At the recent Live! Singapore exposition, I chaired a discussion on the Musical Scene in India. Perhaps not the most obvious choice of chairman, I fell into the role after the original plan – a discussion on the Musical Scene in Malaysia – fell through for lack of interest. It got enlarged to one discussing the Musical Scenes in Thailand and India as well, but in the end, it was decided that the time would be better spent concentrating just on India. Fortunately I had three exceptionally good panel members who, by accident rather than design, were able to give deep and perceptive insights on three different areas of musical life in India both culturally and geographically.
From Mumbai we had a respected and gifted sitar virtuoso who was able to give a powerful overview of the state of Indian Classical Music in the country and beyond as well as some insights into the general scene in the west. From Kolkata we had a composer and producer of stage musicals who gave an eloquent account of the situation facing those chasing audiences and finding suitable theatres in the east. And from New Delhi we had a man who has put on western operas in India and was able to recount his pioneering work as well as giving a valuable overview of the musical scene there.The consensus of opinion was that there was immense enthusiasm around the country for music of all styles, and with a burgeoning jazz scene, a huge rock band following and plenty of western chamber music presentations, it was clear that musical spin-offs from Bollywood and the distinctive sounds of table and sitar, don’t have a clean sweep of India’s musical life. Of course there is the big problem facing those who are involved in symphonic music, and that was exposed when the Chairman of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, who was in the audience, asked about the possibilities of touring the country. Unanimously the panel agreed that, while they could get decent audiences – possibly very large ones - there was only one suitable venue to house a symphony orchestra in the entire sub-continent.
That’s a problem I’m very conscious of myself, for some years ago I was approached by a man in Cochin who wanted to set up a symphony orchestra there. He had the finance, he had the official support, he had the potential audience and, most especially, he had a pool of capable if inexperienced players. I was charged with finding suitable experienced professionals to lead each section, tutor the local players and helping put the orchestra on its feet. I also had to find a conductor and, with him, draw up a realistic time-frame to get the orchestra on to stage for the first time. We had meetings in India, KL and Hong Kong and we even identified an apartment block in Cochin where the foreign musicians could live during what was intended as their two-year contract in India. And then we hit a snag. There was nowhere for them to perform. After exhaustive investigations, looking at large halls which might be adapted, we realised that the only option was a new, purpose-built concert hall. That proved to be a bridge too far for the financial backer and the plan fell through.Indian Classical Music is such an integral part of Indian culture that, as our speaker put it, every venue in the country was suitable. Musical Theatre, rock bands and Bollywood singers need staging and lighting, but when it comes to sound, heavy amplification can cover a multitude of design defects, and Indians are nothing if not very capable at working with electronics. Opera is, of course, more of a problem, but with good singers and a chorus and a well-equipped theatre stage, the orchestra can be reduced to a piano or two. The problem with western orchestral music is that it relies wholly on the natural projection of sound from a stage, calling for an entire auditorium to be geared up for sound, not just the stage, and that’s where the problem lies.
I have just started a lengthy examining tour of India, my sixth visit to India in this capacity. I’m not alone, the country is currently teeming (it seems) with music examiners, and it is one of Trinity’s biggest and most actively growing markets. True, the dominant instrument amongst Indian children has long been the Electronic Keyboard, but that seems to be changing. In my tour (which has begun in a soggy Goa) I have French Horns, Trumpets, Flutes, Clarinets, Violins, Percussion and Pianos, while the ubiquitous Electronic Keyboard only just outnumbers all those others; and that’s not happened before in my experience.This month’s in-flight magazine on Jet Airways is devoted almost wholly to music, giving copious details about jazz venues and festivals dedicated to Indian Classical Music. The absence of any western music from its pages (although there is a full-page advert for Kawai grand pianos) seems more the result of the problems staging it, rather than any real lack of interest in it. India may not be able to possess a true symphonic orchestra as yet, but that has not stopped a surge of interest in its sound and instruments, and I suspect, before too long, someone will take the gamble and sink their money into a new purpose-built concert hall. And then, I suspect, India is going to be a force to be reckoned with on the international musical scene.