By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Martial Music And Mahatma Gandhi

"What?  Mahatma Gandhi and martial music?  Are you crazy?  There can be no connection!"  -- Yes, I can hear you loud and clear!  
Of course, prima facie you'd be justified if you wish to quarrel with me about this headline, because absolute non-violence was the magic weapon with which Mr. Gandhi had fought the British Empire and freed India from colonial rule.  But please do read the following article of 1975 vintage, and the postscript which follows, to see the connection!
Evening News, New Delhi
24 January 1975
Martial Music

"There was a traffic hold-up at the Vijay Chowk yesterday evening,"  Safdar Singh said.  "I was told the Army bands were rehearsing for Beating Retreat."

"It isn't just the Army bands, old man!"  Rajpath Roy said. "The Navy, Air Force and BSF bands also participate."  [BSF = Border Security Force]

"I never understood why they call it Beating Retreat!"  Kutubullah said.  "I never imagined the armed forces would want to use the word 'retreat' on such a happy occasion!"

"Oh, it's just a traditional expression handed down to us by the British!"  Rajpath Roy said.  "You know, in those days at sunset the military bands would play some music while the troops got back into the forts or camps.  That's why it's called Beating Retreat!"

"And our bands also play British music all the time, I suppose?"  Safdar Singh asked.

"Not at all!"  Rajpath Roy said.  "There are some fine musicians in our Army who have composed marches based on Indian folk music.  There's Harold Joseph master-minding the whole thing."

"Harold Joseph?"  I asked.  "Isn't he the permanent conductor of the Delhi Symphony Orchestra?  What has he got to do with the Army?"

"My dear chap, this isn't Europe or America for a man to be full-time conductor of a full-time orchestra!"  Rajpath Roy said.  "Harold Joseph is the Director of Music at the Army Headquarters.  Have you heard the Odeon LP 'Martial Music of  the Indian Army'?"

"No,"  I said.

"I'll lend it to you,"  Rajpath Roy said.  "Many of the numbers composed by Army chaps like Harold Joseph, L.B. Gurung, Ram Pal and others are based on Indian folk music.  Some of them are classic, I can tell you!"

"I say, this is very interesting!"  I said.  "Do you think they will feature any of these numbers in the Beating Retreat this year?"

"Sure!"  Rajpath Roy said.  "I was talking to Harold Joseph the other day, and he told me there will be some Kerala and Ladakhi folk melodies for the bands, and some Kumaon and Gorkha folk tunes for the bagpipes and drums."

"But I never thought you could play anything other than Scottish reels on the bagpipes!"  Janapathi said.  "I was wondering if there was anything really constructive about this whole Beating Retreat business. But I suppose I shouldn't miss the show this year!"


Postscript, 2013
 Indian colors
Composing vibrant marches which have a distinct flavor of Indian folk music for our military bands consisting solely of Western instruments is a truly wonderful thing;  but ideally this shouldn't mean that the traditional pieces of Western music which are native to these bands are almost completely eliminated  -- which is exactly what seems to be happening now.  
There was a time, 40 or 50 years ago, when the bagpipes ands drums featured in the spectacular Beating Retreat program used to play some authentic Scottish marches, 'strathspeys' and reels,  and the other military bands too would play some famous traditional Western marches, apart from the specially-composed Indian marches.  But the Western colors have been fading out progressively, and in the live televised show yesterday evening, I couldn't even hear a faint echo from Scotland! 
I had mentioned this aspect in some of my past essays;  but the ongoing trend calls for a fresh assessment and commentary altogether.  Meanwhile, you can see a full-length video of the program on YouTube --  just look for 'Beating Retreat 2013, New Delhi'. 
But whatever else figures or doesn't figure in this memorable annual  performance of the massed bands of India's armed forces, the program invariably ends with two numbers which were very close to the merciful heart of Mahatma Gandhi, the Father of the Nation.  One of them is the extremely tranquil hymn Abide With Me, composed by W. H. Monk, and the other one is the patriotic poem Saray Jahan Se Accha, composed by Mohammed Iqbal and arranged as a quick military march by Prof. A. Lobo.
Performed in the twilight of the setting sun on the eve of the last day of Gandhiji's glorious life, these twin numbers never fail to conclude this particular session of martial music with a compelling tone of compassion and love.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Republic Day Blues in Rome, 2000 Years Ago

Among my best efforts as a creative journalist were several articles I wrote in the early 1970s in a prestigious English magazine called Shankar's Weekly, devoted exclusively to humorous cartoons and comments.  It was edited and published in New Delhi by Shankar. one of India's most famous and outspoken cartoonists of all times, and had a very wide circulation spread all over India. 
I happened to be a senior civil servant living in a complex of several multi-storied buildings in a residential sector exclusively reserved for Government staff quarters, where your official seniority and rank counted immensely in social contexts.  And the Republic Day Parade on January 26 was a very important occasion for measuring your true status in the bureaucratic framework.  One of the most visible status symbols was your proximity to the President's and Prime Minister's enclosure in the seating arrangements  --  which naturally cried out for a comment in my magazine! 
But before you read the article, I must explain the significance of the characters Heralda and Mercedesa figuring in the text: 
In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the only passenger cars manufactured in India were the Ambassador (modelled on the British car Morris Oxford III), the Fiat  1100-D/Padmini (based on the Italian Fiat 1200 GranLuce), and the Standard Herald (based on the British model Standard Triumph).  The demand far outweighed the limited supply, and prospective buyers had to crawl in waiting lists for years, unless they qualified under special quotas including those meant for senior Government officers. 
But you could also see huge limousines bearing fabulous names like Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac on the roads of the Capital and some Metros like Bombay and Calcutta, imported by the Central or State Governments, or by business houses and affluent citizens paying import duty of 300%  -- and also smaller, compact models of brands like Toyota or Volkswagen, brought in by lucky Government officials who had lived abroad for at least two years.

SHANKAR'S WEEKLY 28 January 1973
Republic Day in Rome

MARCUS SERETARIUS returned home from the Senate, and found his wife Heralda in a dark, pessimistic mood.

"What's wrong, Heralda?"  he asked.

"Have you got the invitation for the parade yet?"  she queried him in return.

"Not yet, dear,"  Marcus Secretarius told her.  "My P.A. said it will be received tomorrow."

"That's what you have been saying every day!"  Heralda said.  "And I am sure you will never get it!  And only two days are left for the parade!  All the other Senators have already received their invitations!"

"How do you know that?"

"Mercedesa was here this afternoon.  She said her husband Marcus Gogettus got his card four days ago!" 

"Well, we shall see tomorrow,"  Marcus Secretarius said wearily.  "Will you please give me a cup of wine, Heralda?"

As he took off his toga and wrapped a towel round his waist, the Senator reflected that it was a pity the Roman set-up wasn't based on Plato's conception of a Republic.  The collective wives of the philosopher-kings in Platopolis couldn't have leveled such charges against their husbands individually.

But the sweet smile on Heralda's pretty face as she brought him his jug of wine altered his thoughts.

"Don't take what I said to heart, dear,"  she told him.  "I don't really care for the parade.  But you know, I have to hang my head in shame when the other Senators' wives ask me which enclosure we'd be sitting in, and in which section we'd be parking our chariot."

As he splashed in his bath, Marcus Secretarius couldn't help admitting to himself that his inability to secure this miserable invitation card did not speak well of his efficiency.  After all, as a senior Senator he was entitled to it, and it was mortifying that he couldn't overcome the petty red-tape in some other fool's office.

Heralda was right about Gogettus, too.  That egg-head certainly knew how to get these things done.  That, of course, was because he didn't do any useful work in the Senate, but was busy all the time attending to personal matters.  But the womenfolk could hardly be expected to understand that.

Take, for instance, the question of one's chariot.  While he, Marcus Secretarius, had waited patiently for several years for a costly indigenous four-wheeler made in Rome, Gogettus had bought a beautiful six-wheeler for a song in Saxonia during his diplomatic mission there, which of course he had wangled by pulling the right strings in Rome.

Secretarius reflected bitterly that even in this petty matter of the parade his colleagues were stealing a march over him.

But then, the chariot pass accompanying the wretched invitation was a status symbol all right.  As soon as you got it, you took the 'precaution' of pasting the sky-blue or pink slip on the front of your chariot.  And though your chariot had only four wheels, it was there for all to see that you were a high-ranking officer of the State, and not just an affluent merchant owning an eight-wheeled vehicle.

After the Republic Day, of course, you conveniently 'forgot' to remove the colored slip, so that the Roman citizens could note your status for several weeks to come.

Back in his chambers at the Senate next morning, Marcus Secretarius went to work with a will.  He summoned his P,A, and dictated a strong letter of protest to Julius Gallerius, the officer in charge of the seating arrangements.  He signed the letter and asked his P.A. to take it to the official at once, and not to return without the invitation card and the parking slip.
The personal assistant came back after a couple of hours.

"Well?"  asked the Senator.

"I am sorry, your Excellency,"  the P.A. said.  "Gallerius was not available in his office.  He was out at the parade grounds supervising the arrangements.  They said in his office that all invitations had been despatched, and none was left,"

"Do you mean to say you have come back without the invitation, you fool?"  Marcus Secretarius roared.

"Not exactly, your Excellency!"  the P.A. said.   "I have got something."

He handed the Senator an envelope.

Marcus Secretarius opened it.  There was no invitation card inside, but he found a sky-blue slip which said:



East of the Tiber

"Splendid!"  the Senator exclaimed. already anticipating the wonderful smile that would light up his wife's face.  "I shall sanction two advance increments for you!  But tell me, my dear fellow, how did you manage to get this?"

"Oh, I had an idea, your Excellency,"  the P.A. said.  "Many of the junior Senators to whom invitations had been sent do not have chariots.  I just approached Marcus Omnibus and made a request on your Excellency's behalf, and he was good enough to spare his pass!"


Postscript, 2013
Well, that was something I wrote exactly 40 years ago, but it 's amazing how true it still rings today!  That's obviously because no matter how strongly the winds of change blow in the economic, commercial and cultural environments, nothing ever seems to change fundamentally so far as the self-conscious social perceptions and postures of the average citizens are concerned.  Of course, this isn't perhaps true of Indians alone, but must be a universal  phenomenon!

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Republic Day In New Delhi : Marching OnThe King's Way

January 26  --  it's Republic Day in India today, and the most spectacular national event of the day is the extremely colorful parade along the capital city New Delhi's main avenue, which was called Kingsway in the imperial British era, and is now called Rajpath (meaning King's Way in Hindi, of course!). 

Obviously, the authorities responsible for re-naming the boulevard couldn't find an attractive Hindi expression for Republic Road, and thought it was all right to continue the historic royal connection  --  after all, other monarchs had ruled in Delhi long before the British Empire had materialized!   (Anyway, they did re-name the Queensway  --  which crossed the Kingsway almost exactly at the middle point  --  as Janpath, meaning People's Road). 

On one side of Rajpath are the imposing palace of the President, and the twin wings of the Secretariat, which -- like the English language --  are glorious gifts of Great Britain to independent India.  On the other side of Rajpath is the India Gate, the World War memorial, which has a striking resemblance to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris at one end of the Champs Elysees.

There was a time when I had attended the Republic Day Parade continuously for three decades (except for a break of 4 years when I was living far away from the Capital);  and what I remember most vividly about the whole ceremony are the sight and sound of the  colorful military bands marching along the King's Way.  Of course, I do continue to watch them on national television on this day every year!

(to be continued)

Monday, January 21, 2013

Zubin Mehta Conducts Ravi Shankar's Rainbow Concerto

"Rainbow Concerto?"  I can hear you asking. If you are a knowledgeable music-lover, or (I hope not!) a music critic, you may say "Ravi Shankar never composed anything like that!"

You'd be quite right, of course, for he never composed any work bearing the title Rainbow Concerto.   But that's the name I would like to give to his Sitar Concerto No. 2, which he called Raaga-Maala (meaning 'Garland of melodies' in Hindi).  It was composed by him specially for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and its glamorous conductor Zubin Mehta, who was one of his greatest admirers.

And what precisely is the reason for my preference?  Just read on!

THE HINDU, New Delhi
28 April 1989
Soothing combinations

It is a compulsive characteristic of the adventurous human spirit that it accepts no achievement as a terminal one.  For many decades men had constantly struggled to conquer the Everest.  But as soon as some of them had accomplished the fantastic task, others had to start trying to do it without wearing oxygen masks.  For centuries men had aspired to fly in the free sky.  But after they had learnt how to do it, they had to cross the sound barrier and then to reach out to the moon.

The supremely creative person in the visual and performing arts is a great adventurer.  His spirit can recognize no boundaries which would confine his experience within prescribed norms even if he happens to be a seasoned practitioner of traditional art.  A superior exponent of classical music may be a trusted custodian of traditional values, but no rules or conventions can really contain his spirit if it trespasses into alien territories.

After setting up unprecedented standards of excellence in playing the violin according to Western norms for more than half a century, Yehudi Menuhin finds a thrill in sitting cross-legged on the floor with Ravi Shankar, willingly accepting the dominance of the sitarist in a novel and intriguing experience which obviously enhances his musical vision. . . .

Beyond the borders

A dessert in a dinner, far from being forbidden, is a desirable element of it.  Similarly, while one cannot imagine Western orchestral music being totally invaded by Indian colors, one cannot also object to an earnest partnership between a composer who is a master of Indian music with a desire to explore the mysteries of orchestral sound, and an eminent conductor who offers to command the powerful forces of a Western orchestra to enable the imaginative venture to be fulfilled.  It all really depends on who is the composer undertaking such a venture, and who is the conductor aiding him.

And when they happen to be Ravi Shankar and Zubin Mehta, with the sitar maestro featured also as soloist, the resulting music is bound to be electrifying.  I am not surprised to hear reports that  the European Community Youth Orchestra's current tour, with these twin captains at the helm of the cruise, had attracted delirious responses from music-lovers in Madrid, Rome and London where they had rendered Ravi Shankar's Sitar Concerto No. 2  --  titled 'Raaga-Maala'  --  before they performed it in New Delhi last week.  Nor am I surprised to see that our own music-lovers have been overwhelmed by the phenomenon.

Rainbow colors

What a fabulous rainbow does Ravi Shankar reveal to us in this magnificent work!  In the first movement he explores the raga Lalit in depth.  In the fourth movement he wields a kaleidoscope and shows in flashes the varied shapes and hues of Mian-ki-Malhar, Shyam-Kalyan, Tilakkammod, Bhageshree, Hindol, Bahar, Bihag, Rasia, Pahadi, Sindh Bhairavi, Dhun, Malkhauns, Hamsadhwani, Sudh-Sarang, Jog, Shree, Suha, Kedara....

For a while I wondered whether it was proper for the performers to skip the second and third movements of the composition.  But the answer was not difficult to see!  In spite of the sensational quality of the Sitar Concerto, it had to be featured only as a lesser fraction of the evening's program, if the orchestra was to retain its own character and credibility.  And quite appropriately, there were superb renderings of Beethoven's Leonora Overture No. 3, Ravel's sound-poem La Valse, and Mahler's Symphony No. 1.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Maestro Ravi Shankar Mows Down Music Critics!

My memories of Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar are spread over almost 50 years, and it's one of the greatest joys of my life that I was able to write about his music and personality on several significant occasions.  One of those occasions was purely imaginary and was concocted by me in a humorous vein in the evening paper in New Delhi;  but it was actually a forceful comment on a very serious and intricate issue concerning Indian classical music which still remains to be resolved satisfactorily.   I did have an opportunity several years later to show it to Ravi Shankar, who had a hearty laugh.
By the way, for the benefit of foreign readers who may not be familiar with Indian music and names, let me add a glossary of native terms figuring in the article below.  (I must also mention that the names Sitar Ali Khan and Veenachalam are imaginary, but they bear a striking resemblance to real-life Indian names like Amjad Ali Khan or Arunachalam). 
Carnatic/Hindustani music:  Classical music of South/North India.
Jugal-bandhi:  In Hindustani music, a joint venture between musicians belonging to different disciplines or schools of music.  Extended use, to indicate joint ventures between Carnatic and Hindustani music
Pandit/Ustad:  In Hindustani music, traditional titles adopted by musicians belonging to Hindu/Muslim faiths --  hence Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Bismillah Khan
Sitar/Veena:  Important string instruments of North/South India
Tanpur:  String instrument providing a continuous background drone in Hindustani music  (cf. tambura in Carnatic music)
Tablah/Mridangam:  Main percussion instruments in Hindustani/Carnatic music.
Vidwan:  Accomplished musician, in Carnatic music (cf. feminine Vidushi)
Evening News, New Delhi
9 June 1978

Music critics and mince-meat
 (with apologies to Ravi Shankar)
Sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, it is reported in the Press, has come out with some strong comments against music critics in India in his autobiography which is being serialized in a Bengali weekly.  According to him, says the report, they are "scholars in language but paupers in music."
But Ravi Shankar is not the only musician with a grouse against music critics.  The enterprising musicians Vidwan Veenachalam and Ustad Sitar Ali Khan have been hounded by music critics ever since they started experimenting with the so-called 'Carnatic-Hindustani jugal-bandhi.'

After their first jugal-bandhi in Madras in 1973, a critic there wrote that Hindustani music had unduly dominated the event, reducing Veenachalam's role to that of a mere accompanist, and that all basic elements of Carnatic music had been dumped in the Bay of Bengal.

The musicians thought over the matter carefully;  and when they gave their next jugal-bandhi recital in Bombay in 1974, Sitar Ali Khan was more restrained and let Veenachalam have his way in many things.  A Bombay critic wrote that the Northern musician had been swamped by his colleague from the South, and that Hindustani music had been consigned to the Arabian Sea.

So, when they performed again together in Calcutta in 1975, the musicians tried to be absolutely fair to each other, and both of them under-played their roles.  And a Calcutta critic wrote that both of them were acting like dummies, and had merely accompanied the tanpur-player.

So in their jugal-bandhi in Ahmedabad in 1976, they had a word with the tanpur-player and asked him to tone down his instrument.  The upshot of it was that an Ahmedabad critic promptly said the tablah-player had made mince-meat out of the mridangam-player and the concert was a fiasco.
When the jugal-bandhists gave a performance in Madras again in 1977, they cautioned the tablah-player.  This time they thought they had everything squared up properly.  But our old friend, the music critic, was not impressed:  he asserted that the mridangam-player had swallowed the tablah-player.
I am sure Pandit Ravi Shankar knows all about the woes of Vidwan Veenachalam and Ustad Sitar Ali Khan, for I understand from reliable sources that they met the Maestro some time ago and asked for moral support.

"Don't worry!"  Ravi Shankar is reported to have told them.  "My autobiography will be appearing soon in a Bengali weekly.  I will be making mince-meat of the music critics, and you can swallow them!"


Postscript, 2013
So far as I can see, enterprising Carnatic and Hindustani musicians (both old and young, whether famous or otherwise) are by and large still struggling to achieve a proper equilibrium in their provocative joint ventures.   They do manage to get things right sometimes, but that usually seems to be a matter of chance rather than of cultivated control.  Of course, there are some exceptional cases where excellence and success are the natural results of such endeavours.

Both before and after I wrote the above light-hearted article, I had/have written several serious reviews and essays on such North-South encounters (as well as similar East-West encounters, between Indian and foreign musicians). I shall pull them out from my records in due course, for a critical re-look at these endlessly ongoing experiments.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

When Ravi Shankar Thought I Was Important!

Millions of music-lovers all over the world must have been in a sorrowful mood during this holiday season, because sitar maestro Ravi Shankar, who has done so much to popularize Indian classical music in the West, has passed away.  Although I am just one of those millions and am quite an insignificant figure in the global arena of art and culture, there was an occasion 40 years ago when Ravi Shankar thought I was a very important person  --  because when we came face to face in isolation, I automatically became a symbolic figure who represented all those millions of admirers living all over the world.  Rather than talk about it now, let me just recall an essay I had written a few years ago in my column Musicscan in THE HINDU, telling the whole story:

August 22, 2008

Of ego and humility

After discussing two weeks ago my emotionally charged interview with the venerable Carnatic vocalist Semmangudi in 1978, I am tempted to talk about a different kind of encounter with the sitar maestro Ravi Shankar and a revealing sequel several years later, which showed how powerful even an ordinary music-lover's image can be in the mind of a great and sensitive musician.

Let me first tell the original story by simply quoting from an article I had written in the Evening News, New Delhi in 1985, under the headline Airport Encounter:

“On Friday night we saw. . . .  a few snatches from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s performance of Ravi Shankar’s composition, Sitar Concerto No. 1, and some crisp chats with conductor Zubin Mehta and soloist Ravi Shankar. . . .

“What struck me forcefully was the utter simplicity of these men who have achieved such success, such fame, such glory.   Neither Zubin Mehta nor Ravi Shankar sound like men who have conquered the New York Philharmonic, with its proud set of musicians who’ve got their own king-size egos  —  though that’s exactly what the maestros have done!

“You may say Ravi Shankar has a super ego, as does Zubin Mehta, and what they say to the TV camera doesn’t mean a thing.  But which great artist doesn’t have a colossal ego?   How could he or she ever achieve greatness without an ego made of solid concrete?

“I’ve had only a single face-to-face encounter with Ravi Shankar, but it’s enough to convince me of the essential humility of the man, no matter what the rest of the world thinks or says about him.

“It was in 1971.  I was on an Avro flight from Vizag to Hyderabad.  On the way the aircraft landed at Vijayawada, and Ravi Shankar and [the tablah artist] Alla Rakha got in.

“There were only a few passengers on board.  I was occupying a window seat on the left side, with nobody else in that row on either side.  Ravi Shankar took the window seat on the right side in the row just ahead of mine, and Alla Rakha took the aisle seat next to him.  

“I had a perfect side-view of Alla Rakha with his cherubic face and balding head.  I had all the privacy I needed, and I couldn’t resist taking out a pad and sketching his profile. It came out perfectly.

Maestro’s thrill   

“As we all got down on the tarmac at Hyderabad, I approached Ravi Shankar and showed him the sketch.  He showed it to Alla Rakha, and both of them expressed their appreciation.  We chatted as we walked towards the arrival lounge.  Answering a casual query from Ravi Shankar, I said I lived in Madras.

“Oh, we are giving a recital in Madras!”  Ravi Shankar said, mentioning the date. “Why don’t you come?”   I whipped out my wallet from my hip-pocket, and showed him my ticket for the concert.

“I would never have believed it, but it had a tremendous impact on the world-famous musician.   His face lit up:  he seemed surprised, delighted, absolutely thrilled.  ‘ By God, you’ve bought a ticket for the concert already?’ he asked.

“ ‘Of course!   I wouldn’t miss it for anything in the world!’  I said.  ‘Thank you! Thank you!’  Ravi Shankar said, ‘Do come and meet me back-stage after the recital!’

“Of course I never did go back-stage and meet him.  There were a hundred admirers milling around the maestro at the end of the recital,  and I wouldn’t have counted.  But out there on the tarmac at Begumpet airport, I did count for something in Ravi Shankar’s life.   He can’t possibly recognise my face after 14 years, but I am sure he still remembers me!”

Remarkable recall

Well, that’s the story as I had told it in the Evening News, New Delhi, in 1985.   And there was an intriguing sequel four years later, when I spotted Ravi Shankar in a buffet luncheon in the Indian Council for Cultural Relations in the Capital.

I walked up to the maestro and introduced myself, giving him my visiting card.  In the course of the pleasant conversation which followed, I mentioned that we had actually met earlier, though I didn’t expect him to remember the occasion.  He looked rather surprised, and asked: “Oh, really?  When was that?  And where?  Can you please remind me?”

I said briefly: “Hyderabad airport, 1971.  I showed you a picture of Alla Rakha.”  Ravi Shankar stared at me for a few seconds, and his face lighted up with pleasure. “Of course! Of course! I do remember!” he said, “You also showed me a ticket you had for my concert in Madras, didn’t you?”

And as if that wasn’t enough proof that he did remember and wasn’t pretending, he took a very intense look at my clean-shaven face and asked: “Weren’t you having a pencil-line moustache then?”   Which really took my breath away, because I did have a pencil-line moustache those days!

Of course, there was just a chance that he might have seen my story in the Evening News four years earlier;  but when I asked him about it, he said no, he hadn’t, and I believed him.   And this happened in 1989  —  eighteen years after our airport encounter, during which time the maestro had scaled still greater heights, not only as a performing artist but also as a composer of Western orchestral music with intriguing Indian colors.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Fishing For Master Cobblers in Frankfurt And Berlin

The desperate electronic search for competent cobblers  --  apparently made by strangers or foreigners  --  in Munich (Articulations Online12 Jan. 2013) was so amusing that I took a similar look at the Frankfurt and Berlin scenarios;  and here are some more interesting discussions on the Internet: 
Toytown Germany
Cobblers, shoemakers, and shoe repair shops - Frankfurt Rhein-Main

31 Mar. 2009 -  21:54 hrs
Does anyone know of a cobbler who does more than run-of-the-mill shoe repair? I need someone who does sewing, not just fixing heels and whatnot. Got a pair of boots that are literally coming apart at the seams, and I need someone who can give them a new life.  Cheers, UltraDeb


1. Apr 2009 - 04:27 hrs

There is a Polish shoe repairer on Berger Strasse, roughly opposite Saturn. He fixed up my boots.


Purple Muffin
1 Apr. 2009 - 07:09 hrs

I go to a guy on Dahlmannstr. (just off Wittelsbachallee) and he has done sewing work on some of my boots and also fixed some of my handbags. He is great I am always very impressed with him. I'd recommend him to anybody he works wonders


Toytown Germany
Cobblers, shoemakers, and shoe repair shops - Berlin


fraulein grun
15 Dec. 2006 - 15:00 hrs

Hi there, anyone know where to repair the heels of my shoes, preferably in Mitte/Prenzlberg?  These cobblestones and uneven surfaces are a nightmare for high heeled gals.  Vielen dank!


15 Dec. 2006 - 15:05 hrs

Here's a list of Mister Minit's in Berlin.
-  Bahnhof Friedrichstraße
-  Im Hause Top-Clean, Alexanderplatz 8
-  Berlin-Carre, Karl-Liebknecht-Str. 13


17 Dec.2006 - 13:28 hrs

There's a shoe repair on Schwedter Strasse that I always go to. It's cheap and they do a good job. I feel your pain. I live in my heels, and I find myself having to replace the caps and smooth the soles constantly!
Some extra tips I've learned: Avoid walking on the small cobblestones. If you see smoother pavement nearby, walk on that. If you must walk on cobblestones, try to walk on your toes.
Also...  avoid wearing heels all together after snow has melted. They put sand on the sidewalks, and that sand is HELL on your shoes! In some districts they clean it up faster than others though, so use your judgment!

fraulein grun
18 Dec. 2006 - 13:15 hrs

Oh my, such a wonderfull prospect... but thanks for the tips!



18 Dec.2006 - 17:04 hrs

I'm a clog wearer and I twist my ankle almost weeky on the cobblestones. My falls seems to get more and more graceful tho - or at least that's what I tell myself.

18.Dec 2006 - 21:32 hrs

There's a great one on the Leipzigerstr. around the corner from Stadtmitte. It's a combination shoe repair and dry cleaners and the guy worked wonders with some of my boots. He is generally really friendly, but the woman who is sometimes there is a bit of a dragon. Am afraid I can't remember the name but it is next to Kaiser's.



AimeeColleen30.Mar.2009 - 11:31 hrs
Hey guys!

I need to get both heels and boots repaired here - there are some places listed above, but no address and they're from 2006. Anyone have a place they've gone to recently that does good work and is cheap? Thanks in advance!

Jon Blaze
30 Mar. 2009 - 12:19 hrs

The above link doesn't seem to work anymore, so here you go:
Mister Minit locations in Berlin


30 .Mar. 2009 - 15:52 hrs

Well, mister minit... it's the mc Donalds of shoe repair...
Here are two good ones (though not the cheapest):  [Hauptfiliale im Plaza -- MVR]
and  [Schumachermeister Stefan Poschk -- MVR]

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Cobblers' Shoppes/Boutiques In Munich

After reading such interesting articles on the Internet about the classic roadside cobblers of Moscow (Jan. 10, 2013), I am looking for similar information about Berlin.  I am still to find the right links -- but meanwhile, I chanced on a set of exchange of messages between some English-speaking foreigners and/or Germans in Munich. 
Apparently these are about well-heeled cobblers' shoppes/boutiques, and not about individual cobblers squatting on sidewalks or sitting inside streetside kiosks.  But I do find these frantic queries and helpful answers quite amusing, so here we go!
Toytown Germany
Germany's English-speaking crowd
Welcome to Toytown Germany, the English-language community website for Germany. Over 50,000 English-speakers are currently active members.
Forum   Munich  
Cobblers, shoemakers, and shoe repair shops in Munich

zimmer --  5 Sept. 2005
Hi -- Does anyone know of any cobblers in Munich? I got a new pair of Born's sandals, but the strap is coming off. Since I bought them from NYC I can't bring it back to the shop. I did search on Google but came up with nothing, so would really appreciate if someone could point me to a shop or other place that can mend shoes.  Thanks.
Rus  --  5 Sept.
There is a shoe repairers at the Hauptbahnhof!
Owain Glyncwr  --  5 Sept.
There is one in Marktkauf in Unterföhring (Bus 50 from Studentenstadt). Its near the upper level entrance to car-park.
Malcolm Spudbury  --  5 Sept.
There's a Mister Minit in Galeria Kaufhof on Marienplatz. Top floor, I think, next to the gift wrapping desk.
UrbanAngel  --  5 Sept.
Yup my suggestion too - Mister Minit. It's a chain of shops which is bright orange, which do keys and shoe repairs. At most Galeria Kaufhofs (Mplatz, Rotkreuzplatz), also at Hauptbahnhof. Which area of town are you in?
zimmer  --  5 Sept.
Ooh, Mister Minit's great. I kept going to Kaufhof but didn't see any. I'll try again. Thanks!
NJDQ  --  5 Sept.
Fantastic shoe repairer on Wagmüllerstraße, come out of Lehel U-bahn and head towards Prinzregentenstr. Can be pricey but if they are good shoes I would definitely recommend this place.


Gil  --  10 Nov. 2005  /  20 54 hrs
My wife and I will be in Munich for two weeks in December. We have some Finn Comfort shoes that need new soles. Can you recommend a store in Munich that can do these repairs? How long do repairs usually take? Thanks for your help.
JMA15  --  10.Nov.  /  23 54 hrs
I've never heard of these types of shoes. As far as I can tell they require specialist repair ie, replacement of the whole sole by the original manufacturer, a normal cobbler just won't do and shops and mail order places can only do alterations to new items. . . . I suspect you'll have to send these away to be repaired anyway so I'd google it for your own country first and save the space in your case for a couple of souvenir biersteins. Good luck and have a great holiday in Munich!


Panama  --  29 Mar. 2007  / 23:38 hrs
I've got to make some repairs on a pair of shoes. Any good recommendations? I may need actually a shoemaker. For some reason they just do very minor repairs in shoe repairs here. Anyone know of a shoemaker where you could get an overhaul for your well beaten but still nice shoes?  Thanks for any recommendations.
Crusoe  --  30 Mar. / 06:24 hrs
Hi Panama, Try Moses Lanzhammer in Pilgersheimerstrasse 60 (about half-way up). . . . He did a great job on several pairs of beaten-up shoes I took in (also repairs less beaten-up ones to). He's also our St Patrick in the St Patrick's Day Parade.
madgibson  --  30 Mar. /  07:24 hrs
Try Schuh Bertl in the Kohlstr. - Bertl is a traditional shoemaker who also does repairs. It is also pricey but if you want quality it's definitely worthwhile.


ella_b  --  5 Feb.2008
These cobblestones are hell on shoes. Can anyone suggest a good shoe repair shop in Munich? I do not mean somewhere where they will slap on a 1/2 inch thick slab of plastic, but somewhere where I can have good shoes nicely repaired. Thanks for any suggestions.
Sin  --  5 Feb.
Right behind Blumen Stil in Großhadern is the best traditional, inexpensive
cobbler I know in the whole city.
I think the address is Gräfelfinger Straße 5.0  

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Cobblers' Cameos : Dilli - Moskva - Berlin

One of the pleasures of writing a light-hearted column like Delhiberations in the widely-read evening paper in New Delhi with unlimited freedom of expression was that I could indulge in constant day-dreams about anything and anywhere in or beyond the whole world, as long as I said something concerning Delhi, which is a British variation of the authentic Indian name Dilli, just as Moscow is the English equivalent of Moskva. 

It was my old friend S. Rangarajan (alias RJ)  --  whose strong Russian connection I had mentioned in the preceding note (Jan. 8) and who now lives in America  --  who had alerted me about the cobblers of Moscow and Berlin.  Which is probably what made me recall this particular article just now!

Incidentally, I must mention here that I was writing the Friday-evening column under the pen-name Raja Vishnu:  that's why you'll find my inner-circle friends calling me Vish, as in this cameo about Dilli's omnipresent roadside cobblers.

Evening News, New Delhi
12 March 1976

Cobblers' Corner
"I am glad the season is changing,"  Rajpath Roy said.  "I am fed up with wearing all these winter things!  I'd like to kick off my shoes, peel off my socks, and relax with a pair of slippers!"
"I would like to kick off my shoes too, but for a different reason,"  Kutubullah said.  "My soles are completely worn out, and re-soling costs a lot of money!"

"That's what I used to think,"  Safdar Singh said.  "But I found out that you can get your shoes re-soled quite cheaply by the cobbler in the local market."

"Oh, really?"  Kutubullah asked.  "I didn't know these cobbler chaps undertook major repairs!"

"They do!  And I can say this for my cobbler, he certainly does a good job of it!"  Safdar Singh said.

"The cobbler is an interesting character, but he's a village institution,"  I said.  "You can't see a cobbler in every nook and corner of Bombay or Madras.  But you can see him in every sectoral market in New Delhi, squatting in a corner under a tree, and invariably puffing away at his hookah!"

"There you go again, Vish, with your pet theory:  New Delhi is a hundred villages!"  Janapathi said.  "Next thing you'll be saying:  Moscow is a thousand villages, because in many Moscow boulevards you can see a cobbler  --  sometimes a woman  --  sitting in a pavement kiosk!"

"In urban Europe the individual cobbler as an institution is dead, though he was very much alive in the 18th century,"  Rajpath Roy said.  "The heroine's father in A Tale Of Two Cities was a Parsian cobbler, remember?"  

"But I've seen some roadside cobblers in Berlin , in the second half of the 20th century!"  Safdar Singh said.

"Did you hear that, Vish?"  Janapathi exclaimed. "Now you can start saying:  Berlin is just a big village!"


Postscript, 2013
Moscow Blues!

After keying in that 37-year-old article of mine, out of sheer curiosity I looked for some information online about the past and present status of Moscow's roadside cobblers,  and quickly found a couple of reports which tell the whole story succinctly.  The following extracts will do if you are in a hurry, but otherwise I would recommend your reading the original texts also, because they're so well written!
San Francisco Chronicle
SF Gate
Peter Finn, Washington Post 
30 Sept. 2007

For 50 years, Yevgeny Yivo has worked on Neglinnaya Street performing "emergency surgery," as he puts it, on the battered and broken shoes of passing Muscovites. . . .

Repairing shoes is a family tradition for Yivo, 76, who learned the trade from his father. His Assyrian Christian parents fled to Russia in 1914 at the outbreak of World War I and hostilities between Russia and Turkey.

The Yivos, like many of their refugee compatriots, became cobblers. Since then, Assyrian Christians have been a small but enduring part of this city's streetscape, first as state employees in the Soviet Union, then as entrepreneurs following the collapse of communism.

But it is a way of life that is dying out, in part because younger and educated members of the Assyrian community are eschewing their parents' trade and also because Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov has declared war on the city's kiosks. . . .

"The future looks very uncertain, but we hope the mayor will see that we are still essential," Yivo said. "We were like a dynasty, generation to generation, but after all these years it's coming to an end."


Radio Free Europe

MOSCOW, October 14, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Russian winters are unkind to boots and shoes, and have traditionally provided ample opportunity for the ubiquitous cobbler's shop in Moscow.  But with more money in their pockets, many Russians today's are buying new shoes instead of mending their old ones.  Now the trade faces a more formidable threat: Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is calling for a crackdown on street stalls.
By Chloe Arnold
14 Oct. 2007

"My name is Yukhan Daniilovich Bavidov,"  says a man working in a small street stall.  "I've been here in Moscow since 1955. I've had two cobbler's stalls, and I've been in this one for 35 years. Before that I worked in a stall on Chekhov Street, as it used to be called. Now it's Little Dmitrovka Street."

Trade is brisk at Bavidov's tiny stall, located just a stone's throw from the Bolshoi Theater in central Moscow.  A long row of shoelaces, in every size and color, hangs from a piece of wire that stretches the length of his shop window. Inside, there's just enough room for a cobbler's wheel, a rickety stool, and a battered leather satchel full of tools. . . .

Bavidov's family was rehabilitated in 1955 and he moved to Moscow, where he was apprenticed to an Armenian shoemaker.  Bavidov says that in those days, 90 percent of Moscow's Assyrian community worked as cobblers and shoe-shiners.  The more experienced ones had their own stalls, the younger ones simply set up shop on the pavement.  But today, he says sadly, their children don't want to follow in their fathers' footsteps.

"The old ones have gone, the young ones don't want to be cobblers,"  he added. "They've become too bright. They have different qualifications. . . .  Bavidov sets to work hammering a steel cap onto the heel of a man's leather shoe. But this is a sound fast disappearing from the streets of Moscow.

It isn't just that Russia's Assyrian community is moving away from the cobbler's trade.  Yury Luzhkov, the powerful mayor of Moscow, has declared war on the thousands of stalls and kiosks that clutter the capital's streets. . . .  But Bavidov, who has lived through exile to Siberia, World War II and the births of four children, seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild, is not worried.

"Oh yes, I read an article about this! But how is he going to do it? OK, so he clears them all away.  Fine. But what is he going to do with the people who work in them? . . . .  You have to provide for people. . . .  Let's just wait and see what happens!"

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Jarring Trend Ruins Russian Folk Music

In continuation of the story I told (Jan. 6) about Hungary exporting a mixture of folk and renaissance music and dance 20 years ago mainly for consumption by foreigners, I must show you an article I wrote in 2008 about distortions and disturbing trends in the performance of Russian folk music. 

Although the focus was clearly on folk music, somehow this essay happened to take a quick look at the evolution of Russian music as a whole, tracing the different streams of music flowing in parallel trends and traditions, and also noting the revolutionary turn things took after the collapse of the Soviet Union: 

THE HINDU, Chennai
October 31, 2008
Parallel trends and traditions

. . . .  I came to know that a visiting ensemble called Russkaya Pesnya ('Russian Song') had given a performance of Russian folk music in Bangalore on October 14.  This information was given by Ms. Kala Sunder  —  who had studied Russian in Moscow and is a Russian-English interpreter now based in Bangalore  —  to my old friend RJ, who had been her father’s colleague in the diplomatic corps in Moscow. 

She said this event was organised by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and the Russian Embassy, in the context of an ongoing economic-scientific-techno-cultural exchange between the two countries, under which 2008 is the ‘Year of Russia in India’ and 2009 will be the ‘Year of India in Russia.’

Apparently a dozen cultural events have been organised in the Capital since February this year, and a few in Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore  —  including performances of folk music, chamber and church music, as well as Russian pop, jazz and rock-n’-roll.

All of which sets me reflecting on the evolution of Russian music in the Tsarist and Soviet eras, and the revolution which convulsed it towards the end of the 20th century after the collapse of the USSR.

Historic perspective

The progress of Russian music in the past two centuries has been rather complicated, with the clash and co-existence of parallel trends and traditions;  but the main developments can be summed up by the following remarks which I quote from online sources:

“There are about 150 ethnicity groups in Russia, each with unique traditions, culture and forms of music.  Initially folk music was mainstream, but [later on] Russia adapted to Western type of classical music...   Patriotic songs and music was created during the Great Patriotic War...   Soviet era [also] produced many prominent classical musicians...  

"During the period of Soviet domination, music was highly scrutinised and kept within certain boundaries of content and innovation...   After the fall of the USSR, western-style rock and pop music became the most popular musical forms in Russia.” (, and Wikipedia).

Parallel trends/traditions

It is important to note that the development of Western-European styles of ‘classical music’ during the 19th and 20th centuries (in the forms of opera or orchestral music) in the Tsarist regime, and the emergence of ‘people’s songs’ about rustic collective farms and romantic factories in the Soviet scenario, did not either suppress or substantially alter the folk music traditions prevailing in various regions of Russia. 

In fact, these relatively new trends (which turned into old traditions in due course) had derived considerable inspiration from the ancient folk music of the country, which had continued to flourish side by side with them.

That’s why even in the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet cultural festivals in New Delhi had featured folk music and dance which invariably created the impression of being authentic, although obviously trimmed and streamlined for presentation in concert halls abroad.  But later on we had started encountering ultra-modern Russian music which had somehow sounded artificial and seemed to lack the essential Russian character and nuances.

Jarring element

As Ms. Kala Sunder had lived and studied in Moscow and has a strong Russian orientation as an accredited interpreter, I asked her about her impression of the recent folk music concert in Bangalore.  I must say her answer by e-mail is perceptive, and has a loud and clear ring of truth:

“To me, Russian folk music conveys a sense of vast expanse, of the wide steppe and the slow-flowing rivers.  And often an underlying melancholy and desperation, even as it sets your toes tapping...  The Russkaya Pesnya’s concert opened with numbers with a modern orchestration, complete with a heavy beat and flashing lights that produced a disco-like atmosphere.  It was quite alarming!

"Even folk music evolves to suit contemporary tastes, but this was jarring.  If it was playing to the gallery, the gallery didn’t seem to appreciate it!  But the troupe moved on to more ‘folksy’ rendering and that drew louder applause.  Perhaps this was the wrong audience for this sort of experimentation  —  ICCR doesn’t attract the young.”

This impression is reinforced by online videos featuring the Russkaya Pesnya ensemble and its leader Nadezhda Babkina.  And samples of the music of the Aquarium Rock-n-Roll Band, which has also performed in the Year of Russia in India, illustrate the end-of-the-century revolution in Russian music.

But of course, some immortal songs such as Ochi Chorniye ('Dark Eyes') do transcend the folk music idiom and retain their true Russian flavour no matter in what alien mode they are rendered! 


Postscript, 2013
Frontierless Magic of Dark Eyes!

Regarding that last sentence, which I had scribbled in 2008  --  I had raved about this Russian song in a review in THE HINDU, New Delhi 25 years ago (quoted fully in Articulations Online, Rustic Rituals And Romantic Reveries, Nov. 2012)  --  and in this column a couple of years ago (Articulations Online, Ochi Chorniye, Oct. 2010).

Obviously, I do have a lifelong obsession with this amazing amalgam of art and folk music, which always sounds absolutely authentic, regardless of when and where in the world it is rendered, whether vocally or with instruments only, in whatever allied or alien mode or manner, as long as the performance has the hallmark of excellence.  It's sheer magic which seems to have no frontiers at all!

Why don't you just look for Ochi Chorniye on YouTube, see a dozen or more videos which will appear on the hit lists, and hear the evidence for yourself?