By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

One-man Museum Of Medieval Musical Instruments

Young people in this YouTube era will find it extremely difficult to believe or even imagine how patiently we super-citizens used to wait and wait (when we were much younger) for authentic live performances of various genres of Western music by visiting musicians from the West, in India's Capital city New Delhi during the concluding decades of the 20th century.

It is fortunate that as an amateur journalist I had written about almost all cultural events I had attended during that period, either as critical reviews or essays in THE HINDU's New Delhi edition, or (earlier) as reports or light-hearted sketches in the Hindustan Times Evening News.  Taken together, all these add up to a cultural chronicle which register many colorful impressions and some significant insights.

When the articles relating to a given theme are fished out from my archives and lined up for a quick survey, a consistent scenario spanning several years invariably emerges.  In the context of European music of the Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque periods, we had telescopic views of prevailing scenes in progressively more distant centuries, in successive concerts/demos separated by several months from one another (please see preceding blogs).   

And here is another cameo in that sequence, winding the clock back by a thousand years :-


Indira Gandhi stadium -- India's largest indoor stadium (in New Delhi, with a capacity of about 15,000 spectators), named after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1917-84).

Troubadour  --  Travelling Old French poet-composer-singer in medieval France (11th to 14th centuries).

Blitzkrieg  --  'Lightning war'  (German).

Le Troubadour  --  The Troubadour  (French).

New Delhi

2 February 1990

Ernest, versatile scholar

It was only a few weeks ago that the year-long Festival of France in India came to an end with a grand finale in the Indira Gandhi indoor stadium in New Delhi.  I happen to have missed the entire festival because I was not in town on most of the crucial dates.  So I was particularly glad to attend a demonstration of the music of the French Troubadours last week, given by a visiting musical scholar from France who plays more than a dozen reconstructed instruments of the medieval period and also sings in Old French. 

Personally I do not believe that a blitzkrieg in the shape of a massive one-time festival is the best way of popularizing any foreign  culture in our country, or vice versa.  It is no doubt bound to have some forceful impact, but it cannot create permanent interest.  A much better way of familiarizing us with a foreign country's artistic achievements is to give us occasional glimpses of it indefinitely, like the Bulgarians, Italians and West Germans in New Delhi have been doing for quite some time now.

Blowing like a hurricane does create a wider awareness of the fine arts of a foreign country, and I am not really arguing against it.  But it will not serve the real purpose unless the activity is continued in a constant stream.  Of course, the Festival of France was spread over a whole year, which was a good thing ;  and the Alliance Francaise in the Capital has done well not to close the French window with the front door!     

Enter the Troubadour

Robert Ressicaud (pronounced Robair Ressiko) is an earnest and versatile musical scholar who specializes in the study and practice of more than a dozen medieval musical instruments used by the Troubadours of the South of France in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.  Due to the late arrival of a flight from Bombay, he reached the venue of the event half an hour late, lugging a couple of specially designed trunks containing his precious instruments on to the stage in the small auditorium in the India International Center.  Spending another half-hour unpacking the boxes and arranging the instruments in full view of the audience which had already assembled, he gave every impression of being someone who was about to start a magic show rather than a musical demo.

But the audience, which was all  keyed up and quite sympathetic, waited attentively for the mystery to unfold.  And sure enough, its patience was well rewarded.  The Frenchman went into the green room for a while, and when he came prancing back on the stage wearing a camel-colored tunic, he looked every inch like what one would expect a Troubadour to have looked like.  We knew instantly and instinctively that there was going to be a perceptive and delightful experience, and not a drab demonstration :  and so it turned out to be.

Instruments galore

Ressicaud played with skill and understanding a variety of string instruments like the psaltery, dulcimer, hurdy-gurdy and fiddle, wind instruments like the schalmel, crumhorn, organ and recorders ('soft' flutes), and percussion instruments like the leather or stringed drums, providing an occasional vocal element also.  In the process he gave us a close and obviously authentic view of the gentle and almost fragile melodies which had entertained or inspired the kings and the monks and the common people of the Troubadour country.   This was one of the best-ever exposures to medieval European music we have had in New Delhi.
The event lasted less than an hour and a half, but it was quite a substantial exercise.  Nevertheless, when it ended many people in the audience seemed unwilling to leave.  Milling around the visitor on the stage, they posed several questions and asked for further demonstration.  And Ressicaud, who had looked quite worn out and distracted when he flew into the hall straight from Bombay a couple of hours earlier, seemed fully charged and fresh after the performance.  Le Troubadour was still earnestly explaining something to somebody when I reluctantly left the hall.

PostScript, 2016

Culture vs. cultural events

I had missed most of the Festival of France in New Delhi in 1989 even though it was spread over the entire year -- as I had missed many other important cultural events in the city -- because at that time I was constantly travelling all over India in connection with a significant nation-wide cultural-administrative review, in which context I had some unique credentials as journalist as well as civil servant.   Let me tell that story some other time!

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