Composer Naresh Sohal believes in reincarnation, and its biggest proof, he says, is his own natural gift for music. In the 1970s, Sohal became the first Indian-born composer to win international acclaim in Western classical music, introducing a new musical idiom based on Hindu philosophy. His works have been performed by some of the biggest orchestras, including the London Philharmonic and Zubin Mehta’s Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and Sohal is regularly commissioned to compose for England’s BBC network.
At 72, this Padma Shri recipient remains one of the few big Indian names in Western classical music, but he attributes his success not so much to hard work as to a genius he was born with.
While growing up in Punjab, for instance, Sohal managed to teach himself how to read and write musical notations years before he actually heard his first Western classical piece. Later, unlike most novice composers who begin with small compositions for two or three instruments, Sohal wrote his first piece of music for a full-fledged orchestra.
“I always went about my career backwards, but I never found any of it difficult,” says Sohal, who lives in London and is in Mumbai on one of his annual visits. “It’s almost like I had learnt it all in some previous birth and was born to be a composer.”
Born in Jalandhar in 1939, Sohal went to an English school and – as was expected from the new generation of boys in newly-independent India – took up math and physics in college. As a hobby, Sohal had taught himself the harmonica, and at 17, while learning the notations for the instrument, he found himself composing his own tunes. “By 21, I had convinced myself that I was meant to be a composer,” he says.
Meanwhile, Sohal was upset when he sought to learn Indian classical music and was turned away by a local teacher. “In the Indian music tradition, knowledge was only imparted to one’s own children, so I decided to learn Western classical instead,” says Sohal. The opportunity to learn, however, didn’t come for a while.
In 1961, he spent six unsuccessful months in Mumbai, hoping to make it as a Bollywood music director. It was here, however, that he first heard Beethoven’s Eroica symphony on radio. “I heard the oboe parts in the symphony and felt I could easily play them on my mouth organ,” says Sohal.
On his return to Jalandhar, he asked his father, a learned Urdu poet, to let him learn music in England. In 1962, Sohal finally landed in London with just two pounds in his pocket, and took up manual work in a metal can-making factory. Two months later, he landed the perfect job as a copyist at a music-publishing firm, where he had to copy musical notations of professional composers onto neat score-sheets.
Over the next few years, Sohal studied music theory at the London College of Music and trained under composer Jeremy Dale-Roberts, who called him a “natural composer”. When he finally attempted composition, Sohal realised he was rooted in Indian themes, language and motifs.
His first piece, Asht Prahar (1965), was a musical expression of eight moods of the day and night as he remembered them from his childhood. The piece was first performed in 1970 by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and received good reviews. What followed was an active career of more than four decades in which Sohal wrote close to 70 musical compositions, drawing inspiration from philosophical texts such as the Rig Veda, the Bhagwad Gita, Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali and also the life of Buddha.
With titles such as Tandava Nritya, Maya and Satyagraha, the use of instruments such as the tabla and textual inputs in Sanskrit, Punjabi and even Bengali, Sohal’s compositions intrigued Western audiences. “The West has looked at me as a kind of maverick. I have the philosophical mindset of an Indian, and brought into Western music a unique point of view,” says Sohal, whose last composition, The Divine Song (2010), was conceived as a musical rendition of the first chapter of the Bhagwad Gita. He wrote it for Zubin Mehta on the conductor’s 70th birthday, and received an eight-minute standing ovation in Jerusalem, where it premiered.
Sohal is now working on The Cosmic Dance, a large orchestral piece that is based on questions of creation and origin in the Rig Veda. Although he was the first non-resident Indian to receive a Padma Shri in 1987 for his contribution to Western music, Sohal believes his works have not been played often enough in India. “Some of my pieces have been staged in Mumbai every few years. If more groups, such as the new Symphony Orchestra of India, were to perform my works, it would be very encouraging for aspiring Indian composers.”