By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When Cello Maestro Rostropovitch Held An Indian-international Audience Spellbound

The only globally legendary Western musician other than Yehudi Menuhin and Zubin Mehta ever to visit India is the Russian cello maestro Mstislav Rostropovitch.  It was an unexpected and unforgettable windfall to hear him perform in New Delhi in 1988 -- within a few months after I had written a substantial essay on the global guitar legend Andrés Segovia in THE HINDU, expressing regrets that we could (and would) never hear his live music in the city.  

Glossary & annotations
(for readers across the world)

Stradivarius  --  Product of 17th/18th-century Italian family Stradivari, famous as makers of the world's finest violins, violas and cellos.  A Stradivarius among string instruments is like a Rolls Royce among cars.

Azad Bhavan  --  Heritage building in New Delhi with lovely lawns, housing the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Kamani auditorium  --  Spacious (600+), modern concert hall in New Delhi.

Lalgudi Jayaraman  --  One of the greatest violinists in Carnatic music.

Ravi Shankar  --  Internationally known sitarist  (the sitar is one of the twin prime string instruments in Hindustani music, the other one being the sarod). 

Carnatic/Hindustani music  --  Classical music of South/North India.

New Delhi

23 December 1988

Soul-stirring cello music

"The cello is my voice.  It is an extension of my vocal chord.  Through the cello I sing.  What is in my heart, what is in my head, it comes through my  hand, through my fingers, and finds expression in the cello's strings."

So spoke Mstislav Rostropovitch, the legendary Russian musician who now lives in Washington and divides his time equally between his activities as Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra and a globe-trotting cello virtuoso.  He was addressing a press conference organized by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, the United States Information Service and the Delhi Music Society in Azad Bhavan last Monday afternoon.
The statement soon became a memorable one because it was followed that evening by a soul-stirring demonstration of the musician's total integration with his instrument, in the fully-packed Kamani auditorium.

Two sonatas for cello and piano, by Brahms and Shostokovitch, with the young London-based Indian Pali Pavri playing the piano, were rendered beautifully.  But  it was in the Bach Suite No. 3 for unaccompanied cello that the maestro's magic powers were in full display.  Deeply absorbed in a spiritual communion with his richly-toned 18th-century Stradivarius, Rostropovitch literally played on the heart-strings of the spellbound Indian-international audience.

PostScript, 2016

Not unique, but universal phenomenon

It gives me great pleasure to revive my impressions of the magic touch of Rostropovitch with the following and related recordings on YouTube

                             Mstislav Rostropovich - Bach - Cello Suite No. 3
However, taking a fresh look now at this old context and my own review, I wonder whether I would have highlighted the Russian cellomaster's 'spiritual communion with his Stradivarius'  -- as if it was a unique phenomenon --  if I hadn't heard him declare passionately that "The cello is my voice . . .  etc."  in the press conference held a few hours before his performance.   

Looking at that quotation now, I can see quite clearly that more or less the same thing could have been truthfully said by any legendary instrumentalist anywhere in the world  --  like, let us say,  Yehudi Menuhin or Lalgudi Jayaraman about their violins, Ravi Shankar or Segovia about their sitar or guitar :  or even by von Karajan or Zubin Mehta, if you visualize a whole orchestra as the conductor's instrument!

The mystic rapport which invariably exists between a true grandmaster of instrumental music and his beloved instrument is a universal phenomenon which needs to be viewed in a far wider perspective than that of a concert review, or even a career assessment.  We never think of it or even notice it while we are actually being moved by a great performance, unless our attention is drawn to it in a specific manner, as happened on this unusual occasion.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Summing Up The Stories Of Segovia And The Spanish Guitar

As I mentioned in the preceding blog, live classical guitar music was a very rare phenomenon in New Delhi when I was living there during the last 30 years of the 20th century (except for a short break of four years).  But the versatile Canadian guitarist Liona Boyd's visit to the city in 1987 created both an opportunity and an obligation for me to study the history and geography of the Spanish-guitar culture, so that I could review the event in a significant manner.

My main sources of information on Western music traditions were usually the heavy volumes on the reference shelves of the excellent libraries in the British Council, the US information Service, and Max Müller Bhavan -- particularly the Encyclopedia Britannica and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.  Sometimes -- though very rarely -- I also borrowed books on specific themes, composers or performing artists, or glanced at the culture pages of important British and American newspapers and magazines.    
As usual, I got so deeply involved in my research on this occasion that I had gained far more knowledge than was necessary for merely conveying my impressions of the concert I was reviewing as an articulate layman.  But within a few months after that event, the legendary guitar maestro Andrés Segovia passed away -- and I was able to write an essay about him which was so substantial that it established my image as a very knowledgeable critic in New Delhi's exclusive Western music circles  --  and yes, one who never showed it off usually!

In fact, looking at this tightly-written text after 30 years, I am myself surprised that it had such high specific gravity.  But as you can see, what it actually contained wasn't any great knowledge of classical guitar music (and Segovia's  in particular), but some crystal-clear insights into the stories of the maestro and his instrument -- which was (and still is) true of all my endeavors as an articulate layman.


Max Müller Bhavan  --  German literary and cultural center.

New Delhi

19 June, 1987

The saga of Segovia

The passing away of Andrés Segovia of Spain a few weeks ago -- at the advanced age of 94 -- marks the end of the long and fabulous career of a remarkable man  who had secured a new lease of life for the classical guitar.

The history of the guitar is a rather checkered one.  Like the lute, it was introduced to European music in Spain by the Arabs in the medieval ages.  Although during the Renaissance period (14th to 16th centuries) it could not compete with the lute for pan-European acceptance, it developed very strong roots in Spain under the name of 'vihuela', in the folk and art music traditions alike.  Notable composers who arranged works for the guitar in this early phase of the instrument's growth in Western music were Luys Milan and Miguel de Fuenllano.

Growth and decline

During the Baroque era (17th and 18th centuries), the lute became over-stringed and unwieldy, though it continued to dominate the scene.  On the other hand, the guitar shed its cumbersome double-strings in favor of five single gut strings ;  moreover, with its bowl-like back altered into a flat one, it became much easier to handle.  As a result, the guitar began to be played by music-minded amateurs all over Europe, especially in France.

In the second half of the 18th century, the lute became quite obsolete, but the guitar became still more popular in Europe, particularly in England, France and Germany.  Its ascendancy in Spain continued, of course.  The standard number of strings was increased to six, and metallic frets on the fingerboard were introduced.  Easily portable and fairly inexpensive, the guitar was now an instrument played not only by wealthy amateurs but by ordinary people too.

During the romantic period in Western music (19th century), the guitar became a heavier and more solidly built instrument, and it continued to be popular for some time.  Composers like Schubert and Berlioz were known to play the guitar.  The dazzling technical genius Paganini too fancied the guitar when he was not wielding the violin, and he even composed some chamber music for it.  Specific music for the guitar was composed by the Italian guitarist Mauro Giulani and the great Spanish guitar virtuoso, Fernando Sor.

But somehow, the guitar never became a successful concert instrument even at this stage.  On the contrary, in the second half of the 19th century, it was almost totally eclipsed by the predominance of the piano in Western art music.  Two great musicians were mainly responsible for preventing this classical instrument from fading out altogether, and these were the Spaniards Francisco Tárrega and Andrés Segovia.

Revival and refinement

Tárrega (1852-1909) was a talented guitarist and music teacher, and he transcribed for the guitar more than a hundred works by Beethoven, Chopin, and the folk-oriented Spanish composers Albéniz and Granados.  He also composed many original pieces for the solo guitar.  (Music-lovers in Delhi will recall hearing his tremulous composition Recuerdos de la Alhambra in a pleasing recital by the visiting Canadian guitarist Liona Boyd a few months ago).  Apart from this, Tárrega took the initiative to free the right hand from its traditionally fixed position, and developed a more flexible modern guitar-playing technique.

Andrés Segovia (1893-1987) consolidated the progress, and found the most sophisticated use for the right hand -- not only relaxing its movement and increasing its mobility further, but also manipulating the strings in subtle ways with finger-tips and nails, thereby achieving a wide spectrum of tonality and nuances.  Though not himself an original composer, Segovia transcribed many works composed for the ancient lute and the Spanish 'vihuela', and also pieces by such great composers as Mozart, Handel, Chopin and Schumann. 

Influence on composers

In fact, it would seem to have been Segovia's infinite regret that the greatest composers of Western classical music had failed to create specific works for the guitar -- music for which had, by and large, been produced only by those who were themselves guitarists.  He is said to have declared that outstanding guitarists did not emerge because great composers did not write for the guitar, and the composers did not write for the guitar because there were no great performers.

But in a way, the maestro himself broke the vicious circle, for he did inspire and influence several reputed contemporary composers to create substantial works for the guitar, including some concertos and sonatas.  Among these were Manuel de Falla and Joaquin Turina of Spain, Albert Roussel of France, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco of Italy, Heitor Villa-Lobos of Brazil, and Manuel Ponce of Mexico.

Segovia was an active concert artist till very recently, and had toured extensively all over the world.  Unfortunately, we in India have had no opportunity of hearing his music in a live performance, but  have to rest content with our limited access to his recorded music.

Source of inspiration

Segovia is noted for the great encouragement and guidance given by him to a younger generation of guitarists represented by musicians like John Williams of England and Alirio Diaz of Venezuela.  He was also a source of tremendous inspiration to a third generation of guitar virtuosi.  Thus, he not only helped to widen the classical guitar's repertoire, but also influenced the growth of modern performing styles.

Spanning practically the entire 2oth century, the maestro's extraordinary career has been like a long bridge which has ensured the effective assimilation of a noble musical tradition into the Western art music of the present day, and surely of the future too.  Such is the saga of Segovia.

PostScript, 2016

Midnight summons to Maestro

When I said in 1987 that we in India had to be content with our limited access to Segovia's recorded music, I was actually making an understatement.  For although we did have limited access to long-playing records and audio-cassettes of Western classical music, classical guitar never figured on the shelves of the music shops.  The only way to hear any recordings of Segovia or any other legendary guitarists was to get them from somewhere abroad, which was never easy unless you had some close friend or relative living there. 

You just couldn't ask even close friends or relatives in India going abroad on short visits to bring you any music records, because  with the extremely small foreign exchange allowance available to them those days, you'd have been asking them to make a great sacrifice.  Speaking for myself, I had friends in the foreign Embassies and cultural centers who would have got me whatever I wanted, but I never felt inclined to take or cause such trouble.   

How amazingly different are things today -- just 30 years later, even in India -- when we can simply press a key or touch a screen, and instantly take stock of any kind of music or dance anywhere in the world!  Like, for instance, even summoning Maestro Segovia to perform for us at midnight just by clicking on the following link : - 
                                                                                      Andrés Segovia
Or even having a very close view of his sophisticated right-hand technique in the following video!

                                                                  Leyenda by Albeniz - Andrés Segovia

Friday, August 19, 2016

Versatile Canadian Guitarist Paints Spanish, South American And Classical Colors

Talking about guitars and South America in the preceding blog, I couldn't help recalling a memorable Spanish guitar recital I had attended and reviewed in New Delhi 30 years ago.

One of the rewards of writing on Western music in a prestigious English newspaper in India's capital city was that when reviewing rare performances of some genres of music unfamiliar in Indian music circles, it was necessary to view the events in a historic and geographic perspective for the benefit of most readers -- thus creating opportunities for writing wide-angled essays which would transcend the immediate context and would be readable even long afterwards, as part of a useful cultural chronicle.  

I hope the following text fulfils that expectation :- 


Carnatic music  --  Classical music of South India.

Kamani Hall  --  Spacious (600+) modern concert hall in New Delhi. 

Tamil  --  South Indian language, with classical roots, mainly spoken in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

New Delhi

20 February 1987

Glamorous Guitarist From Canada

The powerful sound of the acoustic and electric versions of the metal-stringed guitar (played with a piece of metal, wood or bone called the 'plectrum'), accompanied by an array of other instruments including drums, has become universally familiar as a result of the increasing influence of Western popular music all over the world.   

But the subtle sound of the Spanish guitar (the gut or nylon strings of which are plucked or strummed with the fingers), played in a folk or true classical style, is a rare thing to hear except in the Iberian peninsula or the Spanish or Portuguese speaking countries of Latin America.

The ancestry of the modern version of the classical guitar can be traced back to the lute family of the Renaissance period ;  but its present shape, working repertoire and playing techniques have by and large been developed only within the last hundred years or so.  In Western classical music, the guitar has only a marginal role to play, like the clarinet in Carnatic music.  Generally, classical music for the guitar is provided by transcriptions of compositions meant for the piano, harpischord, etc. 

Although in New Delhi these days we have a fairly good flow of Western music, an authentic Spanish guitar recital is a very rare event.  The virtuosity of master performers like Andres Segovia, Manuel Lopez Ramos, Narcisco Yepes, Alexandre Lagoya, Turibio Santos, Julian Bream or John William  --  or the works of composers like Fernando Sor, Frederico Torroba, Francisco Tarrega, Heitor Villa-Lobos, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Manuel Ponce, Antonio Lauro, Frank Martin or Malcolm Arnold  --  are quite unfamiliar to us here in India.

Mixed colors 

Therefore, the two guitar recitals given recently by the Canadian guitarist Liona Boyd (who has studied under Lagoya and Bream, among others), as part of the wide-ranging Canadian Week gala in the Capital, were very welcome.  I attended the second recital last Friday, and it was a rewarding experience.

Under the limelight, Liona's abundant blonde hair gives her the look of a majestic lion, in spite of her frail figure.  But the glamorous image she projects on the concert platform owes as much to the excellence of her performance as to the force of her presence. 

In the first half of the recital, she presented, among other things, three short classical works by Bach, transcribed from his scores for the harpsichord and the flute, as well as three modern pieces composed by the French-Canadian Richard Fortin.  This was followed by a lilting piece with a heavy Latin American accent, composed by the guitarist herself.

The second half of the concert was exclusively tinted by Spanish and Latin American colors, for which the finger-style guitar is ideally suited.  To start with, there were two transcribed numbers entitled Mallorca and Asturias, by the pianist-composer Isaac Albeniz (1860-1909), who was known for his patriotic fervor and had drawn considerable inspiration from the rich tradition of Spanish folk music.  This was followed by a famous work called Recuerdos de la Alhambra ('Memories of Alhambra'), by the Spanish guitarist-composer Francisco Tarrega (1852-1909), who had written or transcribed nearly 200 pieces for the classical guitar.   

Ms. Boyd then took us on a delightful tour of South America.  The highlights of this section were two lively pieces with a Brazilian touch , composed by the guitarist herself, and a folk melody of the Inca tribes of Peru, which strongly resembled the nostalgic Gurani music of Paraguay and invoked visions of gray mountains, green valleys, and poncho-clad hillmen riding lethargic ponies.

The performance was characterized throughout by the measured and immaculate rendering of the chosen works, the tremolo sequences emerging as the performer's strongest point, especially in her recital of Tarrega's intricate composition Alhambra.

Apparently the concert was a rare treat for the enitre international community in the Capital, for the full gathering in the Kamani hall, which was dominated by foreigners, responded to every number with  resounding applause.

PostScript, 2026

Wide range of mixed menu  

There's a Tamil turn of phrase which says that to test a whole pot of boiled rice, it's enough to test a single grain of it.   Seen in that light, the memorable performance by Liona Boyd in New Delhi 30 years ago was a convincing cross-section of the very wide range of her many-sided repertoire.

Reading my own review after such a long time, I was tempted to look for her name on YouTube, and found she's still very active.  The following and other related videos will give you a good idea of her colorful accomplishment :-

                                                La Malagueña 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Intriguing Impressions Of Intrusive Instruments

As an earnest lover of European and other foreign music living in New Delhi in the last three decades of the 20th century, I didn't usually have any opportunity to attend a live performance of South America's folk music.   So when such a rare occasion did arise in 1992, I had very great expectations of not only  getting entertained, but also being enlightened.  But what actually happened? . . .  just read on! 


ICCR  --  Indian C0uncil of Cultural Relations.

Bombay/Bangalore  --  British-regime names of West/South Indian cities, now called Mumbai/Bengaluru. 

Kamani Hall  -- Large, modern auditorium in New Delhi, with 600+ seats. 

New Delhi
21 February 1992

No fresh insights

One of the specific responsibilities assigned by the Government to the Indian Council for Cultural Relations is to improve the cultural relations between India and the Latin American countries.  Of course, much depends also on the initiatives taken by the concerned foreign Embassies in India.  Last week ICCR and the Venezuelan Embassy joined hands to organize a performance by a visiting instrumental quartet from Caracas, said to specialize in the folk music of Venezuela.  The group was to perform in Bombay and Bangalore also.

Unfamiliar traditions
Certain kinds of lilting South American band music (such as Rhumba, Samba and Cha-cha-cha) are quite familiar to many of us in India, thanks to Hollywood movies and gramophone records.  In recent years, music-lovers in Delhi were able to hear a little bit of the Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos during the visits of some Western classical guitarists.  But so far as the folk music traditions of South America are concerned, our awareness is very poor.

There is a particularly attractive genre of South American folk music called Gurani, which figures prominently in the cultural life of Paraguay.  Some 15 or 20 years ago, an internationally known ensemble called Los Chiriguanos popularized this music in Europe, singing and playing the Gurani harp and the Spanish acoustic guitar.  Their music was so authentic and arresting that the contents of their audio album could invoke vivid and romantic impressions of their homeland's hills and valleys, ranches and forests, birds and ponies, cowboys and village belles, love songs and rustic dances. 

What kind of folk music exists elsewhere in South America?  If one thinks of Brazil, all one can visualize are feverish scenes of urban festivities.  Argentina does suggest the folk dance form of Zamba, but what else do they have there?  What do they have in Peru,Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, Colombia., Venezuela?  There is hardly any knowledge of this in India.  So, naturally one imagined that the recital of 'folk and traditional music' by the visiting group called El Cuarteto from Venezuela would bring fresh insights and valuable new knowledge.   

Cosmetic treatment

From this point of view, however, the event turned out to be rather disappointing.  What kind of music does the petroleum culture inspire in a land where Spanish blood mixes with that of African Americans and American Indians?  This question was not effectively answered by the performance under review.

What the two guitarists and the double-bass and flute players did was to reel off a series of Polkas, Waltzes, and sterilized Merengues, which produced an impression of eclectic rather than ethnic music.  Some of the numbers obviously had their origin in folk traditions, which they seemed to echo faintly ;  but they were all cosmetically treated versions which failed to evoke any strong local colors.

It would only be fair to mention that  the evening's music provided excellent entertainment, and the sizable audience in the Kamani Hall responded warmly.  The proceedings were enlivened by the humorous explanations offered by the guitarists in mellifluous Spanish, which were translated into good English.

Strident flute

The intruding element in the music of the ensemble seemed to be the wind instrument.  The flute was well-played, but its aggressive tone obliterated the vibrant individuality of the guitars.  (Apart from the normal Spanish guitars, Venezuelan guitars with four and 12 strings were also used).  Whenever the flute fell silent over short spells, the guitars came into their own, displaying powerfully evocative qualities.  But as soon as the listener would begin to be wrapped up in that enchanting sound, the strident flute would step in and quickly erase  the half-formed impressions.  Ultimately no nostalgic memories of the music lingered in the listener's mind after the event, and only impressions of the overpowered guitars survived.  
The four musicians who constitute the quartet are the brothers Miguel and Raul Delgado Estevez (guitars), Telesforo Naranjo (double bass), and Jose Antonio (flute).  Each of them has some solid achievements to his credit as a musician and/or music teacher in Venezuela.  They seem to have got together as a group to prove something important.  Unfortunately it was not clear from this performance what exactly they wish to prove, particularly when facing foreigners living on the opposite side of the world.

PostScript, 2016

Strong wind blows strings away!

As I keyed in this 24-year-old text here, I had a sudden misgiving that I might have made a big mistake when I blamed the flute for overpowering the guitars, because since then I have obtained many fresh impressions of South American folk music   --  (thanks to YouTube, of course!)  --  and am now well aware that wind instruments like the panpipes do have a loud and aggressive role in the traditional music of the countries situated in the Andes mountain range along the west coast of the continent.  And it occurred to me that the quartet's interpretation of Venezuela's folk music might have been quite authentic, and perhaps as an ignorant foreigner I had no business to question its character. 

So I found some videos of the El Cuarteto ensemble in YouTube -- (they seem to be still very active) -- just to see if and where I had gone wrong.  And quite intriguingly, I got exactly the same impression as I did 24 years ago in their live show in New Delhi :  that the flute is completely stifling the guitars and reducing their powerful sound to mere characterless background noise, except when it rests for very short spells. 

Just hear the following recitals and see for yourself :  and please note how forceful the guitars and double-bass sound when the flute isn't blowing them away for a minute in the second video :-

So then, ignorant foreigner or not, perhaps I didn't really go wrong in my response to their performance in New Delhi!  But when I take a fresh look at the whole issue now  --  with the advantage of watching YouTube in a wider perspective  -- I realize that perhaps the intrusive element in this context was (and is) not the aggressive tone of the flute, as I had said in my review, but the excellence of the forceful guitars.  

Wherever wind instruments (panpipes, flute, etc.) are the backbone of any folk music tradition, the guitar -- if used -- serves only as a percussion instrument to regulate and enhance the flow of the rhythmic pulse, merely as a substitute for drums.  On the other hand, where the guitar is a prime instrument, it can produce a very sophisticated blend of melodic and rhythmic sound effects.  So when very highly accomplished guitar players team up with a forceful flutemaster, their visibly diminished role as mere providers of percussion support creates a jarring element (which can be spotted by sensitive music-lovers even in distant foreign lands).  

So here's some sincere advice to the globe-trotting Quartet of Caracas, from an earnest and articulate layman living on the opposite side of the globe :  by all means, Señores, do carry on as you've been doing ;  but in every performance you give hereafter -- whether  at home or abroad -- please also include a couple of flute-free numbers which will create plenty of scope for the twin guitars to shine brightly, and your whole performance will be better balanced and far more exciting!

Friday, August 5, 2016

When Amazing Australian Puppets Performed In Awesome Indian Setting

I don't have a written record of my impressions of the dynamic folk dancers of the Moiseyev Ballet from Moscow in New Delhi's colossal open-air auditorium Rabindra Rangshala in 1972 (which I had  mentioned in the preceding blog) ;  but I do have my reflections on the amazing puppets of the Marionette Theatre from Australia which performed in the same awesome venue a few years later :-

Glossary & annotations

Rabindra Rangshala  -- Colossal outdoor amphitheater on lush woodlands on the fringes of New Delhi (capacity 8,000), named after Rabindranath Tagore, world-famous poet in Bengali language.

Connaught Circus  --  Huge circle of imposing British-era mercantile buildings (with tall-pillared corridors reminiscent of London's Regent Street), surrounding circular open-air space called Connaught Place, in New Delhi.   The high-rise buildings were a late-20th century phenomenon.

Evening News,
New Delhi
26 March 1976

Puppets on the ridge

When a puppet-show has achieved international fame, it signifies that an elementary art form has been transformed into a sophisticated technology, and it deserves a vast audience and an auditorium to match.

It wasn't surprising, therefore, when I learnt several months ago that representatives of the Marionette Theater of Australia were in New Delhi, inspecting the Rabindra Rangshala on Ridge Road, as a prelude to their performance of the puppet drama The Tintookies , which took place on March 24th and 25th.

My only complaint about the Rabindra Rangshala is that it is far away from the mainstream of metropolitan life, and is connected by a narrow road where regular bus services are few and it isn't safe at night.

But obviously this location will be more accessible in the foreseeable future, as areas under it are developed, and a wider and better-lighted road is laid.

Open-air wonder

Viewed from any angle, this open-air auditorium is a wonder.  It is structured into a vast, deep pit, with galleries which can hold five or six thousand people.  The design is superb, with widely-curving and steeply sloping rows of red-stone slabs (which serve as steps as well as seats), ensuring maximum visibility of the stage.

The acoustics are splendid, too, the sound being preserved by the high walls of the pit.  Yet the open air is very much there.

It's a long and many-stepped descent from the gate to the auditorium.  As you proceed you have a breath-taking view of the high-rise buildings of Connaught Circus far away, and you feel you are in some fashionable European city.

And a show like The Tintookies attracts an international audience, which enhances this impression.

Magic and mystery

Certainly any show which is staged in this gigantic auditorium has to have some unusual dimension if it is to be impressive.  And the Marionette show has that extra something which counts. 

The fairy-tale behind this puppet drama isn't much of a story.  There are The Tintookies, a magic people, some cute jungle animals, a pixie man, a magician, many magic effects, a balloon flight and a dream sequence.

The leaflet which was distributed didn't tell the story clearly, but that hardly mattered.  The important thing was the amazing dexterity of the puppet-masters, which didn't call for any commentary.

There wasn't a trick of the trade which was omitted.  The gesticulations of the puppets and the movements of their lips as they spoke were truly remarkable.  Even the silent fish were opening and closing their mouths constantly in an uncanny way.

Often a dozen or more life-size puppets occupied the stage and performed incredible antics.  How all those strings remained in position without getting entangled in a messy knot was a mystery.

Spellbinding shows

There were thousands of wildly enthusiastic children in the gathering, but the adults became adoring spectators too.  Here were a couple of hours of sheer fantasy, with some good background music, and a highly developed technology for you to marvel about.

The Indian Cultural Society and the Education Ministry's Culture Department must be congratulated for organizing this remarkable show, and we must thank the Australians sincerely for coming over and performing here.

Last time I spent a couple of spellbinding hours like this at Rabindra Rangshala was in 1972, When the Culture Department had invited the Moiseyev Ballet from Moscow.  I hope such exciting experiences will be frequent in the future.

PostScript, 2016

Tragic turns :  dis-use and dissolution

There seems to be an intriguing bond between the Marionette Theatre and Rabindra Rangshala.  The puppet company was founded in 1960, and the auditorium was built at about the same time.  The company was closed down in 1990 for want of resources, and since about the same time the marvelous auditorium has remained unused (on account of a judicial ruling declaring it to be an encroachment on forest land) and has been ruined.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

When The Russians Danced On The Delhi Ridge

Talking about music and dance (of the kind we like), how long do we remember what we call 'memorable occasions'?  The answer, of course, is that it depends not only on the character and excellence of a given performance, but also on the frequency or infrequency (or uniqueness) of the occasions when we encounter the given genre of music or dance. 

Naturally, fine live shows of foreign music and dance (of the kind we like) are more memorable than equally fine live performances of our own native music or dance (of the kind we like), for the simple reason that we encounter them on our soil only very rarely. 

Anyway, 45 years aren't long enough to let my very first live encounter with Russian, Ukrainian and other folk dances of the  Soviet Union fade away from my memory.  I don't have a precise record of my impressions of that massive performance in front of an enormous audience, but here's my recollection of it in a humorous article I wrote in a similar context several years later :-

Glossary & annotations

Ballayram  --  In the Evening News (as in Shankar's Weekly earlier) I liked to play with words and names, twisting or coining them in amusing  topic-oriented ways  --  an unconventional practice I had to give up when writing for THE HINDU later on.  And Ballayram was irresistible in the Bolshoi context, sounding so much like Balaraman/Balram, real South/North Indian names! 

Kamani Hall  -- Large, well-equipped, prestigious auditorium in New Delhi, with 600+ seats. 

Rabindra Rangshala  --  Colossal outdoor amphitheater on lush woodlands on the fringes of New Delhi (capacity 8,000), named after Rabindranath Tagore, world-famous poet in Bengali language.

Vish  --  I was signing Delhiberations with a pen name : RAJA VISHNU.  So naturally my imaginary friends who figured in the light-hearted column used to call me Vish.

Delhivision  -- What was more natural than Delhi TV becoming Delhivision in my column?  By the way, television in India was in its early stages in the 1970s, with a single Government-owned TV station in the Capital, telecasting a single black-and-white channel for just four hours in the evening, except in the week-end when there were some more programs.

Bharata'naatyam/Kathak  --  Classical dance of North/South India. 

Hindustani/Carnatic music  --  Classical music of North/South India.

Evening News,
New Delhi

30 November 1977


The Russians won't object!

My friend Ballayram and I are among the thousands of Delhi citizens who couldn't get either tickets or invitation cards for the Bolshoi and Russian folk dance shows at the Kamani auditorium.

We had warned each other that we should be alert and ensure our seats early ;  but somehow we've  been slack and have been left out.

"I just can't understand why they aren't having these shows at Rabindra Rangshala,"  Ballayram told me two days ago.

"Maybe the Russians didn't agree to perform in the open air theatre in this cold weather,"  I said.

"Are you out of your mind?  The temperature goes far below freezing point in Moscow in the winter!"

"But they must be having centrally heated auditoriums."

"But Vish, I remember in 1972 a Russian folk dance ensemble did perform in Rabindra Rangshala in February, when it was just as cold as it is now."

"Maybe the folk dancers didn't mind, with their warm costumes, but maybe the Bolshoi people do."

"In that case, why not organize at least the folk dances at Rangshala, even if the Bolshoi had to be in Kamani?"

"Don't worry, Ballay!"  I said,  "Maybe there will be good coverage on Delhivision."

Ballayram took my statement seriously, so day after day he has been sitting in front of his television set, waiting for the Bolshoi ballet and the Russian folk dances to materialize in a big way.

But except for some bits and scraps now and then, Delhivision hasn't brought the performances before the eager and expectant public at all. 

"Oh, why can't they televise the whole Bolshoi show from beginning to end?"  Ballayram laments.  "And why not cover a whole Russian folk dance show too?  Why must art and culture always get only 10 or 15 minutes?  Bombay films get two or three hours at a stretch!"

"Why only Russian dances?"  I grumble.  "Why can't they televise a full-length Bharata'naatyam or Kathak performance?  Or a full-length Hindustani or Carnatic music recital?  Or a Delhi Symphony Orchestra concert in full?  And those boys, Deepak Castelino and Julius Fernandes -- they just got 10 minutes on a Youth Forum program!  Why not give them half an hour to strum their guitars and sing, in or outside Youth Forum?  Why not give young people a couple of hours at a stretch to let off steam?  Why not scrap a Bombay film on some Saturdays and Sundays?"

"But dash it all, Vish, the Bolshoi is far more urgent!"  my friend Ballayram wails.  "You won't have another chance to see it for a long time!   What prevents them from projecting a full Bolshoi program on Indian TV, not only in Delhi, but elsewhere too?  You don't think the Russians will have any objection, do you?"

PostScript, 2016

Russians and other 'Russians'

The 1972 'Russian folk dance ensemble' mentioned in the above article was actually the Moiseyev Dance Company (also called Moiseyev Ballet) of Moscow, which had an extensive repertoire of folk dances not only of Russia, but also of other Soviet Republics like Ukraine, Byelorus (White Russia), etc., and even of some non-Soviet countries.  Strictly speaking, therefore, it should have been called 'Soviet folk dance ensemble'. 

However, 40/50 years ago, in ordinary conversations in India we normally didn't refer to 'Soviet Union' or 'USSR', but used 'Russian' as a generic expression covering the whole federation of Soviet Socialist Republics -- just as we often said 'Xerox-copies' instead of 'photo-copies' , and even said 'Xeroxing' for 'photo-copying'.  Thus, we always referred to the USSR Embassy in New Delhi as the 'Russian Embassy'. 

In the same spirit, in this blog's headline I have referred to 'Russians' in a specific as well as generic sense, though I have no idea whether all the dancers in the Moiseyev team were Russians, or some of them hailed from other SSRs or even foreign countries.  But I am now tempted to study the Moiseyev Ballet's history and geography thoroughly!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Dynamic Folk Music And Dance From Ukraine

Here's one of my reviews of a folk music-and-dance event in the course of the well-drawn-out Festival of USSR in India in 1987-88 :-


Siri Fort  --  Historic site where New Delhi's largest auditorium (2000+ seats) is located.  

Talkatora  --  Historic woodlands and garden in New Delhi, where its second largest indoor stadium (3000+) is situated.

Bombay/Madras  --  British-regime names of Indian cities now called Mumbai/Chennai.    

New Delhi
22 April 1988
(Extract from an article in my Friday column) 

Ukrainian folk ensemble

.  .  .  .  .  The Virsky Dance Company, a large Soviet ensemble specializing in Ukrainian folk music and dance, landed in Delhi on the hottest pre-summer day in 15 years.  But the dozens of dancers showed no apparent ill-effects, and looked fresh and energetic in their dynamic exertions in the cool Siri Fort auditorium on Sunday evening, when they gave the first of their four performances on successive days.  The music provided by a small group playing various resounding instruments, including folk flutes and an accordion-like Ukrainian fabrication, was as vigorous and full-blooded as the dancing.

Although several hundred people were present on the occasion -- including a large number of eager schoolboys in white uniform -- the audience looked rather small in the enormous auditorium.  The rows and rows of vacant seats created a negative ambiance.  It is true that this did not affect the liveliness of the proceedings ;  but when I talked to  some of the musicians during the intermission, they did sound somewhat disappointed. 

It will be recalled that the Moiseyev Dance Company had attracted a mammoth gathering of several thousands of people in the Talkatora indoor stadium on two successive days a few months ago.  The Ukrainian show is equally spectacular, and I wonder why it did not draw a full house in the Siri hall.  Was the publicity inadequate?  Was the pricing too high?  Or was there any other inhibiting factor?

The Festival of India Directorate would do well to look closely into the reasons for the unexpected and relatively thin attendance.   The USSR Festival in India is the result of extraordinarily painstaking efforts, and it is necessary that the largest possible number of people are able to have a taste of  the Soviet arts when the visiting artists are here . . . .

PostScript, 2016

Indelible impressions

My Friday music column in THE  HINDU's New Delhi edition in the 1980s and '90s was mainly about concepts and colors, traditions and trends, styles and standards, values and organization, and not about tiresome technical details --precisely as things had been earlier in Bombay and Madras, and have been afterwards in Madras.   

So, looking at the above text now, I can't understand why I didn't follow up my impression about the audience and survey the scene on any of the next three days when the Ukrainian dancers performed in the same venue, particularly because the show was spectacular and was certainly worth repeated viewing.  And also because the Soviet Republics were usually very efficient and effective in organizing their cultural events in India -- as was evident, for example, in the context of the twin Moiseyev shows a few months earlier, both of which I had attended.  

Perhaps my reflections on those two formidable events would be very relevant and interesting in this context ;  but unfortunately I can't find them in my old records.  There was no online edition those days, and the contents of the newspaper were all stored in microfilm, where I'll have to look for the missing article now.  

Anyway, so powerful and vivid were my impressions of these infrequent performances by energetic and colorfully dressed  folk musicians and dancers from Russia and Eastern Europe that the memories of watching those few live programs 30 or 40 years ago are still fresh in my mind -- like, for example, a vigorous open-air Moiseyev show I attended in 1972.   So let me tell that story next!