This month marks the birth centenary of a truly great man who has left an indelible impression upon me: Vere da Silva. If you Google his name, you will find very little, which is unfortunate since he accomplished so much in so many spheres, not least of them music. I hope that this tribute begins to rectify this omission, in however small a measure.
Reconstructing a life that has been obscured by the mists of time can be difficult at the best of times. Still, I have gleaned a potted timeline from his family and other sources.
Vere da Silva was born in Thana, Bombay, to Sophia (1890-1971) and Dr Austin da Silva (1887-1960). Like his son did later, Dr Austin da Silva left a mark on the history of Bombay by founding a 10-bed hospital in Bandra in 1942 called Silverene, which today is known as the Holy Family Hospital.
Dr Austin da Silva, as it happens, is also a part of my family tree as his sister Veronica married my great-grandfather Gen Dr Miguel Caetano Dias (1854-1936). His other two sons were Lester and Vernon (1919-1990), who would become an eminent surgeon.
Vere must have shown musical potential early because by the age of eight he had performed on Bombay radio. This was a remarkable feat as radio broadcasting in the city, born circa 1923, was still in its infancy.
Unfortunately, the name of his violin instructor in those crucial formative years is now forgotten. If a reader can fill this or any other gaps in the narrative, I would be obliged.
While pursuing music, Vere cultivated other interests. When in college, he won an all-India award for English literature. He studied law and, in 1947, while an articled clerk (trained solicitor) at the Cragie Blunt and Caroe firm (in which he was made partner the following year), he married Edna Pereira, daughter of well-known physician Dr Clement Pereira. The couple had three children: Maya, Laila and David.
Music, Law And Sailing
Vere’s violin technique benefited greatly from the instruction of one Spirinello, an Italian national who was interned in Bombay during Second World War. From this musical mentorship emerged a lifelong friendship that extended to their families as well.
In Vere’s bachelor days (in or before 1944), he founded Bombay’s first string quartet, the Dorian string quartet – Vere first violin; Wilfred Forbes second violin; Terence Fernandes (and later Keki Mehta) viola; George Lester cello – which performed regularly in concert and on the radio.
I have been fortunate to find several mentions of Vere’s radio recitals in the 1940s on All India Radio’s Indian Listener magazine.
In the mid-1950s, Vere founded and conducted the Bombay City Orchestra. There still exists rare audio-visual footage of the orchestra under Vere’s baton with the famous American contralto Marian Anderson on her 1957 goodwill visit to India.
Vere’s career in law took him to England, but it didn’t stop his conducting or performing. He studied conducting further with the great Austrian conductor and musicologist Kurt Wöss in Vienna. Among his notable achievements with the baton in England was a concert in London’s Royal Albert Hall conducting the famous Boyd Neel Orchestra.
On his frequent trips from to Bombay, Vere continued to conduct, perform and lead the Dorian string quartet. Some of his solo and chamber appearances are chronicled in the Time and Talents Club archives, but I am certain there must have been many more.
Apart from all this, he was mad-keen about sailing, both here and in Europe. Vere was Commodore of the Bombay Sailing Association, and he would make impulsive sailing trips from Bombay to Goa, sometimes arriving on Christmas Day, taking us by very pleasant surprise.
Vere swept into my life on one whirlwind visit in the 1970s, when I was eight or nine. He certainly was my dad’s favourite relative (they were first cousins once removed). My usually stay-at-home dad would find his second childhood whenever Vere visited Goa, going off on day and overnight trips with him, much to our amusement.
Even on vacation Vere would sometimes bring a violin to practice, or he would use one of the instruments in our house. I can still remember his intense concentration as he practised in our living room. He could carry on for hours if his schedule permitted. I had been learning the violin for a few years, and would watch and listen from a corner. What I appreciated was that even though I was a little boy, just starting on the instrument, he took genuine interest in my progress.
He would suddenly turn to me, “Come on, boy, let’s hear you! How are your scales coming along?” and I would rush to get out my fiddle and play for him.
I didn’t realise it then, but I know now just how much he taught me on those lightning visits. We would call them master classes today. I learned from him the importance of scales (“each note should be like a beautiful pearl”), arpeggios, dominant sevenths, working on bow-hold (I still remember the “squeezing a sponge” analogy) and so much more.
It was Vere who first introduced me to harmonics, natural and artificial. “Did you know your violin can also whistle like this?” It seemed like magic at the time. It was all I did for a long time after he left.
He knew my violin teacher Carlos D’Costa (1911-1983) for they were music buddies from when D’Costa was on the Bombay orchestral circuit in the 1950s. I arranged a very emotional reunion between them.
I saw a conductor’s score for the first time thanks to Vere. He was scheduled to conduct Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings in Bombay and had carried the score with him on vacation. It was quite a revelation for me to look at a composition “from the inside”. It was like opening the hood of a magnificent vehicle and admiring its engine.
Self-Assured And Charming
While I never had the pleasure of going sailing with Vere, I remember a magical trip with the extended family on a large vessel he rented, Flor da Rosa, leaving from the Panjim jetty on a picnic to Tontem.
I also remember with some nostalgia going with him and my family on what seemed like a never-ending journey to his family resort Manoribel on the island of Manori.
In so many ways, he was my role model. I wanted to be like him. He was suave, exuded joie de vivre, brilliant at anything he turned his hand to, but never boastful about his achievements.
The Marian Anderson 1957 concert could well be the only film footage of Vere that survives. His demeanour on the podium summarises how he was off it as well: alert, quick-witted, charming, self-assured, totally involved in what he was doing, attentive to others, but not at all concerned about the limelight or applause.
Take a bow, Vere Alban da Silva. You deserve it. Happy 100th to you.
This is a lightly edited version of an article that first appeared in The Navhind Times, Goa. It has been reproduced with the permission of the writer.