By Gp Capt Tarun Kumar Singha, CPRO (Defence)
Kolkata: Marking the end of Navy Day celebrations this year, a 50 sailor-musician band of the Indian Navy’s Eastern Naval Command (ENC) – the single largest symphonic band in the country – played out at the National Library Auditorium in Kolkata on Thursday (December 8), an ensemble of music whose range was as diverse as the countries, continents and cultures they bridge as ambassadors of goodwill during their sojourns across oceans.
From military tunes to classical ballet, waltz to overtures, hymns, fusion, tributes to the ‘King of Pop’ Michael Jackson and the venerable ‘Joker’ Raju made famous by Raj Kapoor in his classic film ‘Mera Naam Joker’ to a medley of the official marches of the Army, Navy and Air Force - the band’s repertoire regaled with their superb renditions of varied musical scores.
Conducting the concert to an audience comprising among others the Chief Justice of Kolkata High Court, Justice Jainarayan Patel as the chief guest, ENC Chief of Staff, Vice Admiral Sunil Lanba and other dignitaries from the armed forces and the civilian gentry was Principal Conductor, Lieutenant Commander Vijay D’Cruz whose grandfather, late Ernest Saldanha, an excellent violinist and percussionist of his times, had citizenry of Kolkata also swing to his band – Swing Timers – regularly in the 1960s.
“Fanfare” incorporating Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s “Vande Mataram” played out by trumpets, bass instruments and accompanied by percussion heralded the start of the hour-long performance separated with only a brief interlude in the middle.
Next, quick-march music “Blue Field” with a strong regular rhythm, capable of casting a hypnotic spell on marching soldiers, widely used in the 16th and 17th century wars to lead soldiers in closed ranks then filled the auditorium air setting the tempo for the band playing bass and woodwind instruments, considered integral accompaniments of military bands.
Fleeting easily into the graceful rhythm of waltz and history, celebrating the symbolic ‘toast of friendship’ by the Austrian Emperor Franz Josef during his historic visit to the German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II, the band performed Conway Brown’s arrangement of “The Emperor Waltz” composed by Johann Strauss in 1889.
It is said that when “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” also famously known as “The Barber of Seville”, an overture (instrumental introduction ahead of an opera performance) by Giochino Rossini was first played out in 1816, it proved to be a disaster with several on-stage accidents. But on Thursday evening, more than 200-years later, the sailor-musicians rendered the classical piece with aplomb eliciting thunderous applause from the audience.
“Western classical pieces are very demanding,” says Lt Cdr D’Cruz. “They also demand high amount of precision and synchronization,” he adds. But for the motley mix of musicians, some of whom who have embraced the demanding western classical pieces after joining the navy, the transition to the classical western mould is a result of the discipline and dedication imbibed as uniformed personnel, D’Cruz says, and it showed in their performance.
“It’s an amazing experience,” remarked Mrs Bev Perreira, an accomplished western classical musician herself from Kolkata and a radio and television host, who compeered the musical evening. Bev’s explanations of the classical renditions before each performance proved immensely helpful in grasping the nuances of the classics of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms as the cast played out scores such as Johannes Brahms’ classic “Hungarian Dance No.5.”
For many others like Anil Mukherjee, Chief Executive of a popular city club at Tollygunge, the Naval Symphonic concert is a ‘must-attend’ event in their annual calendar. An avid western classical listener, the Mukherjee couple enjoys attending such concerts, which according to Lt Cdr D’Cruz are only performed by the symphonic orchestra bands of the Army, Navy and Air Force today in India.
But it was not all western classic as the talented musicians showed their innate skills in a rarely seen Indian classical percussion instrument, lesser heard still, the ‘Jal tarang’ creating musical notes out of ‘waves of water’ from porcelain cups. Mahatma Gandhiji’s favourite hymn “Vaishnava Janato” by 15th century Gujarati poet Narsinh Mehta wafted into the air as musician Amit Kumar Gautam deftly hit the cups with a pair of wooden sticks on their edges. The score was conducted by Chief Petty Officer Musician Johnson Vincent.
Other lilting scores played out included a fusion musical piece “Dashing Desh” with variations in tempo and rhythm. Unfolding a variation and introducing it for the first-time ever at any armed forces concert, Chief Petty Officer Musician Vijayraj conducted the famous Raj Kapoor song “Jeena yahan marna yahan” with Amit Gautam on the accordion making a showman-style entry into the auditorium.
Yet another movie-theme “Lara’s Theme”, perhaps one of the most recognizable movie themes ever written by Composer Maurice Jarre for the film “Doctor Zhivago” to which lyrics was later added by singer Connie Francis to create the popular song “Somewhere my love” was crooned by Leading Musician Bidya Sagar.
More variation unfolded as a musical-medley tribute was also played out by the military band to the ‘King of Pop’ Michael Joseph Jackson, recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful entertainer of all times.
Aptly the performance ended with popular military number “John Brown’s Body” and a tri-service medley of the songs of the three services. While the former is a marching song popular during the American civil war arising out of the folk hymn traditions of the camp meeting movement of the 19th century the latter infuses and inspires Indian soldiers in contemporary times.
The concert is held every year in the month of December during the navy week celebrations. For those who missed out this year, symphonic orchestras of the armed forces often play out in the city on other occasions. But just in case they don’t come around soon enough, the next Navy Day is just a year away.
It may be also mentioned that the Indian Naval Band was first commissioned in 1945 with strength of 50 musicians. Today, the number of musicians has increased to approximately 450 who are spread over 14 bands across the country.
The Naval Symphonic band has performed in ensemble with reputed bands at prestigious international events while on goodwill visits abroad. The sailor-musicians have played at concerts in Australia, Russia, Cuba, USA, UK, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and China.