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‘There are more opportunities than challenges in propagating Indian classical music in Europe’

Based in Amstelveen, the Netherlands, Apeejay School Faridabad alumni Chetna Sahni Sehgal, founder of the Global Ragas School of Music, says the market for Indian Classical Music in the West has a strong future

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In 2008, Apeejay School Faridabad alumni Chetna Sahni Sehgal, founded the Global Ragas School of Music in Amstelveen, Netherlands with a dream of making Indian Classical music accessible beyond the boundaries of culture, religion and geography. Thirteen years later, the school impressively continues to encourage and promote Indian classical music by organising annual concerts that feature eminent artistes from across the globe. It has brought people together from diverse cultures who speak the universal language of music. In an exclusive interview, Sehgal declares that Indian Classical Music is so rich and divine in its nature that it has the power to attract everyone.  She also looks back fondly at the life lessons she picked up at Apeejay School, Faridabad and lists out her favourite exponents of the sitar and Indian classical vocal, including such luminaries as Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Pandit Uma Shankar Mishra, Pandit Madan Shankar Mishra and Kaushiki Chakraborty. Edited excerpts:

Please take us through your personal and professional journey.

I am a postgraduate and gold medallist in Music from Delhi University. My musical journey started at the age of six when I first laid my hands on a toy keyboard gifted by my father and began playing. The inclination towards music didn’t stop me from getting a degree in Political Science from Delhi University. I consider myself fortunate to be trained both in vocal and instrumental music from accomplished gurus starting from Dr. Pragati Mishra (Apeejay School, Faridabad) from the Madhubani Maihar Gharana, to Late Srimati Manorama Ahuja, disciple of the legendary Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib from the Patiala Gharana. After arriving in the Netherlands in 2008, I joined the Rotterdam Conservatorium as a Faculty member and had the pleasure of teaching international students. My school of classical music and dance — Global Ragas — was established in 2008. I have performed at prestigious concerts globally and conducted workshops and lecture demonstrations several times in Europe.

When and how did you set up the Global Ragas School of Music?

The Global Ragas school of Music was set up by me in 2008 with a dream to make Indian Classical music accessible beyond the boundaries of culture, religion and geography. The school continues to encourage and promote Indian classical music by organising annual concerts inviting eminent artistes from all over the globe. It has brought people together from diverse cultures who speak the universal language of music.

What makes Indian classical music stand out? As an exponent and practitioner settled in the West, how do you view it from that vantage point?

The improvisations within the structure of notes, giving the artist a spontaneous freedom to enjoy singing or playing, make Indian Classical Music very unique and sophisticated. It is the only form of music in which there is a formula with many permutations and combinations. All other forms of music have no technical perfection. Classical music is for the class and the rest is for the mass.

I am very proud to be a classical musician and instrumentalist and it’s a blessing for me to continue this legacy and to be able to take my art forward to the next generation.

I have been working very closely with western students and co-artistes for many years now. They have a standardised written notation that has to be followed as written which is very unlike Indian music which is entirely based on melody. That is why they find Indian classical music very intriguing. The awe-inspiring rhythmic aspect fascinates them a lot.

What are the challenges in promoting Indian Classical Music for an eclectic global audience?

Indian Classical Music is so rich and divine in its nature that it has the power to attract everyone. I find more opportunities than challenges in Europe. Social media and digital mediums have also helped music reach out to everyone with just one click. This is a very promising factor and a positive development.

What are your memories of the time you spent at Apeejay?

Schooling is undoubtedly the best phase of life. Studies were never my cup of tea although I was a topper in 12th Boards only because of peer pressure. I was always found bunking periods in the auditorium or music room, preparing for upcoming performances. I conducted the morning prayers for many years that boosted my stage confidence at an early age. The faculty members I remember are the ones from the music department. I have fond memories of Mr Nagpal, whom I very recently lost to Covid. My mentor Dr. Pragati Shankar Mishra is still my favourite. Chopra Ma’am from junior school was also very dear to me.

 Apeejay institutions are known for imparting value-based education. How important is it to carry forward our rich musical legacy and keep these values intact for children in the Indian Diaspora?

India has a great tradition of music from ancient to present times. Indian Classical Music represents our cultural glory. Time and again studies have shown that children who are engaged in music and other art forms tend to have better cognitive skills and do well in academic subjects such as maths and science. They have improved memory, auditory skills and attention spans. Learning music should be a part of the curriculum for schoolchildren to ensure a stress-free environment. We are already using technology to spread this knowledge and more students in India and abroad are learning Indian classical music through online resources. I would also like to mention that Apeejay Education promotes Indian Classical Music to a great extent and gives good exposure to the children for the same.

Are there any life lessons that you picked up in school that have helped you later?

Some lessons have greater value and impact when you learn them earlier in life. The most important thing that I learnt at school is that our abilities matter more than our knowledge. When you know how to work with information, when you are responsible and excel in communication, you will learn whatever you want to learn. On the contrary, when you struggle to express yourself, or read between the lines, it doesn’t matter how much you know. You will struggle in both your job and life. That is why I tried to work mostly on my abilities. I realised I was more focused with less distraction and attained good discipline from school. I also learned great moral values. My regular stage performances gave a boost to my self-confidence which further helped in shaping up my personality.

How do European audiences view Indian classical music? And how is the Diaspora’s reaction to it?

The East, with its richness in melody, has always attracted musicians from the West, as the main achievement of the west has been harmony. The market for Indian Classical Music in the west definitely has a strong future. The Indian approach is always holistic and thus the landscape is amenable to the music. More and more facilities in Europe are available for introduction to Indian Classical Music, producing more and more audiences that are able to appreciate the music in a sophisticated and knowledgeable way. There are Europeans and other groups of people who dedicate their lives to practising Indian Classical music as it is a spiritual discipline in its own right. Yoga centres and ashrams have also helped spread Indian culture in a dedicated way.

Who are your favourite vocalists and instrumentalists and artistes who have influenced your practice?

My list is long but I will try to mention a few names from my favourite ones. I have grown up listening to Pt Uma Shankar Mishra Ji who was no less than a magician and his wand was his sitar. I was blessed to have my sitar training by his son Pt Madan Shankar Mishra Ji. There was so much playfulness and beauty in his music. I am also an ardent admirer of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan Sahib, one of the most legendary thumri vocalists of all time. Another favourite among many is Kaushiki Chakraborty Ji. Her astonishing khayal vocal technique makes me listen to her on repeat for months.

Do you think music has a universal language?

Yes it definitely is universal. One can communicate across cultural and linguistic boundaries in ways that one cannot with ordinary languages like English or Dutch. I have students from all walks of life who do not understand Hindi but they do sing the compositions in Hindi with accurate pronunciation and have performed on Global Ragas platform very confidently and authentically.

How do you view experiments in fusion and bringing together Indian and other musical styles?
Fusion does not exist. It is just an imagination which varies from person to person. 

Aasheesh Sharma is a seasoned journalist with an experience of more than 25 years spread over newspapers, news agencies, magazines and television. He has worked in leadership positions in media groups such as Hindustan Times, India Today, Times of India, NDTV, UNI and IANS. He is a published author and his essay on the longest train journey in India was included in an anthology of writings on the railways, brought out by Rupa Publications. As the Editor of Apeejay Newsroom, he is responsible for coverage of the latest news and developments in the Apeejay institutions. He can be reached at [email protected] He tweets @Aasheesh74

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