'The orchestra enables walls to crumble'
Ahead of the maiden concert of the South Asian Symphony Orchestra, its co-founder and former diplomat Nirupama Rao on bringing together musicians from the region, and why Mumbai was the first choice for the launch
As musicians from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Nepal and India stream out of the assembly hall of the Alexandra Girls' English Institution in Fort for a tea break, the mirth and camaraderie that fills the room over plates of samosas and chai is a picture of utopia. One that instantly puts out of focus the strained relationship among several of these countries, and instead, instills hope that one day, when we rise above all differences, this is what South Asia could look like.
It was perhaps this picture that Nirupama Rao, India's former Ambassador to the United States, and husband Sudhakar Rao, who retired as Chief Secretary of Karnataka, had envisioned when they started The South Asian Symphony Foundation (SASF) in July 2018. After months of work involving fine-tuning the artistic vision, logistic coordination of 80 musicians from across the region and those belonging to South Asian diasporas, and galvanising funds, the foundation will present the maiden concert of The South Asian Symphony Orchestra (SASO) in Mumbai.
Taking a break from the five-hour long rehearsals she has been sitting through since last Saturday, Rao tells us about her dream project. "It is something I have had on my mind for the last six to seven years. I am interested in music of all kinds, including symphonic music and the great philharmonic orchestras of the world. When Zubin Mehta conducts the LA or Israel philharmonic, you realise what a powerful expression it is of mankind's ability to transcend the pettiness that may sometimes envelopes our lives. The expression of humanity's will to overcome these small divisions — that's what an orchestra is to me," she shares.
When asked why the Bengaluru-based couple chose Mumbai for the concert, she tells us it was an easy decision. "Mumbai is very much the Maximum City when it comes to creative expression. There is a certain exuberance it has that one identifies with. Also, it is a city that has always looked outward as much as it has encompassed the hinterland of India. That's what makes it special."
After the SASF was founded, Rao went off to teach at the Columbia University in fall last year. There, she got in touch with some prominent names from the world of music including the Carnegie Hall, who mentioned some South Asian musicians from the diasporas there. "The Symphony Orchestra of Sri Lanka [SOSL] have been hugely helpful in building this concert. The chairperson of the SOSL, Sharmini Wettimuny, identified players who could join us in the effort," she says, adding that the Indian Navy happily let its musicians join the orchestra as did the Sri Lankan police force. Sri Lankan-born Tharanga Goonetilleke of New York will be the vocal soloist.
The concert will feature classical compositions and also see the premiere of two commissioned works. Houston-based conductor Viswa Subbaraman, who Rao was in talks with since 2013 before he became the SASO conductor recently says, "The repertoire was an evolving discussion. We wanted it to represent a window to the West but not be dominated by it," he says.
Were the diverse backgrounds of the musicians a challenge? "True musicians are never strangers. The language of music may be different but the musical language is the same. . The goal is for them to transcend the differences of age, country and culture. And that's what you see here, a Bangladeshi musician speaking to his Afghan counterpart about where they will have dinner. That's the normalcy you are trying to create," he says.
Cultural diplomacy through music, in fact, is how Rao contextualises the formation of the SASO. "The orchestra enables walls to crumble. Since you get to know the person sitting next to you, the prejudice evaporates, even if he or she is from a country, with which you may not normally be friends," she says, "When I compare South Asia with regions like South East Asia or Europe until Brexit happened, there is a lot more integration over there. Take countries like Germany and France; they have overcome the challenges of history, through economic integration, people to people contact, and the discovery of common interests. It's that process that we have to set in motion in our region," she says.
And that may have begun in a small way if the contribution of public and private institutions and individuals from India to the SASO is to be considered. "This initiative really belongs to the people of India. And that should encourage us in these times when you hear the talk of war and badla in public spaces. Young people in our region are growing up with a sense of belligerence. But war is a wild thing," Rao says. "My dream is — and people may see this as totally madcap — to get this orchestra to perform at Wagah."
ON Today, 11.30 am to 1 pm (discussion and performance) at YB Chavan Centre, Nariman Point
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