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To Beijing, With Music

Rita Bhimani

Ever since my return from China, I have been hearing other peoples’ stories on their travels, which made me feel wholly inadequate about what I had experienced and ingested.

Some had their great hiking tales about the Great Wall, others their elegant Shanghai experience, and many talked about their conducted tours where Indian food was always available and they had not been faced with any untoward creatures that came their limited epicurean way.

So now, here’s mine—five days of a total musical journey, as I was invited to anchor a program where Yangquin expert Liu Yuening, the dapper professor who has been in India, studying and performing, teamed up with our very own santoor maestro Pandit Tarun Bhattacharya and tabla maestro Pandit Vijay Ghate from Delhi in a concert. So perfectly conceived, that the fused music flowed without any dissonance. And was backed by a stunning 70 piece EOS Orchestra of the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing which played to an audience of more than a thousand people. The venue: a beautiful Beijing Concert Hall, well renowned internationally with musicians like Yehudi Menuhin, Seiji Ozawa, Yo Yo Ma, Placido Domingo and others having performed there. In fact, the versatile conductor of the orchestra Hu Yongyan, had fruitful collaborations withy some of them, while performing as guest conductor in leading international symphony orchestras.

I’ve know Professor Liu for the last five years, having anchored her programs here in Calcutta, particularly the one at the Town Hall commemorating the 150th Birth Anniversary of  Tagore. She is a renowned contemporary Yangquin soloist and apart from being an educator in the field of music, she is also something of a: “diplomat” of music, having done many collaborations and cultural exchanges in seminar and music form. The Yangquin by the way is a Chinese hammered dulcimer, and when she combined with Tarun Bhattacharya and Vijay Ghate, they produced some unique music. Apart from the Raags Taalchakra and Janasanmohini played by our own musicians, Liu combined with them for the world debut of Raga Jasmine, which, to me bound the two fragrances of India and China in a heady musical Jasmine garland,, while capturing all the nuances of Raag Bhupali.

While I was there, I did a one-hour audio visual presentation at the Conservatory called The Romance of the Raga: From Tagore to Tinseltown, where I talked about the raga based songs of Tagore and also brought in the raga-based movie songs of Bollywood from the fifties and sixties right up to the modern day, showing them clips of the films too! It was topped off by a great presentation of the intricacies of the santoor and tabla and a sawaal- jawaab demo by Tarun Bhattacharya and Vijay Ghate which the musically inclined audience lapped up. We met many of them afterwards, and one Chinese lady turned out to be a great Bharatanatyam exponent!

So musically, it has been superb and the lesson to be learned—the commitment that the Chinese have to teaching and learning and performing music and the excellence they have attained.

But I must lead you through the bylanes of Beijing to savor some of the food, do some shopping, and of course talk about taking in a day long eight-hour bus tour (since that is all the time we had at our disposal) of the Mutianyu Great Wall, the Ming Tombs a quick peek at the Olympic Stadium with an English-speaking guide and lunch thrown in. We found it was a great choice to go to the Mutianyu section as this is the most scenic, built during the Northern Qi dynasty and is an “easier” section to traverse. Cost: US$ 30/- per head.

Psssst: how about some crispy friend insects? Oops! Not your thing? No matter—will the egg dish on this page do? And some freshly boiled shrimps? And maybe a quick box meal which leaves you so satisfied?  And also some beautiful meat dishes, because the rulers from the dynasties of Liao, Jin, Yuan, and Qing were from the northern nomadic tribes and meat preparations dominated. Apparently, the Mongolian rulers of the Yuan Dynasty were particularly fond of mutton.

Yes, we had our moments of doubt, too, and would then actually sit and draw the items that we did not wish to eat—somewhat like the travel portal ad that many of you will remember !  You have to be somewhat adventurous about exploring for food, but can come up trumps if you walk around enough, as we did, coming upon bakeries, Italian churros joints, or just eating the juiciest peaches from carts—the one in the picture is from my visit to the Summer Palace.