Monday, September 28, 2009

Freude, freude!

Last night I attended a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony by the Symphony Orchestra of India at the Jamshed Bhabha theatre in Bombay (it's notable that both brothers, Homi and Jamshed, have theatres named after them). Frankly I had not expected the performance would be great - but it was awesome. On this occasion the SOI (including all the extra members recruited for this demanding piece) came to 170 members, the large majority of whom are from Kazakhstan. I read somewhere that only 17 members are from India! That's globalisation for you.

The performance gave me goosebumps (and tears, I'm embarrassed to admit, during the intensely lyrical Adagio). The first movement was powerful and dramatic as expected, but not a complete triumph - the wind instruments were too subdued, for one thing. But in the second movement (the Scherzo) the winds got their wind back and the rendition was brilliant - by turns humorous, lyrical and just plain rock-'n-rolling! And the final "choral" movement was a life-changing experience even though I'd previously always winced at people shouting "Freude, freude" in public.

I don't know what it is about choral singing, it's always reminded me of my school in a depressing way. As of last night I think I'm over that. Better late than never!

I've recently befriended the SOI conductor Zane Dalal, who'll be conducting the Bhabha Centenary Symposium concert at TIFR in early December - of course, for us it will be a smaller SOI and a somewhat "lighter" concert. Yesterday he didn't conduct, that was done by a guest conductor (from, surprise surprise, Kazakhstan), but he did deliver an excellent and informative intro to the piece, talking over the din of people who couldn't find their seats or perhaps just enjoyed arguing with ushers.

Zane stressed the breaking of barriers that was a hallmark of the composition and of the period in which it was written. Schiller's "Ode to Joy", which is the text for the choral movement, stresses the universal nature of joy and the right of each individual to have it - an enlightening and at the time probably a revolutionary idea. To illustrate his point, Zane recited the following lines:

Wollust ward dem Wurm gegeben,
Und der Cherub steht vor Gott.

which means

Pleasure was to the worm given,
And the cherub stands before God.

My take is that if worms have a right to be happy, I too can go around yelling "Freude, Freude" on Colaba Causeway if I get the urge, and one day this may really happen.

P.S. The most incredible recording of Beethoven's Ninth I've heard is the one conducted by Ferenc Fricsay in 1958. It was the first ever stereo recording of the piece. The clarity of sound is superb and the performance... dazzling.

Friday, September 4, 2009


My friend Vivek sent me this YouTube link to an amazing 8-minute documentary on Bombay. The film is notable as much for what it ignores (everything in between the very rich and the very poor) as for what it features. Also the patronising tone of the commentator is quite infuriating. Still, if you hang on till the end you get to see a nice panorama of Chowpatty from Malabar Hill. I remember enjoying a fairly similar view from Naaz cafe in the early 1960's.

Bad areas and bad boys

Two stray conversations in recent times made me reflect yet again on the relentless and illogical nature of prejudice.

One of these conversations was about swine flu, which - a few weeks ago - was causing panic in my institute, as everywhere else in Bombay. When the topic of avoiding crowded areas came up, a senior administrator observed that this was particularly important in a certain "bad area" of town. His words "bad area" were code for "working-class area". I felt constrained to point out that swine flu had come to India through upper-class people returning from the US, and had begun to spread here through elite schools. So from the point of view of this particular epidemic, a "bad area" might be Malabar Hill rather than the rundown suburb to which he was referring.

The other conversation was with an acquaintance who had recently moved to the US. On my asking what life was like in the city where he lived, he said "there are some unsafe areas", then wrinkled his nose and added "black people", as if this barely needed saying.

Then today on the Guardian website I read this particularly stomach-turning story of how two brothers aged 12 and 10 sadistically tortured a pair of boys of a similar age nearly to death, in South Yorkshire, England. The identities of the torturers are being concealed by law, but I strongly suspect they were white (when it's otherwise, some "hint" is usually provided).

I also couldn't help but notice a link on that Guardian page to an article which starts "A Nazi sympathiser and paedophile who made nail bombs to attack black, Asian and Jewish people was jailed today for 16 years." and another to the murder of two-year-old James Bulger. In each case the criminals are white as can be.

My point is of course not to say that white people are generically evil or violent. I just wonder how incidents like the above make no dent on their spotless reputation, while the violent nature of black people is treated almost as a theorem. Just as swine flu gets blamed on Wadala rather than Malabar Hill.