Category: Travel

With the World on a String

A weeklong music camp, hosted by Child’s Play India Foundation (CPIF) in partnership with the NCPA and the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI), presented a golden opportunity for young violin and viola players in Goa to interact with and learn about chamber music from the SOI’s string musicians. 

On a late summer’s day in May this year, a group of 11 budding musicians were immersed in plucking and bowing their violins and violas. Ranging from eight to 18 years, they were a part of a weeklong music camp organised by Child’s Play India Foundation (CPIF) in Panjim, Goa, in partnership with the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) and the NCPA. Three string musicians from the SOI travelled from Mumbai to Goa for the violin- and viola-intensive camp that drew in participants from various corners of the coastal state. The camp involved individual lessons as well as coaching in duos, trios and quartets for chamber music, and interactive music appreciation sessions. 

Led by Dr. Luis Dias, CPIF was established in 2009 as a registered music education trust to instil positive values and provide social empowerment to India’s disadvantaged children through imparting classical music lessons. Today, CPIF teaches violin, viola, cello, recorder, transverse flute and piano to around 60 children across three locations in Goa. Besides a choir project of an additional 40 children, the foundation also started the Camerata Child’s Play India orchestra of senior students, teachers and local musicians, and the Junior Camerata Child’s Play made up of younger students. 

Where it all began

If the idea behind the foundation’s offerings is inspirational, the story leading up to its inception is just as special. Dr. Dias, Founder and Project Director of CPIF, is a fourth-generation doctor with a specialisation in gynaecology and obstetrics who first practiced in India for a decade and then in the U.K. for another. He is also a musician, having trained on the violin since the age of five. Years of practise, exploration and exposure led him to question why his own country was not producing more professional musicians trained in Western classical music. Then, the idea to make accessible an education in Western classical music to people of all socio-economic backgrounds arrived after he had attended concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London in 2007 that presented two exceptional orchestras comprising underprivileged children from South Africa and Venezuela. A year later, the doctor gave up his career in the U.K. and returned to Goa with his wife to work towards bringing that idea to life. Together, they gave birth to CPIF. 

“Like so many Goan Catholic children of my generation, I had violin lessons very early in life, and like many of my generation, music education was linked to the church. I received music instruction from my parish school, St. Cecilia Music School. I also came from a background that loved Western classical music. If I had had the access to the teaching that the SOI Music Academy imparts today and that SOI musicians get as part of their on-the-job training, I have no doubt I would have pursued music instead of medicine. This is what I want to help future generations of India’s children receive, across the socio-economic spectrum, regardless of their parents’ income,” he says. 

The first of its kind

Ever since the trust was founded, Dr. Dias had stayed in touch with the NCPA and the SOI, looking for ways in which the two could collaborate. “The musicians of the SOI embody many things. They stand for professionalism and the pursuit of excellence in music, particularly in ensemble music-making. This makes them powerful role models for our children to aspire to,” he says, adding that discussions about the possible ways of working together started during the pandemic.

The music camp that ran from 8th to 18th May at the CPIF premises in Goa’s capital city was open to young participants from disadvantaged as well as privileged backgrounds. They were selected via an audition process to assess their ability to sight-read music and to be able to play to a basic to intermediate level. There were, of course, many more youth from Goa and even Bengaluru who were keen to be a part of the camp. But space constraints and keenness on the part of CPIF and the SOI faculty to offer each participant focused attention did not permit a group larger than eleven. 

Building confidence

On the very first day, the mood was abuzz from the get-go as the SOI string players listened to the young musicians play their instrument to gauge the level of playing. Much like an icebreaker of sorts, Day 1 proved to be fruitful. From there on, SOI violinists Averell DeSouza and Prabhat Kishore worked with young players in groups of three, while Deon D’Souza worked with two viola players. “Our aim was to get the participants to play in ensembles, rather than play solo. That’s what they do on a regular basis anyway,” Averell explains.

Days at the music camp spanned 10 am to 4 pm, beginning with instrument tuning and practising of scales, arpeggios, left hand exercises and several types of bow strokes. This was followed by one-on-one lessons with students practising a solo piece. Post lunch, the three string musicians practised duets and orchestral works with their students every day. “I had a great time teaching the violin. Some students were at a great level and were good at reading music. They would go home and practise their musical difficulties and play it again the next day,” says Kishore. Averell echoes him, saying, “I was quite surprised with their level of playing because in Goa there aren’t many opportunities to learn the instrument at a good standard. I was impressed with all the students and most played with the right technique.”

Two viola players tutored by Deon worked on a classical piece arranged for viola. “The level of playing was fairly good,” he says, even as he noted that their understanding and level of playing as an ensemble was poor. “Instilling discipline during group rehearsals was a bit of a task. We encouraged each child to play their part. The style of playing bow strokes was new to them. They did manage to correct some bad technical habits in this short period of seven days,” he says. Dr. Dias was always around and ready to lend a hand to those who needed assistance with music camp homework at the end of the day, while his team handled logistics and was involved in all the behind-the-scenes work.

Interactivity at its best

Widening the range of the camp were audiovisual music appreciation sessions. Led by Deon, these interactive sessions were lively and unlike formal lectures. The first session included an introduction to instruments and sections of the orchestra, which in turn encouraged the young participants to think beyond their instrument and observe the presence of other orchestral instruments. “They were encouraged to listen to the music as a whole instead of listening to their part only. Videos of all orchestral instruments were shown to help them grasp the unique sound they produced. They were further asked to guess the sounds without watching the videos,” he explains. At the second session, they were introduced to important eras of Western classical music with masterpieces of prominent composers from those eras played for the group. Besides, faculty members shared their stories about their journey to become full-time musicians. 

“Children need this exposure to widen their horizons and to be aware of various career opportunities in music for those who are thinking of deepening their study of music,” says Dr. Dias. “The SOI is potentially an enormous resource for music education, and we experienced this first-hand during the week of the intensive, quite exhilarating, music camp.” The week culminated with the youth putting on an enjoyable concert for their families, featuring Felix Mendelssohn’s Adagio from String Sinfonia no. 8 and Pieces for 4 violins, Op. 178 by Charles Dancla. The faculty then enthralled the audience with performances featuring Dvořák’s Terzetto in C major, op. 74 and Baryton Trio Hob. XI:14 by Haydn. 

Dr. Dias says, “We look almost instinctively to the SOI for its assistance. It is the country’s only professional orchestra, and of exceptional calibre. This collaboration with Child’s Play is a form of outreach into Goa, arguably the country’s most fertile ground for the blossoming of music, particularly Western classical music. It makes perfect sense for the SOI to make inroads here, given also that Goa is quite close to Mumbai. We look forward to having even more robust and sustained pedagogic collaborations with them again.”

This feature was originally published in the July 2022 issue of ON Stage by the National Centre of Performing Arts, 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.  

The digital nomads

Ambika Vishwanath and Hoshner Reporter took a break from their jobs in 2015. The couple have since travelled the length and breadth of India, documenting their travels on The reDiscovery Project. 

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*This feature was first published in the June 2017 issue of Spiceroute, the inflight travel magazine of Spicejet Airlines.

6 Great Indian Food Walks

What do you do when you have just a few hours to discover a new city? You ditch your run-of-the-mill itinerary and let a food specialist walk you through the city’s delicacies as you soak in its cultural and historical landmarks. 

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* Published in the November 2016 issue of Spiceroute, the inflight travel magazine of Spice Jet airlines