‘Music is a great enabler’
- The South Asian Symphony Orchestra, started by former Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, performs in Bengaluru
- The concert, Peace Notes, is a tribute to the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi
It’s 11 in the morning on 30 September and the South Asian Symphony Orchestra is hard at work at Bengaluru’s Radisson Blu Atria hotel. The 65-member orchestra is practising for its second concert, Peace Notes, to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary. The first was in Mumbai in April.
“Peace Notes is more than a concert—it exemplifies a project, a journey for peace," says Nirupama Rao, one of the founders and trustees, with husband Sudhakar Rao, of the South Asian Symphony Foundation. The concert theme is “From Gandhi To Beethoven: The Call To Freedom". Nirupama says: “Both were humanitarians, opposed to oppression and violence. Besides, they had a connection in the figure of Gandhi’s disciple, Meera Behn or Madeleine Slade, a lifelong devotee of Beethoven."
Nirupama was secretary in the ministry of external affairs (2009-11). After retirement, she settled in Bengaluru with her husband, also a retired civil servant, and began following her passion for music—she started taking lessons in Western classical music in 2002, when she was in her 50s—by setting up the foundation and orchestra. “It is predominantly a brown orchestra," she says. Its members are drawn from the Asian and South Asian communities across the world. For this concert, musicians have flown in from at least five countries.
Orchestras are a model for society, she believes; “a practical utopia". “Strangers who live in different countries become collaborators and produce harmony. They also cultivate the art of listening, which is itself an act of respect for the other," says Nirupama.
While the instruments are all Western in origin, the music is not always so. In fact, the Raos hope to create a repertoire of Asian music that can be played by any symphony orchestra in the world. This “South Asian Songbook", a work in progress, includes renditions of Asian folk music and Bollywood songs as well as original compositions, like Chennai-based composer Edwin Rajkumar’s arrangement of the Sanskrit benediction Maitreem Bhajata, and Hamsafar, based on traditional songs from countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Bhutan. Their love for old Hindi film songs is apparent in Bhadke, by New York-based composer Kamala Sankaram—a rendition of the 1951 song Shola Jo Bhadke.
The orchestra’s next concert will be at the Partition Museum in Amritsar. “It is our aim to show that music is a force for good, for peace," says Nirupama.
Peace Notes will be performed at JN Tata Auditorium, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, on 5 October from 6.30pm. Entry is by invitation only.