interesting performance by a Bulgarian dance ensemble last week in Kamani Hall.  European folk music and folk dance are very closely related  to each other, and it is generally difficult to distill and separate the music.  Therefore this program was of considerable interest to lovers of folk music as well as folk dance.

The ensemble, known as Atanas Manchev, hails from a beach resort called Bourgas in Bulgaria.  About 25 performing artists figure in the current foreign tour.

The recital consisted of five mixed group dances, featuring upto eight men and eight women in each.  All the dances were performed to the accompaniment of music provided by a small folk orchestra of five men, who played a 'kaval' or shepherd's flute (Stoyan Arabadzhev), Balkan bagpipes made of sheepskin (Hristo Boev), two accordions (Dimitr Yanulov and Pietr Kobalyev), and a drum ((Mikhail Todorov).

Between dances there were short musical interludes, which presented kaval and bagpipe solos with accordion and/or drum accompaniment, or involved the whole orchestra ;  there were also a few songs vocally rendered by Nikolyna Kobalyeva.

Inverse influences 
It is a well-known fact that the folk music of many parts of Europe has considerably influenced several great composers of European classical music, especially those moved by strong nationalistic sentiments -- as may be seen from the works of Liszt, Bartók, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Grieg, and others.

But it is not always understood or remembered that the urbanized and sophisticated art music has also influenced the rural folk music in many European countries.  In fact, there is even a school of thought which believes that all folk music is a form of diluted culture and is derived from the art music of earlier times.  This, of course, is an extreme view.  Wiser scholars visualize a via media, and draw attention to a two-way traffic of form and style between the folk and art music cultures.   

The influence of art music on the folk tradition, however, is less evident in Eastern Europe than in West European countries, due to various historic reasons.  Accordingly, the folk music originating there has truly authentic colors.

Rustic roots

Folk music invariably absorbs the linguistic intonations and poetry of the country where it springs from, and is often aligned to the the natural environment and the simple activities and celebrations of the people.  The preoccupation of folk music with the agricultural scene is noticeable all over Europe, but it is most conspicuous in the Balkan countries.

An important feature of the folk music of the Balkans is the extensive use of small intervals.  The tonal range is also extremely short.  Bulgarian folk songs are often compressed within a single octave.  All these aspects were clearly visible in the evening's music, which was mainly produced as an accompaniment to the vigorous performance of the folk dancers in colorful costumes.

Among other things, the dances depicted joyful revelries in the spring season and the ceremonial bearing of wedding guests.  Both the music and dance in the final number -- showing village workers celebrating fertility, rain, sunshine and good health -- were particularly animated and attractive.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Sweden's Folk Music: Old Tradition Survives New Trends

European music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods had two distinct sets of successive or parallel traditions :  secular and spiritual.  The events I had recalled in the preceding blogs were of the former kind.  I shall be turning the telescope round towards the others shortly ;  but  meanwhile, the spotlight on authentic instruments in the contexts mentioned in the last four posts  reminds me of a performance by a Swedish ensemble because it had also projected a clear vision of some old-world musical instruments. 

But this was a presentation of Swedish folk music, which in turn reminds me of some other vintage events featuring the folk music and dance of other cultures,  particularly of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  Let us change the track with this recollection, then!


ICCR  --  Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Siri Fort  --  Historic site where New Delhi's most spacious auditorium (about 1900 seats) is situated. 

New Delhi
 13 December 1991

Enjoyable fare

And now Sweden is taking some initiative to bring some of its art and culture to India.  This is on a subdued scale, which is welcome.  In the context of international cultural exchange, it is useful to organize a series of artistic events at reasonable intervals, whatever may be the merits of concentrated cultural festivals.  It seems the Swedes intend to make a steady, well-spaced-out presentation of their country's cultural life, in several Indian cities.  Let us hope that it will all add up to something substantial in the long run.

There was an exhibition of Swedish designs in New Delhi some time ago.  There will be an exhibition of Swedish art shortly, and a program of Swedish jazz after some time.  Between these, there was a performance of Swedish folk music last week. The event was organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations and the Swedish Embassy, in collaboration with Svenska Rikskonserter (Swedish National Institute for Concerts, which is a Government-funded institution, like ICCR here).

Tradition and trends

Contemporary folk music in Sweden, as in many other countries, has two distinct facets.  There is the old tradition, which the cultural conscience-keepers strive to keep alive.  And there is the new trend (gradually becoming a tradition perhaps) -- which looks to the past for inspiration and ideas, but feels free to develop different concepts altogether in style, technique and instrumentation, particularly in conjunction with jazz and rock.  The Siri Fort event brought this fact into sharp focus.  The overall impression of the Swedish folk music scene today, tastefully created by this balanced program, will not easily be erased from the memory of the 1,500 people who were present.

Thus, we heard the cow-horn and the shrill herding calls of by-gone days ;  the contrasting or combining sounds of the violin, the Swedish bag-pipe and keyed fiddle (called 'nyckel harpa'), medieval flutes, and the 'bouzuki' (a mandolin-like instrument of Greek origin) ;  and also jazzy, folk-oriented music featuring the  saxophone, clarinet, electronic synthesizer, and an assortment of percussion instruments.

There seems to be a conviction in Swedish music circles that the new trend will not destroy the old tradition, but will actually save it by attracting the younger generation to the folk idioms.  This approach would seem to gain credibility in the light of the fact that folk fiddlers' clubs and meets continue to flourish in Sweden side by side with the emergence of the new music, and there is also a resurgence of old folk instruments.

Inverse influence

The phenomenon of art music drawing ideas and themes from folk music is universal, and Swedish art music is no exception.  But a remarkable thing about Sweden's folk music as it exists today is that s major form of it -- called Polska -- is based on dance tunes imported by Polish art musicians who served the Swedish King's court in the 16th century.  In the concert under review, there was a fine demonstration of the Polska on the violin, visually enlivened by a handsome dancing couple.

A very enjoyable part of the evening's fare was the pulsating music created by the keyed fiddle in association with the ordinary fiddle and the bouzuki.  The forceful combination produced a torrent of melody and rhythm of an arresting quality, fortified by the droning sound of sympathetic strings.

Some members of the group stood out because they happened to figure repeatedly in the show, accompanying other musicians or dancing in different contexts.  It will not be fair to accord them star status by mentioning selected names.  The whole performance must be viewed as a collective effort ;  and everyone concerned -- including the Swedish Institute's representative who gave a very useful running commentary -- must be warmly congratulated.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

One-man Museum Of Medieval Musical Instruments

Young people in this YouTube era will find it extremely difficult to believe or even imagine how patiently we super-citizens used to wait and wait (when we were much younger) for authentic live performances of various genres of Western music by visiting musicians from the West, in India's Capital city New Delhi during the concluding decades of the 20th century.

It is fortunate that as an amateur journalist I had written about almost all cultural events I had attended during that period, either as critical reviews or essays in THE HINDU's New Delhi edition, or (earlier) as reports or light-hearted sketches in the Hindustan Times Evening News.  Taken together, all these add up to a cultural chronicle which register many colorful impressions and some significant insights.

When the articles relating to a given theme are fished out from my archives and lined up for a quick survey, a consistent scenario spanning several years invariably emerges.  In the context of European music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque periods, we had telescopic views of prevailing scenes in progressively more distant centuries, in successive concerts/demos separated by several months from one another (please see preceding blogs).   

And here is another cameo in that sequence, winding the clock back by a thousand years :-


Indira Gandhi stadium -- India's largest indoor stadium (in New Delhi, with a capacity of about 15,000 spectators), named after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917-84).

Troubadour  --  Travelling Old French poet-composer-singer in medieval France (11th to 14th centuries).

Blitzkrieg  --  'Lightning war'  (German).

Le Troubadour  --  The Troubadour  (French).

New Delhi

2 February 1990

Ernest, versatile scholar

It was only a few weeks ago that the year-long Festival of France in India came to an end with a grand finale in the Indira Gandhi indoor stadium in New Delhi.  I happen to have missed the entire festival because I was not in town on most of the crucial dates.  So I was particularly glad to attend a demonstration of the music of the French Troubadours last week, given by a visiting musical scholar from France who plays more than a dozen reconstructed instruments of the medieval period and also sings in Old French. 

Personally I do not believe that a blitzkrieg in the shape of a massive one-time festival is the best way of popularizing any foreign  culture in our country, or vice versa.  It is no doubt bound to have some forceful impact, but it cannot create permanent interest.  A much better way of familiarizing us with a foreign country's artistic achievements is to give us occasional glimpses of it indefinitely, like the Bulgarians, Italians and West Germans in New Delhi have been doing for quite some time now.

Blowing like a hurricane does create a wider awareness of the fine arts of a foreign country, and I am not really arguing against it.  But it will not serve the real purpose unless the activity is continued in a constant stream.  Of course, the Festival of France was spread over a whole year, which was a good thing ;  and the Alliance Francaise in the Capital has done well not to close the French window with the front door!     

Enter the Troubadour

Robert Ressicaud (pronounced Robair Ressiko) is an earnest and versatile musical scholar who specializes in the study and practice of more than a dozen medieval musical instruments used by the Troubadours of the South of France in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.  Due to the late arrival of a flight from Bombay, he reached the venue of the event half an hour late, lugging a couple of specially designed trunks containing his precious instruments on to the stage in the small auditorium in the India International Center.  Spending another half-hour unpacking the boxes and arranging the instruments in full view of the audience which had already assembled, he gave every impression of being someone who was about to start a magic show rather than a musical demo.

But the audience, which was all  keyed up and quite sympathetic, waited attentively for the mystery to unfold.  And sure enough, its patience was well rewarded.  The Frenchman went into the green room for a while, and when he came prancing back on the stage wearing a camel-colored tunic, he looked every inch like what one would expect a Troubadour to have looked like.  We knew instantly and instinctively that there was going to be a perceptive and delightful experience, and not a drab demonstration :  and so it turned out to be.

Instruments galore

Ressicaud played with skill and understanding a variety of string instruments like the psaltery, dulcimer, hurdy-gurdy and fiddle, wind instruments like the schalmel, crumhorn, organ and recorders ('soft' flutes), and percussion instruments like the leather or stringed drums, providing an occasional vocal element also.  In the process he gave us a close and obviously authentic view of the gentle and almost fragile melodies which had entertained or inspired the kings and the monks and the common people of the Troubadour country.   This was one of the best-ever exposures to medieval European music we have had in New Delhi.
The event lasted less than an hour and a half, but it was quite a substantial exercise.  Nevertheless, when it ended many people in the audience seemed unwilling to leave.  Milling around the visitor on the stage, they posed several questions and asked for further demonstration.  And Ressicaud, who had looked quite worn out and distracted when he flew into the hall straight from Bombay a couple of hours earlier, seemed fully charged and fresh after the performance.  Le Troubadour was still earnestly explaining something to somebody when I reluctantly left the hall.

PostScript, 2016

Culture vs. cultural events

I had missed most of the Festival of France in New Delhi in 1989 even though it was spread over the entire year -- as I had missed many other important cultural events in the city -- because at that time I was constantly travelling all over India in connection with a significant nation-wide cultural-administrative review, in which context I had some unique credentials as journalist as well as civil servant.   Let me tell that story some other time!

Sunday, July 10, 2016

More Music And Musical Instruments Of The Middle Ages

It was only very rarely that scholarly musicians came down from Europe to New Delhi to perform the music of the Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras with authentic vocals accompanied by carefully preserved or restored instruments which had been in vogue during the relevant periods (or effective copies of them).  The very infrequency of such events made us extremely attentive in the concert hall, and all such occasions were memorable ones.

I am talking about the last quarter of the 20th century, when I was writing about the Western music scene in New Delhi, successively in the Hindustan Times Evening News and (from 1986) in THE HINDU.  Equally rare were legitimate opportunities for writing humorously in a concert review (unless it was a piece of  pure satire, which suited the evening paper but not THE HINDU).

On both counts the following occasion was a rare one, and I just couldn't resist rounding off my review with a hilarious jab  at the British Council. 


Max Müller Bhavan  --  German language and cultural center.

IIC  --  India International Center. 

Sruthi  --  In Indian classical music, a continuous pre-set droning sound which marks and anchors the proper pitch to suit the given voice or prime instrument, unobtrusively becoming an integral part of the music.

New Delhi

22 July 1988
The abbot and the beauty

How many people in New Delhi, including resident foreigners, are deeply interested in Western art music?  I have no clear idea :  maybe a thousand, maybe only 500.  Judging by the attendance in the free concerts organized fairly frequently by the Max Müller Bhavan, the Delhi Music Society and the cultural wing of the Italian Embassy -- generally in collaboration with the India International Center, in the latter's small and compact concert hall -- one can safely assert that the number of serious Western-music-lovers here cannot be less than about 300 or 350.  That is the number required to fill this hall and make the audience overflow just a little into the aisles, which creates the right ambiance for the successful performance of chamber music, and which often happens.

But how many people could we normally expect to turn up for a scholarly rendering of medieval European music?  Surely only a small fraction of this number?  But no, one would be quite mistaken in thinking so!  I found a gathering of at least 200 people, Indians and foreigners together, when a visiting trio called Sinfonye performed in this venue last week, in a concert of 13th-century music organized by the British Council and the IIC. 

Hard-core circle

What is the value of attending such a program?  It is a demonstrative exercise in musicology, and is more informative than entertaining.  If two-thirds of the IIC auditorium can be filled for a program like this, and mostly by local citizens, then we would be justified in concluding that there certainly is a hard core of sincere Western-music-lovers in this country and in this city.

The appetite of this hard-core circle for Western music is enormous, and the institutions which have now started bringing a wide spectrum of Western music within its reach deserve to be thanked profusely.  The hundred unoccupied seats should never discourage them and make them doubt the immense value of continuing this activity :  the 200 happily occupied seats should be the true barometer.

Medieval colors

The trio was led by Stevie Wishart, who played reconstructed versions of a medieval fiddle and an interesting instrument called 'sinfonye' (from which the ensemble derives its name).  The latter, known as 'hurdy-gurdy' in common language, has a resin-coated wheel which is turned by a crank and grazes several strings simultaneously, producing the melodic lines and also a droning sound similar to the 'sruthi' in Indian music.

Mara Kiek provided the vocal element, and Jim Denley played a couple of flat medieval drums (a square one, and a circular one).  They rendered, with obvious competence and commitment, some romantic, courtly dance tunes and songs which had been in vogue in the French district of Provence in the feudal era (circa 1300). The ensemble also presented a set of nostalgic songs in a Spanish-Portuguese dialect, depicting the emotions of a sea-side woman pining for her absent sailor-lover.

Translation travails

As there was a strong vocal display, the organizers had thoughtfully provided an English translation of the songs in the program notes distributed to the audience.  But perhaps not effectively enough, I should say :  for when hearing the soulful songs rendered by Mara Kiek, the listeners needed not only a translation, but the text also.  How useful  it would have been if the actual words had also been printed side by side with the translation, as in the sleeve notes of an LP disc displayed in the foyer!  A point to ponder, for Sinfonye, wherever in the world they perform in the future.

Moreover, the translation was extremely clumsy, and in some places quite confusing.  To give you an example, the following passage was supposed to elucidate one of the songs :  "Now sing the praise, let the command of the Abbot be praised.  Beauty were you a nun of our house, in favor of all the monks, you would take the tribute.  But you shall not spend a single day, Beauty, except lying on your back, so says the Abbot."

Perhaps we would have enjoyed the music better -- even without understanding a single word of the lyrics -- if we didn't have such distracting puzzles to solve.  In any event, we certainly didn't expect to see such a muddled specimen of the English language being handed out by the British Council, of all people!

PostScript, 2016
Made in Europe!

It was a tribute to the average Britisher's positive sense of humor that my light-hearted barb was well-liked in the British Council and in the U.K. Embassy in New Delhi.   The organizers' regretful explanation was that they had obtained the foreign-made translation from the visiting trio and hadn't vetted it before passing it on to the audience. 

Friday, July 8, 2016

Researching And Presenting Ancient Phases Of European Music

Writing on Carnatic and Western music in THE HINDU's New Delhi edition in the 1980s and '90s, I was addressing a cosmopolitan community of highly intelligent and sophisticated readers in the Capital's cultural and diplomatic circles, and I earnestly hoped that my reflections would stand the test of time and still be readable in the 21st century.  And sometimes my reviews did have the specific gravity of serious essays, as in the following context :- 


Ragas  --  In Carnatic/Hindustani (South/North Indian) classical music, standard melodic patterns well established by tradition.

Shehnai  --  Oboe-like North Indian wind instrument, traditionally played in auspicious settings like weddings and patriotic celebrations, and not in the concert mode.

IIC  --  India International Center.

New Delhi
13 March 1988

Horizons of tradition

Wherever there is a great cultural heritage, scholars and critics are vitally concerned with questions relating to its preservation.  One of the basic questions which arise in this context is, how far does a tradition stretch into the past?

Whether in India or in the West, the prevailing traditions of classical music, as usually depicted on the concert platform, go back only up to the 18th century or so.  What about the music which existed before that?  In Indian music, what were the melodies like, before they evolved into what are called ragas today?  What were the rhythmic structures which governed our ancient music?  In the Western world, how did the music sound before polyphony became its sheet anchor and the tonal range of instrumental music expanded in the Renaissance era?

Elusive answers

These and other similar questions are bound to occur now and then to all intelligent music-lovers, but usually the answers are extremely elusive.  While such issues are no doubt raised and discussed in academic circles all over the world, they are seldom presented to the music-loving public in an interesting manner.

There is, however, a growing awareness of the need to do so.  In Italy, which was the cradle of Western music in the medieval and Renaissance periods, there appears to be a determined effort to reconstruct the music of those times in public performances, using the same type of instruments which were in vogue then.  In fact, there are some professional groups there which specialize in such activity.

It will be recalled that in November 1986, as part of the Leonardo da Vinci Fesival in New Delhi, the Cultural Center of the Italian Embassy had invited a scholarly group called Ensemble del Riccio from Italy.  The musicians used characteristic ancient European instruments like the recorder (called flauto dolce or 'sweet flute' in Italian), crum (curved) horns, spinett (harpsichord), sackbut (trombone), lute, drums and bells -- and gave us an authentic experience of live Renaissance music.

In the last week of February this year, the Embassy, in association with the Delhi Music Society and the India International Center, presented another set of six musicians who belong to a group called Concentus Musicus Patavinus, from the University of Padoa in Italy.  Using several recorders, crum horns, a shennai-like insrument called shawn, and medieval drums, the ensemble played musical tunes which had been in vogue in Italy in the 14th to 17th centuries.  These works were the creations of legendary composers like Landini, Della Torre, Brochus, Susato, Gabrieli and Rossi, of the late medieval, Renaissance and Baroque periods. 

Educative experience

As a member of the attentive international audience which heard this unusual concert in the overflowing auditorium at the IIC, I am happy to report that it was an interesting and educative experience, which, like the Riccio ensemble's concert in 1986, did answer some of those questions which had been nagging my mind for several years. 

I wonder, however, why the musicians and organizers chose to call the program 'a concert of ancient musical instruments'.  Surely the focus of such an event should be on the music as a whole, and not exclusively on the instruments!  In fact, I would even express the opinion that some of this music should perhaps be transcribed to suit modern chamber orchestras, and included in their normal repertoires -- otherwise such ventures will necessarily remain academic in nature, and are not likely to serve the intended purpose of widening the horizons of the tradition itself. 

Probing the popular

While some scholarly musicians are engaged in presenting such obscure parts of the tradition in an entertaining way, others are interested in analysing and explaining to the public the technical aspects of major works which are extremely popular in Western classical music circles..

In a couple of lecture-concerts arranged by the Max Müller Bhavan and the India International Center recently, Frieder Reininghaus, a journalist and music researcher from Cologne, outlined the influences and principles of construction governing several sonatas and concertos composed by Mozart.  The lecturer who played the piano, and Ms. Lene Lutz who played the flute, simulated the orchestral scores where necessary ;  but even the edited versions had their own beauty which brought Mozart's music vibrantly alive.

It is of course a mere coincidence that there were two such unusual musical occasions in New Delhi within the span of a few weeks.  But it is a clear indication of the steadily increasing tempo of activity in the Capital's Western music circles.  Isn't it ironical that in this favorable climate, our own Delhi Symphony Orchestra seems to be unusually inactive?

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Rewarding Recital Of Renaissance Music

The never-ending dissatisfaction I was expressing in the 1980s and '90s (as THE HINDU's Western music correspondent in New Delhi) about the all-too-brief performances of visiting musicians from the West was mainly in the context of chamber music, which was the most frequently organized genre of Western classical music performed by foreigners in the metropolis.   

Visiting folk music-and-dance ensembles from Europe and the Soviet Union were far more liberal with their time and contributions.  The occasional concerts of foreign symphony orchestras also gave us great satisfaction, our only grievance being that they were so extremely rare.   

And performances of music relating to the Church or secular European society of the medieval times were usually substantial and not disappointing even if they were quite short, because of their sharp focus on the academic and historic aspects of those arts.  They created excellent opportunities for me now and then to brush up my knowledge in the libraries and in brief discussions with the organizers and/or the guest-musicians, and share some useful insights with a cosmopolitan set of readers in the Capital :-  


Lalit Kala Akademi  --  One of India's three National Academies in the Capital city New Delhi, concerned with fine arts other than performing arts (painting, sculpture, crafts).   "Akademi" is how the Indianized expression is spelt.  The other two are Sangeet Naatak Akademi (music, dance and drama) and Saahitya Akademi  (literature).  

Maurya Sheraton  --  One of several foreign-Indian collaborative ventures in India's hotel industry. 

New Delhi
21  November 1986

Renaissance music reconstructed

There is a tremendous surge of cultural activity in the Capital this November, with the visual and performing arts (Indian and foreign -- folk, classical and modern) severely competing with one another to capture the attention of the citizens.

One of the outstanding attractions in this rich season has been the Leanardo da Vinci festival organized by the Cultural Center of the Italian Embassy in New Delhi and the Associazione Italia-India in Rome.

The main feature of the festival (which concludes today) is a marvelous exhibition of Leanardo's works at the Lalit Kala Akademi.  On display, among other things, are realistic reproductions of the master's most famous paintings (like Mona Lisa, Adoration of the Magi, and so on), and sketches and models of various machines and musical instruments invented or designed by him.

Cultural resurgence

As is well known, the expression Renaissance (French for 're-birth') denotes a broad historical trend in Western culture, characterized by a revival of European literature and fine arts in the 15th and 16th centuries.

The migration of Greek scholars to Italy following the sack of Constantinople by the Turks ushered in an era of great interest in Greek and Roman literature, and led to the emergence of a fresh set of artistic and philosophical values reminiscent of those of classical European civilizations.  The invention of printing in the middle of the 15th century greatly facilitated the process of spreading the new learning.

The luminaries of the world of Western art in this dynamic period were Leanardo da Vinci, Michaelangelo and Raphael.

Influenced by the new perceptions governing literature and the visual arts, European music too underwent a progressive transformation in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.  The printing of musical scores became a profitable activity, with Venice setting a lead to all of Europe, and there followed a widespread interest in secular and religious music. 

During the Renaissance, solo singing with instrumental accompaniment continued to be predominant ;  but there was an ever-increasing recognition of the value of instrumental virtuosity and autonomy.  Among the important new elements were the enlargement of the tonal range, the growth of rhythmic sophistication, and the development of harmony in music.  There was altogether greater freedom of musical expression, and a gradual detachment from the severely restraining musical forms characteristic of the medieval age.

Voice, instruments, dance 

It was a splendid idea on the part of the organizers of the Leanardo da Vinci festival in New Delhi to have arranged two recitals by a set of Italian musicians who specialize in the music of the Renaissance period.  The first of these concerts was held at the Cultural Center of the Italian Embassy, and the second one (which I attended) took place on the lawns of the Maurya Sheraton Hotel.

A significant aspect in this context is that the instruments played by the Ensemble del Riccio are authentic copies of those actually in use in the relevant period.  They include the lute, curved or straight reed-capped horns, and Renaissance types of the harpsichord and the trombone.

Also featured were different versions of a flute with a whistle-type mouth-piece, known as 'recorder'  (or flauto dolce, meaning 'sweet flute' in Italian).  The array is completed by various kinds of drums and bells.

The works of several 15th and 16th century composers were rendered in the recital, the vocal element in many of them being superbly provided by Marco Beasley, who also handled the drums.   The musicians who played the other instruments with obvious expertise were Luca Benvini, Marco Chiappero, Lorenzo Giordo and Giorgio Ferraris. 

An important feature of this musical event was that most of the numbers were fortified by the visual effects created by two dancers wearing attractive costumes of the Renaissance period. 

In the first part of the program, Andrea Francalanci, the male dancer, appeared in a brown costume with a flowing red head-cover and leggings of white and red, while Bruna Gondoni, the female dancer, wore a beautiful scarlet-and-pearl dress.  In the second part, both of them wore black costumes heavily embroidered with gilted patterns.

Not only in their attire but also in their personal appearance, the dancers looked completely convincing as Renaissance models, and their performance was a delightful element of the evening's instructive entertainment.

Distractions galore

Obviously a performance of this kind, which seeks to explore and explain the artistic criteria prevailing in a historically important phase in the evolution and development of Western music and culture, must be approached with undivided attention and a spirit of reverence.
One must offer a bouquet to the management of the Maurya Sheraton for hosting the event on their well-kept lawns, but it is necessary to point out several serious flaws in the arrangements. 

They had decided, apparently with good intentions, to create an Italian environment by providing for hot, steaming pizza and other sizzling Italian foods to be sold and served on the lawns where the event was taking place.  (The service commenced during the intermission, and was stopped with some difficulty for the second part of the recital).  This was hardly conducive to the proper appreciation of the performance.

The seats were surrounded on all sides by blinding floodlights, which brightly illuminated the audience but completely eclipsed the beautifully got-up stage and made it look quite insignificant.  Some bright lights located on the stage were also beamed towards the audience, producing a powerful glare which adversely affected the viewing of the dances.

Moreover, there was something wrong with the amplifying equipment, and the commencement of the concert was delayed by half an hour while technicians and musicians tried desperately to adjust the microphones and loudspeakers.

But it is a pleasure to record that in spite of all these severe distractions, the earnest musicians and dancers did have a forceful impact on the audience -- which speaks extremely well of their accomplishment and integrity as performing artists and musical scholars. 

Monday, July 4, 2016

When Taj Mahal, Not Performance, Was The Prime Motive

Striving for several years as THE HINDU's Western music correspondent in New Delhi to make visiting classical musicians from the West understand our outlook, preferences and expectations in the context of their performances in India, I had the following twin revelations in due course, thanks to progressive impressions obtained in diplomatic circles : 

(1) Quite often, their true motive for staying for a couple of days in New Delhi was not the concert, which was just an excuse to avail of the free hospitality of their country's Embassy for a different purpose. 

(2) In such contexts, normally they didn't seem to care what our response would be to their stereotyped, ready-made, well-rehearsed programs, which couldn't be altered without taking a lot of trouble. 

But I still expected the organizers to find some effective solution ; and I continued my all-too-familiar argument more forcefully than before :-

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Agra  --  North Indian city, not far from New Delhi, the Capital, world-famous tourist attraction. 
Taj Mahal --  Beautiful 17th-century mausoleum, world-famous tourist attraction.

Enfant terrible  -- person with shocking attitudes (French, 'child terrible').

--------- ----------

New Delhi
25 December 1992

How Western is our Western music?

The flow of live Western classical music in New Delhi is too thin for us ever to have a substantial view of the major composers in the concert hall.  Even over a long period we manage to get only marginal glimpses of the infinite mass of the existing music.  For that very reason, however, every event which takes place here becomes a vital experience for us.  Our acquaintace with Western classical music being largely based -- in most cases -- on recorded versions, these occasional direct encounters tend to make a strong impact on us.  
Our small rations of live Western classical music come mainly in the form of solo instrumental recitals or chamber music performed by duos, trios, quartets or other small ensembles of visiting foreign musicians.  Our opportunities to attend their performances often arise in the context of the brief stop-overs they make in the course of their intercontinental travels for having a holiday in Agra and taking a look at the Taj Mahal.  

Since giving a concert is not always their prime motive for coming here, the visiting musicians do not normally take the small but earnest audience in Delhi seriously enough to assess its preferences in advance and respond to its expectations.  As a result, often we find that the program could have been prepared with far greater concern for our tastes.

In fact, this can be true to some extent even when we feel well rewarded on a particular occasion.  The performance given by the Montreal-based musicians Vladimir Landsman (violin) and Dorothy Fraiberg (piano) last week at the India International Center -- organized by the IIC and the Delhi Music Society -- was an event which produced precisely such an effect. 

Different perceptions

It is the responsibility of the local organizers to alert visiting foreign musicians about the nature and outlook of the normal audience here.  Contrary to what one might expect, the core of the Western music circles in the Capital nowadays consists mostly of Indians, since very few members of the diplomatic corps and their families care to turn up on these occasions (for reasons which are strangely obscure).  Naturally, our perception is far different from that of the average audience in the West. 

We lag behind the Westerners considerably in the matter of perceiving and appreciating the important trends in their music.  We are mostly interested in the music of the classical and romantic periods -- and, out of curiosity perhaps, a little bit in the music of the medieval and Renaissance Europe also.  We are not generally fond of 20th-century Western composers, with rare exceptions like Rachmaninoff. 

In particular, we are allergic to "unconventional" trends like atonal music.  For us in India, Western art music of the first half of this century is still "modern" ;  and our responses to it are similar to that of the classical music circles in the West 30 or even 60 years ago.  We like Beethoven  and Bach, Mozart and Brahms, Chopin and Schumann.  We tend to feel uncomfortable and quite mystified when we encounter composers like Berg or Schönberg, Stravinksy or Stockhausen --  just as many music-lovers and critics in the Western world itself had felt when they had first encountered them.   Therefore, the greater the weightage given to pre-20th-century music, the warmer is our response.

On the other hand, the visiting musicians are generally used to displaying representative samples of a wide-ranging repertoire ;  and since they seldom seem to make any allowances for our prejudices and preferences, they usually tend to administer a stiff dose of strong medicine to us apart from offering some delicious dishes of the kind we relish.

Smooth and rough rides

In the first half of the concert given by the visiting violinist and pianist from Montreal last week, the audience was served a superb meal consisting of Beethoven's Violin Sonata No. 8 in G-Major (op. 30 No. 3) and Schumann's Sonata in A-Minor (op. 105).  After the intermission, however, we were given a powerful intravenous injection in the form of Prokofief's Sonata No. 1 in F-Minor (op. 80).  A not unpalatable dessert which completed the menu was a string of jazzy themes from Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess , arranged by Igor Frolov.  

In the light of the overall accomplishments of the major composers, a sonata for violin and piano is just like a boat being rowed along a shallow sea-shore.  The boat-ride, however, is still an excursion into the ocean!  The Beethoven and Schumann sonatas were rendered vigorously and vibrantly by the talented artists, and yet the texture of the sound was smooth like silk.  On the other hand, Prokofief's  sonata -- though composed in the mature and relatively sedate phase of his turbulent career (1936) -- projected many jagged twists and turns with which the average listener could hardly cope.  It certainly showed why the composer was known as an enfant terrible in his own times!