Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: Anup Biswas, the Cello in India, and Bollywood

Anup Biswas (right cello) with Soumita Roy (dancer) and Dipak Sapui (left cello) at Garden Buffet Supper and Soirée Musicale 5 June, 2010 , at Poulton House in Gloucestershire During a fundraising tour of England and Scotland for the Mathieson Music Trust June/July 2010

This installment of the Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello will be a bit more personal than those in the past. I know I’ve been terrible the past couple of months about blogging, but [fortunately] I’ve just been far too busy performing and giving presentations to have spent much time writing here or elsewhere.

After having this wonderful dinner with some new Indian-Muslim friends at a Bollywood Party last night, though, I decided it was time to do another spotlight. The subject of this post is Anup Biswas, about whom I discovered after reading the Cambridge Companion to the Cello (which I still think should either be significantly amended or at least have the title reflect the actual subject matter: “The Cambridge Companion to the Western Cello”).

The reference to Biswas at the end of a chapter in the Cambridge Companion to the Cello.  Mainy in reference to the music school he started at an orphanage in Calcutta.  Found this wonderful photo (above) of a collaborative performance between Dipak Sapui, Soumita Roy – the Bharat Natyam Dancer in center, and Anup Biswas at the Poulton House in Gloucestershire (5 June, 2010).  It was part of a fundraising tour for the orphanage music school which teaches both Western and Indian classical music, and, apparently collaborative fusions between both art music traditions if this image is any indication.

The one video I’d been able to find of Anup Biswas playing Indian Music was from this recital, again to benefit the Mathieson Music Trust, at the Sacred Heart Church in Caterham, Surrey.  The tabla player is Chiranjit Mukharjee.

Two things struck me when I first came across the reference to Anup Biswas: 1) that the Cambridge Companion to the cello bothered to mention anyone connected to a non-Western Cello playing tradition at all, and 2) until learning about Biswas, I was unaware of cellists in India who were already incorporating the cello into Classical Indian Music, most of what I’d seen are Western cellists (e.g. Saskia Rao-de Haas, Nancy Kulkarni) who had gone to India to learn Indian music on the cello (though now some cellists in the states are now getting conservatory level training on Indian music–more about that on a future Sunday Spotlight).

Going back to the personal story, as I mentioned last night my wife and I had a wonderful Indian dinner (see photo to right)

Yummy Indian dinner from last night's Bollywood Party which we ate while watching "Jab We Met"

at a Bollywood Party.  Before dinner we were treated to an informal concert given by the two daughters (on piano and viola, respectively).  Both are in the beginning stages of their musical journey and played many of the standards you will find in beginning music instruction books for piano and viola.

In many ways, this was my family as I was growing up an immigrant in the US playing a music that is the art music of my adopted country and eating the food from the motherland (I was born in Thailand, for those new to the blog).

What was different in this story though, was our hosts being able to watch Bollywood movies (for those who don’t know, Bollywood movies are filled with musical and dance numbers–much like Western Musicals–see video of Nagada Nagada, a Punjabi Bhangra number, below).  In my household, I listened to Thai music growing up, the first songs I learned to sing were Thai songs.  But there were all cassette tapes that my mother brought from the homeland–a familiar story for the immigrants from the 70s before the Western Pop Music industry exploded in the 80s.

So I didn’t get to grow up with Thai films, or the latest Thai music (and there are quite a few “Bollywood-Like Films” in Thailand before the turn of the century), because media wasn’t nearly as accessible as it is today.  So in a way, I envy the daughters for being able to grow up with a little piece of their homeland.

But just as media and the arts from the motherland of immigrants are much more accessible, the possibility of learning and playing the arts from the homeland is much more accessible, but obviously, that’s still more slowly changing in the slow to evolve Classical music field, and only a little less slow to evolve in the US pop music field.  Institutions die hard–or as they sometimes say in Physics: “Old theories don’t die, just the physicists who hold them do.”

Going back to Anup Biswas and Music education in India.  From what I understand and have read, India is the exception (well, maybe Indonesia as well) with regards to heavy Westernization.  Whether that Westernization includes the adoption of Western Classical Music norms as a sign of prestige, or a simple modification of indigenous ensembles by incorporating Western idiomatic styles, instrumentation, number of forces (e.g. Chinese Traditional Orchestras; Arabic firqa or Turkish fasli).  One of the issues with Western Classical Music in India is that it just doesn’t have the support (though that may be changing) that the indigenous Classical Music does.  I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, in fact, I think it’s great.  Indian Classical Music is every bit as venerable and complex an art form as Western Classical Music is, so there’s no reason why India shouldn’t support one of its National Treasures.

And I know that I’ve been having a blast with Indian music.  One of my groups, il Troubadore, performs a handful of Bollywood and Bhangra tunes; I’ve taken workshops with some Indian Music masters since the early 90s; I’ve had the opportunity to work with and jam live with, Badal Roy (former tabla player for Miles Davis) and his Jazz combo, and very soon I will be embarking on a collaborative project with an tabla player.  There are plenty of opportunities to perform and eventually make a livin doing music as long as we musicians are open enough to experiencing and learning new things.

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