Harmony of Voices: ‘Awaaz’ at the 2023 BBC Proms

The BBC Proms music festival 2023 had many interesting highlights. Prom 69a featured the BBC Singers, who will be a century old next year. But earlier this year, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) controversially decided to disband the choir steeped in music history as part of its “new strategy” for classical music. Thankfully there was such an outcry that the decision was quickly reversed. This sold-out concert was an expression of popular support, of their importance and a slap in the face to myopic bureaucracy.

Last year, the 75th anniversary of Partition, the “brutal division” as radio presenter Sara Mohr-Pietsch termed it, of our subcontinent into two new nations, India and Pakistan, the BBC Singers commissioned a new work from Bengali-born British Indian musician and composer Soumik Datta (b. 1983). The result was ‘Awaaz’ (Sound or Voice in both Hindi and Urdu), “drawing together Western and South Asian music in its celebration of the voice as the root of belonging.”

The multi-media performance had the BBC Singers conducted by Sofi Jeannin and Datta (sarod), Prathap Ramachandra (mridangam), Aref Durvesh (tabla), Camilo Tirado (sound and effects) and Glen Scott (electronics producer).

© Chris Christodoulou

Datta explained the voice is “how all of us learn our instrument in Indian classical music.” In this sense, music is “a language like any other: Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi or Bengali.”

But the spoken languages “got shattered and displaced in 1947 and gave birth to these two nations. That’s what we’re trying to explore through this piece and seeing how we can start from a place of shattered sounds and shattered phrases devoid of meaning, devoid of recognition and come back towards some sense of healing.”

Datta was asked “How do you, as well as weaving those fractured fragments together to some kind of cohesion, how do you also bring the two musical languages together that are on stage? We have the BBC Singers, in, I suppose, the western European classical tradition, and Indian classical music.”

“I have no idea,” was his candid response to laughter and applause from the audience.

‘Awaaz’ is a deeply meaningful composition, lasting 32 minutes. It comprised eight ‘movements’ which bled into each other:

1. Migrant birds

2. Leaders

3. Midnight hour

4. 1947

5. Sapne (Dreams)

6. Kahaani (Story)

7. Gulistan (Garden)

8. Awaaz (Voice)

‘Migrant birds’ has the sound of birdsong over a male drone, then joined by seemingly random monosyllabic tones from the rest of the BBC Singers, then gradually beginning to attain some semblance of form.

Datta’s sarod comes in at ‘Leaders’ playing a steady melodic line to the counterpoint of rhythmic chants and percussion, layered a little later by harmonised choral singing in three and four parts by the 24 voices of the BBC Singers.

An abrupt silence then begins ‘Midnight Hour’ I guess I should have anticipated it, but it felt so good to hear, emerging softly from that silence, first some radio static, and then the familiar voice of our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru delivering the famous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech. His words “we shall redeem our pledge” are made to reverberate a few times, as if to underscore their importance. We hear the ticking of a clock, twelve times, to the hum of the BBC singers underneath, before his speech resumes until the end of the excerpt: “It is fitting that at this solemn moment we take the pledge of dedication to the service of India and her people, and to the still larger cause of humanity.”

The rest of the work then gradually builds from a doleful sarod lament (and the sounds of trains carrying refugees across the border) to ever more musically complex peaks of optimism and ecstasy.

In the absence of programme notes I can’t be sure, but I wonder whether ‘Gulistan’ was a reference not just to ‘Rose Garden’ but also to the influential 13th century landmark literary work by the Persian poet Sa’di Shirazi with its advice for rulers in its ‘Manners of Kings’ section: “They that with raging elephants make war, Are not, so deem the wise, the truly brave; But in real verity, the valiant are Those who, when angered, are not passion’s slave.”

© Chris Christodoulou

I’m so glad Datta placed Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ to be at the heart of his composition. But it was ironic: Nehru’s stirring speech was being listened to 76 years later in London, the capital of India’s former coloniser, while in the nation that he gave such eloquent “utterance” (to quote him), his memory is being actively airbrushed or diminished.

Petty puny ignorant politicians try to tell us Nehru didn’t even spend “fourteen minutes” in colonial British India prisons when he actually clocked a cumulative jail sentence of 3259 days (almost 9 years) in the cause of our Independence.

How can we, when celebrating the success of the Chandrayaan-3 lunar mission, forget that the precursor to ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) was launched in 1962 thanks to Nehru’s foresight?

As former President P.J. Abdul Kalam recalls, many questioned Nehru’s wisdom and priorities then. But Nehru’s vision was clear: “If Indians were to play a meaningful role in the community of nations, they must be second to none in the application of advanced technologies to their real-life problems. They had no intention of using it merely as a means of displaying our might.”

We would do well to dwell on that last line (a rebuke against chest-thumping jingoism), and on these lines from Nehru’s momentous ‘Tryst with Destiny’ speech: “This is no time for petty and destructive criticism, no time for ill-will or blaming others. We have to build the noble mansion of free India where all her children may dwell.”

“All of us, to whatever religion we may belong, are equally the children of India with equal rights, privileges and obligations. We cannot encourage communalism or narrow-mindedness, for no nation can be great whose people are narrow in thought or in action.”

This article first appeared in Herald Goa.