Minority report

Updated: Aug 11, 2019, 08:00 IST | Aastha Atray Banan

Through her literary project, academic Rochelle Almeida aims to educate the world about the contributions of Mumbai's minority communities towards Western drama and music

Minority report
Rochelle Almeida with Gersen Da Cunha

It was while working in Mumbai in the '80s as a freelance journalist, critiquing theatre for various publications, that Rochelle Almeida first wondered why the mantle of Western drama and classical music was dominated by minorities such as Christians, Parsees and Muslim communities such as the Khojas. "I knew then that I would have wanted to enquire into this matter, and so when I became the Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research Fellow and got a year in Mumbai, I knew this was going to be the topic of my research. To the best of my knowledge, no scholarly attempt has been made to assess or critically analyse the manner in which their contribution affected Bombay's cultural life during the British Raj and in post-colonial times," says Almeida, who was flying back to New York, where she is Clinical Professor of Global Cultures at New York University, when we speak to her.

Her project aims to provide a century-long historical overview of English-language theatre and Western music—classical, jazz and pop—in the city of Bombay as impacted by its religious minorities. She hopes this proves to be a thorough account of the original and unique impact that 'minority' individuals, as members of a diverse community, have had upon the city in serving as first-rate organisers and performers.

Rochelle Almeida
Rochelle Almeida

She still recalls the days spent in Mumbai, where she first lived in south Mumbai and then spent the rest of her growing up years in Bandra. Later, she taught at Jai Hind College, as she roamed the city watching plays and learning the piano. "It was all very intriguing. For example, there were families like the Sayanis, and the Padamsees, and artistes such as Sabira Merchant, who held the reigns of the Western theatre and music scene. I decided that I was going to talk to people from families such as these, who had been involved for a long time." When she reached Mumbai this time around, she recognised the development that had occurred—that Hindus had also become a big part of the scene. "The Hindu influx happened because of globalisation and liberalisation. So, my study is dealing with the happenings of 1940 onwards. I have spoken to artistes such as Vijaya Mehta, Farroukh Mehta, Gersen Da Cunha and, and Alyque Padamsee before he passed away, and, of course, Sabira Merchant." During her time in Mumbai—which she spent at in a office at St Xavier's College though she was almost on field most of the times—she did manage to figure why the trend persisted. It was because the said communities themselves had a Westernised aesthetic. For example, church music was a big influence on the Christian community, who then gravitated towards classical music. "In the same way, the Parsees curried favour with the British. They imitated their interests, and wanted to be like them. So they took up activities such as ballroom dancing," says the academic. She also mentions the example of Jesuit schools and colleges, which were great proponents of all-round development of the student, including sports, drama and singing. "I went to St Agnes, where we had drama and debating groups. Colleges such as Elphinstone and Xavier's had a robust dramatic tradition."

As she returns to the Big Apple, having completing her research, she plans to start pitching it as a two-volume book to publishers—categorised into Western drama and Western music respectively. And even as she hopes the books will get picked up, she is readying to release her seventh title, which is a memoir of sorts. "The year I turned 50, I went to the London NYU, and took a gap year of sorts. I travelled across the continent and backpacked and stayed at hostels, and met a host of interesting people and had some lovely encounters. So, it will be all about that wonderful year."

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