By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Monday, April 29, 2013

Superb Christian Chorus : Collegium Musicum Bremen

While looking for my quarter-century-old article about a fine soiree of German and French songs in New Delhi which I recalled in this column a few days ago (With Love From Belgium.... April 26), I came across several reviews of mine on performances by visiting German musicians.  For example:


THE HINDU, New Delhi
30 Dec. 1988

Memorable performance

Herrscher des Himmels, erhore das Lallen
Lass dir die matten Gesange gefallen. . .
(Ruler of Heaven, hear our stammering tones,
Let our feeble singing please Thee. . . )

So sang the Chorus of the Collegium Musicum Bremen from West Germany, in the concluding stanzas of Johann Sebastian Bach's Christmas Oratorio, which they performed at the Cathedral Church of the Redemption in New Delhi last Tuesday evening.  But there was nothing feeble or stammering about their music, which was rendered with much finesse and feeling!

The 120-member group from Bremen (about 80 singers and 40 instrumentalists), which was led by the choir's founder-director Lothar Stoebel, seemed to be perfectly comfortable and composed on the occasion, although they had arrived in New Delhi only on Tuesday morning, 12 hours behind schedule in the foggy weather, and had spent eight hours struggling to get their instruments cleared by the Airport Customs.  

Probably the extremely cold winter air suited them well.  But without doubt the imposing interior of the Cathedral Church and the excellence of its natural acoustics must have filtered out the alien elements of the surroundings, and made the musicians feel at home during the rehearsal in the late afternoon.  The visible enthusiasm and intense concentration of the overflowing congregation must also have raised their spirit.  All told, the performance (which lasted about 80 minutes) turned out to be a memorable one. . . .


PostScript, 2013
Reflections on retelling

In the above article, I went on to recall a recorded version of Handel's Messiah which I had heard in a Calcutta Church on a cold winter evening exactly 3o years earlier.  So unforgettable was (and still is) that occasion that I retold that story in greater detail in an article I wrote in THE HINDU in 2010, which I reproduced in this column during last year's winter music season in Madras.

Yes, I can hear you loud and clear, asking me:  "How many times will you be retelling the same old Messiah story?" And my instant response will be to ask you:  "What would wonderful stories be worth, if you can't retell them now and then in different ways?"

Thursday, April 25, 2013

From Belgium With Love : German & French Poems & Songs

I am glad to note that there are some wonderful people out there in Germany, Austria and France who seem to think that it's worth the trouble to take a look at these India-based Articulations Online rather regularly.  While thanking them all for their consistent interest, I have great pleasure in recalling here an amusing review I had written in 1987 on a superb performance of German and French songs by a couple of accomplished musicians from Belgium visiting New Delhi.  

Of course, the humorous opening gambit was aimed at the majority of my readers who wouldn't have known any German;  but I came to know that the article was well liked in the German Embassy  --  and also at the Max Mueller Bhavan, where the German language was (and continues to be) taught and learnt quite seriously.


THE HINDU, New Delhi
3 April 1987

Rich baritone from Belgium

Aus meinen, Trannen spriessen
Ich will meine Seele tauchen
Hor' ich das Liedchen Klingen
Ein Junglling liebt ein Medchen

Even if you can't understand a word of the above lines, you can see that it's a German poem, can't you?

Well, if you said:  "Yes, of course, it is!", you would be quite wrong, in a sense!  For I have just listed four titles (numbers 2, 5, 10 and 11) from Robert Schumann's famous song-cycle 'Dichterliebe' (opus 48).

But in another sense you would be right, after all, because these titles are nothing but the first lines of some of Heinrich Heine's many short romantic poems which were set to music by Schumann.

The year 1840, when Schumann created the work mentioned above, was a landmark in his life  --  when the 30-year old composer, who was in the grip of a romantic spell, turned his attention from the piano to the human voice, and exploded in a frenzy of activity which yielded an amazingly rich crop of songs.  (His  symphonies and chamber music were to follow in subsequent years).

Memorable Sundays!

Heine's romantic poems, many of which consist of only one or two stanzas of four lines each, are not monumental works of poetry;  but they are extremely lyrical, and are admirably fit to be used as the texts of romantic songs.

I remember having got lost in the Madras University Library from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on a memorable Sunday more than 30 years ago (when I was a very young student), reading a book containing the English translation of Heine's poems.  Although I have never read his poems again, that first exuberant impression has never faded from my memory.

It was a delightful experience to have a second encounter with the poet's work, sung in the original German, when I attended a vocal recital by the visiting Belgian baritone Ludovic de San at the India International Centre last Sunday evening.

Ably assisted by pianist Dominique Cornil, also from Belgium, de San rendered the complete set of 16 songs in the cycle (taking an average of two minutes per song) during the first half of the brief concert.

French colors

In the second part of the recital, de San took up the works of two French composers.  The programme consisted of four songs composed by Gabriel Faure, including the romantic 'Automne' and the melancholy 'Claire de lune' ('Moonlight'), and four others composed by Henri Duparc, including the famous 'Phidyle' and 'Chansons tristes' ('Sad songs')  --  all of which have a highly poetic quality.

In a 15-minute interlude, Ms. Cornil played three short pieces for the piano composed by the Frenchman Maurice Ravel, creator of the famous ballet 'Bolero'.

While we have a steady flow of instrumental Western music in New Delhi these days, it is still quite unusual for us to hear a live performance by a baritone.  Ludovic de San, who has performed in some operas in Europe, has a rich and flexible voice, which acquires varying degrees of lustiness and delicacy as he sings on.

Although many of the music-lovers who were present could not have understood a single word of German or French, everybody's attention was fully captivated by the poetic mood created by the music.

In Ms. Cornil's hands, the piano was also sonorous or delicate in turn, reinforcing the mood of the evening.  Her solo rendering of Ravel's 'Alborado del Gracioso' was particularly impressive, parts of it almost sounding like some of Chopin's mazurkas.

Bouquets, Indian style!

The concert was jointly organized by the Belgian Embassy, the India International Centre, and the Delhi Music Society.  The hosts asked a pretty, tiny girl to garland the artists at the end of the recital.  I do like this Indian touch which the Delhi Music Society is introducing in the concerts held under its auspices.  By all means let us adopt the stiff Western concert manners when we hear live Western music;  but let us also relax and act like Indians when the performance is over and it's time to show our appreciation!


PostScript, 2013
Going back to the library

Thirty years had separated the two memorable Sundays I have mentioned above.  Twenty-six years have passed after that second Sunday, but the memory of the first one is still fresh in my mind!   One of these days I shall visit the Madras University Library on the Marina again and explore the same shelves where I had discovered the romantic poems of Heinrich Heine  so long ago --  and also the works of the French writers Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Guy de Maupassant and Alfred de Musset around the same time, and the paintings of the Dutch artist Jan Vermeer many years later.  So many old stories still left to tell, really!

Also, the concluding comments of the above review call for certain annotations  -- regarding the unique garland culture of India and the informal concert manners of Indians  --  to make them globeworthy.   But let us discuss them some other time!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Railwayman : Still A Romantic And Familiar Hero!

April 10 to 16 is Railway Week in India.  Here's an essay I had written in that context almost 50 years ago  --  sketching the essential character of the Railwayman, which still remains basically the same all over the world in spite of the spectacular transformation which has since materialized in the whole business of mass transport!

10 April 1965

The Railwayman

THE RAILWAYMAN enjoys an unusual degree of publicity, not only because he is indispensable, but because he's everywhere;  in this, perhaps, he's rivaled only by the postman and the policeman.  I wonder whether there can be a single soul among our teeming millions who has not at one time or another come into contact with a railwayman.  Even the placid peasant, who might have spent a lifetime without once boarding a train, is bound to have come across some gang or other at work on the line.  It's true that thousands of railwaymen do remain cooped up within the narrow walls of their office, or of their shed or workshop;  but thousands of their colleagues are daily engaged in projecting the image of the railwayman in the minds of people at large;  these are the staff who man the stations, and the teams which run the trains. 

     Naturally enough, the railwayman whom the public knows well is a romantic character.  There's something incurably sentimental in all of us, and few things excite our fancy more than a railway journey.  You never know whom you might meet next in a railway compartment, nor what destiny awaits the hundreds of strangers who share your destination.  It might require the genius of a Graham Green to explore all the drama latent in a train's progress;  but even the common man seldom fails to be conscious of it.  Is it any wonder that the engine driver and the guard -- and maybe even the ticket-checker -- whom the passenger sees as a part and parcel of the train itself, instantly acquire a romantic significance in his eyes?  Is it surprising, too, that boys will always grow up wanting to be a railway engineer or that grown-up men will repent sometimes that they never became one?  But hardly less appealing to the public imagination is the picture of the Station Master, leading a lonely and mysterious existence at wayside stations;  there's an ironic (if not tragic) element in his apparent exile from civilization, for he happens to be a cell in the very blood-stream of civilization.

     But while the public's romantic vision of the railwayman is no doubt superficial, the discerning observer cannot fail to recognize something intrinsically heroic in the vital role he plays in the country's progress, and in the lives of its people.  Every railwayman, whether he's an out-door bird or sits at his desk, has a legitimate share in this distinction.  By the way, he's as proud of his performance as he is of his profession;  for the railwayman has to be, and generally is, an efficient worker.  Even the simple shuntman must know all about an intricate operation, and usually does;  even the illiterate gangman can talk to you intelligently about gauge and alignment, about ballast and super-elevation.  There's a tremendous fund of common sense in the railwayman, whose ultimate merit cannot be gainsaid by his human failings, which do occasionally impair his fair name.

     The railwayman's career is not merely a profession, but a way of life.  He often lives in a colony of his own, and even his family gets to absorb some of the railway culture and vocabulary.  Perhaps only a railway child will tell you that his daddy is out "on line",  or a railway matron telephone that tomorrow's party is at "19-30 hours."  The railway wives have a touching faith in their husbands' trains, and will often set their time-piece by the whistle of the morning mail.  But the railwayman does not live in an isolated world;  while he openly belongs to a brotherhood, he makes no fetish of it.  Running a railroad is a business as well as an art;  and while the railwayman posseses many of the artist's gifts, he seldom suffers from the latter's aberrations.  He's an outstanding sportsman, too, as the headlines in the papers often remind us.

     The man who invented the wheel was no less a genius than the one who perfected the wing;  the scientist w ho discovered the prowess of steam was no less a pioneer than those who are ushering in the nuclear age.  Each of them has, in his own right and in his own day, fathered a revolution.  By the same token, one might well say that the men who manage the trains are no less enterprising than those who will steer the space-ships.  Perhaps, in a future century, when more fantastic modes of transport would have made the railways obsolete, the railwayman too might become an anachronism, if not quite cease to exist;  but till then, we can be sure he will remain one of the nation's most familiar heroes.


Plus factor!

Taking a critical look at this classic essay I wrote so long ago (when I  happened to be a Railwayman myself), I am glad to find there isn't a single word of the text I would like to delete today.  But there are so many annotations and fresh ideas I wish to add now, that I must just let them follow one by one, in due course!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Price Factor And The Price Factory

Like Punch, the legendary British magazine  (published in London, with a worldwide circulation),  Shankar's Weekly  (published in New Delhi, with an All-India circulation)  was an ideal medium in the second half of the 20th century for taking a light-hearted look at serious issues as well as routine events, providing a nice tonic for one's tired nerves. 

Being an active civil servant at that time, I found that any critical commentary on questions relating to the prevailing economic and commercial scenarios was out of bounds for me as a journalist, since they invariably had a bearing on Government policy and/or performance.  But that didn't prevent me from writing forcefully now and then about such matters in a generic and purely humorous vein in the prestigious magazine Shankar's Weekly, which counted the seniormost Government officers, including my bosses, among its regular and earnest readers.

And today, after such a long time, I am quite thrilled to find that some of those hilarious articles have survived the test of time far better than any serious essays I might have been able to write on crucial economic issues if only I had been perfectly free to do so!  And of course, almost anything I wrote in New Delhi had universal appeal, for I was always addressing an audience which included the entire diplomatic corps and their families.


For example, let's take a look at the following lively piece on the constantly escalating cost of living. which rings as true now as it did 40 years ago! 


Shankar's Weekly
16 June 1974
The Price Factory

I found myself sitting next to this well-dressed stranger in a dinner party.

"My name is Up Chand,"  he said.  "I'm the Managing Director of Prices India (Private) Limited".

Oh, really?  I said, duly impressed:  Well, how's business?

Fine!  Mr. Up Chand said.  In fact, it has never been better!

You have your own factory, don't you?

We have a factory, yes.  And we have depots all over India.

Do you have a wide range of products?

We don't have a range at all!  We specialize in a single commodity  --  HIGH PRICE.  It is fully standardized.  Previously we used to have two grades  --  low and high.  but we stopped producing the low grade.

I haven't seen any retail showroom of yours.  How do you sell your products?

Oh, we don't do any retail business at all!  All our supplies are made to industries and dealers.

Do you get your raw materials from indigenous sources, or do you import them?

Well, all our basic inputs, including technical know-how, are available in plenty in India.  We don't import any raw materials.

Tell me, Mr. Up Chand, do you export your products?

Not much, I'm afraid!  The domestic demand for high prices is very substantial, and we don't produce enough to satisfy it.  In fact, our country is a net importer of prices.

What's your annual production like?

Well, I'm afraid I can't tell you that!  But I can tell you we are practically doubling our output every five years now.

Are you utilizing your installed capacity fully?

Well yes, because at any given time our utilization of the installed capacity is 100 per cent. But our rate of growth is terrific, you know, and we are practically doubling the installed capacity every five years! 

You don't have any trouble with staff or labor?

None at all!  We pay them handsomely.  In fact, we practically double their wages every five years.  You see, their pay packet is one of our basic inputs, so when we pay them more our inputs are increased, and our production goes up!

How interesting!  Would you mind passing me the salt please, Mr. Up Chand?  Thank you!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Indian Cultural Ethos : Strange Mixture of Pride And Diffidence!

In my two preceding notes in this column (March 28/31) I had recalled a couple of articles I had written in different contexts in 1973/'77, concerning the social and cultural ethos of the average Indians.  Now, here's an essay I had written on the same phenomenon in a concert review of 1971, skipping some technical details.



(in same order as in text)

Carnatic music  --  Classical music tradition  of South India.

Vidwan  --  Sanskrit word for 'accomplished musician'. 

Music Academy, and Brahma Gana Sabha  --  Prestigious cultural institutions in Chennai dedicated to preserving the integrity of Carnatic music.

Carnatic jet set  --  Unorthodox musicians and music-lovers who would like to modernize and secularize the ancient, sacred Carnatic music culture.

Rasikas  --   Music-lovers.

GI  --  World War II had made American military terms like GI (soldier) quite familiar in India, although we have no idea what exactly the G and the I stand for!

Jibba, dhoti  --  Traditional Indian menswear:  long shirt reaching down to knees, and long fabric draped round waist  --  conservative if plain and all-white, glamorous if colorful and embroidered. 

Tani aavaratanam  --  Solo session of supporting percussion instruments.

Defining the raagas  --  One of the basic features of Carnatic music is the sketching and exploration  of standardized melodic patterns called raagas  in imaginative ways.


Indian Express, Madras
30 Jan. 1971

Jon B. Higgins :  just a very good Vidwan?

I must confess that there was an element of curiosity in my anticipation when I turned up in Jon Higgins' Carnatic music recital at the Music Academy's hall on Sunday.  I could sense that the major portion of the sizable gathering was more or less in the same frame of mind.

For most people present, as for me, this was going to be the first full-length encounter with Jon.  And  while everyone knew that he would be causing a sensation, few among the audience could have guessed precisely what was to come.

The predominant element in the audience was not the Carnatic jet set, but the regular membership of one of our responsible organizations, the Brahma Gana Sabha.  The jet set had gained entry through the daily-ticket counter, of course;  but it formed an insignificant minority.

This occasion, therefore, was an admirable one for measuring the impact of Jon Higgins on a cross-section of our music-loving public as a whole, rather than merely on an experimenting set of jazz-loving, pop-oriented rasikas.

The first brief numbers drew unconventional applause, which was obviously more in cognizance of the fact that an American was singing authentic Carnatic music than in appreciation of any particular merit in the renderings.  But as Jon settled down, the crowd cheered less frequently and with more discrimination. 

Paradoxically enough, what this signified was not diminishing response, but developing respect.  As the concert progressed, it had become increasingly evident that here was no fumbling foreigner who needed your patronizing pats on the back, but an artist of merit who deserved a hand only when he surpassed himself.


Although Jon could acquire the characteristic look of a GI if he wore battle-dress and helmet, in his snow-white jibba and dhoti he looked every inch an Indian musician.  His participation in the music was complete and unabridged, to the last beat of the tani aavartanam.

Jon Higgins has a fine masculine voice, which is most arresting in the lowest octave. The technical side of his music revealed a high degree of precision, which enabled him to define the raagas compactly and with telling effect, and to render the compositions with faultless pronunciation. . . .

What really captured the imagination of the audience ultimately was not Jon's technical competence, but the inexplicable warmth which he was able to infuse into his music.  It was clear that he had put his heart and soul into this enterprise. . . .

A full assessment of Jon's achievement must naturally take some time, for the extent of his repertoire and the scope of his future interest in our music remain to be seen.  But even on the basis of Sunday's concert alone, I can safely say that his music shows much promise, and does carry conviction.


I wonder why we Indians are so intrigued that a Jon Higgins has managed to get a grip on our music, while we are not in the least surprised that a Zubin Mehta has become one of the world's greatest conductors of Western classical music.

Is it because we think our artistic potential is superior to the Western people's, so that their arts are well within our grasp while ours are not easily accessible to them?  Or is it because we have some kind of subconscious misgiving that their arts are superior to ours, which makes it worthwhile for us to copy them but not for them to copy us?

Much as I would like to find a flattering answer to these questions, I am afraid the truth is far from comforting.  There seems to be a self-conscious streak in our character which makes us value any foreigner's interest in our arts as a favour done to us.

An American does not have to be as accomplished as Jon Higgins before he can delight us with his curiosity about our culture.  It does seem to matter a lot to us what even tourists and hippies think about our music and dance, and we are not wanting in exhibitionism.

To make up for this built-in diffidence which we harbour in our hearts, we seem to have a compulsion at the conscious level to project an exaggerated picture of our arts and culture, in our own mirror as well as in the eyes of the outsiders.

In striking contrast, cultured people in the West do seem to be enviably free from the tyranny of artistic introspection;  accordingly, they tend to take the universal appeal of their arts for granted.

They seem to be pleased with Zubin Mehta's success mainly because their music has acquired another great conductor, and not because another Indian has taken to Western music.  We, on the other hand, are inclined to be excited by a case like Jon Higgins' more because a white man has studied our music than because Carnatic music has acquired another promising exponent.

To the extent that Jon's music is good enough to compel us to evaluate him as a musician rather than as an American, I must say he effects a certain degree of reconciliation between the genuine pride and hypocrisy which condition our cultural postures vis-a-vis the rest of the world.

I have a feeling that much of what I have said only echoes and amplifies what a doyen of Carnatic music critics had written four years ago in the context of Jon's first full-length recital in Madras.  If he had become a familiar figure in our music circles since then, there might have been no occasion for me to make a fresh assessment of these factors. 

But somehow he still remains an infrequent and mysterious visitor, and therefore continues to intrigue us.  Only if Jon Higgins cares to assimilate himself into our cultural framework can we cease to think of him as a phenomenon, and start recognizing his true claim for our appreciation, which is just that he is a fine Vidwan!


PostScript, 2013
Transient triumph, permanent paradox

This was one of my earliest essays on music;  and it has a place in any short-list of my best-ever works, because it reinforced the basic approach which has governed many of my reflections on music during the past 40 years  --  treating specific facts and events as no more than convenient runways for taking off on far-reaching flights of imagination, fuelled by rich  artistic, psychological (and sometimes even philosophic) insights  --  often exploring and reconciling the conflicting elements and aspects of cultural life.

One of the twin themes of this review  --  the co-existence of enormous pride and self-conscious diffidence in the average Indians' cultural ethos  --  has continued to figure in my writing to this day.  And I am sure I would still be celebrating the triumph of Jon Higgins as one of the seniormost Vidwans in Carnatic music today, if his life hadn't ended tragically in a road accident in 1984.