Four years ago, I happened to be staying in North-West America during a bitterly cold Christmas season, and I had vivid recollections of a bitterly cold winter night in North-East India exactly 50 years earlier, when I had a truly memorable musical experience in a magnificent church in Calcutta. So I e-mailed a nostalgic article about it for my Friday column Musicscan in THE HINDU (in Chennai, South India), which I always try not to miss even if I am on the other side of the world. But the freezing weather in Oregon disrupted some marvelous musical soirees in the churches on Christmas eve. And here I am in Chennai on Christmas Day in 2012, soaking myself in those indelible memories of long ago and not so long ago!
Christmas in Calcutta, long ago
I find myself far away from home when many earnest lovers of Carnatic music who live here (and in many other foreign countries) are actually enjoying their annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of Carnatic music! . . . . While I do miss the wonderful Maargazhi music season in Chennai , I have the great compensation of being able to closely watch the dramatic developments in the political scene here at a crucial time, when a majority of voters have not only just elected the first African-American citizen as the next President, but are also looking up to him as a Messiah who will restore the nation’s image in the international arena.
Talking in the same breath about the ice-cold weather and a charismatic leader, somehow I am strongly reminded of the first and most memorable time I heard a performance of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ on a bitterly cold evening in Kolkota (Calcutta then) just before Christmas exactly 50 years ago. That was the time when tape recorders and audiotapes were imported. They were rarely seen even in metropolitan India. And though 33-rpm long playing records of Indian music as well as a limited range of Western music were being manufactured by HMV’s factory in Calcutta, they were rather expensive, as were the imported record players. And live performances of Western music were very rare even in the metros. The main source of Western music for the earnest music lover was the radio, particularly the shortwave stations abroad.
In Calcutta, the Philips show-room on Park Street used to have a nice weekly soiree of recorded Western music, which attracted a small and regular niche audience. But it was a very brief and stylish gimmick, which didn’t greatly enhance your musical experience and vision. As a young man keenly interested in Western music, I used to feel quite frustrated.
So you can imagine my thrill , when a substantial programme of recorded music featuring a complete version of Handel’s ‘Messiah’ was organised by St. John’s Church, near Dalhousie Square, in North Calcutta.
Authentic and awesome
The 19th century Church, built in Greek architectural style during the British regime, was very spacious with several hundred seats for the congregation. It had a very high ceiling and an enormous dome. The whole structure had been built with huge stones and there was a magnificent stained-glass window. The setting was perfect for sacred music of classical vintage.
The acoustics turned out to be very effective — the recorded sound being amplified powerfully and producing reverberating echoes. The music couldn’t have sounded more authentic and splendid even if it had been a live performance by an orchestra, chorus and solo singers. I had never heard any music so awesome before and I literally sat transfixed and immobile.
There was, however, a problem. Christmas was only a few days away, and the winter was intensely cold by Indian standards. There was no air-conditioning, and as the evening progressed, the place became extremely cold and uncomfortable. The gathering, which was very small to begin with, thinned out so steadily that in the last half hour I was the only person left in the congregation!
I was even afraid that the Reverend Father who was operating the tape recorder might wind up the programme prematurely. But he seemed to take no notice whatsoever of the amazing exodus, and went on playing the music till the end. And when it was over, he walked up to me, took my hands in his, looked into my eyes and said: “Thank you, my son! You are the only true Christian who came to this Church today!”
“But Father, I am a Hindu!” I said. And he replied: “That may be so, my son! But still I say you are a true Christian!”
(For more on Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ see Musicscan online March 21, 2008)
Postscript: After e-mailing the above essay on Tuesday night, I woke up on Wednesday morning to find the following news item in The Oregonian: “With more snow coming today, churches (in Portland), including the ones that closed Tuesday, asked the faithful to call or check Web sites before heading out to Christmas Eve services and midnight Masses... Augustana Lutheran Church... will probably repeat the musical services at 11 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday if today’s weather keeps the pews empty...”