Beauty in unexpected places

By | March 15, 2014 at 6:19 pm | 3 comments | China Taiwan South Korea India March 2014, LSO On Tour | Tags: , , , , ,

There is beauty in every corner in India. Often it’s in the most unlikely places. The lines of colourful laundry flying like flags on rooftops, the bowls of roadside fruit carved with the skill of the stonemason and the crouching men on the broken pavement sorting out technicolour blooms to sell. Over the few days I’ve spent here at the end of this gruelling tour, even the constant soundtrack of the car horns composes itself into a kind of music. There is no doubt that this country has magic flowing through its fields and streets and it casts a spell on all who arrive. I remember well the journey from the airport past the slums and through the streets when we visited in 2010, but even in the darkness as we arrive in the middle of the night, it’s still shocking and leaves me with a sense of unease. In London, we are quite used to seeing social housing across the street from multi million pound mansions, but in Mumbai, the organised chaos and poverty of the slums next to shiny skyscrapers and luxury brand showrooms is several steps further along the line of have and have nots. Despite arriving at around 2am (although with the time difference from Seoul, it felt like 6am), the temperature is a balmy 27 degrees.

Me, Chi, Chris and Lorenzo on the boat to Elephanta Island

After a fitful nights sleep I open my curtains to begin a day off and the intensity of the sun takes me by surprise. It’s 9am and already 34 degrees. At last all the summer clothing I’ve been carting around Asia is going to be put to some use. Lorenzo, Chris, Chi and I take a taxi, which can barely accommodate three pairs of shoulders in the back seat, to the Gateway of India. With the Taj Mahal hotel behind, it is one of the most iconic views of the city and as we leave across the bay on a small boat it’s difficult to conceive just how far we have travelled since we arrived in Beijing over two weeks ago. The boat and its cool breeze is a welcome relief from the stifling heat of the city as we head out leaving land behind. The boat is full of tourists from all over the world as well as women in saris who boarded carrying enormous sacks of food on their heads for the various stalls on the island. After about 50 minutes the shape of Elephanta Island appears out of the haze, as does an enormous container ship which rocks us in its wake. Within moments of stepping onto dry land, we are inundated with people wanting to guide us round the island all claiming to be the cheapest, most knowledgable guide, but we decide to find our own way around the caves. Elephanta Island is a UNESCO World Heritage sight and after climbing up the steps past food stalls now full of food from the ladies heads and souvenir stalls, its not hard to see why. As you enter the caves, it is suddenly cool and calm but gradually as your eyes adjust to the darkness, the shapes of huge statues of different gods make themselves visible. As I realise I’m standing in front of a twenty foot stone deity, it almost feels like a sudden apparition. The smell of incense drifts in from a side temple where a woman and small child light paper cones and pray. The heat of the day feels like a long way away. As we come out of one of many caves blinking in the sunlight armed with cameras and water bottles, Chris’ bottle is suddenly snatched from his hand. He naturally assumes it’s Lorenzo mucking about, but as we turn around the bottle is grasped firmly by one of the other cheeky monkeys who live on the island. He reaches a safe distance from us, places the bottle on the wall, unscrews the cap and proceeds to drink from it. As it empties, he looks over at us defiantly and we can’t help but laugh as he scampers off to find the next unsuspecting tourist.

2 cheeky monkeys

Stone deity in the cave at Elephanta

The caves, hewn out of the rock are impressive on their own, but the carving inside and the coolness make this one of the most magical days on tour I’ve had. After a quick stop off in the stalls to buy some gifts for the family, we walk back down to the boat. At the corner, the monkey is sitting on a rock draining the contents of a can of Fanta.

My evening was an unusual one to say the least. Singer Andy Staples who is a good friend of Daniel Harding, came over to Mumbai to work with some kids for a charity called Songbound and asked if a few of us would like to come with him and do a workshop with him. The kids we worked with were the children of women who had been the victims of people trafficking and forced to work in the sex trade. This was not going to be straightforward. At the school in Mumbai we went to, none of us knew quite what to expect other than they sang in a choir once a week. What followed was one of the most exhilarating and moving evenings of my life. The kids came into the room wearing masks to protect their identity and sat nervously looking at us as we sat nervously looking at them.

Daniel give the kids a conducting lesson

To get things started, they sang ‘What shall we do with the drunken sailor’, complete with actions. Marvellous stuff. It was then our turn to show them our instruments. If you want to see some of the workshop, Andy made a short film of the visit which you can watch here.

We are quite used to working with young people in London, and despite the language problems, what was immediately obvious is that with all their problems and difficult circumstances, kids is kids wherever you are in the world. When one of the boys volunteered to come forward and turn my headjoint into a swanny whistle by pushing his finger into the end, the stupid noise produced the same kind of laughter that it does in Dagenham and Tower Hamlets. They sat transfixed as Lorenzo swooped up the opening of Rhapsody in Blue and Angela constructed her horn after using the bell as a hat. All Mike had to do was blow his reed and they were laughing! After a few musical games using clapping rhythms and call and response, they began to smile. They began to smile nearly as much as we did. The time then came for Daniel to explain what a conductor does to an audience of children who have most likely never seen an orchestra and without much ability to demonstrate. I was interested to find out myself to be honest. I wasn’t sure what he was going to do, but he just went with the mood of the room and unlike many maestri, he didn’t mind making a fool of himself. He immediately went up in our estimation and within minutes, he had a room full of little conductors laughing at our inability to keep up with their increasingly frantic beats. The evening finished off with an arrangement which we cobbled together of Una Furtiva Lagrima for Tenor, flute, oboe, clarinet and horn. And conductor. It sounded pretty good as Andy sang and with the help of the kids, acted out the story.

Andy Staples singing with the choir

By the end of the evening there were smiles all around and I don’t mind telling you, a few tears. The kids had made us a bookmark each to say thank you which is now my most prized gift from this fantastic trip. As we left and they waved and smiled as if they didn’t have a care in the world, I was given a sharp reminder of the power and importance that music has and needs to have in our society. It’s vital. It’s part of the fabric of being human and we cannot let it go. As a hardened old pro, those kids reminded me that at its most basic level, music can bring unimaginable joy and humanity into people lives. That’s something we all need to remember. I expected to find beauty in every corner of India but I had no idea that the most beautiful thing would be in such an unexpected place. I’ve had a great time on this trip and I hope you’ve enjoyed the blogs, but as the sound of Nimrod fades from the stage, I can feel England calling me back. Time to come home.


  1. Ro Harby (1 year ago)

    The film of you all with those kids was the most beautiful awe inspiring thing I’ve seen in a long time. The joy you bought to them and the joy they returned to all of you was there for all to see. And it was lovely that you were all so natural with them, no patronising as sometimes happens when introducing kids to classical music and musicians. Thank you all for sharing it with us. Daniel, Ed sent it to me via email, in case I hadn’t seen it – as if ….! X

  2. Luis Dias (1 year ago)

    What an inspiring video! Bravo! I hope someday our kids at Child’s Play India Foundation also get a slice of your magic!
    We look forward to your next visit to India!

  3. Paul Davies (1 year ago)

    Very moving Gareth, and the YouTube video is quite revelatory. Thank you all for participating and for sharing your experiences with us. You’ve all had a gruelling tour and are probably all back home as I write this on Sunday pm. Glad you’ve all arrived back safely and we look forward to seeing and hearing you next Sunday with John Elliott.


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