Piano and flute in India, where the sitar is king


NEW DELHI — When Gavin Martin and his family moved here from southern India in the early ‘70s, the country’s capital city offered the gifted young pianist exactly one option for continuing his music education: the Delhi School of Music.

It was the only place in town — perhaps in the whole of northern India — that taught Western classical music with any degree of competence. Even so, life wasn’t easy for the serious student born in a country where the sitar is king.

“Growing up in India playing the piano was kind of like [being] the one-eyed king among the blind,” Martin says. “There really wasn’t much music going on around me. I didn’t really hear a lot of concerts. I didn’t have a lot of students playing around me. There was no real atmosphere.”


That would remain true for the next 35-plus years, long after Martin had left India to study piano in the West and eventually settle in Los Angeles. Today, the Delhi School of Music still calls itself — in its pamphlets, fliers and website — “the only institution of its kind in northern India.”

But that might finally be changing.

“Perhaps in a year or two, we will not be able to say that,” admits Surojit Banerjee, a 50-year veteran of the Delhi Music Society, the nonprofit organization that oversees the administration of the school. “Because new schools are coming up.”

New schools have already come up, in fact — in neighboring Gurgaon, for instance, and elsewhere in the region. Their rise, along with their steadily growing popularity, might be the most obvious sign of a change in tune in Delhi, where the sounds of Bach and Beethoven, of piano keys and violin strings, are no longer as foreign as they once were.

“For one reason or the other, Delhi has become very big, and there are a large number of students who are wanting to do music,” Banerjee says. “Gradually, students are helping to build up these institutions.”

That’s especially noteworthy for Delhi, a city that’s long suffered unfavorable comparisons to such culture-rich metropolises as Mumbai to the southwest and Calcutta to the southeast, both of which benefited more from British patronage during colonial rule. By the time Delhi replaced Calcutta as India’s capital in 1911, it was far behind in cultural development.

So making Delhi culturally competitive after independence in 1947 became the impetus for the creation of the Delhi Music Society.

The so-called first committee, formed in 1953, consisted of a baker’s dozen of well-known politicians and music lovers, including future Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who formed a voluntary organization committed to introducing Western classical music to culture-starved Delhi society. Over the years, they curated an impressive program of visiting performances, presenting such artists as Zubin Mehta, Karl Münchinger and Isaac Stern on the Indian stage.

In 1966, they formed the Delhi School of Music, the next step toward realizing their goal. It started small, but a series of eminent directors contributed to its growth, culminating in H.P. Palamkote, the “grand authority on classical music in New Delhi,” Martin says.

Martin, who now lives in Los Angeles with his wife, L.A. Philharmonic keyboardist Joanne Pearce Martin, was one of Palamkote’s students. He studied with him for a year before deciding that an education abroad was the only way to advance as a musician — a decision made more and more these days by young, classically trained Indian musicians who’ve learned all they can from their home institutions, Martin says.

Martin likes telling the story of heading West for the first time. He has perfect pitch on the piano, a rare ability to identify any note by sound alone, but it took him a while to adjust to the pianos at the Royal College of Music in London.

“In India, every piano was a different pitch — there was no standard!” he says, laughing.

No instrument at the Delhi School of Music would be caught out of tune today — not with some 850 students and almost 40 teachers playing them daily. Piano, guitar, cello, flute, recorder and drums echo in that jangled cacophony of music schools, through the halls of the three-story building, in one of Delhi’s best-maintained neighborhoods, the tree-lined Embassy Row.

The students, who represent all ages and India’s many religions, all have their own reasons for wanting to study Western classical music. One small boy named Maulik Khanna says he wants to be in a band; another, 29-year-old violin student Sameer Chacko, says “this music thing is not given much emphasis” in Indian schools. You start recognizing familiar types: Vidisha Signha, the 10-year-old girl playing violin with the older kids because she’s so talented; and Shirin Farshwal, the 30-year-old woman who’s just now realizing a lifelong dream of learning the piano.

Despite what it may seem, the rise of Western classical music in India is not some rapidly intensifying crescendo — it’s slow-building and cautious, and these students are the exception.

Many call it a “niche” interest, emphasizing that Indian classical music, a vastly different form rooted in millenniums-old religious traditions, is the more popular genre by far, the solo strums of sitars and sarods much better known in the streets of Delhi than a violin concerto.

In fact, that may be the reason why Western classical music has been much slower to break onto the scene than other Western influences, such as movies and pop music, which began the crossover years ago. Western classical music is, in its sound and execution, the polar opposite of Indian classical music, in which solo artists riff, jazz-like, on traditional melodies, without any regard for written-out compositions. The form originated, Banerjee says, in Hindu temple practices and rituals in southern India, giving it a sacred tint largely absent from its Western counterpart.

Nishat Khan, one of the world’s best-known sitar players and experimenters in multicultural musical collaborations, has seen a steady decline in the exposure to Indian classical music over the last 30 years.

There used to be Indian classical music festivals all the time. Now, there are few, Khan says. They’ve been replaced by popular exercises in so-called fusion — attempts at blending Indian and Western styles for the sake of something new, progressive and 21st century-sounding.

“It’s like throwing everything in a box, shaking the box, and calling it music,” Khan says. “It’s not music.”

Khan, who repeatedly says that the rise of Western classical music in India does not represent a threat to native traditions, is nonetheless worried about the future of Indian music.

“It’s very important to preserve our traditions,” Khan says. “If the traditions are not preserved properly, the entire thing changes, and it becomes something else.”