About the same time that Germany invaded Belgium, French violinist and conductor Phillipe Sandré was working up a different tune in Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Armed with his violin, he raised a squad of pupils and in the autumn of 1915, when World War I was into its second year, set up The Calcutta School of Music (CSM), pioneering Western classical music education in India.

As the world remembers World War I on its centenary, The CSM, with more than 1,000 students, celebrates its 100 years as an icon of the city’s classical culture.

Housed in the posh Sunny Park, where it moved to from its old premises on Wellesley Street in 1972, the school is representative of the city’s changing tastes. Once devoted to Western classical music, it now offers courses not only on non-classical music and dance, both Western and Indian, but also on elocution and drama. The school is also home to the Calcutta Chamber Orchestra, the city’s only string ensemble.

Dickoo Nowroji. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

Nowroji, who calls herself a “lapsed pianist", is an alumnus of the school. After her initial piano lessons from Mother Canice, an Irish nun at Loreto Convent, Darjeeling, she came to Calcutta in the mid-1960s and picked up her Mozart lessons at The CSM under the tutelage of the well-known Lolita Mayadas. Now a US-based concert pianist and educator, Mayadas taught at the school and was the principal for nine years.

“It was a ramshackle building with mosaic floor and rickety wooden staircase," Nowroji says, remembering her days at Wellesley Street. “It had a few pianos. We used to do our concerts at the Loreto School where I used to be the programme seller."

Carried away by the foot-tapping music of the likes of The Beatles, Nowroji gave up training in classical music but returned to The CSM in the 1980s as a member of the governing committee and has been the president since 1996.

Archival photo of The CSM’s old building. Photo: Courtesy The Calcutta School of Music

The school’s origins precede its formal beginning. “There used to be a Conservatoire of Music on Lansdowne Road till 1914," says Rita Bhimani, who is writing a book on the school, in an email. “It was around November 1915 that it took the shape of Calcutta School of Music in the hands of Phillipe Sandré, violinist, teacher and conductor, and moved to 24 Park Mansions and later to Wellesley Street."

Bhimani’s book, Symphony Centenary, is expected to be out later this year.

Little is known of the exact circumstances in which Sandré came to India. “While Europe was in the throes of World War (I), many musicians made their way to a more peaceful and a rich cultural setting where the Bengal Renaissance was flowering," says Bhimani. “The pioneering passion of visiting musicians saw them play, create, and seminally contribute to the development of musical taste and talent here."

Sandré is known for his dedication to both teaching and conducting. During summer, says Nowroji, when the classes would be temporarily shifted to Darjeeling, Sandré would travel to Calcutta every weekend for the Sunday morning orchestral rehearsals, returning by train the same night.

“All I remember of those days is having lots of fun," says Sam Medora, a pupil of Sandré at The CSM. The 78-year-old retired employee of Tata Steel was hardly 7 or 8 when he began bowing under the tutelage of Sandré in 1943 before training for 12 more years under Stanley Gomes, a concert violinist and conductor of the Calcutta Symphony Orchestra.

Spanish conductor Francisco Casanovas. Photo: Courtesy The Calcutta School of Music

In 1975, the Indian music and dance section was inaugurated under the aegis of sitarist Joya Biswas.

John Mayer of the Indo-Jazz Fusions group, who was credited with “transforming music-making" (The Guardian, 13 March 2004) in the UK in early 1950s, by combining Western and Hindustani classical music, was Sandré’s pupil in Kolkata. “A large number of musicians have come out from the school over the years," says Nowroji, as she recounts some of them, such as the California-based composer Clarence Barlow, the Kolkata-based violinist and conductor Abraham Mazumdar and the Mumbai-based Grammy-nominated composer and jazz musician Louis Banks.

At the Phillipe Sandré hall on the ground floor of The CSM, conductor Sanjib Mondal and other members of the Calcutta Chamber Orchestra are perfecting a Mozart allegro. Medora sits watching them rehearse. Even though he recently gave up his administrative role as the school’s vice-principal, he drops by occasionally.

Most of the 25 members of the orchestra, like Mondal, are from the Behala Oxford Mission, a charitable organization that runs a school and music centre for underprivileged children. The orchestra was formed at the mission about 30 years ago and was run by the Calcutta Foundation before The CSM took it over in 2005.

In the 1920s, The CSM had formed the legendary Calcutta Symphony Orchestra. Kolkata and Mumbai were the only cities to boast of symphony orchestra in the early 20th century. Apart from Sandré, a number of great musicians played in that ensemble. Israeli Argentine pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim regularly performed with it during his visits to the city. However, paucity of funds forced the orchestra to close down in the 1970s.

“Credit goes to The CSM for very dedicatedly upholding the city’s tradition of classical orchestra," says Mondal, who teaches music at The CSM and Oxford Mission. Two quartets of the orchestra perform every evening in the lounges of Taj Bengal and ITC Sonar hotels.

In January, on the inauguration of The CSM’s centenary celebrations, British pianist Karl Lutchmayer featured in the orchestra’s concert at Raj Bhawan. In February, London-based flautist Uberto Orlando joined the orchestra at a fund-raiser concert.

While the school runs on tuition fees, the orchestra largely depends on donations. “The expenses are high and donations are erratic. We are grateful for organizations like the (Mumbai-based) Sir Dorabji Tata Trust for supporting us," says Nowroji.

Post-1970s, the city that was once the Mecca of Western classical music in India and longtime home to the country’s first amateur symphony orchestra that attracted famous musicians from all over the world, has slowly lost its sheen to bigger cities, like Mumbai.

Indian Parsi conductor Zubin Mehta ( second from left) at The CSM in 1984. Photo: Courtesy The Calcutta School of Music

Like Biswas, many are drawn to The CSM for its history of classical traditional and a global interface. And, unlike him, many flock to it for the non-classical courses. In the late 1990s, The CSM shed its purely classical tag to introduce courses on popular music, such as the non-classical guitar. And now, it also offers training on modern dance, speech and drama. “That’s because our basic objective is to draw people to music and the arts," says Nowroji.

The CSM engages with the city’s music enthusiasts through its Listeners’ Club, a music appreciation club, and Jazz Music Forum, and events like Bonus Fridays and guitar ensembles. That is—says Nowroji—in keeping with the school’s role as the hub of culture.

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