Flowers of love and the Goan spring

Mehru Jaffer

The weather has not exactly cleared, but the two-week Festival of India that opened in Vienna recently is a colourful reminder that spring can't really be far behind.

Even as Vienna remained cold and blustery, Marialena Fernandes created a Basant-like ambience and warmed  many hearts by playing on the piano dekhni tunes, a blend of western and local music from her native Goa. Radha Anjali, Austrian Bharatnatyam apsara, gave bhava to a narrative about a desperate devadasi who must attend a wedding on the other shore where she is expected to dance, but the boatmen refuse to row her across the river.

Many years ago, Marialena, professor of chamber music at the Vienna University of Music and Performing Arts, came here to master the music of Gustav Mahler and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Having achieved that, she finds herself increasingly haunted now by the melancholic melody of the mando, traditional songs of Goa.

Her sense of acute nostalgia for Goa has led her to a research project on colonial times when Portuguese music married Konkani lyrics and music, to give birth to the dhalo, dekhni, dulpod and mando songs. What attracts Marialena most to the mando is its theme of love. The professor suspects that mando was used by women as a form of resistance to the Portuguese who occupied Goa between 1510 and 1961.

"I do not live in India, but every day I feel more drawn to the music of Goa," Marialena told Hardnews. Basically, she loves mandos for being superbly suggestive, and the thought of what remains unsaid in the songs seldom fails to excite her.

The simplicity of lyrics and vivid imagery is what stands out in a mando song. For example, there is a popular song about a woman looking back on her youth. She remembers walking home one day with a song on her lips and flowers in her hand.

On the way, she meets a young man who wants her to give him the flowers she is carrying. Instead of throwing the flowers and herself into his arms, she hesitates, only to ask herself some questions: does he want her flowers, only to give them away to someone else? 

She is attracted to the man, but is unable to admit this even to herself. And that is why she is left to live by herself to this day.

As an art form, mando reached its peak around 1830 when ballroom dancing was introduced in Goa. Mandos were originally composed (with dance) by the aristocracy living in spacious mansions, and reflect the tranquil and leisurely character of the colonial elite, both Indian and European.

To talk to Marialena, is also to wonder if Goa is not the place where Indian musicians first began to fuse western musical forms with local traditions. The mandolin, piano and violin were introduced here by the colonialists and became integral to the life in Goa around the 19th century.

Marialena, too, was born in a family of musicians and singers. "The piano was my cradle," she says of a childhood where she saw both her grandmother and mother practise music. Over three decades ago, she came to Vienna on a scholarship from the Austrian ministry of education. Now that she is a master musician, she has naturally extended her work to India as well. 

She is excited about her tie-up with the Mumbai-based Con Brio, the John Gomes Memorial All India Piano Competition, which has kept western music performances and education in India alive despite decades of trials and tribulations. To be held in June and July this year, Marialena looks forward to being back in Mumbai for the annual competition, which attracts young pianists from all over the country, who are judged even as they perform for the public. 

Gomes passed away in 2003.  He was not a musician but the owner of Furtados, Mumbai's classical print music archive and shop of western musical instruments. For almost 50 years, Gomes has prevented both Furtados and the art of print music from fading away in India. Fortunately for music lovers, Marialena is happy to help continue that musical legacy left by the likes of Gomes, in fair weather or foul.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: APRIL 2011

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