March 18, 2019 SASF Editorial

Music against war: the magical South Asian Symphony Orchestra

Published by: Grin.News

An Indian former foreign secretary Nirupama Menon Rao is the founder of the new South Asian Symphony Orchestra which aims to bridge differences between the eight countries. You can listen to the podcast of this story here.

Nirupama Menon Rao at a event of the South Asian Symphony Orchestra.
  1. What prompted you to build the South Asian Symphony Orchestra?

It began as a madcap idea. In the (Indian) foreign service apart from political and economic diplomacy, cultural diplomacy was also a very important part of our mission. It interested me a great deal. I felt that we should learn to think more strategically about the utilisation of our cultural resources. I felt that we should be able to use our resources more effectively in cultural diplomacy not only to put India on the global stage but also reassure and remove suspicions and barriers that exist between nations in South Asia where integration has not been a success story at this point.

2. There have been many attempts of people-to-people dialogue in South Asia — in cinema, in literature, in education and in many other ways.

There are two reasons why I thought of music. First, music has been my passion since childhood. It has helped me reach out to people and form lasting friendships. I have found music to be a great tool to connect people, even though you could talk of course of military music or the drum beat of war, or even music that has triggered communal riots in South Asia, but there is also a far more beautiful use of music, and I would in particular like to cite the example of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra created by the academic Edward Said and the conductor Daniel Barenboim who created an orchestra that brought together musicians from Israel and Palestine and even organised a historic concert at Ramallah in the West Bank. These were people who had been kept apart by deep suspicion and the orchestra brought them together and that too in a concert at Ramallah at the heart of the dispute. I thought to myself why can’t we use music in this way in South Asia? To me music is apolitical, it has a humanitarian aspect.

3. Do you see yourself doing something like that with the orchestra maybe between India and Pakistan?

Well, I am neither an academic like Said or a musician like Barenboim. I come from the world of diplomacy and I am fully aware of how difficult is for one person to bring any change to this. I know the difficulties in the terrain. I often ask myself what am I here for if I am not able to use the experience I garnered through diplomacy? So we have made a small beginning. I recently got a DNA test done and the result of the test was “one hundred per cent South Asian”! So I want to make my contribution in my small way through his orchestra. We do not have a tradition of orchestras — we used to have in the past and now we have the military orchestras or bands but otherwise we do not have an all-Indian or South Asian orchestra.

4. Tell us a little about the response you have received.

It has been not even a year. I started putting together the orchestra in August last year. It has been a voyage of discovery. I am amazed at the talent we have found — both professional and amateur. Our conductor Vishwa Subbaramanwas mentored by the great German conductor Kurt Masur who worked for the cause of German reunification. We have been able to reach out deep into war-torn Afghanistan and find these wonderful musicians. These are artists for whom music has brought meaning amidst death and destruction. Many of them have been trained by the great Ahmad Sarmast, the director of the Afghanistan National School of Music, who recently won the Polar Prize, a sort of Nobel in the world of music. To reach out to Afghanistan, to reach out to musicians in the South Asian diaspora. This has been magical.

5. What are your plans in the future? And what about your own plans as a singer — you have been performing Tagore, do you intend to do more concerts?

We have Chiragh, the festival of the South Asian Symphony Orchestra, coming up in Mumbai on April 26 at the National Centre for the Performing Arts. This is going to be very exciting. I invite everyone reading this and listening to the podcast to come. We have commissioned two original works using indigenous instruments and musicians in these compositions. We are using Aghan and Kashmiri musicians which makes it even more special.

The poster of the Chiragh concert.


As far as my singing is concerned, I gave two concerts this year, one in Trivandrum and one in Bangalore. I perform with two of my Sri Lankan friends. I especially enjoy singing Rabindranath Tagore whose Rabindrasangeet I discovered during my student years.

In the orchestra, we are looking to commission 30 songs from popular songs in the region to build a truly South Asian song book.