Olga Craen, India’s best known pianist in the mid-20th century, lived a dramatic life and left a lasting legacy through her students
From the 1930s to the 1950s, Olga Craen was the most celebrated pianist of Bombay, and one of the most acclaimed Indian pianists touring in Europe. When she married Jules Craen, the famous Belgian conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, they became the celebrity couple in the city’s music world. In the 1960s, the annual concerts featuring her students drew packed audiences to the Ballroom of the Taj Mahal Hotel.
Yet today, outside the Western classical music circles of Mumbai, Olga Craen and her eventful life have nearly been forgotten.
“Olga once dominated the music scene in the city and brought so much joy to people; it’s sad that she is not remembered,” said Zinnia Khajotia, a former student of Craen and the managing trustee of the Olga and Jules Craen Foundation.
Although late in coming, the Foundation was started in 2012 by nine of Olga’s former students from around the world, with the aim of remembering her legacy. In 2013, to mark her birth centenary, the Foundation started the Young Musician of the Year award to promote Indian talent by providing training a selected Western classical musician every year.
The rise to fame
Friends believe Olga, born in Goa in 1913, inherited her musical talent from her mother, a skilled pianist who often performed in movie theatres providing accompaniment to silent films. Growing up in Goa and then in Mumbai, Olga studied under Edward Behr, conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. He helped his protégée move to London for further training in the 1930s.
In the UK, she studied at the Tobias Matthay Piano School, completed her diploma from the Royal Academy of Music and made several broadcasts on the BBC. When she had to return to an ailing mother in 1936, she didn’t take long to establish herself in the Mumbai concert circles.
“When I heard her play for the first time, I was completely enamoured and astounded at how an Indian musician was playing so well,” said Jinny Dinshaw, the 84-year-old founder of the Bombay Chamber Orchestra. “Olga has definitely been the number one pianist of India.”
Jules Craen, the Belgian violinist and conductor who had moved to India to teach music, was equally enamoured when he heard Olga play in 1937. They fell in love; two years later — when he was 51 and she just 25 — they married.
A twist of fate
Jules and Olga were at the height of their fame as musicians and teachers in 1948, when Olga was offered a teaching job at a music conservatory in Brussels. The couple, all set to move to Europe, decided to sub-let their sea-facing Marine Drive flat.
However, according to Mumbai’s housing laws, sub-letting a flat owned by a landlord was illegal, and the Craens found themselves in a situation that would change their lives forever.
It began with Olga being arrested for a few days. “My sister was one of her pupils, and my father, Dinshaw Mistry, eventually bailed her out,” said Dinshaw.
When the courts awarded the couple a longer jail term, Jules stepped in, taking sole responsibility for their actions. “He said he would not allow a great young artiste like Olga to spend her prime years in prison, and he served the whole sentence himself,” said Dinshaw. “Olga was all alone, then, and she lost everything, from her house and furniture to her piano.”
Jules was in prison for several years, and when he got out, he did not get back his job as the conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. He died in 1959, a frail and broken man. Meanwhile, friends and pupils helped Olga get back to performing and teaching.
Leaving behind a legacy
Despite her personal tragedies, Olga trained her students to become some of the finest Indian pianists performing around the world, including Vienna-based Marialena Fernandes and US-based brothers Minoo and Firoze Mehta.
Her students remember her as a perfectionist. “She had perfect pitch and little patience for those who did not practice enough,” said Khajotia, who began training under Olga in the late 1950s. “But she had a great sense of humour [and] was very loving with her students.”
In 1958, Olga had to give up performances after developing a problem with the nerves in her left hand. “But she devoted herself to her students, and gave us everything,” said Khajotia.
Marialena Fernandes, who visits Mumbai every few years to perform, believes that the most valuable lesson Olga taught her was to “look behind the notes” – something that Fernandes now tries to pass on to her own students. “She taught me that when you look beyond the superficial notes, you can discover yourself,” said Fernandes.
Olga Craen passed away in 1986, fighting cancer. She continued to teach until the day she went to Tata Memorial Hospital for a round of treatment that would turn out to be her last.
(Photos from Olga and Jules Craen: A Tribute, published by The Olga and Jules Craen Foundation)
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