I will only be truly satisfied with the accomplishments of the Symphony Orchestra of India (SOI) when a majority of players are Indian,” says Khushroo Santook, Chairman of the Mumbai-based National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA). In the current composition, the orchestra comprises 75 musicians, and only 15 are Indian. Yet, this is a long way from when they started — in 2006, by Suntook and internationally renowned violin virtuoso, Marat Bisengaliev. Back then, Indian musicians formed a minuscule five per cent of the orchestra.
The SOI is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Under the guidance of Bisengaliev, now their music director, and Zane Dalal, the associate music director, the SOI went from being a bit of the gamble for the NCPA to enjoying mounting support and more recently, sold-out auditoriums. It remains India’s only professional orchestra, and over the years, has performed around the world and worked with internationally-renowned conductors such as Charles Dutoit, Johannes Wildner and Adrian Leaper, and soloists such as violinist Augustin Dumay, pianist Barry Douglas and tabla maestro Zakir Hussain. The NCPA has even launched a well-reputed youth orchestra programme that mentors young children.
The struggles, however, still remain and Santook says, a huge part of it is finding good players. “There’s a general lack of interest in Western classical music here. Most parents believe there isn’t any money involved, and don’t encourage their children to play,” he says. A reason may be the substandard quality of previous orchestras. “As excellent as we are in Indian music, we are poor in Western music,” says Santook, adding, “Those who learn it end up playing in bars and restaurants. Without the proper mentorship and support, how could they have ever improved?”
To ensure players are able to devote their time to honing their skills, musicians at the SOI are paid “as much as can be expected from a corporate”. “We’ve done something that has never been done before,” says Santook, adding, “We have made these musicians full-time employees, with a salary and bonuses.”
The biggest challenge of all, however, is finding sponsors or patrons. “Unlike India, countries like Germany get huge art subsidies from the government, which means they don’t have to worry too much about making money,” Santook says. Besides training expenses, there are a lot of costs one incurs as a musician, especially one that’s constantly travelling. “Taking care of instruments is more difficult than attending to half a dozen babies,” he says.
Santook says people will “give to all sorts of rubbishy functions but won’t spend money to support talented artists”. There is no community feeling of ownership when it comes to the city’s musicians, he says, contrasting it to the support that Mumbai’s cricket team — back when it was called the Bombay Ranji — enjoyed. “We were so proud of them,” says Santook, adding, “I wish we had those sentiments for our musicians.”