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Unequal music

From playing film songs on a harmonica to scripting scores for philharmonic orchestras, the classical composer has come a long way, writes Amitava Sanyal.

music Updated: Feb 27, 2010 22:52 IST
Amitava Sanyal

He’s an Air-Indian,” says Janet Swinney, Naresh Sohal’s partner for 37 years. “The only time he feels at home is on an Air-India flight either to or from India.”

It’s an odd identity tag to be stuck with at the end of a long journey — somewhat like an unshakeable jet lag. In Britain, Sohal’s adopted home for close to half a century, he’s a Western classical composer of some repute. Some of his 60-odd compositions have been performed by orchestras as prestigious as the BBC Symphony, the London Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. Conductors of stature, such as Zubin Mehta and Andrew Davis, have commissioned him. Yet, being the only one of his kind from the subcontinent, he sticks out in the West like a horn in a string quartet.

Back home, not many know of him. In 1987, thanks to some friends who heard him abroad, he did become the first non-resident Indian to be conferred the Padmashri. But not a single high note has been struck since then.

But first, the song of the long road.

It started in Punjab’s Harsi Pind village, where Sohal was born in 1939. Soon after, his father, who was first a reporter and then a civil servant, started shifting between Lahore, Delhi and Shimla — before settling down in Jalandhar. The father, a staunch Arya Samaji, got the son enrolled in DAV College. “I was on my way to becoming an engineer,” says Sohal.

But a harmonica he bought came in the way. He started playing songs of O.P. Nayyar and S.D. Burman, and then wanted to learn ragas. “But the college teacher would not teach anyone the intricacies apart from his sons,” says Sohal. The rebuff transformed him. He bought scores of Western tunes from Mumbai and taught himself notations. “I learnt them backwards — I knew some tunes and started reading the notes.” He started composing simple waltzes that friends in the Punjab Police band would play at times. Then, after a failed bid to be a Bollywood musician and before finishing his degree, Sohal convinced his father to sponsor a trip to London.

He says he arrived in England in 1962 with £2 in his pocket. “It was a time anyone could get a job,” Sohal says. After he did — at a beer barrel factory and at a dairy. But he soon shifted to copying music. And it was here, while copying a score by Greek Renaissance man Yannis Xenakis, one of the architects of Chandigarh who brought mathematical theory to classical music, that Sohal had a musical epiphany. “I figured that as a composer my job was not to worry about melodies and harmonies. I had to translate my ideas.”

He did that in his first score, Ashtprahar, which aurally painted a day and a night. Then an Arts Council bursary took him to Leeds University, where he met Swinney. In the 1980s, large orchestral works such as The Wanderer and From Gitanjali followed. A few weeks ago, his latest work, The Divine Song, opened in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem with conch shells and ended with ovations.

The commissions have been few, but whenever there has been one Sohal has used it to interpret Indian philosophy. “He has worked in the Western classical idiom — but his real work is on Indian philosophy,” says Swinney, an education consultant. “I focus on rebirth and, as Tagore said, the constant refilling of the vessel that’s us,” says Sohal.

At home, the reception to such work has been warm among the cognoscenti. Pyarelal Sharma, of the Laxmikant-Pyarelal duo, says, “What Sohalji did to a Heer song by composing it for soprano is unique.” The 70-year-old composer, who played classical violin for the Bombay Symphony Orchestra and the Madrigal Choir in the 1950s, adds, “I have discussed with some European and Japanese composers — they, too, think Sohalji’s works really stand apart.”

Now, if only more of us would turn our ears to his works.