Taking a bow since 1962

Updated: Sep 14, 2019, 09:10 IST | Dalreen Ramos |

Having turned 90 last month, violin virtuoso Jini Dinshaw talks about nurturing a legacy of western classical music through the city's longest-running orchestra and why music shouldn’t be political

Jini Dinshaw. Pics/ Atul kamble
Jini Dinshaw. Pics/ Atul kamble

Jini Dinshaw celebrated her 90th birthday on August 9 during an orchestral rehearsal. It was all in a day's work and she laughs about it. Four weeks later, the Bombay Chamber Orchestra (BCO) opened to a full house at the Sophia Bhabha Auditorium. Dinshaw, founder of the BCO, received a huge round of applause and was called on stage. At 90, she was bowing the viola smoothly, resting it on her left forearm. That wasn't her position until two years ago, when she suffered a stroke. As a violinist, the viola another stringed instrument which is relatively lightweight, kept her going.

For as long as she can remember, Dinshaw always had a great love for music: she used to play the mandolin by ear. Her parents, though, wanted her to become a doctor and so, she was admitted to St Xavier's College to study science. She left for England in a year to study music.
Unfortunately, no college would accept beginners.

While waiting for a train at Waterloo, Dinshaw saw a lady with a violin. "I asked her if she was a teacher. She said she was studying. So, I requested her to give me the name of her teacher. Her name was Gladys Noon; I gave her a call, and got an appointment," she recalls, at her home on Prescott Road. Dinshaw remembering minute details — a house called Timbers, the little bedroom on the first floor, which she eventually moved into from a boarding house — talks about her quick progress. "Within two years I reached Grade 8, the final exam," she says.

Dinshaw
Dinshaw with her sisters

Noon was instrumental in shaping Dinshaw's musical career with Sunday lessons and arranging expert tutors. She soon started work on her diploma, getting through all subjects except the oral test — which she describes as, "There were hundreds of students in the hall with the examiner on stage. He plays the piano and you had to write down every note he plays." Dinshaw hadn't experienced lessons this way and thus failed the exam by five marks.

Noon didn't discourage her and instead got her lessons with the legendary Catalan violinist Antonio Brosa. Her parents interrupted this progress; they wanted her back in India. Brosa insisted that she stay. "I said, 'I'm sorry. In India, we have to respect what our parents say'," she shares. Dinshaw, upset, returned to Bombay in 1962. There were no schools of music, let alone exposure to chamber or orchestral symphonic music. She thought that was a shame.

Dinshaw
Dinshaw with her sister

She gathered young musicians and with the support of the Max Mueller Bhavan, the orchestra started taking shape. They played at the inauguration of NCPA's Tata Theatre where Dinshaw urged the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to exempt the orchestra from the 25 per cent tax for Western Classical music, and she did. But politics continues to disrupt the western classical ecosystem. Before every concert, Dinshaw says, she is required to submit a censor certificate. "Music is music. Why draw a line?" she asks.

Helmed by a team of six members, the BCO Instagram page also educates visitors about the genre with regular posts. "People think that this is only a tradition in the Parsi and Catholic community but we have a diverse audience. We also use special hashtags like #MusicalMondays and have a social media plan," says violinist Cara Fernandes.

Cara FernandesCara Fernandes

Today, when venue costs for a single day are priced over a lakh, the BCO still survives through the donations of avid supporters. Dinshaw has to import two oboes, two horns and a bassoon for each concert, where tickets are humbly priced between R300 and R500. Orchestra training is also free and neither of the conductors ask for money. She still remembers a patron's significant contribution in the 1970s — businessman Neville Wadia. "He once invited me to his home and said, 'I come to all your concerts. The strings are fine but the winds and the brass — cut it out.' I told him, 'Mr Wadia, you have to admire these people who are self-taught. There is no help for the winds and the brass section and the instruments are 50 to 70 years old. He gave me R1 lakh to invite teachers and the British Council helped me with that," Dinshaw recalls.

BCO
The BCO at the 50 years celebratory concert

Before I leave Dinshaw's tiny music room perched on the terrace — a grand piano, a 300-year-old Italian violin, and pictures and books on great musicians giving her company — she lets me on another special fact. "When I came back in 1962, I was offered a job in Canada. I even got my visa. My mother didn't allow me otherwise I would've been there and BCO would've never existed. But you see, I was meant to work here. I feel somewhere she knew that... that it would be
my life."3

BCO voices

Sherna

Sherna Doongaji joined BCO as a cellist when she was 11. Now, 17 years later, she works as a lawyer and regularly performs for BCO's concerts. She regards Dinshaw a second mother and feels proud to be part of her legacy. She says, "There is a growing interest for western classical music in the city and that interest has been largely nurtured due to BCO. It is a local orchestra for local talent. It doesn't cater to just a particular strata of society."

Freddy

When the BCO launched in 1962, a 16-year-old Freddy Dinshaw was invited to join them. He was still learning the violin then. A former engineer, the 74-year-old conducts music classes and continues to play for the orchestra. He attributes BCO's success to their legacy of not playing stereotyped classical concerts. He says, "We cannot compare ourselves to the Symphony Orchestra of India. We only get a foreign player on board when we don't have the instrument or the training — such as is the case of the horns and the bassoons."

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