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Why world musicians are singing for a pandemic-gripped India

As COVID-19 tightens its grip on India, artistes from across the world extend comfort and support through musical tributes

Written by Suanshu Khurana |
May 16, 2021 6:23:02 am
Yo-Yo MaLove will keep us alive: A screen grab of Yo-Yo Ma performing for the fundraiser last week

When Patna-based tabla guru Pt Shiv Kumar Singh passed away earlier this month owing to COVID-19 complications, his student, Grammy Award-winning tabla player Sandeep Das, of the Benares gharana, sat heartbroken thousands of miles away in Boston, the US, reminiscing his years of training in a demanding instrument from his guru. The loss of his guru gnawed at Das, 50, who was still reeling from the news of the death of Benaras gharana classical singer Pt Rajan Mishra with whom he’d performed often. In the second wave, the loss of people known and unknown is becoming harder to bear, he says. “I felt so helpless. I couldn’t do anything,” says a grief-stricken Das, over the telephone from Boston, “It’s my motherland, my people out there.”

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Sandeep Das Sandeep Das (Image courtesy: Mike Lovett)

The loss of his guru and news of the devastation wreaked by the second wave of the pandemic in India prompted Das to help organise resources such as ventilators, oxygen concentrators, BiPAP and CPAP machines to be sent to India for those in need. Towards that end, he created an online fundraising event, “Help India: Music and Art Marathon Fundraiser”, that brought together more than 50 world musicians, including the legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Last Sunday, as part of Das’s fundraiser, the multiple-Grammy winning Yo-Yo Ma sent across a message of hope and solidarity before playing the peaceful Sarabande from Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 4, he said, For India… We are with you in what you are going through… To all of you who can help, please play your part.” He’s performed at parking lots, hospitals, fire departments, a dairy farm of his own accord over the last year in Massachusetts, and at a vaccination centre in Pittsfield in March. Ma shares a special bond with India, having collaborated with a myriad Indian musicians, including Das, and, on his last visit in 2019, he’d taken his cello to Mumbai’s Marine Drive and played there to unsuspecting bystanders. Das’s charity managed to raise $50,000. It has already been used to buy and ship medical equipment to India through the NGO Sewa International.

As India soldiers on, mourning its dead and fighting for those trying to live, artistes from across the globe offer musical harmony, comfort and support, both morally and financially. Virginia-based Classical Movements, headed by Indian-American Neeta Helms, organised the online “A Concert for India” last week “during a time of extreme hardship and sorrow”, putting out a pre-vetted list of charities for people to donate. Helms was losing friends and family to COVID-19 back home in Mumbai and Delhi, and wanted to help. “Like many Indians, I’ve been devastated,” says Helms, who invited eight Indian-American musicians to perform, including the US-based horn player Rohan Ramanan, who presented a touching alaap in Bhairavi, the raga of separation, and the Los Angeles-based violinist Vijay Gupta, who rendered the Leonard Cohen song Hallelujah.

Neighbours across the border, too, have come forward. Lahore-based musician and teacher Imran Hashmi, 26, was “shaken to the core” to see a medical and humanitarian crisis of this scale unfold in India and sung Hum tere saath hain in solidarity with those suffering. “We all are people of the Indus, the same blood, the same genome. If one of us gets hurt, all of us feel the same pain. We are there for the people of India. We care,” he said, over the telephone from Lahore.

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