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Piano and flute in India, where the sitar is king

There's a growing interest in the music of Beethoven, Bach and Co. in the country. The Delhi School of Music is among the institutions that feed this thirst for the Western classical genre.

May 17, 2012|By Jason Kehe, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Pragun Bajaj takes lessons from Anand Kishore Chauhan at the Delhi School of Music.
Pragun Bajaj takes lessons from Anand Kishore Chauhan at the Delhi School… (Jason Kehe, For The Times )

NEW DELHI — When Gavin Martin and his family moved here from southern India in the early '70s, the country's capital city offered the gifted young pianist exactly one option for continuing his music education: the Delhi School of Music.

It was the only place in town — perhaps in the whole of northern India — that taught Western classical music with any degree of competence. Even so, life wasn't easy for the serious student born in a country where the sitar is king.

"Growing up in India playing the piano was kind of like [being] the one-eyed king among the blind," Martin says. "There really wasn't much music going on around me. I didn't really hear a lot of concerts. I didn't have a lot of students playing around me. There was no real atmosphere."

That would remain true for the next 35-plus years, long after Martin had left India to study piano in the West and eventually settle in Los Angeles. Today, the Delhi School of Music still calls itself — in its pamphlets, fliers and website — "the only institution of its kind in northern India."

But that might finally be changing.

"Perhaps in a year or two, we will not be able to say that," admits Surojit Banerjee, a 50-year veteran of the Delhi Music Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the administration of the school. "Because new schools are coming up."

New schools have already come up, in fact — in neighboring Gurgaon, for instance, and elsewhere in the region. Their rise, along with their steadily growing popularity, might be the most obvious sign of a change in tune in Delhi, where the sounds of Bach and Beethoven, of piano keys and violin strings, are no longer as foreign as they once were.

"For one reason or the other, Delhi has become very big, and there are a large number of students who are wanting to do music," Banerjee says. "Gradually, students are helping to build up these institutions."

That's especially noteworthy for Delhi, a city that's long suffered unfavorable comparisons to such culture-rich metropolises as Mumbai to the southwest and Calcutta to the southeast, both of which benefited more from British patronage during colonial rule. By the time Delhi replaced Calcutta as India's capital in 1911, it was far behind in cultural development.

So making Delhi culturally competitive after independence in 1947 became the impetus for the creation of the Delhi Music Society.

The so-called first committee, formed in 1953, consisted of a baker's dozen of well-known politicians and music lovers, including future Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who formed a voluntary organization committed to introducing Western classical music to culture-starved Delhi society. Over the years, they curated an impressive program of visiting performances, presenting such artists as Zubin Mehta, Karl Münchinger and Isaac Stern on the Indian stage.

In 1966, they formed the Delhi School of Music, the next step toward realizing their goal. It started small, but a series of eminent directors contributed to its growth, culminating in H.P. Palamkote, the "grand authority on classical music in New Delhi," Martin says.

Martin, who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, L.A. Philharmonic keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin, was one of Palamkote's students. He studied with him for a year before deciding that an education abroad was the only way to advance as a musician — a decision made more and more these days by young, classically trained Indian musicians who've learned all they can from their home institutions, Martin says.

Martin likes telling the story of heading West for the first time. He has perfect pitch on the piano, a rare ability to identify any note by sound alone, but it took him a while to adjust to the pianos at the Royal College of Music in London.

"In India, every piano was a different pitch — there was no standard!" he says, laughing.

No instrument at the Delhi School of Music would be caught out of tune today — not with some 850 students and almost 40 teachers playing them daily. Piano, guitar, cello, flute, recorder and drums echo in that jangled cacophony of music schools, through the halls of the three-story building, in one of Delhi's best-maintained neighborhoods, the tree-lined Embassy Row.

The students, who represent all ages and India's many religions, all have their own reasons for wanting to study Western classical music. One small boy named Maulik Khanna says he wants to be in a band; another, 29-year-old violin student Sameer Chacko, says "this music thing is not given much emphasis" in Indian schools. You start recognizing familiar types: Vidisha Signha, the 10-year-old girl playing violin with the older kids because she's so talented; and Shirin Farshwal, the 30-year-old woman who's just now realizing a lifelong dream of learning the piano.

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