The solemnity of Montreal-based Indo-German composer and conductor Sandeep Bhagwati’s piece, Vistar (Elaboration), was haunting and meditative at the same time. A tender opening on the strings led one into complex structures with glorious and swelling high notes, fascinating bass patterns and much clarity in resonance and delivery. Presented by Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra at Delhi’s Stein Auditorium recently, the story of the somber notes comes from a painful past. The melodies first came to him when he lost his friend, mentor and musicologist Ashok Ranade, who introduced him to Indian classical music, “one that could shake away its defensive post-colonial and traditionalist mindset without succumbing wholesale to commercial fusion”. Bhagwati called the piece Alaap for Ashok.
“He (Ranade) always maintained that all classical music of the world is born from both intellect and spirituality,” says Bhagwati, 65, in an email from Berlin. When the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra commissioned him to write a piece for their Indian tour, he remembered these melodies for the composition. He often thought of his father then, who had passed away in 2015. “When I became a composer, my father’s dream was that I should build bridges between my two heritages. Indian music has been part of my life since my youth. Vistar is, in many ways, a memorial piece to him.”
Not many in India, including the ones from the world of Western and Indian classical music, are familiar with the name Sandeep Bhagwati. Bhagwati, an award-winning composer and conductor, was the artistic director of the composers’ workshop at Munich Biennale (1990-92). He created Ramanujan, an opera in five acts, with his own libretto on the life of the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Over the past eight years, he has successfully developed new tools, software and hardware, at his lab in Montréal (the matralab at Concordia University) to compose and deliver music.
Bhagwati was born in Mumbai to a Gujarati father and a German mother. His parents met when his father was studying chemistry in Germany in the late ’50s. They stayed in India till Bhagwati was five and then returned to Germany. They would visit family, which included Chief Justice PN Bhagwati and economist Jagdish Bhagwati, in India every second year. While his chemical engineer father was “passionate about the obligation of industry to pro-actively prevent accidents like Bhopal”, his pianist mother led Bhagwati to music; he always wanted to be physicist. Bhagwati’s mother would play Liszt, Schubert and Beethoven on the piano.
Pop music, too, resonated in the house. “My father was no musician, but he had great taste. He made me listen to bands like Queen, Pink Floyd, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and also to Bollywood songs of Mukesh and Raj Kapoor.” Recently, Bhagwati combined the melody of Awara Hoon with a Haydnesque piano texture. The piano at home was his favourite toy, but with his entry into Mozarteum University in Salzburg, life changed. “Since music theory is the most mathematical side of music,” says Bhagwati, he was on safe ground and made the transition from a physicist to a composer.
However, he kept returning to his favourite city Bombay. “I always feel at home there. The many moods of this city are part of my intimate core,” he says, “I engaged with some fabulous Indian musicians including Shubha Mudgal, Uday Bhawalkar, and Dhruba Ghosh. Working with them was like a private masterclass.”
Five years ago, he made a radio play for the German National Radio about a mysterious artist, the (fictitious) first electronic composer in India in the ’60s, only known by his pseudonym Dhvanivala. In March 2011, he wrote “a comprovisation score” called Miyagi Haikus as a response to the live footage of the tsunami. An open score, it is played with any instrument or ensemble. “Many musicians around the world have made this piece their own. In January, I published an album with five very diverse chamber versions, and I also conducted an orchestra version in Berlin. I invited international poets to listen to the CD recordings and write their reactions. Among them, my friend Ranjit Hoskote came up with wonderful poem cycles,” he says.
In the 1998 opera, Ramanujam, commissioned by the Munich Biennial for Contemporary Music Theatre, he was challenged by the adventures of the mind. “It is an opera almost without action, but not without drama. Indian and Western ideas are woven together. In one scene, three mathematicians argue in a complicated atonal fugue. In another, Ramanujan prays to goddess Namagiri who, he claimed, dictated all his mathematical breakthroughs,” says Bhagwati, who used live-computer processing to mutate the sound of the orchestra into the sound of human voices whenever the singer of Namagiri sang. “I would, of course, love to stage it in India sometime. Maybe for my birthday somebody will give me the gift of staging a production,” he says.
Currently, Bhagwati is busy with numerous projects. His grand cycle of 36 pieces for piano called Music of Crossings will premiere in Munich, with pianist Moritz Ernst. His new album, Atish-e-Zaban, an a cappella comprovisation sung in Urdu (poems by Faiz Ahmad Faiz) by the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart will be out this summer. He has also founded an ensemble for experiments in Indian music called Sangeet Prayog in Pune, and has already produced an album, Dhvani Sutras. They are preparing a new concert and album.
Ultimately, for Bhagwati, all art is political. “Art can change the way you feel, and how you feel, and in turn will influence how you think and perceive the world. Art has a primordial role in creating the mental, conceptual and emotional tools that will prepare us to not despair, to stay as inventive and bold as humans have been, and harness the creative potential of diversity instead of trying to abolish it with nationalist or communalist oompah doompah,” he says. Bhagwati wants to work with Indian experimental music that seeks untrodden ground and richer soundscapes, without abandoning its erudition and spiritual resonance.