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  • Of sarees & soirees: Choral music conductor sweeps Bach to the past | India News – Times of India

Of sarees & soirees: Choral music conductor sweeps Bach to the past | India News – Times of India

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It’s been a while since she passed the baton that was often likened to a magic wand. Christmas will be a silent night for Coomi Wadia, India’s first woman music conductor, whose small onstage gestures would stir big emotions in audiences on the festive eve. “I now need the support of friends and family to leave the house,” says the veteran who wore her trademark silk sari, minimal jewellery and neat bun to hold something else onstage in January this year.
Best known as the former beating heart of Paranjoti Academy Chorus (PAC), one of the country’s oldest choral groups that has performed over 200 concerts globally in over 20 languages in their saris and Nehru jackets, Wadia – whose younger self was mortified when a journalist bent down to kiss the hem of her sari after an international concert – started 2023 by receiving a Padma Shri for her contribution to western classical music in India.
Looking back, the “child of the Raj” says she did not start out her half-century musical journey knowing where it would go. “I just put one foot in front of the other, and focused on the task at hand, one concert at a time, one tour at a time”. The baby steps began with a second-hand piano she was handed after she lost her father in the 1940s. Passed down by her father’s friend, the piano became her first love at age nine and would go on to accompany her to school and college choirs by the time Wadia turned 15.
While western classical music dominated her childhood soundscape, Wadia developed an ear for Hindustani classical music thanks to her uncle who used to play a few records in the house. In a city then bereft of a school of music, London’s Trinity College of Music was the stuff of dreams for Wadia after she completed a diploma in graphic art from JJ School of Art. With two diplomas in piano, she returned to join Victor Paranjoti – the “very exacting conductor who always demanded the best from us” as a soprano. When she accompanied him at soirees, Paranjoti introduced her to other musicians.
“I wasn’t born into a musical family, so this was crucial to my overall education as a musician,” recalls Wadia, who found herself picking up the baton that lay abandoned after the noted conductor’s sudden demise. “I had already been his right-hand for a few years, so people looked to me to pick up the baton he dropped. And I did,” says Wadia who was sure-footed enough in her technical abilities to never be nervous about conducting.
“A conductor, first and foremost, has to have something profound within themselves that they need to say through their music. The choir, or an orchestra, is our instrument,” says Wadia who began to introduce Indians to the unheard rhythms and tonalities of modern 20th-century works in the 1970s. Besides inviting composers such as the late Vanraj Bhatia to write new choral music, she orchestrated exchange visits with overseas choirs, sowing the seeds of her philosophy that’s now baked into PAC’s motto: “International harmony through international music”.
Meanwhile, something that was “extremely important” to her happened. Wadia became a mother. “She was rehearsing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony all through her pregnancy with me,” says her son Sorab, 54, an actor who suspects that he inherited his perfectionism, musical ability and the inability to suffer fools gladly from his fastidious mother. “She wouldn’t be okay conducting in a sari that wasn’t worn perfectly, or hair that was not just-so…,” says Sorab about Wadia who owns a collection of batons and uses each depending on what music she is conducting.
“…even the most vehement fortissimo cannot shake this disciplined woman. Intellectual coolness dominates…” wrote a reviewer in 1974 after she led PAC to win the first prize in Poland at the IX International Choral Song Festival, the first competition ever entered.
“For me, the sari and the Nehru jacket are ways to show the world that though we may be performing in a western idiom, we were proudly standing as Indians. People abroad were always smitten with the beauty of the choir in its uniforms, and then even further shocked when we sang Bach or Bartok as well as some of the best choruses in Europe,” says Wadia, who lives for the times when a Hungarian praises her performances of Kodaly, or an African-American conductor praises her Spirituals.
While European, South American and Indian composers were struck by Wadia’s instant understanding of their innermost intentions not only in arrangements of their folk music but also of their most abstract works, Sorab seethed as he watched his mother face “an injustice of racism and sexism” in her home city.
“I dare say I faced more gender and racial discrimination in India than I did abroad,” says Wadia, recalling instances when she was sidelined in favour of foreign male conductors “right here in Bombay”. “It was something I battled throughout my career,” she says. “I have always tried to focus on my job and the music, and ignore the politics as much as I can.”
Brushing off those minimalistic gestures she was often praised for as “just my style”, she says: “I don’t like needless drama on the podium. The music is the most important thing and not the ‘showmanship’ and histrionics of the conductor.”
Today, the second-hand piano that kicked off her journey has been given away. With her collection of batons and saris, Wadia leads “a simple life”. She likes going for drives, meeting friends, occasionally eating out, and, “of course”, going to concerts: “That is still my greatest joy.”



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