There’s lots of lovey-dovey stuff happening when it comes to Indo-US relations, what with President Barack Obama dropping in recently for a couple of days. For decades, the great American dream has attracted Indians and for decades, virtually every Indian musician has aspired to adding the coveted “has performed extensively in the US” line in their bios and CVs. And yet, in all this aanaa-jaanaa between India and the US, all too often we miss out on opportunities to learn from one another and forge more lasting and less photogenic collaborations.
Indian students, academics and professionals from different disciplines flock in impressive numbers to the Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, but I really don’t know how many of them have had the time or inclination to visit the Yale University Collection of Musical Instruments (http://www.yale.edu/musicalinstruments/). Now 110 years old, it was established by Morris Steinert who gifted part of his impressive collection of musical instruments to Yale in 1900. In later years, other alumni continued to add to the collection and it swelled to include nearly a thousand instruments, meriting its move in 1961 to a dedicated building on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven.
Passionate: Sharan Rani’s collection is with the National Museum. Hindustan Times
So large and varied is the collection that only so much can be accommodated at any given time, and, therefore, the exhibits have to be rotated periodically. But each instrument remains meticulously maintained and restored, and more admirably, in playing condition. In fact, from time to time, the museum organizes for the instruments to be heard in special concerts. When I visited the museum last month, the two main exhibitions consisted of an awe-inspiring collection of keyboard instruments, including clavichords, harpsichords, spinettas and pianos from as early as the 17th century; and of string and wind instruments, including guitars, viol, violins, oboes and piccolos. Everything is well displayed and labelled, and lucky visitors such as I and my colleagues can also get a bonus in the form of a guided tour conducted by the curator Susan E. Thompson. All of which left me wondering why we in India cannot take a leaf out of the Yale collection.
Also Read Shubha Mudgal’s earlier columns
There are a few collections of Indian musical instruments, most of them put together by individuals driven by their passion and love for music. But by and large, the collections languish for want of resources, support and the specialized skills required to curate, create and house effective displays and exhibits. The National Museum in Delhi houses the Sharan Rani Backliwal gallery of musical instruments collected painstakingly by the late sarod player and later donated to the museum. Poorly displayed and exhibited for many years, the gallery has been under renovation for some time now, and therefore out of bounds for visitors. A collection of instruments is also housed at the Sarod Ghar, in Gwalior, the ancestral home of sarod maestro Amjad Ali Khan. But it is still young and will in time, hopefully, attain international standards.
I cannot help wondering why in all this talk of forging ties between India and the US, the arts remain in the background. Why can’t our generous and steadily growing list of the millionaires and billionaires support an Indian collection of musical instruments, and facilitate a visit or consultancy by curators such as Thompson. It would be great, one day, to raise a toast at the launch of our own museum of Indian instruments, some of which we could then loan to the Yale Collection, which currently exhibits only a single veena from India.
Write to Shubha at email@example.com