Nilotpal Baruah
Nikhil Goyal
  • Age: 26 years
  • Place: Bangalore. Comes from a Marwari business family; commerce grad from St Joseph's College.
  • What he’s learning: Nikhil begins a three-year course at the Vocal and Acting Dept at the Academy of Music, Lodz, Poland, in October.
Society: Music
Brahms In Bengalooru
Western classical music has a fresh generation of students. They aren’t the usual suspects.

Nikhil Goyal was showing one of his relations around their new flat. When they stopped by his room, the relative remarked, “So you are the bandmaster in the family.” The label of ‘bandmaster’ may be a rather loose term to appreciate the high art of operatic singing (which Nikhil is pursuing), but it typifies the common Indian reaction to western classical music—as largely an elite, exotic enterprise with heavy imperial association.

A dent was perhaps made in our collective unconscious in the last decade through the ubiquitous polyphonic mobile ringtones, and now the beginnings of a trend wafts up in our cities suggesting bigger things to come. For one, the profiles of those learning western classical music are changing. Traditionally, it has been the Anglo-Indians, Parsis and the Christians who have taken to it, but now the Marwaris, Punjabis, Tamils, Kannadigas and Malayalis among others are coming together to form a most unusual symphony. In a sense, it is about  new India’s confidence—unshackling history and democratising the arts.

Take Nikhil’s case, a 26-year-old from a Marwari family that owns a transport business. His formal education was in commerce (his father wanted him to do an MBA) but sheer passion has led his baritone to the doorsteps of the prestigious Academy of Music in Lodz, Poland. Like many, he sang the popular stuff in school and college and had only casual acquaintance with opera singing (through a pastor when he was about 23). The turnaround came from a chance meeting with some top Polish opera singers who were in Bangalore during the Polish Festival in 2009. “The festival’s moving spirit Akumal Ramchander had spoken to them about my interest. At some point, Agnieszka Kurowska and Tomasz Rak, Poland’s leading opera singers, asked me if I’d like to sing with them. They felt I had potential. And they guided me through the process of applying to various music universities in Europe. After a year’s hard work and a crash course in Polish, I made it to Lodz,” says Nikhil, who begins a three-year bachelor’s programme from October. Kurowska, speaking from Warsaw, says, “Nikhil has a very interesting voice and I am happy that I was the first one to identify that. He is a very serious student.”

Vedant Khaitan

  • Age: 30 years
  • Place: Calcutta and Delhi. Vedant runs a school and his family is into manufacturing industry grade sulphuric acid.
  • What he’s learning: He has been learning classical music since he was 11. Training to be a pianist under American maestro Justine McCarthy.

Nikhil’s seems to be a circuitous route but for fellow Marwaris Vedant Khaitan and Pranab Dalmia, it’s been a much more smooth passage.  The two are training to be pianists in Delhi under American maestro Justine McCarthy. Vedant (30), originally from Calcutta, has been learning classical music since he was 11 and hopes to give public performances, but is clear that it will remain an activity of leisure. He runs a school and his family is into manufacturing industry grade sulphuric acid. Pranab (20), meanwhile, who is a student of philosophy at St Stephen’s College, has been training since he was eight and hopes to acquire reasonable proficiency to give concerts.

Aruna Sunderlal, who runs the Bangalore School of Music (BSM), says that western classical music has an entirely new set of admirers now in India. Which perhaps accounts for the fact that of the three hundred students she has, over 50 per cent “are from unconventional backgrounds”. “Earlier, there was one Raja Ramanna, who was a physicist and a concert pianist, but now, in the last five years, we have lots of people from the software industry. Many of them have come back after a stint abroad where their children were exposed to classical music and they want to continue with it here. But that is not to say we don’t get other people. For example, our conductor, Narayanaswamy (50), is a Brahmin whose family is from Mylapore in Madras and is deeply rooted in Carnatic classical music.”

Meera and Sriram

  • Age: 9 and 13 years
  • Place: Bangalore. Children of software engineer parents, Ganeshan and Sumathi, who lived abroad for 18 years and returned to Bangalore in 2005.
  • What they are learning: They play violin and piano respectively. Also the guitar.

A casual survey of the students at BSM shores up this truth. Siblings Meera (9) and Sriram Ganeshan (13), who play the violin and piano plus the guitar, are children of software engineers who lived abroad for 18 years and returned to Bangalore in 2005. Divya Raghunathan (14) who has been training on the viola and violin, is the daughter of a scientist at the Raman Research Institute in the city. Jump cities and you have Sherry Verghese (17), who is training in opera singing in Delhi under Christine Matovich, a renowned opera singer from the US, and is the talented son of a school estate manager who migrated to Delhi from Kerala some 30 years ago. As is amply evident, the Indian surnames that follow the conductor’s baton have diversified.

And so has the demand. Matovich says requests for classes have been so overwhelming that she’s swamped and left with the unenviable task of saying no to a few worthies. Gita Chacko, pianist and regional coordinator of the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music (ABRSM) for Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, says every teacher has a waiting list.

So what spurs this trend? Chacko attributes it to the easy availability of western musical instruments and the large disposable incomes. “Procuring instruments has become much easier now, because imports are allowed. For a long time, the government had banned imports of western instruments and even when they were lifted some two decades ago they imposed a three hundred per cent duty. But now it’s minimal.”

Sherry Verghese

  • Age: 17 years
  • Place: Kerala and Delhi. Son of a school estate manager who came to Delhi 30 years ago.
  • What he’s learning: Sherry is learning operatic singing under Christine Matovich, a renowned opera singer from the US. 

Chacko also says that people taking music board exams in London from India has increased by leaps and bounds. “In Bangalore alone, the number of people taking exams has gone up 26 per cent. There were nearly 1,000 candidates last year,” she adds. Like Manjit Singh (36), a restaurateur in Bangalore whose family migrated from Lahore during Partition, who finds new moorings in the classical guitar. Manjeet was into rock music for over a decade, but now finds it “very stimulating” to play complex compositions at the BSM.

Well, the Garden City has its complex compositions but in south India western classical music’s brightest sparks in terms of interest is happening in Hyderabad. Pan India though, it’s the Northeast that’s streets ahead of the others. Christine Matovich, who has made extensive trips there in the recent past, says there are a number of reasons why this is happening. “There is a great mathematical correlation between western notation and code programming that Indians are familiar with as well as new composition software technology that requires the ability to read notation. In the Northeast, they have the potential to keep both their aural and oral tradition and pick up the new ‘written literacy’ related to western classical music. I see a great deal of adaptability. It is just like adding on one more layer to India’s great musical culture,” she says.

Renowned operatic composer Naresh Sohal, who has worked with eminent conductors like Andrew Davis and Zubin Mehta, has a different take on the new renaissance in India. “The Parsis, Christians and Anglo-Indians were keen on western classical music for historical reasons, so there’s a certain nostalgia about it for them, and this is understandable. But the world has moved on. India is achieving so many aspirational goals in so many fields, it’s time for it to look at the musical development of its young citizens in the same way,” he says. Sohal himself had moved four decades ago from the “dusty plains of Punjab to the pristine halls of western classical music” with just two pounds in his pocket. As he puts it, “There’s a tendency to assume that someone who opts to express him or herself in a tradition that’s not indigenous to India is some form of cultural traitor; that they’re going off to ape their former imperial masters. This is a narrow view. Becoming involved in western classical music is not just about following in the steps of Beethoven and other’s about finding your own voice, and saying what you want to say using the means that music offers.” And there begins a new crescendo.

Detailed Coverage:

Sugata Srinivasaraju




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