Composing a Woman's world


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Category: Women 20 Jun 10

The swish of silk, leaning whispered recognition amongst old friends, coughs, murmurings quietened as the Queen’s Hall faded to black and the spotlights illuminated a study in simplicity. Two slight figures, male and female, clad in black, sitting side by side, poised with guitars. Those few seconds, when more than 100 pairs of eyes were on the stage, took on the nostalgia of an old black and white photograph. For the expectant audience, invited by the Ambassador of Spain, HE Joaquin de Aristegui, to a classical guitar concert, the tone was set. This concert invited introspection, would not facilitate escapist entertainment. Stillness is unusual for us Trinbagonians, for whom an assault of colour and sound is occasionally not enough (we add our voices to the din with cries of jump and wave.)


I didn’t associate quiet with Spain either, which conjures spectacle as heady as Carnival: bull-fighting, stomping feet, scarlet flamenco dresses, music that hypnotises bodies to move. They began. Their playing had a stillness we have stopped associating with the stage. Ana Jenaro and Raul Viela are renowned performers, products of the Royal Conservatory of Music in Madrid. The pair complemented one another as if in a pantomime: Jenaro’s black outfit, in soft contours; Viela’s deeply formal. Her form animated, his immobile with concentration. The classical Spanish guitar, a six-stringed plucked string instrument is spare, in sound even in duet with another. It forces the listener to listen with both the ear and heart.


It was not long into the first pieces by Venezuelan composer Vincente Sojo Danzas that I remembered my grandmother surprising me a few days before she died, (The doctors said it was from diabetes complications, but I know it was from a broken heart, from beheaded dreams) in her nightie, bedridden. In one extraordinarily lucid moment she said: “The Spanish guitar is the loveliest of all instruments. Don’t waste the children’s time on piano lessons.” When my father was in the army in India, posted to remote locations, I was sent to my grandmother for months, for stability. I grew up with the sound of the piano on a quiet street in Bangalore opposite a park. In the afternoon inertia, when it was not the careless ascending and descending notes of my little sister practicing scales, it was the Anglo-Indian tenant playing repetitive nursery rhymes to her toddler.


My mother’s visits were punctuated with a Chopin tinkle. She hates anything discordant. But it is my grandmother’s thunderous performance on her black upright piano that continues to haunt me on her extraordinary veranda that was a music room lined with books.

Every space had to count. Every second. Leisure had to have a point.
I hear her playing background to every dramatic event in my life. She must have exorcised all her ghosts as she pounded away at Wagner, Beethoven and drummed out Tchaikovsky. When she was not playing, she was composing. She composed war music for soldiers, music to accompany Persian couplets, Urdu ghazals (rhyming couplets, originating in sixth century pre-Islamic Arabic verse), English ditties.

Her strong hands, pale and deft, flying across the black and white keys, back ramrod straight, she controlled the strings of her Bluthner as a general commands an army. When she played spirituals like Old Black Joe we sang along, ineffective accompaniments to her heavy contralto voice, the timbre of her soul. When she died, memory cleared away the weeds. I remembered something. At 18, she was a brilliant pianist who showed great potential as a composer. The Englishwoman in India had taught her all she could. The two secretly applied and got her into the prestigious Vienna Conservatory to train as a professional classical pianist. She was not allowed to go. Young unmarried women could not go abroad in mid-19th century India, especially from conservative Muslim families such as hers.


In the dim hall, while the classical guitarists performed selections by the Spanish guitar composer, Moreno Torroba, and a screen above showed stunning landscapes and architecture, I thought of movement beneath the stillness; of denial; of the power of silence; the tenacity of a single note. Since then, the Western world in particular has seen the rise of women everywhere. When I went to see Sex in the City Part 2 with my sister and a mutual friend, I realised that women everywhere were doing the same. In Bombay, recently (a city my grandmother loved), every woman I met, friends or family, was an A-type personality shooting through the glass ceiling, going to see the film in groups, leaving their men at home. It was an in-joke. Unlike the James Bond films; it was the men who were objectified, seen as appendages to women. We can be lawyers and blow a month’s salary on shoes.


It’s not an ideal, but it helps us to get closer to the equality our daughters take for granted. All this time, I thought, by the time there was the surprise appearance of Mungal Patesar, accompanying the Spanish classical guitar players to his renowned score of Dreadlocks on sitar, mind-blowing as the conjoined continents of the Americas, Europe and Asia spoke of a globalisation of mingling of cultures, a new equality, as the universal language of music spoke to us all. Somewhere along the line, we women, who always felt relegated to frivolity when we spoke of flowers, got a female Prime Minister in T&T who urges us to grow them, struts on a fashion runway (even as she commands a battalion of mostly male troops), found our voice.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur