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Globalization Meets Beethoven in Mumbai

September 23, 2011

The New York Times : Naresh Fernandes

National Centre for the Performing ArtsSymphony Orchestra of India.

Recently, this story about how dairy farms in northern Italy had come to rely heavily on the labor of Punjabi immigrants generated a lot of interest. But the traffic hasn’t flowed only one way. As India’s economy has expanded, guest workers from around the world have flocked to the subcontinent. Dancers from Eastern Europe frequently appear in Bollywood films; pilots from the United Kingdom are in the cockpits of Indian planes; and the offices of some of Bangalore’s computer companies could be mistaken for the sets of a Benetton advertisement.

Among the most unusual groups to have found a niche for its specialized skills here are the Kazakh musicians who are the mainstay of Mumbai’s Symphony Orchestra of India. This weekend, as the SOI wraps up its 11th season, more than a dozen Kazakh musicians will be in its ranks to acknowledge the cheers.

"They are wonderful, energetic musicians,” said K.N. Suntook, the chairman of the National Center for the Performing Arts complex, which is home to the SOI. "The former Soviet Union cloned its rigorous musical education system in all the republics and the school in [the former Kazakhstan capital of] Almaty is no exception.”

As it turns out, the Mumbai-Almaty connection was forged in London. In 2004, Mr. Suntook, who grew up in a Mumbai household obsessed by Western classical music, wandered into a concert at St. James Church in Piccadilly. The performance by the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra left him mesmerized and, afterward, he went backstage to invite the conductor to bring the ensemble to India. That’s how Suntook came to meet the majestically maned Marat Bisengaliev, a violinist who in 1995 had been hailed by The New York Times for his "opulent, appealingly varied sound.”

Bisengaliev accepted Suntook’s offer and, over the next few years, the West Kazakhstan Philharmonic Orchestra made three trips to India, impressing Mumbai audiences with their musical skills and charming them when they appeared at one concert in Indian costumes. As Mr. Suntook and Mr. Bisengaliev became friends, the Indian made a suggestion that had long been on his mind: will you, he asked the Kazakh, start a symphony orchestra in India?

Though India has a long history of listening to Western music, beginning with the arrival of the Portuguese more than 400 years ago, it had never been able to support a permanent orchestra. Mr. Suntook emphasized that the aim would be to improve the standard of the performances by Indian musicians. Until then, foreign musicians would have to fill out the ranks. To him, this was a cost-efficient solution, similar to the strategies he had employed at the Tata Group, where he had been a senior executive.

"As we said at Tata, if we don’t have the expertise in-house, it’s globalization, let’s get the best people from outside,” Suntook said. "It’s the cheapest way to do well. You don’t make expensive mistakes and quality doesn’t suffer.”

During the SOI’s first season in 2006, approximately 80 percent of the ensemble was Kazakh, estimated Mr. Bisengaliev, who came aboard as music director. The Kazakhs, Mr. Suntook noted, were cheaper to hire than West European musicians and had an excellent work ethic. There were only a handful of Indians in the ranks that first year, "perhaps five or six”, Mr. Suntook said.

Since then, the number of Indian musicians has risen to 18, thanks to the efforts of the nine music teachers who work with them through the year. Many other nationalities have joined the orchestra too, including a strong contingent of British woodwind players and several Polish musicians. But it still has 13 Kazakhs, and Mr. Bisengaliev – who in 2010 was named Man of the Decade in his country – continues to be the driving force behind the ensemble.

Bisengaliev said that though Almaty and Mumbai may seem to be worlds apart, the Kazakh capital is only a three-and-a-half hour flight away from the Indian one. Kazakhs are a very adaptable people, he said, and didn’t have a problem dealing with Mumbai’s slightly crazed pace of life. Besides, India isn’t as unfamiliar to Kazakhs as some people may imagine. "We have a channel dedicated to Bollywood films that is very popular,” he said. "My sister loves crying all the time. She knows the name of every actor. When I say that I met a Bollywood star, she gets very excited.”

Bollywood, it turns out, isn’t so far removed from Mr. Bisengaliev’s life. Ever so often, he is approached by Bollywood music composers who have been attempting to score classical works, asking whether the SOI would be interested in performing them. So far, he hasn’t found anything interesting. "There’s no point in playing music that isn’t world class,” he said. "But I’m sure, little by little, there will be some composers who produce interesting work.” To begin with, he will record the works of Ash Madni, a composer of Indian origin who lives in the UK.

Among the Kazakh musicians who have been with the SOI since its inception is 41-year-old Murat Bisengaliev, a near-namesake of the ensemble’s music director, even though they aren’t related. He is a principal trombonist. He says he’s been loyal to the SOI because he’s excited by its diversity. "It’s a great opportunity to collaborate with musicians from around the world trained in different schools and with different approaches,” he said. "It’s a very unique orchestra.” In addition to the enjoyable musical challenges, his younger colleague, Nurbol Syn, who is also a trombonist, said that he had developed a real taste for Indian food, especially such Sino-Indian creations as chicken Manchurian.

(The views expressed above are the personal views of the author)

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