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Opinion: When Yo-Yo Ma made Mumbai cough

  • The musician was in Mumbai earlier this week as part of an ongoing global tour—The Bach Project
  • Yo-Yo Ma has been performing since he was four and a half

Yo-Yo Ma. Photo: Getty Images
Yo-Yo Ma. Photo: Getty Images

The more popular introduction for the Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma is “greatest cellist alive" but in a 2011 article, The Washington Post ventured so far as to call him “perhaps even the greatest cellist ever".

The musician was in Mumbai earlier this week as part of an ongoing global tour—The Bach Project—of 36 locations on six continents, where he plays six Bach suites for solo cello in one sitting.

The ticketing platform Book My Show had succeeded in packing the 1,000-plus seats at the Tata Theatre at the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) in Nariman Point. And unusually for Mumbai, most people even arrived on time. But if they had missed the “no intermission" element of the programme before, they knew of it now, and crowds thronged the concession stand—if you’re from Mumbai, or even if you’re not, you might agree that no visit to the NCPA is complete without the chicken or chutney sandwiches and a glass of cold coffee, your new gluten and dairy-free diet be damned.

It went on to be a roughly two-and-a-half-hour performance, a difficult feat not for the musician but for the undisciplined audience.

A solo string performance doesn’t make generous allowances for cough drops being unwrapped, the rustling of programmes and the creaking of seats. What followed I can only describe as a coughing tag challenge. Remember the time when you were really little in school (the fact that you were not an adult is key here) and when one person wanted to go to the toilet, suddenly everyone did. This was not unlike that. Somewhere in the second suite, the audience erupted coughing en masse. It was a sort of Mad Cough Disease. Perhaps he had planned to address the audience between the third and fourth suite anyway, but Yo-Yo Ma bantered with the lightness of an inveterate performer, thanking them for listening so far and inviting them to leave if they so desired (people had been walking in and out). He couldn’t leave the coughing fit unaddressed. And so Yo-Yo Ma did something frightfully cool. He acknowledged the possible irritants in the Mumbai air and invited the audience to a good, collective cough. He coughed too. The coughing became more laughter. Perhaps this is the kind of tact that makes you a United Nations messenger of peace.

Yo-Yo Ma’s charming handling of this situation can be explained by the fact that he has been performing since he was four and a half. And well, it goes with the spirit of this tour, which is meant to spread the message of Bach’s ability to speak to our common humanity at a time when we are too often focused on division. In an interview with Lounge last week, he said, “I think that humans in a way invented all the forms of cultural expression in order to create a better understanding of the universe, of ourselves and others."

But it does raise questions of public etiquette in a theatrical setting. Savvy millennial performers like Rupi Kaur establish ground rules upfront. “Must you clap? Click your fingers if you like what you hear," she said at her first Mumbai performance last year. Clapping between movements has been a hot topic in classical music circles. There are those who argue that when classical music was popular music, audiences expressed their approval while the music was being played. Concerts were big, fun, free-for-alls. And the one reason for the decline in popularity of classical music now is the rise of snobs and the fall of fun. The confusion over clapping etiquette is not dissimilar to the varying rules over cheers-with-wine across different parts of Europe. At one point I used to think inquiring about this made for amusing conversation but “you must spill some wine on the table" was more than I could handle. I had a French friend who was of the opinion that all clapping at the opera is absolutely crass while an Italian friend believes it’s impolite not to cheer an aria (no matter your feelings at the moment). I cannot dream of clapping at a Hindustani music recital because I immediately visualize my childhood music teacher’s eyebrows going up. We never had this discussion but I have a feeling she wouldn’t be too pleased about the clapping. Too common.

For the uninitiated, some institutions publish house rules. The Golden Gate Opera of California has many dos and don’t about when to clap on its website. But the one I found useful was: carry unwrapped candy or cough drops, “the crinkle of you unwrapping candy can be heard throughout the entire theatre, disturbing everyone." Only Yo-Yo Ma knows that the Mumbai audience needed unwrapped cough drops that day.

She tweets at @aninditaghose

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