On cue from the conductor, the strings section begins playing the iconic song ‘Mera joota hai Japani’. But Viswa Subbaraman is not pleased. When the musicians reach the second line of the stanza, he asks them to pace up and finish the note sooner, creating a variation of the original. This time, the strings section follows the new instruction and soon, other musicians join in, including the ones on the santoor and rubab. Delighted by the impact, Subbaraman shoots his fist in the air.
On a still summer afternoon, the sound of music resonates from the auditorium in Alexandra Girls’ English Institution. The school in Mumbai’s Fort is acting as a temporary rehearsal space for the South Asian Symphony Orchestra (SASO), where over 70 musicians from Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and India, as well as some from their diaspora, have assembled. They will be performing the concert, “Chiragh: A Concert Beyond Borders,” to be held at the National Centre for Performing Arts on April 26.
SASO is a dream project put together by former diplomat Nirupama Rao along with her retired civil servant husband, Sudhakar. When Rao retired from her post as India’s ambassador to the US in 2013, after previously having served as the Foreign Secretary, she wanted to put to use her skills to further cultural diplomacy between India and its neighbours. “Relationships in the neighbourhood are both interesting and challenging. I found that on the policy front, we dealt with all this, but our engagement at the human level remains insufficient. In order to overcome emotional barriers and stereotypes, this engagement is crucial, and now that I am not confined by a role, I decided to do something in this direction, have musical performances, build a repertoire of music from the region,” says Rao, who is in Mumbai from Bengaluru to set up the upcoming concert.
Last year in July, the couple launched the South Asian Symphony Foundation in Bengaluru. In August, they brought together 12 musicians from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India to conduct a workshop at a school in Ooty. “It was a way of testing waters. The musicians had some wonderful interactions and also taught the students at the school,” Rao recalls. By December, she decided to focus all her efforts on putting together the orchestra.
Rao pooled in all her resources to locate the best musicians from across the South Asian countries. She, along with the conductor Subbaraman, spent weeks going through audition tapes. They found a range of musicians from each of these countries, including members of the Sri Lankan and Indian Navy brass bands. “There are also four musicians from Jammu & Kashmir, who will be playing the santoor, rubab, matka and tumbaknaer,” says Rao. Sri Lankan soprano singer Tharanga Goonetilleke is also part of the ensemble.
That the orchestra does not have a member from Pakistan does not go unnoticed but Rao explains they ‘could not find anyone suitable’. “We do have a Pakistani-origin American on board,” she says, admitting that in the current climate, having a Pakistani musician could have generated a controversy.”
As a former diplomat, Rao accepts that cultural exchanges are the first to take a hit when relations between two countries sour. “It’s also the way the public responds. They feel why have any relationship with the other side when they have done nothing but harm. For a government too, it is easy because these are more visible aspects of the relations. But the question to ask is if it really makes a difference. If we were to continue to allow this exchange, what’s the harm? We should be able to have this multi-pronged approach. On security and defence, we cannot dilute our position but we need to be more open at the cultural level,” she asserts, adding that the recent bombings in Sri Lanka reiterate the need for such engagements. “We are dedicating the concert to the Sri Lankan victims.”
Keeping in spirit with the message of harmony, the team has put together a repertoire that would resonate with everyone. The 90-minute concert will feature classics by Mozart and Beethoven and also some film songs such Mera joota hai Japani from Shri 420 and Shola jo bhadke from Albela. “We will also be premiering two original compositions, which bring together sounds from the East and the West,” Rao adds.
On why she chose an orchestra performance as her initiative to build bridges, Rao points out at the metaphor ingrained in the format. “With an orchestra, barriers break down. People come together, they listen to each other, and play a part in a community of musicians. The smallest discordance can impact the performance. The approach is tuned to creating harmony,” she says.