By his own admission, professor Manoj Pant’s life is a strange case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde: He is an economist by day and a musician by night. From 9am to 5pm daily, he teaches trade theory at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU). Later, he retires to the music room at his home on the varsity campus, composing music, playing the guitar and planning his next music project.
This economics professor has been a name to reckon with on the country’s jazz scene for the past three decades. Pant, a largely self-taught musician, was the first secretary and founder-member of Jazz India’s Delhi chapter, which organised the famous Jazz Yatra music festivals in the 1980s. He has also been a member of the well-known ’70s rock band, Collegium, which he later turned into a jazz-fusion band. Many of his students seek out the JNU professor for discussions on jazz, rock and fusion music.Pant is currently busy preparing for a performance at the Hornbill Music festival in Nagaland. There, in an hour-long performance called Remembering The Beatles, he will trace the musical journey of the world-renowned band through songs and commentary. "I just do not sing songs on stage, I make sure that my shows are creative and have a context," says Pant.
His music room has several guitars (custom-made, as he is left-handed), a recording studio, an electronic keyboard, notebooks containing music scores composed by him, books on the music of The Beatles and several how-to books on various musical instruments.
Pant’s curriculum vitae as an economist is impressive too: He has about 35 publications in international journals and a couple of books to his credit; he has been an economic advisor to the government of Nagaland and is also a regular speaker on WTO and trade issues.
So, who is the real Pant — the economist or the musician? He ponders over what seems to be a vexed issue for a while. “While music is my passion, economics is my profession, and I am happy with this arrangement,” he says, adding, “Had I pursued music as a profession, I would not have been able to do what I do as a musician. Besides, as they say, economics is a dismal science. So after a day’s work, music helps keep my spirits high.”
Pant, who studied at St Stephen’s College and the Delhi School of Economics, says he used to perform at school and college festivals often. Between 1975 and 1979, even as he was teaching at the Shri Ram College of Commerce, he was busy performing with orchestras at western musicals such as Jesus Christ Superstar, Tommy and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. In 1979, he went to the Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas, USA, for his PhD in economics. Here, he got interested in jazz and audited a course in music orchestration and composition. After returning to India in 1982, he became involved with Jazz India.
In the late ’80s, by when he had joined JNU, he conducted a jazz workshop, Jazz at MMB, at the Max Mueller Bhavan. The workshop was a stage for local musicians to perform. Pant not only organised the shows, but also took to the stage to perform. “It is difficult now to find sponsors, artists and audiences for jazz performances in Delhi. But the situation is far better in Mumbai and Bangalore,” he says.
In 1995, he reorganised Collegium — the band of which he was a guitarist — and belted out jazz fusion during its many performances in Delhi and Nagaland. “I had been divorced from music from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s for a variety of reasons. Then a college friend, Alem Jamir, himself an avid guitarist and singer, gifted me a custom-made guitar. This brought me back to music. Over the years, the band members have changed, but he has been a constant.”
Pant’s dream project, a rock musical based on the Kumaoni version of Ramayana titled The Story of Ram & Sita, set to 22 songs, was performed this Dussehra at a city mall. He composed the music and lyrics for the musical that synthesises jazz, rock and Indian musical idioms.
“In India, people watch western theatre without any knowledge of the context. The idea was to popularise musicals based on Indian themes,” says Pant.
This economics professor believes that music should be declared an industry and there should be more festivals across the country that promote music, but should not be confined to regional notes only. “If music is declared an industry as has been done in Nagaland, musicians will be able to avail loans and set up their own studios,” he says.
As a parting gift, he picks up his guitar and renders — his eyes closed and his head swaying from side to side — Wonderful Tonight by Eric Clapton, his all-time favourite guitarist. It’s a virtuoso performance.