“Life is hard everyday.” Aman (pronounced Am-o-n) a 13-year-old violinist from Kabul, is in town at the invitation of the South Asian Symphony Foundation, part of a group of 65 musicians to perform at From Gandhi to Beethoven: The Call to Freedom, conceptualised by the founder-trustees, former diplomat Nirupama Rao and her husband, former chief Secretary, Sudhakar Rao.
Rehearsals are on in full swing and as lunch hour tapers to a close, the conversation ebbs as Beethoven plays through the speakers. Aman, Jamshed and Rohullah sit in the midst of an obviously fascinated group of musicians - “We’re discussing food,” says Karthik Alan, a Singaporean musician. “And Aman is showing me pictures of where he lives.” On Google Maps, as it turns out, with few results. “Maybe you should Google the neighbourhood...?” Emerald, the orchestra’s Oboe player arrives to join the group. The Afghan boys - in part because they are among the youngest members there - are a point of fascination for everyone there.
“Ours is a country of war,” says Aman. “There is violence every day, survival is never a guarantee.” Rohullah, his classmate at Afghanistan National Institute of Music (the only music school in that country), nods in agreement. What keeps them going back to the Institute , then? The answer is prompt. “Music.” The lunch hour conversation had revolved around privileges, Karthik explains - “Despite their circumstances, some of the Afghans here today have performed at places like the Kennedy Centre and Carnegie Hall... venues the rest of us can only dream of...” Both Rohullah (he plays the viola) and Aman have been studying music for about four years. Already, they’re regarded as ‘concert masters’. It’s a motley crew, with lives that have little in common, but they unite at once over Paginini and the ‘edgy music’ of Brahms.
A few moments prior, Nirupama Menon Rao, the founder / trustee of the South Asian Symphony Foundation, description of music as an “enabler” of peace and togetherness – took on new meaning. This concert will mark the commemoration of Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. Conducted by Alvin Seville Arumugam, 65 musicians, from Afghanistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore, the U.S., Germany and the U.K, will come together on Saturday, for a show that includes a special composition on Gandhi’s life. “They even play the Indian National Anthem,” says Nirupama. “There’s no sense of your country or my country - it’s about inclusivity.”
What does Beethoven have to do with Gandhi? “They weren’t linked in life but they had things in common, including the reach they enjoyed. So we’re putting it together, Gandhi’s message and Beethoven’s music.
As it happens, there is a link - Madeleine Slade, or Mirabehn, the British woman who left her home in the UK to become a disciple of Gandhi. Mirabehn, who hadn’t heard of Gandhi then, was fascinated by Beethoven and reached out to the author Romain Rolland, who wrote a book on him. “Rolland told her about Gandhi and when she expressed an interest, told her to read a book he had written on him. In the end, Rolland was the person who introduced her to Gandhi.” And it all began with Beethoven. The master composer himself, who lived during the French Revolution, was drawn to the idea of freedom, of overcoming despotism and allowing the people a voice. “This has found expression in his music, too, in the 4th Piano Concerto, for instance and the 5th Symphony.”
Music played an important role in Gandhi’s life too, Nirupama says. “He had prayer meetings with hymns and bhajans - it went across religions but music held it together. Music had an important part to play in the freedom struggle, too.” Ekla Chalo Re will be performed on Saturday, by the children’s chorus, directed by Sandra Oberoi. Rohan Ramanan, an Indian American who trained in Hindustani classical music will sing Vaishnava Jana To - “He’s an accomplished Oboe player, in the Western tradition and he studied Hindustani music too,” she says.
Putting together an orchestra of South Asian musicians is no mean feat - there is no database, “it’s not like you can Google ‘South Asian orchestral musicians’,” she laughs. “It’s been a stupendous task but to me, it’s a labour of love.” It meant months of calls, emails, asking people if they know people - to put the orchestra together. “I don’t think I have had more than four hours of sleep in the last four months!”
What they do have now is a data bank of their own, a valuable resource for orchestral music remains a rarity in South Asia. “It needs a lot of resources, which developing nations haven’t been able to provide,” Nirupama says. Peace Notes has received no government funding and has been organised what Nirupama calls “citizen volunteerism.” The Confederation of Indian Industry is a partner for the event.
“We want to create a South Asian identity and music is an enabler,” Nirupama says. “We don’t just play symphonic music, we’re creating a repoertoire of music from across the region.” They commissioned a composition, Hum Safar, which was done by piecing together seven songs from seven South Asian countries. “With that, we want to say that we’re all in this together. Ideas of Freedom is a special composition for the upcoming show, composed by Antonius Anand Nazareth, the son of late composer Daniel Nazareth. A sitar player will join the orchestra during the show, too.
For Nirupama herself, it’s a return to an old love. She points excitedly to the sheet music beside her - “This is the composition we commissioned,” she says. Can she read it? “Not really, I can understand the melodic line but I’m not a trained musician. We couldn’t afford that, growing up.” Born into an army family, education and reading were encouraged, as were the arts. “I was an avid reader, I would read everything from fiction to history, to the newspapers in which our vegetables came wrapped!” She and her sister would listen to the radio, scribbling lyrics to their favourite songs, waiting for them to play once more to fill in the blanks. “When I was 15, my parents bought me a guitar... I would sing Joan Baez, I really liked her music.” A career as a diplomat left little room for the arts, but she returned to it, 25 years later. “Now I have an album out.” She pauses for a moment, then sings a Joan Baez song... “Just a little rain falling all around, The grass lifts its head to the heavenly sound, Just a little rain, just a little rain...”
Putting the show together, she says, has been “a stupendous effort but I tell myself that if Gandhi could walk for miles, I can do my little bit too. Very little of that happens today - I heard someone say once that there are lots of heroics but no heroism in today’s world. I want to bring a little bit of sanity and common sense into the mix, to do my bit for concord in the region, especially when the debates and the conversations are getting darker.”
What: From Gandhi to Beethoven: The Call to Freedom
When: October 5, 6.30 pm
Where: J.N. Tata auditorium, Indian Institute of Science