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Beethoven Among the Bengalis

Partho Datta

By Kishore Chatterjee
Niyogi Books, New Delhi, 2009, pp. 287, Rs. 900.00


In his autobiography Nirad Chaudhuri describes how on his wedding night he asked his young bride Amiya if she had heard of Beethoven. To his relief she had indeed heard of the composer and even spelt out the name correctly. This anecdote may not seem amusing any longeranxious Bengali babus keen to educate and reform their wives ended up oppressing them even more. The history of social reform in Bengal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is full of such do-gooders. Not one to give up easily, Nirad Chaudhuri published an essay on the subject in a Bengali journal in 1940. This essay, Europeo Sangiter Sandhane (In Search of European Music, reprinted in the well-known Bengali little magazine Ekshan in 1992) began with the declaration that he had cast his net in the hope that it would catch someone with similar interests. Soon after, an earnest young man arrived unannounced in Nirad Chaudhuris North Calcutta flat with a copy of the journal rolled under his arm. His name was Satyajit Ray and he too was a lonely enthusiast. Ray had chanced upon an incomplete 78 rpm recording of Beethovens violin concerto as a teenager and had been mesmerized. He had over the years patiently built up a collection and during the war (this was the 1940s) wandering American GIs in the city would often knock on his door attracted by the familiar sound of music. Ray maintained all his life that the rhythms and orchestration in Western classical music was intrinsically more suited to the temper of cinema. He even used Mahler in the ominous storm sequence (where the lamps go out one by one) in Jalshaghar. In a tribute to Orson Welles, Ray put forward the theory that in his later films Welles had approximated atonal music. And in an important interview that he gave Folke Issakson in Sight and Sound (1970) Ray came across as a very sophisticated listener with a wide knowledge and understanding of western classical musicespecially vocal music and opera (something that Indians dont take to very easily). From these anecdotes it is perhaps possible to see a larger place for Western music in the making of the Indian middle classes. Colonialism brought Western instruments and music to India. As the historian Mari Yoshihara has pointed out (Musicians from a Different Shore: Asians and Asian Americans in Classical Music) Western music came to the East through three ...

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