Gold don’t rust

Bertram da Silva,professor by day and musician by calling,sings stories that write themselves and stirs hopes of a revival of Western music in Kolkata

Written by Antara Das | Published:January 18, 2009 11:44 am

Bertram da Silva,professor by day and musician by calling,sings stories that write themselves and stirs hopes of a revival of Western music in Kolkata
A snatch of a conversation can,sometimes,be more potent than reams of printed words. Bertram da Silva knows it. In November last year,while he was singing in his first comeback concert in a Kolkata auditorium,a member of the audience whispered to his neighbour: “I know what this concert is about; there are going to be stories about people.” When da Silva later learnt of this exchange,it marked a moment of quiet victory. “I knew that I had reached out and connected,” he says.

Every working day,from nine in the morning till early evening,Professor da Silva,dean of arts,St Xavier’s College,Kolkata,ceases to be a musician. The mind works in a different way,he says,when he sifts through administrative humdrum. As it does when he teaches,bringing to life Blake and Yeats,igniting the fire in the minds of successive generations of young adults. “Teaching,too,is a performance,but of a different kind,” says 50-year-old da Silva,better known as “Bertie” to students and academics.

It is only when he steps out into the din of city life,the foundry forging a thousand stories every minute that he grows into his other persona. The songs write themselves,da Silva says. Bits of people’s hearts play themselves out,coming to life as he sets them to music in what he finds a “strangely refreshing” exercise at the end of the day. “Being a teacher and musician does not complement but it kind of nicely faces off,” he adds.

About four years ago,da Silva took up the guitar one day and found that he couldn’t play it. Music was not an entirely new vocation; he had been part of a cult band called High in his college days. Later,he had teamed up with two friends—Mel and Fuzz—to form a band and then with another friend,playing till 1986-87. “Music was never a career option and it had stopped being stimulating,” he says. When the demands of an academic job took over, “the skill started hibernating,and then it died.”

Resurrecting the dead was a challenge that da Silva took up,relearning to play the guitar,venturing into playing and composing classical pieces. “I wrote a song,which was bad,but then I wrote another and it started picking up,” he says. His friend Suhrid proved persuasive,urging him on to publicly perform,first for a reunion show with one of his former band mates,then at pubs. “It was a hugely stimulating learning process,” he says. The moment he took the stage on November 18,2008 was special,not just because a city professor was going live in concert in front of a 700-strong audience,but because Kolkata itself,once the Mecca of Western music,was witnessing a phenomenon that had died almost 25 years ago.

“Thanks to the government’s resistance to oposanskriti (anything that defies standard cultural norms) and rising tax rates at restaurants featuring live music,concerts had dwindled away by the early 1980s,” says Patrick Ghosh,the organiser of da Silva’s concert. It was not a pub where those upfront listen and the rest talk; it was not a show playing popular covers,but where people were trooping in to appreciate original lyrics and score. They would intently listen to the tales he was spinning,like that of the young,sad and wasted “poor little rich girl” in La Dolce Vita,to whom he says,‘I can’t remember your face but I can’t forget/ How fragile you looked in your diamon’ set/ Girl,girl,girl,ain’t there anybody home’.

The response was heartening,he says. He managed to hold the attention of the audience—many from a generation notorious for fickle attention-spans—for two hours,with only a 10-minute break in between. This,he says,is his primary objective—not to cut albums in a hurry but to take music beyond pub gigs where other inducements often distract from the music.

Da Silva also did not want his music to be rooted in the past. “The Grateful Dead,Crosby,Stills,Nash & Young,Rolling Stones,Beatles—people I too have been influenced by—represent the music of the past,” he says. He needed to find that to which audiences cutting across generations would respond. To get there,da Silva regularly listened to a lot of contemporary music,some of which is “very bad”,he hastens to add. “I listen to things like grunge and heavy metal,not because I am going to do it,but to understand and learn the young person’s take,his approach to and understanding of music. I want to incorporate today’s sound into that independent,distinctive style I want to create,” he says. It is also the reason why he did not go back to his original repertoire of around 400 songs,adapting only the folksy Tin Pan Alley into a partially hip-hop number.

If a label must be put on his music,da Silva would describe it as rock. “I do inherit certain influences,” he admits,“though I am trying to push the level by combining jazz,classic rock and contemporary sounds.” He trains his musicians (Willie as the bass,Jonathan on the keyboards,Anindya as the backing vocal) separately to get the right sound,so that the parts weld seamlessly into the whole when they come together.

Mumbai is da Silva’s next call,where he intends to gauge how unknown people react to his kind of music. If he succeeds in striking the right chord,he may take his music to a larger global audience. “Indian writers and painters are recognised in the West,but when it comes to doing their kind of music,Westerners think of us as a bunch of performing monkeys,” he says. “I would like to show them that we write as good and sing as well as they do,” he sums up.

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