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Nikhil Sardana: What is your fondest memory of Olga Craen as her student?

Zinnia Khajotia: Her sense of humour – especially after a tipple or two! Her attention to detail and demands for perfection every time. She lived by her own set of principles in both her personal and professional life as a teacher. She gave teaching her all!

Olga Craen © Olga & Jules Craen Foundation

As a tweenie I was awed by her sense of style though often wondered why she used the wrong shade of foundation. She had a flawless complexion and loved to dress well harking back to her days in Europe, I suppose. I particularly remember a golden dress and coat she wore with a kind of turban on her head, at one of her pupils’ concerts. I didn’t recognise her.

Don’t forget, some of us didn’t see her in her glory days. She also used to perform at All India Radio and I personally used every connection to try gain access to any recordings they might have had of her, but no dice. Apart from Roshan Chowna, one of Olga’s senior most pupils and erstwhile Principal of the Calcutta School of Music, none of the committee members ever heard her at a public recital. Roshan says that the venue was the Cowasji Jehangir Hall (the C.J. Hall in Bombay as it was known) which is presently the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai. She had also heard her on All India Radio (AIR) and Minoo Mehta, another contemporary of Roshan Chowna and one of Olga’s best who still performs in the USA where he now resides, recalled accompanying her to AIR as her willing page-turner. All her pupils remember Olga with much fondness and a fierce loyalty.

Roshan Chowna erstwhile Pr. Cat School of Music, pupil of Madame Olga Craen © Vasant Doshi Photography

Very few could stand up to the rigours of the way she imparted her skills! Daily practise to improve technique, her teaching musicianship and telling us to “coax the keys”; the way she would yell from anywhere in her home if we played a wrong note telling us that it was an “E” instead of a “D”. She had perfect pitch (which very few are blessed with; she used to say Shireen Baria Isal was the only one of her pupils who did). And today, when aural training, sight-reading and teaching the theory of music are woefully neglected until weeks before an exam (and requirements downgraded by the music boards themselves!) she insisted on it being done simultaneously. She had a wonderful library of leather-bound, gold-gilded books to teach the History of Music (no Google or Safari in those days!) and her notes on ornamentation were bar none; easy to assimilate and brilliantly taught.

 

NS: What was the classical music scene in Bombay between the 1930s and 1950s?

ZK: Suffice it to say that there were no Indian pianists of the caliber of Olga Craen! It is said that when she returned to India from her second concert tour of Europe, the roads were lined with people – mostly of her own Catholic community – all the way from Santacruz airport to her home at Bandra.

From Naresh Fernandes’s book you will learn about the ensembles and fledgling orchestras that formed part of the Western classical music scene in Bombay then. It is said that when Jules Craen founded the Bombay Symphony Orchestra, it was the most cosmopolitan orchestra anywhere in the world! Performances were held mostly at the C.J. Hall and at the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Internationally acclaimed musicians or orchestras would visit sporadically under the aegis of the Bombay Madrigal Singers’ Organisation (BMSO) or the Time & Talents Club. They included Arthur Rubinstein, Claudio Arrau, Rudolf Serkin and Larry Adler. Violinists like Yehudi Menuhin and Ida Handel performed also and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra did so in the quadrangle at St. Xavier’s College!

And then there was Olga, performing the Emperor Concerto under the baton of Edvard Behr at the Regal Cinema, Bombay. Jules Craen’s pupil, the late Keki Mehta, recalled that it was at this performance that Jules is said to have fallen in love with Olga and her piano-playing.

Reports of Olga’s live performances evoked exclamations of “breathtaking”, “flabbergasting” and “tremendous”. Olga used to say that if she glossed over a small error her husband, Jules would say “There will be that one person in the audience who will know you played it wrong; you are performing for that one person!” – a maxim she passed down to all of us! A zero-tolerance for incorrectly played music.  

 

NS: What was your inspiration behind setting up the Olga and Jules Craen foundation?

ZK: The biggest inspiration was the lady herself! Her teaching methods, her pure passion for the music and her drive which in turn drove us. It was just not possible to let all that be forgotten. She along with her husband Jules Craen (26 years her senior) dominated the music scene in Bombay for almost 50 years!

Jules and Olga Craen © OJCF Foundation

Blossom Viegas Mendonca was junior to me. I’d only heard Olga mention her name. But on my family’s return from the UK in 1997 and having a talented daughter who earned a distinction at every ABRSM exam while there – I was on the lookout for a teacher to take her on. Someone told me about Blossom and the name-recollection was instant.

For 10 years I would tell Blossom that “we must” and “we should” set up something in Olga’s memory. Then in 2011 along came Marialena Fernandes – one of Olga’s most celebrated pupils of International renown on one of her annual performance tours of India, which Blossom and I attended. We both went backstage to meet her and when I mentioned it to her she said “Yes! Yes! We must. I’ll come, I’ll play, we must all play!” 

Zinnia Khajotia felicitating Marialena Fernandes © Vasant Doshi Photography

Then along with Blossom – a teacher of considerable standing in our city today and with a good network in the world of music – we organised a meeting at the Bombay Gymkhana to which were invited Cyrus Guzder (arguably Olga’s favourite pupil), Shireen Baria Isal, her pupil and founder of Association Sargam in London, Anthony Gomes of Furtados and Parvesh Java, Director of the annual Con Brio piano competition – to participate, with a single point agenda. After much brainstorming it was decided that the best way to perpetuate the memory of Olga and Jules would be to select one young musician annually from any music discipline including voice – and nurture him/her over a period of one year.

Tanay Joshi – first YMOY 2013 – with Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, Chairman, NCPA; pupil of Madame Olga Craen © Vasant Doshi Photography

And so the first event was organised on 6th February 2013 by which time Tanay Joshi, a pianist from Ahmedabad, had been selected as Young Musician Of the Year 2013. The first half was a narrative in pictures of Olga and Jules’s life story and the second half had Tanay perform briefly as Incoming Laureate and lauded by Mr. Khushroo N Suntook, Chairman of the NCPA incidentally also a pupil of Olga’s. He appreciated the effort of a nascent organisation like ours trying to provide more Indian musicians with a platform and opportunity to excel. This was followed by performances from some of Olga’s best – Roshan Chowna, Minoo Mehta (a recording) and violinist Zubin Behram-Kamdin (whose violin teacher was a pupil of Jules) accompanied by one of Olga’s pupils, Ernavaz Bharucha, with Marialena Fernandes performing Rhapsody in Blue to end the evening with a flourish!

Zubin Behram Kamdin, Pr. Violinist, CCO & Ernavaz Bharucha, pupil of Madame Olga Craen © Vasant Doshi Photography

When fine-tuning what else we could offer our YMOYs besides try to organise masterclasses (also with our own Roshan Suntoke Chowna and Blossom Viegas Mendonca, it came to pass that we would try to get the funds together to send the laureate to Europe or even the USA for music study courses in the Summer. That they would on their return play for the Committee before embarking on a tour of various schools of music/music fora in India, culminating in a final performance at the end of their tenure.

Despite the hardships that Olga faced in the years following the passing of Jules, and worse still, the debilitating “lock” the three fingers of her left hand would go into but only on the piano (probably a repetitive strain injury of sorts), her always looking for a home to rent and her succumbing to cancer – she had left behind much goodwill and I believe, even more admiration. Thanks to which we have been aided in our efforts by the graciousness of the NCPA, Furtados, the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation, Sir Ratan Tata Trust and several others including schools of music around the country, who are happy to give exposure to our YMOYs at some cost to themselves, no doubt. We’ve even had the Indian Council for Cultural Relations support us at a performance in Shillong in 2014.  

© Vasant Doshi Photography

NS: What are the current activities of the foundation?

ZK: It is important to reiterate that it is not the Committee, but the visiting examiners of 3 boards of music – Trinity College, The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and the London College of Music – that sit together over 1 or 2 days to select every year the Foundation’s Young Musician of the Year. The decision of the examiners is final and binding.  

This single activity has several stages, namely:

  • The selection by visiting examiners in November
  • A 10 minute performance at the NCPA Mumbai as the Incoming Laureate end-January or early February
  • Masterclasses by visiting musicians in India
  • A study tour in Europe, the UK maybe the USA or Russia in the Summer (July or August)
  • Performances at various schools of music/music fora within India between September and December
  • A final 60-90 minute performance as the Outgoing Laureate at the NCPA Mumbai at the end of January, when the following year’s Incoming Laureate is first introduced to the audience

Both incoming, outgoing with OJCF Teachers, Respective families © Vasant Doshi Photography

NS: Where do you see the foundation headed in the next decade? 

ZK: The most popular suggestion is for a “Younger Musician of the Year” as there are several potential candidates in the age range of 12-17. But with just a nice big cash award of Rs. 50,000 purely as an incentive to the child – and his parents – to continue with the music education.

In the 5th year of our existence and ideally on Olga’s birthday, 20th September 2018 – we are in the early stages of planning an event at the Tata Theatre. We intend to replay their life story with sub-titles this time, and for the 2nd half of the programme, have the YMOYs of the past 5 years perform.

Create our own Facebook page or website once we can engage at least one person to work for us and attend to it.

We are also going to apply as advised, for a small grant from the Tata Trust. We need to do a lot more fund-raising before raising our hopes and profile! We also need to engage one person at least or find one or two volunteers who we can pay out-of-pocket expenses to.

Let’s say the above items are the thrust of our next 5-Year Plan. We’re too “young” to think up to a decade as all Committee members are engaged in full-time work with limited time for social media of any sort – and the OJCF is in dire need of assistance and needs to engage one person dedicated to the OJCF and its YMOY programme.