The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Requiem for a lost city

it is the nature of sound to perish in the very instant that it is produced. That is why music depends as much on the memory as on the ear. And that is why the making of music is a heroic, often tragic, effort against “the gravitational pull of silence”. This is how the pianist and conductor, Daniel Barenboim, once described the pathos of musical performance to his friend, the late critic Edward Said. In that conversation with Said, Barenboim also remembered visiting Calcutta and having to wake up painfully early on hot summer mornings to rehearse with the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra. The rehearsals started so early because the CSO’s various amateur musicians had to go off to work afterwards in “shops and other places”. Thus, fleetingly, as Said evokes the musical memories of his childhood in Cairo and Barenboim tells him about growing up in Jerusalem, Calcutta weaves itself into these extraordinarily rich, cosmopolitan, but largely vanished, worlds of music-making.

Walking down Sunny Park after a “winter concert” at the School of Music, I felt sad to think that it would not occur now to a musician of Barenboim’s stature to come to Calcutta. There is no symphony orchestra in Calcutta any more that he might work with, not even a chamber group able to put together a repertoire of any substance. So, if someone like him did come to India at all, he would come only to perform, and that too only in Mumbai or Delhi. Calcutta must now keep itself happy with scraps and crumbs from the world’s classical fare.

Having grown up in Calcutta in the Seventies and Eighties as a violinist and concert-goer, I remember how Western classical music used to be a live experience of inspiration and excellence through those decades. Histories and traditions of music-teaching and performance, together with the talent, energy, good taste and organisational skills of some truly remarkable people, had kept up a way of life in a city that used to be quite naturally cosmopolitan. From one point of view, this way of life was certainly elite — more or less innocently so. But it also had a marvellous breadth and catholicity. From the immensely talented boys taught to play an instrument by Father Mathieson at the Behala Oxford Mission, and the gorkha helpers in Moneesha Chaudhuri’s beautiful old flat with a baby grand in Palace Court on Kyd Street (all of whom were veteran members of the CSO and concert-goers), to consular personalities and the ancient Parsi families, this way of life took in anybody who loved making and listening to music sociably. I remember this world’s well-spoken and urbane graciousness, so different from snootiness or strident charity. Its members never thought of themselves as the “glitterati”. One went to a concert, and dressed up a little for it, not to glitter, but to listen to music in like-minded company. (This was, quite eminently, a time before Page Three, corporate sponsorship and the cultural aspirations of five-star hotels.) In May 1972, as part of a long festival of musical events inaugurating the new building of the Calcutta School of Music, Satyajit Ray had given a talk, which captured the essence of this world. He called his talk “Indian and Western music — why I cannot do without either”.

The printed programme of the 1972 festival is a wonderful historical document, put together in impeccable English and with what now look like charming period photographs from the Sixties. The range of events gives an indication of how versatile and intellectually serious Calcutta’s interests were in the fields of music and of the related arts. Most of the talented young people who played in the opening students’ concert have distinguished themselves in professions other than music, but perhaps music continues to play a vital role in their lives because of those early years — Ishanti Ghosh (she would often compose her own music), Tanya Mayadas, Nayantara and Mohua Pal Choudhury, Anita Mehta (she had played from a Ravel sonatine that evening) and Arvind Santwan (playing Bach on the violin). Lolita and Azim Lewis Mayadas — the unforgettably charismatic and distinguished first couple of music-making in Calcutta — gave a two-piano recital, playing Stravinsky, Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Lolita, then the principal of the school, and her sister, Shanti Varma, put up Mozart’s Magic Flute with puppets, and Azim Lewis gave a lecture on music and painting in the 20th century. Lolita also did a “Let’s Look at the Orchestra” for children. The Viccajee Family Ensemble (Jer playing the piano, Victor the violin, Roshen the cello and Shernavaz the flute), with Fr Mathieson as an extra cello, played Thomas Arne, followed by recitals by the the brilliant violinist and flautist, Joy Dutt and the Calcutta Chorale (singing Handel, Monteverdi, Purcell and “Negro Spirituals”). There were recitals by my violin teacher, Proshanto Dutt, by Aruna Pasricha (vice-principal and a pianist, who had also once played Beethoven’s “Emperor” concerto with the CSO), and by the Calcutta Youth Orchestra. Prosanto and his brother Joy, together with the meteoric cellist from the Mission, Anup Biswas, played a Beethoven string quartet; another well-known cellist, Beryl Burridge-Majumdar, and Adi Gazder (the pianist and music critic) played Granville Bantock. (The picture of The Old Gumbie Cat in Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats always reminds me of Beryl.) There were discussions on the teaching and reviewing of music and a production of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.

In Proshanto Dutt’s weekly ensemble classes (where I would play second violin), a sort of gruelling, often terrifying, perfectionism would combine with a demanding baroque-to-modern repertory, to maintain a skilled strings section for larger orchestras. When Herr Nagel became the director of Max Mueller Bhavan in the Eighties, he combined these strings with musicians from the Oxford Mission to make up the Calcutta Chamber Orchestra. Every Sunday, a bus would leave from MMB with all of us, and we would have long rehearsals at the Behala Mission, stopping for tea and biscuits on the lawn by the large pond, with Father Mathieson flapping about hospitably in his cassock and sandals, speaking exactly like W.H. Auden. Those were idyllic Sundays. Learning how to read music with one eye on the conductor, while sitting in the middle of a complex harmony (as second violinists do in a symphony orchestra) was a training in alertness, simultaneity and humility which I find myself applying in other spheres of life, even after I have stopped playing the violin long since.

In my concluding piece, I will talk about some life-transforming music teachers and the various traditions they embodied. Trying to weave together these documents, memories and reflections has made me think about history — of a city, of culture, and of individuals — in a different way. Musically, such remembrances can perhaps only be cast in one form — in that of a requiem.

(To be concluded)

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