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The missing note

The future of western classical music is now in Asia. This proves art, in all its forms, is embraced by cultures even if they are new to western classical music. Khushroo N Suntook writes.

india Updated: Sep 11, 2009 08:37 IST

There is an impression that western classical music is elitist and should not be promoted along with our own rich national heritage. This approach is inward-looking. To argue that we shouldn’t perform the works of Shakespeare because they are western is a bigoted and narrow-minded approach.

The future of western classical music is now in Asia. This proves art, in all its forms, is embraced by cultures even if they are new to western classical music. Therefore, our cultural bodies and government organisations should shed this insular approach.

There are over 3,500 orchestras across five continents. A few hundred are in Asia — mainly in Japan, China and Korea. It’s a matter of shame that India never encouraged a symphony orchestra of an international calibre. It ignored the need to create one with the argument that our great cultural heritage was sufficient. The changing international scene is so startling that even the greatest orchestras in the world — the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonic orchestras — have several Chinese, Japanese, American and other international players. Excellence is the only criteria. National players must be encouraged to match the standards of excellence required to participate in an international ensemble.

The Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) was created because there was not even one single Indian ensemble which matched international standards. Indians take their music seriously; so much so that many go to Salzburg, Vienna, London or New York to enjoy western classical music concerts. Sadly, prior to the SOI, we didn’t have such choices in India.

If the Maharashtra government wants to make Mumbai an international city, it should emulate China or Singapore, a city that was once noted only for its efficiency and sterile culture. But today with the creation of Esplanade, it has become a rich cultural hub. Similarly, the Simon Bolivar Orchestra in Venezuela — fed by Il sistema, a hugely successful and State-funded music education system — has become one of the best youth orchestras in the world. However, in Maharashtra, instead of encouraging artistes to perform, western concerts are heavily taxed. Income tax on the gross amount, generally upward of 40 per cent — along with difficulties associated with obtaining visas — is levied on the fee paid to artistes.

The enthusiasm for attending quality concerts, creating fine schools for the performing arts and introducing culture — both Indian and international — in school curricula should be encouraged. This will help in shaping a well-rounded personality in our children and allow Indians, settled in different countries, to assimilate easily with the local population. It’s important that a group of prominent artistes from India and abroad meet senior political leaders to brief them about how India can benefit from initiatives that involve opening up our hearts and minds to different cultures of the world.

Our audience demographic is changing with every season of the SOI. This is due to imaginative programming, various educational initiatives and an effort to reach out to our community — all put forward by the National Centre for the Performing Arts. But, it is also because our audiences are drawn towards excellence in the performing arts.

Khushroo N Suntook is Chairman, National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai and Founder, Symphony Orchestra of India