Category: Published Work

Grace under fire

By Beverly Pereira 

Based on Charles M. Blow’s book by the same name, Terence Blanchard’s landmark opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones—to be screened at the NCPA in the first week of June—digs deep to unearth the unspoken struggles and suppressed pain associated with the Black American experience. 

Last year, 27th September marked the first time a work by a Black composer and librettist was staged at the Metropolitan Opera in the 139 years of its existence. After 18 long, silent months of a forced shutdown due to the pandemic, the storied New York institution had finally reopened to the public. The 2021-22 season opener, an opera titled Fire Shut Up in My Bones, is the creation of Grammy award-winning jazz composer and trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Centred around the tension and trauma of growing up as a Black man in the American south, the opera shattered the definitive silence that relates to the Black experience and, consequently, the Black Lives Matter movement which had gained traction only a year prior to this. To further the reach and sense of urgency that the opera and its theme command, it was simulcast as part of the Met’s award-winning Live in HD series that brings live transmissions of some of the greatest operas to theatres across the globe. 

Blanchard’s groundbreaking opera had first created a stir when it premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in Missouri in 2019. An adaptation of the eponymous 2014 memoir by author and The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, it is set in and around the small, poverty-stricken town of Gibsland in northwestern Louisiana and at the author’s alma mater, Grambling State University. Journeying from Blow’s childhood in the 1970s to his adulthood in the 1990s against the background of dire poverty of the rural African American community and the struggles associated with systemic class and race discrimination, the narrative’s central theme focusses on the traumatic impact that an incident of sexual abuse by a cousin had on the seven-year-old Charles. 

Historic firsts 

Blanchard, whose works are rooted in jazz, is revered for noteworthy scores composed for a long list of Spike Lee films as much as he is for his first opera titled Champion (2013). With Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Blanchard composed a score well grounded in the classical tradition and richly suffused with his signature form-defying jazz. Reflecting his experience in film scores, a notable feature of the opera’s music involves the use of lyrical sweeps that intend to propel the action forward. 

Directed by acclaimed stage director James Robinson and choreographer Camille A. Brown and conducted by the celebrated Canadian conductor and pianist Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Fire Shut Up in My Bones features a talented cast well-suited to the rigours of the compelling opera. With the Met premiere, Brown, who has also choreographed the production, became the first Black director to present a mainstage Met production. Yet another historic first associated with the opera is the fact that it features a libretto by celebrated screenwriter, film director and first-time librettist Kasi Lemmons. Together, Blanchard and Lemmons bring to life a range of emotions—rage, sadness, fragility, loneliness and pain—that play out sensitively across the three acts of the opera. 

The performers are a skilled and seasoned set led by the Grammy-nominated baritone Will Liverman as Charles and celebrated soprano Latonia Moore as Charles’s mother Billie. The sensational soprano Angel Blue, who performed with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) at the NCPA in 2015, plays an equally weighty role as Greta, Charles’s love interest. Blue’s charisma guides two more characters, Destiny and Loneliness, to represent the forces that shape Charles’s life. Young Charles (known as Char’es-Baby) is played by the talented 13-year-old Walter Russell III who made his Broadway debut as Young Michael Jackson in MJ The Musical and had performed across the United States and Canada as Young Simba in the national tour of Disney’s The Lion King

Turbulent roads 

The opera opens with a college-going Charles driving down a Louisiana backroad with a gun in the passenger seat. The viewer is introduced to characters like Destiny, Char’es-Baby and his mother Billie at the very start as Charles begins reliving memories from his childhood. Adding depth to the writing are the frequent interactions between Charles and his younger self throughout the opera. The harrowing incident of sexual trauma perpetrated by a cousin on the seven-year-old Char’es-Baby unleashes a lengthy process of shame, anger and sadness that spanned years. As times moves on, Charles finds himself struggling in his relationships. While the personification of Destiny challenges him to consider his place in the world, the personification of Loneliness lays claims on him not only with his love 

interest Greta but also with his mother whose love is clear but not always available. Charles must confront a range of internal conflicts depicted as musicalised internal monologues that give voice to the character’s psychological journey to self-acceptance. 

“In the opera, Charles is faced with a brutal choice and looks back on his life to understand what has led him to a potentially life-ruining crossroads,” explains Robinson in the Met’s programme notes. “He questions his role in certain traumatic events and wonders how he could have changed the course of his own personal history. His is a journey of self-loathing, self-discovery, and eventually self-forgiveness. Charles states that he is a ‘stranger in my hometown,’ and I find this idea deeply affecting, for many of us have felt the loneliness of not fitting in or not belonging, even in an environment that should be comforting and familiar.” 

Two phrases in the opera—“Sometimes you gotta’ just leave it in the road” and “I bend, I don’t break, I sway”—resonate with co-director and choreographer Brown who, in her note, says that the lines speak to the specificity of the Black experience but also call upon a universal theme of determination and the need for personal resolution. Step, a social dance rooted in African American history and culture, can be traced back 200 years to West Africa. “It is also embedded in the fabric of Black fraternities and sororities, which were intentionally created as safe spaces when white Greek-letter organisations would not let Black men and women join them,” writes Brown. The energetic style of dance finds a fitting place in the opera. “At one point in history, Black people were not allowed to perform on stages like this one and, even more so, were not able to authentically portray our own narratives. The full spectrum of our real lives [was] unseen. But we did not break. Once invisible, now beautifully and vibrantly visible. Past, present, and future, we sway,” she adds. 

Fire Up in My Bones deals with the complications, pain and trauma specific to Black people and minorities, even as it unearths a range of experiences that holds immense contemporary relevance to race and culture. Ultimately, it is an achievement in storytelling that is testimony to the human spirit’s need for validation and belonging. 

Fire Shut Up in My Bones will be screened on 2nd June at the Godrej Dance Theatre. 

*This piece was originally published in the May 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai

The Queen of Soul

The music of Aretha Franklin has endured in the hearts of people across the world since the early 1960s. In the month of her 80th birth anniversary, we retrace the late legendary singer’s journey, right from her gospel beginnings to the singular role she played in defining the golden age of soul.

Aretha Franklin’s body of work is timeless. Her music has left an indelible mark on generations and will, unquestionably, impact those to come. Mirroring a life that had more than its fair share of troubles, her powerful songs channelled her own experiences of love and heartbreak, stardom and setbacks. With a recording career that spanned over half a century, Franklin’s music spoke to both the civil rights and women’s liberation movements. Among the most distinctive voices of our time, hers boasted an astonishingly powerful vocal range. Today, the ‘Queen of Soul’ lives on through her music. This month, two concerts at the NCPA will celebrate the works of Franklin and a host of other powerful women who have left their mark on the world. The first is a Women’s Day special on 5th March, led by vocal powerhouses Samantha Noella, Shazneen Arethna, Suzanne D’mello and Eden Alexander, backed by Shanelle Ferreira and Shanaya Sequeira and an exquisite band to match. Later, on 25th March, Franklin’s birth anniversary, the soulful Keshia B will pay tribute to the icon of soul along with some of the world’s greatest female artistes. We look back at the life of the iconic singer, songwriter and pianist.

Finding her voice

Aretha Louise Franklin was born in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1942 to the influential pastor and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin and Barbara, a gospel singer and pianist. Franklin displayed prodigious talent as a child. But just as her affinity for singing started young, so did a life of turmoil. She was just six when her mother left the family due to a troubled marriage with the pastor, and almost ten when her mother succumbed to a heart attack. Living in the Franklin home in Detroit, she learned how to play the piano by ear and was encouraged by her father to sing. Not long after that, she started singing solos at New Bethel Baptist Church where the pastor had gained a reputation for his powerful sermons. When her father began to manage her, Franklin, on the brink of teenagehood, started to travel with him to gospel programmes across America. She would soon go on to gain recognition for her vocal prowess. It was evident that the influence of gospel greats like Clara Ward and James Cleveland, many of whom frequently visited her family home, had rubbed off on the impressionable Franklin. It was also around this time, when she was just 12, that Franklin gave birth to a son; she would go on to give birth to another son two years later in 1957 and two more sons in 1964 and 1970. Her grandmother and older sisters helped raise the children, allowing Franklin to focus on her musical career. After having installed recording equipment inside New Bethel Baptist Church, J.V.B. Records released Franklin’s first single in 1956 when she was 14. This was followed by the release of four more singles; all five tracks would eventually make it to ‘side one’ of the album Spirituals released that year. So electrifying were her first recordings that they eventually went on to get reissued under various labels with the most recent remastered version released in 2019 by Geffen/UME. In those days, when she wasn’t on tour with her father, she would travel with the pioneering gospel music group, The Soul Stirrers, and even traverse the gospel circuit in Chicago during the summers.

A change of tune

With her father’s permission, Franklin switched from sacred to secular music just as she turned 18, leaving her hometown of Detroit for New York City upon securing a contract with Columbia Records. Her first release with Columbia, ‘Today I Sing the Blues’ (1960), was a product of the very first session. It remains a classic to date. She would go on to release an album in 1961 which featured ‘Won’t Be Long’, her first single to chart the Billboard Hot 100. She was beginning to make a name for herself at American clubs and theatres during these years. But, even as her releases with Columbia showcased her keen ability to sing everything from Broadway ballads to diverse genres like vocal jazz, doo-wop and R&B, it was evident that something was amiss when it came to commercial success. The period between 1966 and 1979 saw Franklin return to her gospel-blues roots when she signed with Atlantic Records. It was during this time that her ‘I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You)’ (1967) reached number one on the R&B chart and number nine on the Billboard Hot 100. The songstress brought her unique brand of musicianship to the table even when she covered the work of other artistes, giving songs like Otis Redding’s ‘Respect’ new depth while she made them her own. A popular favourite, her rendition is remembered as both a feminist and civil rights anthem. She went on to score many more top 10 singles during this commercially successful period, and by 1968, after releasing acclaimed albums like Aretha Now, she was widely regarded as America’s most successful singer.

Fulfilling her true potential

The year 1968 saw many more successes including two Grammy awards, a Time magazine cover, and her first foreign appearance when she enthralled fans in Amsterdam. That year, when she visited Detroit for a concert, she was lauded with a day named after her. On 16th February 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. Franklin had toured with him in her early gospel days—presented the 26-year-old with an award to mark ‘Aretha Franklin Day’. She would sing at his funeral service two months later. By the early 1970s, she had played to a packed house at the Fillmore West, and embarked on tours of Europe and Latin America. Then came the 1972 album Amazing Grace—a live recording of her performance with a choir at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles—which is revered as one of the greatest gospel albums in the history of modern music. From then on, it was onwards and upwards for Franklin who had signed with Arista in 1982 and became the first woman to be inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Many honours came her way, including a Kennedy Center Honor in 1994 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. She sang for presidents and received honorary degrees from Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities, among many others. Rolling Stone magazine called Franklin ‘the greatest singer of her generation’, while President Barack Obama rightly pointed out that “American history wells up when Aretha sings”.

Franklin closed what would be one of her last performances with ‘Say a Little Prayer’ at the 25th anniversary gala for the Elton John AIDS Foundation in New York. Today, almost four years after Franklin’s demise, her soul lives on through her music. It is also alive in the many tributes to her genius, whether as concerts in every corner of the world or through films, such as the 2021 biopic Respect directed by Liesl Tommy and starring Jennifer Hudson as the late singer. Such was Franklin’s impact whose spiritually tinged music continues to give people—no matter their religion or race—the hope they need to get by.

Fierce, Free & Fabulous will be presented on 5th March at the Tata Theatre. One Night Only – A Diva Special Featuring Keshia B will be presented on 25th March at the Experimental Theatre.

This piece was first published in the March 2022 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai

To the SOI, with love

To commemorate 15 years of the Symphony Orchestra of India, four regular concertgoers at the NCPA look back at some of their favourite performances and fond memories of India’s first and only professional orchestra

Ever since it was set up in 2006 by NCPA Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook and violin virtuoso Marat Bisengaliev, the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) has delighted audiences, both new and old. The home- grown ensemble has delivered spectacular performances under the batons of renowned conductors and, in recent years, been a grand success on international tours. This momentous milestone coupled with the reopening of the NCPA after a long, forced closure is reason enough to celebrate with gusto. We spoke to some of our audience members—Western classical music aficionados who have regularly attended SOI performances over the years—to better understand the significance of the existence and growth of the orchestra.

Gerson da Cunha

Theatre & film actor, author and social worker

There were just two city symphony orchestras in the 1940s and 1950s: First, the Bombay Symphony Orchestra with Jules Craen as conductor and Mehli Mehta as leader, and later, the Bombay Philharmonia, now called the Bombay Chamber Orchestra, under Cecil Mendonca. Both symphony orchestras were high-quality and performed great music at the Cowasjee Jehangir Hall at the Institute of Science, Mumbai. I find it hard to recall particular concerts and events served up over the years in the rich and varied fare that the city of Mumbai has enjoyed. But I do remember my first experience of music at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. I stepped into the hall to notice Jamshed waving me to a seat beside him. He was in row ‘J’. “Here is where the sound is best,” he said, “J for Jamshed”. And who was to know better than Jamshed Bhabha himself about the theatre that was named after him. Truly, it was a great sound and a great performance of Mozart’s ‘Eine Kleine Nacht Musik’ played by a superb Viennese ensemble.

I find it difficult to detail what exactly I had heard the Symphony Orchestra of India play when I heard them back in 2006 and forward. But, there is little doubt that they set a new standard in the Western classical music one was listening to. The Jamshed Bhabha Theatre is also hugely different from the old Cowasjee Jehangir Hall, now the National Gallery of Modern Art. I believe that a chamber orchestra is a great idea and one to be encouraged as an economical way of programming good music. For now, it is, perhaps, enough to say that for some of us, a pall was cast over us when the SOI was temporarily unable to perform because of Covid-19 restrictions. With every good wish to the SOI!

Dr. Kashmira Mody

Professor of Economics

When it was announced in 2006 that we were going to have our very own symphony orchestra, I was thrilled. No more would we have to wait for occasional appearances by foreign orchestras (not that I don’t enjoy those performances). Here was an opportunity to regularly see and listen to live performances. The 15 years that I have attended SOI concerts have been special. We have been treated to a wide variety of classical music from different eras and composers; Baroque to Classical to Romantic eras and even music from modern composers. From just the strings to a full-sized orchestra, from combined choirs to operatic soloists, from full productions of operas to opera galas and even a musical theatre gala; we have had the opportunity to see and listen to it all. From the music connoisseur to the beginner, there is always something for everyone. I am not an expert on music, but like most people who enjoy listening to music, I can feel the difference between a good performance and one that could be better. Over the years, our orchestra has definitely improved. The players seem to gel together to give us a better sound each time. We can see and feel the hard work that has gone behind it all.

There are many fond memories of concerts, but the ones that stand out include the most recent one of Scheherazade, the 10 year celebration concert, the 50 years of NCPA gala, Handel’s Messiah, Holst’s The Planets, Wagner’s Ring without Words, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No.4, Rachmaninoff’s PC No.3, Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, Overture from the Thieving Magpie, Mendelsohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Beethoven’s PC No.5, the encore piece Moliendo Café, and even the concert at the Kala Ghoda Festival where they played the Magnificent Seven theme magnificently! Besides the concerts, what has been interesting are the special programmes arranged to give us insights into the compositions and the composers by SOI’s Associate Director Zane Dalal. The pre-concert talks were a condensed version of these. Of course, the very well-produced programme brochures are collector’s items. Yes, music is the food of life … So, play on SOI … play on!

Chetan Sharma

National award-winning animation film maker, writer & illustrator of children’s books 

My tryst with the Symphony Orchestra of India has been relatively recent, but it has nonetheless been quite intense. In all the formative years of the SOI, I was engaged in lengthy animation projects and had in fact shifted out of the city. For me, Western classical music, even with all the great music that exists, was often just really good background music at the time. Then, when I learnt of the existence of a professional symphony orchestra right here in Mumbai, I was fascinated. Thereafter, I attended most concerts over the last few years and was completely blown away. I often sketch at live shows, but sometimes I really cannot seem to do it when I’m at an SOI concert. I am always too stunned, as one would be, when soaking in the energy and vibrations of the music while watching the musicians and conductors who have put in all the hours of work leading up to that very moment. Of course, purely sketching ideas that surface from the music listening experience itself is great fun — the music at an SOI performance actually comes alive, enveloping you and tickling your imagination too.

I must admit — when it comes to knowledge of the music, I am nowhere close to the audience at Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. For me, every concert is both a sensory and learning experience. Still, if I had to mention a few recent SOI highs, many come to mind — like the epic Beethoven 9th, Zane Dalal’s awe inspiring Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scherazade’, the Alexander Lazarev-conducted ‘Petrushka’, the Wagner gala and the gala concert with the Bolshoi soloists, Mikel Toms’ Mozart Chamber concert and even Ustad Zakir Hussain’s experimental ‘Peshkar’. These concerts remain standouts for me, personally.

Abbas Shahiwalla

Youth Director of Rotary Club of India & Portfolio Manager

I feel connected to the NCPA since my school days when I’d regularly attend plays and musicals in English, Hindi and Gujarati. I remember those evenings at the NCPA as nothing but classy and fun. I am a lover of both Western and Hindustani classical music, and used to play the guitar, sitar and a bit of the piano. The Symphony Orchestra of India is undoubtedly the most fabulous and fantastic musical experience Mumbai could ever have. You can understand that it is a product of the vision, passion and hard work of the respected Jamshed Bhabha and, of course, Khushroo N. Suntook. The first SOI concert I had attended was an achievement in itself. Today, the orchestra has grown beyond words to an international standard.

That said, we do need more young Indian musicians to join our very own SOI. We also need more chamber concerts by the SOI, and Prithvi Theatre is a good way to reach and develop newer audiences. Perhaps, performances at colleges could make for a nice and effective way to promote Western classical music in India so that the youth can listen to and understand this grand music. I strongly believe that the pre-concert talks on composers and compositions prove to be very important and enlightening for us all. These talks by Zane Dalal at the NCPA and by Dr. Cawas at Prithvi Theatre are superb as they give us details of the composers, the idea behind pieces, and how compositions evolve with a break-up of each movement. I always look forward to every new season of the SOI at the NCPA. If I had to name a favourite performance by the SOI, it would have to be the orchestra performing under the baton of conductor Charles Dutoit in 2013. The Jamshed Bhabha Theatre and the Symphony Orchestra of India experience is world-class, and we are thankful for their presence.

This piece was first published in the December 2021 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai

Waiting in the wings

Socorro plateau is deservedly among the many avian-rich hotspots in Goa. During the months of May through October, even an hour spent here can be fruitful for both – a casual birdwatcher and a professional birder.

The rising sun lights up the sky in a silken pastel glow. We are at Socorro plateau, a nearly ten-minute drive from Porvorim in North Goa, and all we can hear is a crackle as we tread on a carpet of dry leaves. In the background, the unmistakable dawn chorus of a hundred different birds. But we cannot quite seem to spot any just yet.

A little past 7.00 a.m., the sun inches higher over the horizon, which, in this case, is the dense foliage that contours the plateau’s edge. The air is cool, and scattered sunlight gradually brings everything into focus. Rahul Alvares, a reputed herpetologist, wildlife photographer and author, is my guide on this trip. He walks around, homing in on thick bushes and training his sight on specific trees.

As if to recognise his efforts, a male purple sunbird flies by, the sun lighting up its iridescent plumage in flashes. It’s our first sighting and although a common one, it’s thrilling to observe the tiny bird with its distinctly slender down-curved beak hovering near an acacia tree. A male oriental magpie-robin, another common species, swoops down before our eyes, giving us ample time to train our binoculars on the black bird for a good glimpse of the distinct flash of white on its wings. He swiftly points to a female oriental magpie-robin on a dry stalk. Its brown plumage is unlike its male counterpart. “It will be there all morning,” says Alvares, who relies on years of experience to literally think like a bird.

Socorro Plateau is productive for birdwatching; the vast scrub grassland is dotted with dry trees and semi-deciduous forest cover along its slopes. On a good day, you can expect to see at least 50 (if not more) avian species within the hour. Not far, along the Mandovi river towards the east, is Chorão Island, home to the Dr. Salim Ali Bird Sanctuary, which, I’m told, teems with species endemic to the estuarine mangrove habitat.

As the golden hour hits its peak, we spot a noisy flock of jungle babblers sitting low in a thick scrub. These brownish-grey birds with yellow bills live in social groups and are called ‘seven sisters’ in the local language. “Can you see the two dry trees over there?” asks Alvares, no longer speaking in hushed tones. “There’s a black-hooded oriole in the bush just below.” The male is a treat to see, its plumage predominantly yellow with black markings on its head and wings. Perched on a dead tree up ahead, a congregation of overly gregarious male plum-headed parakeets with purple crowns create quite the racket.

He points to another bird in flight. “That’s a male orange-breasted green pigeon. It’s exquisite and rare to spot here.” We get a good look at the bird with its yellowish-green crown and greyish-purple nape with a splotch of orange, as Alvares informs us that they are often found in pairs. Right enough, the female, distinguished by a yellow breast band, flies by. We are soon alerted to the metallic call of the rufous treepie and we spot it roosting on an outcrop in the distance. Conspicuous in its presence, it has a long tail, black head and cinnamon-coloured body. We will see many more of its kind this morning, but most thrilling is when you start to recognise every one of its versatile calls, ranging from throaty to guttural. Our first bird of prey, a handsome Eurasian marsh-harrier soars overhead as we soak in the melodious singsong of a puff-throated babbler. Another predatory bird, this time the brahminy kite, circles above us. Its not very difficult to keep track of this bird with its brilliant white head and breast contrasted by a brick-red body.

Amid all the movement all around us, my eyes fall upon a vibrant green feathered friend — a leafbird — in flight. A few metres away, a yellow-throated sparrow kicks up a dust in the loose mud, while a stubby yellow-vented bulbul flits from tree to tree. Like most experts and avid birdwatchers, Alvares mimics birdcalls to a tee. He alerts me to the high-pitched ‘tik-tik’ trill of the Nilgiri flowerpecker amid the avian cacophony. “You hear that rising crescendo — ‘ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-kik-ki’? That’s the crested hawk-eagle, a medium-large raptor found in forests,” he goes on.

As we walk away from the plateau down a gravel path lined with a handful of local homes, Alvares explains that in this ‘edge habitat’ — where two habitats meet — one is likely to see the maximum number of birds. He’s right. Just when I was wondering how many birds we might have seen, and heard, so far, I get distracted by a new medley of forest birds. A pair of red-vented bulbuls launches into a mellifluous duet atop a tree, while a red-whiskered bulbul, differentiated by a taller crest, wider face and red cheek patch, looks on. “Look there, it’s a black-headed cuckooshrike hopping around on this acacia tree.” We revel in the rare beauty of this slender slate-grey bird.

“That’s a bronzed drongo over there! It has a metallic gloss and a slender, forked tail,” he says, before he points to a female Asian paradise flycatcher flying from one tree to the next. The male, I’m told, is a sight to behold. It comes with elongated tail feathers and a glossy bluish-black crest. While shorter-tailed with cinnamon upperparts and a grey throat, the female we’re observing is no less stunning. “This situation right here, when a bunch of different birds move together while foraging, is called a hunting party or a mixed-species foraging flock,” remarks Alvares. Further down the winding path, a white-bellied drongo is perched on a small branch. “White-naped woodpecker climbing up the trunk! Can you see the red crest and yellow plumage with black markings?” It’s rare to get a good, long look at this bird, he says, as we marvel at its crimson crown and crest.

A pair of peahens boldly struts across the path. The shy birds become aware of our presence and swiftly disappear into the thicket. Alvares announces that he’s spotted a white-cheeked barbet. “Look at that branch sticking out, but look at the tree behind it.” I cannot seem to spot the bird for a good ten minutes, so he goes on to shoot a photo of it. It’s a beautiful, small green bird, and I long to catch an actual glimpse of it. “The reason he’s sitting there is because his nest is probably in a nearby trunk. It’s a tricky bird that your eye refuses to see,” he assures me, “but once you see it, you cannot miss it!” A few minutes pass, and I finally catch a momentary glimpse of the barbet disappearing into its nest in the hole of a tree trunk right above our heads. When it emerges, the plumy bird with a distinct white cheek stripe is now well within my sight. As Alvares puts it, it’s a sighting that’s always worth the time and effort.

For a passionate, although relatively new, birdwatcher like me, there’s nothing quite like seeing nature unfold before your eyes. Spotting this elusive bird made for a fitting end to the trip. At a time when much of the world’s forest are being threatened, a birdwatching jaunt such as this might serve as a potent reminder to look up and pay heed.  

Keys of note

The concert pipe organ’s 708 conical and cylindrical pipes are responsible for its unique sound

In the final part of the series on the NCPA’s collection of musical instruments, we take you through the ins and outs of a prized pipe organ gifted to the NCPA circa 1988. We also bring to the fore top-notch pianos that light up many a recital across our performance venues.

Deep inside the recesses of the Tata Theatre sits a monumental and venerable instrument. To get a glimpse of it is awe-inspiring and to listen to it is to be imprinted with its melodious strains. The NCPA’s concert pipe organ is one of four functional pipe organs in Mumbai; it is also the first of its kind, in that it is the only movable pipe organ to exist in the city. The pipe organ in itself is an instrument associated with superlatives, for it is all but impossible for any other instrument to produce the sheer variety of tone and timbre that a pipe organ can.

The concert pipe organ at the NCPA was a gift from the industrial and business community of the Federal Republic of Germany (as represented in the Indo German Chamber of Commerce). It was built by the legendary pipe organ makers Rudolf von Beckerath Organ Builders of Hamburg between 1986 and 1987. Fittingly, it was commissioned in 1985 to mark the tricentenary of the birth of celebrated organ composers Bach and Handel; that very year, India’s commemorative postal stamps paying homage to the composers were released at the NCPA.

“The initial visit by our former technical and managing director (the late) Timm Sckopp was in March 1985. Upon this visit, he configured the size and tonal disposition of the instrument, taking the special situation of the rotating stage into consideration,” recalls Holger Redlich, Business Manager, Rudolf von Beckerath Organ Builders. Sckopp was accompanied by a third-year apprentice at the company to install the gargantuan instrument at the NCPA in 1988.

Over the first three days of March that year, the city’s organ lovers were  treated to a series of concerts, commencing with an organ solo by German organist Prof. Edgar Krapp, followed by a performance with the Paranjoti Academy Chorus conducted by Coomi Wadia with Prof. Krapp at the organ again, and another with the Bombay Chamber Orchestra.

An instrument of many feats

The pipe organ is one of the most complex mechanical instruments developed before the Industrial Revolution. Mozart called it the “king of instruments”, while Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor remain among the most famous pieces of organ music from the Baroque era. Its complex mechanism also demands that the upkeep of this instrument is meticulous, and makes its maintenance an expensive affair. Used for organ recitals and concertos for organ or orchestra, this wind instrument is built and voiced by masterful hands and ears to suit the physical space it occupies, its sound filling the space which it was built for.

Further, there’s a reason behind the English idiom ‘to pull out all the stops’—an organist requires immense dexterity to pull out the stops of a pipe organ to be able to switch between tones, all the while playing its keys and manoeuvring the pedals below. At the Tata Theatre, the concert pipe organ’s 708 conical and cylindrical pipes are responsible for its unique sound. But it is really the combined working of the metal pipes, stops and pedals that gives the pipe organ its enormous range. The Beckerath-make instrument sports two keyboards (manuals) with six stops for the upper manual, five for the lower and three for its pedals.

The pipe organ featured at many memorable concerts after the inaugural show, until it was locked away due to the diminishing presence of Western classical music over the years, the lack of organists and that of funds. It wasn’t until 2006, when the Symphony Orchestra of India was formed, that Western classical music saw a revival at the NCPA. In 2013, the department reached out to the legendary German makers upon rediscovering the beautiful instrument, now in dire need of repair.

“It was obviously in a poor condition. The main problem was the fact that part of the materials such as leather and felt were eaten by insects and without these gaskets, the air pressure for the pipes could escape,” Holger explains. That year, Sun eun Kwak, Beckerath’s employee in the Asian region, arrived in Mumbai for an inspection. The following year saw him return to the NCPA with the organ makers’ German technician Siegmund Tessler to painstakingly perform the overhaul and repair. The pipe organ had found its voice once again and, after a grand passage of time, even enthralled an entirely new generation of listeners at a 2013 concert featuring the UK’s South West Festival Chorus with the Symphony Orchestra of India. Subsequent maintenance visits from 2015 to 2017, with the last taking place in 2019, ensured that the instrument has stayed in its prime.

The pipe organ continues to be stored in optimal climatic conditions with ambient humidity levels not exceeding 40-70 per cent, while the room temperature varies between 15 and 30 degrees Celsius with a change by one degree Celsius per hour. “Our hope is that after the pandemic, the good care will continue. Our company is very proud of this fine instrument at the NCPA,” says Holger.

Renowned pianist M Maria João Pires plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op. 37 on the Steinway at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre in a concert during the SOI Spring 2020 Season; and (above) the piano has an
intricate design with numerous moving parts

Of ebony and ivory

Not as large as the pipe organ, but just as intricately designed with thousands of moving parts is the piano. There are several magnificent pianos at the NCPA, each of which is carefully stored in climate-controlled areas backstage of various venues. There are two Yamaha CFX concert grand pianos that respond beautifully to the requirements of technically complex performances that light up the stage of the beautiful Tata Theatre. The Steinway & Sons Model D concert grand piano, which lends itself elegantly to concertos, is played during concerts held at the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre. Finally, a smaller chamber piano — a Grotrian- Steinweg — is brought out for recitals at the Little Theatre. 

Like any other fine instrument that needs a nudge to sound its best, a piano too needs to be gently coaxed into exuding its true voice. Although the NCPA’s pianos are stored in climate-controlled rooms, they often go out of tune due to Mumbai’s high humidity levels, which is why they require regular maintenance and adjustments to the tension of strings.

The NCPA’s very own piano man is Peter Salisbury, regarded as one of the world’s finest piano technicians. Formerly with Steinway & Sons UK and with Bösendorfer, he has also worked with some of the most renowned venues in the world—from Trinity College of Music, Royal Academy of Music, Royal College of Music right up to all of BBC’s recording studios. On contract, the London-based Salisbury has visited the NCPA on four occasions to date to oversee the servicing of the Steinway, Yamaha and Grotrian-Steinweg grand pianos. Salisbury is well known as a technician to the stars and has worked with almost every famed international concert pianist in London over the last three decades, including Evgeny Kissin, on numerous recording projects. He also travels the world with famous artistes to ensure the piano is exactly to their needs. In fact, he had visited the NCPA on two occasions to work with pianists Stephen Kovacevich in 2018 and Stephen Hough in 2017. “I always work closely with artistes. It’s what I’m known and requested for because I know what they specifically need for their sound. It’s a bespoke service.”

On his consultation visit several years ago, the first major problem that struck Salisbury was that the city’s humidity posed a major problem for the NCPA’s collection of pianos. But, he says, Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook acted on his report and completely changed the operation. “Pianos go out of tune for three reasons,” he explains. “Bad tuning is one and unstable climatic conditions is the second. The third is a piano with loose tuning pins.” Many worn-out parts were replaced, and once they were brought up to concert condition, each piano was then set up for specific roles.

Salisbury further explains that since each venue has its own acoustics, in an ideal situation, pianos are exclusively voiced for that venue. “Both the Steinway and Yamaha had new hammers fitted, which is quite a specific job as I created the correct sound to the auditorium acoustics. The Steinway was set for concerto use in the main hall which requires a big sound. The Yamaha was set for the smaller auditorium and is used for jazz and classical performances,” says Salisbury, who’s currently at London’s South Bank Centre in the midst of fitting actions to the pianos to give them even more choice and a more all-round sound option. “I love India, having visited it many a time and I look forward to being able to return to your hall again one day when the situation permits it,” he says.

Renowned pianist Jean-Philippe Collard played the works of Chopin, Fauré and Granados, on the Yamaha at the Tata Theatre

This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA, Mumbai

The Sound of music

The allure of music is so strong that it won’t be very long before we gather to enjoy a recital again. Until then, we learn about the importance of sourcing and caring for fine musical instruments, as we unearth fascinating stories behind the harps, violins, violas, cellos and double basses in the prized NCPA collection.

What is music if not the purest expression of emotions? On the face of it, music is the result of a combination of instrumental sounds, vocals, or both. Fundamentally, it is the union of a musician and their instrument—a unification so coherent that, to the listener, there appears to be no tactile rift between the musician’s physical body and that of their instrument. We have seen this connection between performer and instrument in artistic depictions of classical music greats, from Liszt to Paganini. And, we continue to see it in the manner in which musicians treat their instrument with tender loving care after going to great lengths to choose it.

Finding a high-quality instrument that suits and responds to their specific needs remains one of the biggest struggles of professional orchestra players and young musicians alike. Financial constraints are not the only reason behind this struggle; high-quality instruments are hard to come by because of their scarce availability not just in India but in other parts of the world too. At the NCPA, the collection is a prized one with instruments acquired over the decades through the vast knowledge of NCPA’s Founder Dr. Jamshed Bhabha and Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, and their wide connections in the world of the performing arts. It includes the Rudolph von Beckerath pipe organ, Mumbai’s only moveable pipe organ, which was gifted to the NCPA by members of the Indo-German Chamber of Commerce in 1988.

The gargantuan instrument was fully restored in July 2013. The Sassman harpsichord, Type No. 1681 of 1970, is another rare instrument, which was donated to the NCPA by the Max Mueller Bhavan. Several concert grand and other pianos are part of the collection too and the story of the acquisition and upkeep of these massive instruments calls for another article.

The NCPA routinely purchases instruments for the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) and the SOI Music Academy, while trying to strike a balance between good sound and a sound budget. “At the moment, we can’t really invest in expensive Italian instruments from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Luckily, there are good-sounding, relatively inexpensive instruments that can be sourced from living luthiers,” says violin virtuoso Marat Bisengaliev, who cofounded the SOI with Mr. Suntook.

Crafted to perfection

One such modern luthier who has crafted many an instrument, including violins, cellos and a double bass, for the NCPA is François Grimaux who lives in the south of France. “Grimaux’s double bass is perhaps the best sounding of the lot because it was made in the pure French style with a flat back. It’s the equivalent of a fine violin and is now often played by a student at the academy. It’s important for students to have access to good instruments in order to be competitive because they represent the SOI Music Academy and the NCPA at large and participate in international competitions too,” says Bisengaliev. The virtuoso, whose personal collection includes a Giacinto Santagiuliana 1812-make violin, is always happy to lend some of his fine Italian violins to students and SOI players. He had readily given his viola to student Aliza Jetha when she had participated in an international competition, while another talented student plays his 19th-century German Mittenwald-make cello.

Yet another luthier crafted a very special double bass for the SOI, and its addition to the collection has contributed to the high standard of the orchestra. “Khushroo has always been fascinated by really big double basses like those played by the Vienna Philharmonic. To actually find and then purchase a similar one is next to impossible anywhere in the world. We asked the Belgian luthier Serge Malouch to specially make one for the SOI around three years ago. We now have a better dimension of sound because of finely crafted instruments like these,” says Bisengaliev. But the NCPA didn’t always have string instruments crafted by modern luthiers. The first set of violins, double basses and cellos came in from China.

“When we started creating the SOI in 2006, we didn’t have a good budget for high-quality instruments and thus had to go in for low priced but reasonably good sounding instruments to be able to start. Some are still in use, while others like the cellos and double bass were completely renovated by Malouch and Grimaux. By this, I mean that most of the parts were completely stripped off and the thickness of the wood was changed to tune it to the highest quality. Now, these instruments look and sound just as good as handcrafted instruments.”

Harping on style

The collection also includes two harps, both of which respond to the high level of the orchestra. When SOI harpist Daniela Iolkicheva played the NCPA’s Lyon & Healy Style 100 harp at her first performance with the orchestra in 2017, she realised that it was in dire need of maintenance by the manufacturer. “A harp has a delicate and complicated mechanism in the arch. If this is not in perfect condition, it’s not possible to change to a natural, sharp or flat,” says Iolkicheva, who conveyed the urgent need for its repair to the Western Classical Music department.

Upon her suggestion, the old harp was sent to Chicago for repairs and returned in pristine condition. The department also seconded her suggestion to purchase a big concert harp that had the potential to add to the SOI’s already high artistic level. “I suggested a Lyon & Healy Style 23 and put the NCPA in touch with the factory in Chicago. Thanks to my colleague María Luisa Rayan who helped with its selection, the SOI soon had a wonderful instrument that remains a pleasure to play. And, thanks to the NCPA, the SOI now has not one but two excellent harps—a concert harp and a big concert model.”

Minding the store

At the NCPA, climate-controlled rooms fitted with dehumidifiers and regular air conditioning is where many of these instruments are stored. “When purchasing an instrument, it’s important that it not only sounds good and is a good investment, but that it’s also robust enough with a good defence layer to brave the humidity. Our instruments need to be checked every now and again by the team of luthiers from Europe who visit us every season, and usually there’s always something that needs to be worked on,” says Bisengaliev, adding that the exposed wood inside instruments poses a problem during the monsoons. The harp, too, says Iolkicheva, is delicate and the wood can very easily change shape or even crack if stored improperly.

A musical instrument, however, is best maintained when played regularly—something that the pandemic has hindered, particularly when it comes to mammoth instruments that cannot be moved around easily.

This article was originally published in the July 2021 issue of ON Stage by the NCPA Mumbai.