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M. Gaugin with a violin

M. Gaugin with a violin

The Calcutta School of Music’s old premises on Wellesley Street

A rich tradition of music-teaching and performance in Calcutta is now almost forgotten, writes Aveek Sen

in 1915 — a year into the Great War and just a couple of years before the Russian Revolution — Philippe Sandre founded the Calcutta School of Music. This exquisitely talented, post-Impressionist Frenchman (a friend of the composer, Camille Saint-Saëns) has always intrigued and eluded me. I grew up seeing his portrait hanging at the School of Music. A lined but curiously boyish face, sharp eyes, dark cravat; a “confirmed bachelor”, I suspect, with a whiff of Monsieur Gaugin about him. A very Proustian great-aunt, Pratibha Sen, had introduced me to the violin when I was about four, and M. Sandre used to be her violin-teacher. So he entered my childhood, filtered through the music and memory of this lady, who always spoke, with a sort of revering tenderness, of the immense, loving patience with which he taught his pupils, and of the “sweetness” of his playing hand. He had referred her to a violin-maker in London from whom she bought — in the Twenties, I guess — the violin I used to play. The time-browned label inside it reads “Ernest Munby, London”. Sandre would also copy out music for his pupils with his own hands, and my earliest pieces were picked up from these manuscripts: Dvorák’s “Humoresque”, Franconer’s “Sicilienne and Rigaudon” arranged by Kreisler, and the languid “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs. I still have the metal mute — shaped like a lyre — which Sandre had given Pratibha.

But apart from these perishable remains, I found nothing about this fascinating man in the archives of this city — until I came upon Victor Viccajee’s “Reminiscences” in the programme for the 1972 festival, inaugurating the new building of the CSM on Sunny Park. This invaluable memoir sketches a world of music-making in Calcutta at the centre of which was Philippe Sandre. He would not only be an indefatigable violin-teacher, but would also train and rehearse the strings section of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra, where Viccajee used to be first violinist. (Sandre had taught Philomena Thumboo Chetty, who later became the pupil of one of Menuhin’s teachers, Georges Enesco, in Paris.) During the war years, when the school was temporarily shifted to Darjeeling, Sandre would come down every fortnight to Calcutta to conduct Sunday morning orchestral rehearsals, and then leave for Darjeeling the same evening by train. He also looked after the school’s library of musical scores.

Under him, the CSO maintained very high standards. “An orchestral rehearsal under Dr Sandre,” writes Viccajee, “was virtually a violin lesson, with emphasis laid on correct bowing, phrasing and fingering, and tackling passages which on paper appeared to be unplayable.” The CSO would occasionally merge with the Bengal governor’s orchestra and that of the viceroy, when he visited Calcutta “during the cold weather”, and this augmented orchestra would even play Wagner, Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and Sandre’s favourite D Minor Symphony by César Franck, the slow movement of which was played by the CSO at a memorial concert after Sandre died in England. Rehearsed by him, but conducted by the magnificently-named “Mr A. de Bois Shrosbree”, the CSO performed on the first floor of Firpo’s Restaurant in 1930 (“Firpo’s upstairs veranda bar did a roaring business during the interval”), but the venue was shifted to the New Empire Theatre from the following year. The CSO accompanied Benno Moseiwitsch playing Beethoven’s Emperor, and its own principal violinist, Stanley Gomes, playing the Max Bruch concerto. Later on, it accompanied Yehudi Menuhin on two occasions. The Parsee composer, Cursetji Wadia, of Bombay, dedicated his Second Symphony to the CSO, which performed it (including a difficult tuba part) under Sandre’s tutelage. Wadia’s score was then sent to Sir Adrian Boult, who broadcast the symphony on the BBC’s overseas service, played by the BBC Orchestra. The announcer mentioned the CSO as the work’s dedicatee. Viccajee felt “that the mention of our orchestra in a BBC broadcast put us in a manner, on the musical map of the world”. The CSO’s virtuosity was put to test when, on a hot and sultry evening, it was accompanying a choral work in a small local church. During the performance, Sandre realized that the weather had raised the pitch of the church organ by a full semi-tone. He whispered to the orchestra to play a semi-tone higher: “The transposition at sight was not in all cases a happy and successful effort, and judging by the sounds which were heard, it appeared that we were using the twelve-tone scale in a purely 17th century work!” Some of the CSO members also played in the Great Eastern Hotel orchestra. Once Sandre came in there to attend a luncheon party while the orchestra was playing some popular number. The musicians took fright on seeing him, nudged each other surreptitiously, stopped whatever they were playing and started to perform “their ‘star’ classic, which was the well known pot-boiler, the Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 by Liszt”.

During the war years, many of the CSO’s members had to leave for war duties. But the orchestra was at its best during those years, with several musically talented members of the British and American armed forces, then stationed in Calcutta, playing in it, and with record audiences attending the concerts. (Among the ablest first violinists for many years, was a formidable Brahmika, Arundhati Chatterjee, called “Aakshi-mashi” by her younger co-religionists, from “Ekushi” or “Twenty-one”. She had an extra finger in one of her hands.) After Sandre retired and left India, and the conductor, de Bois Shrosbree, died, another splendidly-named flautist took over and breathed new life into the winds — Senor Francisco Casanovas. But in the Fifties, B.V. Jacobs, and then Gerald Neil Craig conducted a dispersing and dwindling orchestra, which had to be disbanded in the early Seventies after its lead violinist, Stanley Gomes, left Calcutta permanently. I remember its brief but memorable revival, under the baton of Hussain Muhammad (now a teacher, conductor and composer in England), when it accompanied Aruna Pasricha playing the Emperor Concerto.

In those wartime and post-war years, a colourful and talented European diaspora chose to make Calcutta and a few other Indian cities its home, and infinitely enriched the lives and sensibilities of many Indians. Viccajee recalls his childhood in Shanghai, where a steady influx of Germans, Italians and “white Russians” supplemented the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, maintained by the municipality as “a sort of civic amenity”. Bulbul Sarkar — whose AIR broadcasts included studio concerts by Menuhin, by Benjamin Britten and his companion, Peter Pears, and by the tremendous black American soprano, Leontyne Price — remembers (in spite of her legendary and entirely endearing forgetfulness) her singing teach- er in Pune, Mona Schmuck. Mona was an Austrian-Jewish mezzo, who fled the Reich with her violinist brother. (The brother changed his surname to Bell.) The distinguished pianists, Adi Gazdar and Aruna Pasricha, were taught by Beresford Scott and Giselle Guillaume (in Tara Hall, Simla) respectively. Wonderful music teachers like Mother Germaine of Loreto House and Mother Canice of Loreto Darjeeling, or Giovanni Scrinzi and B. de San Lazaro are also part of this vanished past. Perhaps the last embodiment of this tradition, and certainly Calcutta’s last brilliant and ruinous saloniere, is my ex-teacher and friend, Fawzia Marikar, who now lives and teaches music in the Nilgiris. To lead these fragments of lost time up to Fawzia would bring this inadequate elegy to a suitably Proustian end.

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