Sound waves

Remembering the Jewish refugee who composed the All India Radio caller tune

Walter Kaufmann composed several early works that encouraged the interplay of East and West.



All India Radio’s caller tune has been heard by hundreds of millions of people since it was composed in 1936. Somewhat improbably, the melody, based on raga Shivaranjini, was composed by the Czech man in the middle of the trio pictured above:  Walter Kaufmann. He was the director of music at AIR and was one of the many Jewish refugees who found a haven in India from the Nazis.

Kaufmann had arrived in India in February 1934 and ended up staying for 14 years. Within a few months of landing in Mumbai, Kaufmann founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society, which performed every Thursday at the Willingdon Gymkhana. At the performance pictured here, Kaufmann is at the piano, Edigio Verga is on cello and Mehta – the father of Zubin Mehta – is playing the violin. (Mehta is believed to be the violinist of the AIR tune too.)

By May 1937, the Society had given 136 performances of works by old masters and modern composers. “Membership of the Society is open to all music lovers,” The Times of India reported. Full membership cost Rs 15 a month, but students, working women and missionaries could attend all concerts for only Rs 5 a month.

Rich pedigree

Kaufmann was no ordinary musician. He was born in 1907 in Karlsbad in the former Czechoslovakia and in 1930 graduated from the Staatlich Hochschule für Musik in Berlin. He moved on to do a PhD in musicology at German University in Prague, though he refused to pick up his degree when he found out that one of his teachers, Gustav Becking, was the leader of the Nazi youth group. From 1927 to 1933, he conducted summer seasons of opera in Berlin, Karlsbad, and Eger.

Detailed accounts of the musician’s life in Mumbai are to be found in film scholar Amrit Gangar’s book The Music That Still Rings at Dawn, Every Dawn, as well as in Agata Schindler’s essay, “Walter Kaufmann: A Forgotten Genius”, in the volume Jewish Exile in India: 1933-1945. The musician’s reason for coming to India was simple: “I could easily get a visa,” Schindler quotes him as saying in one of his letters.

In the same letter, the musician is disarmingly honest in describing his initial reactions to Indian music: the first records he heard were “alien and incomprehensible.” But Kaufmann wasn’t willing to give up. “As I knew that this music was created by people with heart and intellect, one could assume that many, in fact millions would be appreciating or in fact loving this music…I concluded that the fault was all mine and the right way would be to undertake a study tour to the place of its origin,” he wrote. His study would be so intense, it would result in books such as The Ragas of North India, The Ragas of South India : A Catalogue of Scalar Material and Musical Notations of the Orient: Notational Systems of Continental, East, South and Central Asia.

Encounter with Indian music

Kaufmann’s stint at AIR from 1937 to 1946 gave him the opportunity to learn from some of India’s greatest classical musicians.  It also allowed him to observe some of their quirks. “Most of the older artists refused to accept their remunerations in the form of cheques. They insisted upon receiving bare coin,” he wrote. “It was interesting to note that some of these great and wonderful musicians would bring along with them a young boy, a son or a nephew, who was able to count the rupee coins reliably. The old artist and his young helper would settle on the floor outside the studio and carefully count the money received which had come in a little cloth bag.”

The sounds he absorbed were converted into a series of operas, ballets, chamber music works and film scores (as well as the AIR tune, of course). His compositions from the period, several of which were performed by the Bombay Chamber Music Society, included Ten String Quartets, Three Piano Trios, Indian Piano Concerto, Six Indian Miniatures and Navaratnam, according to Schindler’s article.

In addition to his job at AIR, Kaufmann worked for Bhavnani Films and for Information Films of India. He also lectured at Sophia College.  Among his pieces with an Indian flavour was Anasuya, which made its debut in 1939. It was described as “India’s first radio opera”. The plot drew from the ancient European legend of King Cophetua, an African ruler who falls in love with a young beggar, but the story was transposed to a mythical Maratha state. In Kaufmann’s version, the African ruler became Maharaja Asok (played by Leo D’Souza) and the young beggar Penelophon became the eponymous Anasuya (played by Eva Manes).

Western technique, Eastern mood

Anasuya, like many of Kaufmann other works, was well received. The music “blends marvellously well Western technique with Eastern mood: in such a strain one looks forward to the day when he will permanently enrich the musical resources of the world”, cheered the Times.

The musician was an evangelist for new music. In 1938, for instance, he mounted an enthusiastic defence of  experimental music at a Rotary Club meeting at Green’s Hotel. He bemoaned the general tendency to criticise modern music without giving it a proper hearing. “One can often hear people say, ‘Oh I love Bach but I don’t like the moderns.’ Is it not funny that a person born in our time should only understand music which was composed 300 or 200 years ago and should not care for the music of his own time?” he asked.

After Kaufmann left India, he spent some years in England and Canada, before moving to the US in 1957. He joined the School of Music faculty at Indiana University in Bloomington, where he continued to write extensively about Indian music. Kaufmann died in 1984.

Here’s a clip of one of his tunes, titled Meditation.



 

Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

Play

This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.