Music professor: Defy the norm

A FORMER visiting professor of music at the Fiji National University has been acknowledged by the Indian Government for her contribution to the arts through music.

Professor Soma Ghosh was awarded the 2016 Padma Shri in Classical Music, the fourth highest civilian award by the Indian Government for various disciplines including the arts.

Prof Ghosh may not be a familiar name to music appreciators, pundits and followers in the country.

But for students at the Fiji National University’s School of Creative Arts, for the six months she was here, Prof Ghosh was a breath of fresh air.

She challenged tutors and students enrolled in music classes to defy the norm.

Music, as far as the Indian national was concerned, could not be put into a box.

She fought to dispel hard and fast rules about genres and classification.

Prof Ghosh believes there are no boundaries and encouraged the fusion of iTaukei and Hindi music.

For FNU music tutor Junjay Delai, being exposed to Prof Ghosh’s music ideas was new and challenging.

“She brought in the idea of fusing iTaukei and Hindi music and while the students loved the challenge, there were a few critics,” he shared.

“Some were of the view that both music forms should be respected and not fused together because of the rich history of both cultures.

“Despite that, the new sounds opened up young minds at the campus and we did see a surge in creativity after that.

“She also inspired some of our iTaukei students to apply for scholarships to study music in India and we are awaiting their return and it will be interesting to see what they come back with.

“Hindi music is one of the hardest to learn and if these students get through their studies then that will be a feat in itself — not only for FNU but also for Fiji.”

I remember dragging my feet to a business forum at the FNU Namaka campus a few years ago.

The thought of spending hours listening to the thoughts, ideas and pursuits of commerce people was not appealing to say the least.

At her introduction during a break in presentations and a brief musical interlude conducted by Prof Ghosh, I was uncomfortable with the mash-up of iTaukei sigidrigi and Hindi contemporary and classical sounds.

Somehow the chug of the acoustic guitar and shrill rhythm of the ukulele did not settle well with me when combined with the whine of the harmonium and staccato beat of the tabla.

It took me some time to grow accustomed to the inter-mingling of two cultures through music.

This is the type of barrier Prof Ghosh is adamant should be broken.

“We all accept that music is a universal language,” she shared after the performance. But a lot of us guard our traditional music forms as sacred and pure.

“There’s nothing wrong with that but the question then arises, where will we get new sounds from?

“Where will the new music forms develop from if we don’t break these barriers?

“The universality of music can only be best described by the fusing of two or more completely alien genres or cultures into a new sound that is unique, hard to describe and interesting.

“I believe iTaukei music and Hindi contemporary and classical can be combined to give the world a new sound.

“Of course, we must fiercely guard our individual cultural and traditional music but there is nothing wrong with combining the two to create something new.

“And we have seen what the combination of two completely foreign forms of music can do in so many genres that we hear around the world today like Latin jazz for instance.”

Prof Ghosh is no stranger to breaking new ground. She entered India’s history books as the first woman to ever sing in their Parliament.

She’s an adopted daughter and musical protégé too of legendary shehnai player Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan. The shehnai is a wind instrument similar to an oboe and Khan was highly regarded as a master of the instrument.

Getting the 2016 Padma Shri in classical music is just another step in a long and illustrious journey for Prof Ghosh.

She shrugged off accolades after being conferred the award by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee in April this year even though she shared centre stage with movie and music personalities such as Priyanka Chopra, Ajay Devgan and Madhur Bhandarkar.

A literature graduate from Benaras Hindu University, Prof Ghosh mastered in music and completed her PhD in Chhota Khayal.

She specialises in the genres that typify Benaras singing, namely Thumri, Tappa, Hori, Chaiti, Kajari, Dadra and Ghazal.

She is the founder of the non-government organisation, Madhu Murchhana, which was established in 1999 to revive Indian heritage and classical music, an initiative she had also extended to Fiji.

Prof Ghosh was invited by the former FNU vice-chancellor Dr Ganesh Chand to take up a position in music at FNU and raise the FNU’s music profile to international repute.

She accepted the visiting professorship in 2013 and joined her husband, Prof Subhankar Ghosh at the FNU’s Raiwai campus for about six months, leading a number of concerts in Suva, Lautoka, and Nadi to standing ovations.

Prof Subhankar Ghosh and Dr Ganesh Chand are in discussions for Prof Ghosh to take up a position in The Digital Academy (Fiji) — a newly-established digital production and training enterprise in the country.

Should the discussions prove to be positive, Fiji would most likely see more of Padma Shri Prof Soma Ghosh here imparting her talents.

On the prospects of returning to Fiji, Prof Ghosh said she would love the challenge of changing mind-sets and sharing experiences.

“I would love to come to Fiji again,” she said.

“Fijians are naturally talented people. All that is needed is exposure to quality music and a lot of practice.

“Fijians can carve their names in the highest echelons of music but an enabling environment needs to be created for this.”

While she may not be of Fijian origin per se, Prof Ghosh has created history for Fiji as well as the newly-established Fiji National University by being the only Padma Shri recipient to have trained students in Fiji and held office at the university campus.

Having people of her calibre is rare for Fiji, the FNU, and the music industry here and we should join in her celebration.

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