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Symphonies in the Land of Ragas

August 2010
Symphonies in the Land of Ragas

Here’s an example that shows how Western classical music has gained a foothold in India: Kodaikanal International School’s KIS Music Festival in the Palani Hills of southern India (see picture). For a high-profile event, look no further than the first international performance given by the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI). It took place in Moscow recently at the annual Festival of the World’s Symphony Orchestras.

Yes, India now has a national orchestra devoted to Western classical music. Launched by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, the orchestra has 109 members, of which only 20 are Indian. In its first year, there were just 10 Indian players. The rest of the orchestra’s members are from 14 nations, including Russia, Japan and Kazakhstan, which is the home of Marat Bisengaliev, SOI’s music director. A better name for SOI would be ISOI—International Symphony Orchestra of India.

“Beethoven’s massive ‘Choral Symphony,’ No. 9, seemed a risky choice for the Symphony Orchestra of India, founded just four years ago on private initiative and India’s first-ever full-scale orchestral ensemble,” noted The Moscow Times. “But the performance it gave at the festival’s final concert was absolutely first-rate, marked by precise playing, full-bodied sound and superb pacing from Russian conductor Alexander Anisimov.”

Indian performers of Western classical music often belong to the Goan and Parsi communities. In fact, seven members of the SOI contingent are from Goa. It would be remiss not to mention the pioneering Mehli Mehta, who founded the Bombay Philharmonic and introduced many Indians to Western classical music. His sons, Zubin and Zarin, known for their achievements in the world of Western classical music, are involved in efforts to set up a Western music school in India. Delhi University now has a degree program in Western music, and yes, there is also Delhi Symphony Orchestra.

So what accounts for the change? Globalization and liberalization, in a nutshell. Western culture has made inroads, and India’s expanded middle class has more disposable income. One policy change that made a difference was the lifting of restrictions on the import of musical instruments. Prior to 1995, Western musical instruments in India were hard to get or prohibitively expensive, although there were exceptions.

Bollywood is taking note. After all, the phenomenally successful A.R. Rahman, dubbed the Mozart of Madras, obtained a degree in Western classical music from Britain’s Trinity College of Music. Reportedly, music directors Salim and Sulaiman Merchant are also starting a Western music school in Mumbai.

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