February 25, 2020
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The Karma Symphony In Judea

With help from the Bhagavad Gita, an Indian composer tears down cross-cultural barriers

The Karma Symphony In Judea
The Karma Symphony In Judea

For a civilisational meeting, the setting couldn’t have been better. The text was the Bhagavad Gita, the city was Jerusalem  and the orchestra was the Israel Philharmonic, conducted by Zubin Mehta. The epic dialogue between Lord Krishna and Arjuna on the battlefield was translated into western classical music, with a hundred musicians bringing that ultimate dilemma to life. It was yet another landmark in the unusual journey of a man named Naresh Sohal.

Sohal wrote The Divine Song, a grand operatic composition, for Zubin Mehta, to mark the maestro’s 70th birthday. It premiered here last week to sustained applause and the sounding of conch shells, as if the audience were born to the idea of karma and dharma. Sohal took a bow, happy that he was able to bring the intricacies of Indian philosophical thought to this citadel of three monotheistic religions through the medium of music. “I’m glad I was allowed my voice in Jerusalem. Between the  Judeo-Christian axis and Islam on the one hand and Hinduism on the other, most of humanity is covered,” he said. He chose the Gita because the delineation of the concept of karma and dharma in the battlefield offered something unique—philosophic thought in a dramatised context.

Surely, western classical music is one of the toughest cross-cultural barriers to tear down. It is built with Mozart’s symphonies and Beethoven’s concertos and 200 years of unbroken reverence. That rarefied world, unknown and incomprehensible to most of us, with its first and second violins, piccolos and bassoons, tubas and timpani, is not a domain easily invaded by the Indian brigade. But Sohal dared and even moulded the medium to his needs.

Sohal landed his first job as a music copyist, working, among other things, on music for the landmark film Lawrence of Arabia.

He is both British and Indian, western and eastern, classical and contemporary. The titles of his works themselves tell a story—Dhyan 1, Lila, Surya, Tandav Nritya, Satyagraha, Three Songs from Gitanjali and Tsunami. While they are all pieces written for orchestras and string quartets, cello and piano, the strong underpinning of Indian philosophy is evident. But he is not “selling” Indian philosophy to the west like so many yoga gurus and life coaches. “I write what I write and for whosoever can understand. I make no concessions,” he says emphatically. Critics consider his work bold, theatrical and “richly sonorous”. The Times said his “musical personality seems violently passionate.... His technique assured, never cautious though calculating.”

From the dusty plains of Punjab to the pristine halls of western classical music, Sohal’s journey is without parallel. It began four decades ago when his calling would have been considered even more unusual. He was studying mathematics and physics in Jalandhar while developing a musical ear just by listening to All India Radio. Soon he was writing music for the Punjab Armed Police band. He tried to learn Indian classical music but a guru rebuffed him because Sohal’s instrument of choice was the mouth organ.

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

He decided to master western classical instead. He went to Britain in 1962 with barely two pounds in his pocket, struggling and surviving in London’s grittier districts. He landed his first job as a music copyist, working among other things on music for the landmark film Lawrence of Arabia. Soon he found a teacher who was willing to give him a chance. He began writing music, and in 1965 produced his first orchestral piece, Asht Prahar. But it was another three years before the London Philharmonic performed it at the Royal Festival Hall.

Other projects followed, and soon Sohal was composing full-time, winning accolades and acceptance from eminent conductors. The BBC Symphony Orchestra performed Dhyan 1 in 1975 and there was no looking back. He was a celebrity. During the ’80s, Sohal wrote music for a ballet, Gautama Buddha, and even branched out into film and television, writing the score for the award-winning documentary, Sir William in Search of Xanadu. Life was full of music. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 1987, an honour he deeply cherishes.

There was generosity for the arts in the UK in those days, Sohal recalled. “Society was optimistic and it was a brave new world,” he said. But things began to change in the ’90s, as funding dwindled. He found he did not really belong—or not quite. He was not English enough when it came to grants and commissions. “They are not prepared to give you the status because they don’t identify with you fully. Even in my work, I bring a different point of view which is alien to them,” he says. Sohal was even investigated in 1991 by Her Majesty’s Inland Revenue on suspicion of being too poor! He argued his expenses were low because he rarely ate meat or drank alcohol.

These days Sohal sometimes finds himself edged out. “I can’t prove the prejudice but you feel these things after a while because of the events around you. If they have one commission to give—whom do they give it to? If they have five commissions, I may get one,” he says.

Sohal has worked with eminent conductors such as Andrew Davis and Zubin Mehta, won the Arts Council bursary, and represented Britain at the International Rostrum for Composers in Paris and at music conferences. “Naresh is a very talented composer. You feel the Indian flavour and it is fascinating,” says Mehta. “Some of my colleagues should pay more attention to him.”

Meanwhile, the tug of the mother country is getting stronger. Sohal wants to give back even though he chose a medium that not many Indians understand. He is working with Indian producer Bobby Bedi on a stage musical based on the story of Heer Ranjha. There is also a film project, originally started by the late filmmaker Vijay (Goldie) Anand. For Sohal, it seems to be time to return to his roots.

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