Madras Blog

Written by 12:48 PM Music

He came, he saw, he composed an unforgettable tune, and he left

The man, whose song is heard everyday in India and by some living abroad; the signature tune of All…
For those of you who prefer to listen than read

The song Janaki Jaane, from the 1988 Malayalam movie, Dhwani, was composed and written by two gentlemen of Muslim faith, sung by a Christian, and is about Lord Rama. The lyrics are so endearing and beautifully written in Sanskrit, and it goes like this:

During our suffering, you are our only friend,
Only you can end our fear
To cross to the ocean of samsara, you are the only boat
O Lord Rama, the one who Sita knows so well

Unfortunately, so much is lost in translation.

Now take a trip back to 1936. A Jewish refugee composer, a Parsee violinist, composed a tune in the raga Shivaranjini, played every day at dawn in India and probably in the house of overseas Indians and Indophiles.

1988: The song Jaanaki Jaani was composed by Naushad, written by Yusuf Ali Kecheri, and sung by Yesudas. These men have achieved so much greatness that there is no title like Shri. or Mr. that will do them justice, so I have just referred to them with their names.

1936: This tune was composed by Walter Kaufmann, a Jew, and played by violinist Mehli Mehta a Parsi, for a radio station first founded by Professor M V Gopalaswamy, who taught Psychology at Mysore University. Some of you must have guessed it by now. It is the signature tune of All India Radio.

Mehli Mehta, incidentally, is the father of composer-conductor Zubin Mehta.

Almost eight decades have passed since the composition of this piece is based on the raga Shivaranjini. However, the lilting violin notes played over a tambura still manage to evoke a sense of longing. The signature tune was followed immediately by Vande Mataram.

There is doubt if he created this melody solely as a signature tune for AIR or was it was part of a symphony he composed. Whatever that may be, the bottom line: the music is Kaufmann’s, and Mehli Mehta played the violin. No doubts about that.

For the very few who have not heard this signature tune

Kaufmann’s early days

From 1927 to 1933, Walter Kaufmann led opera productions in Berlin, Karlsbad, and Eger, Bohemia, during the summer months. The German University in Prague accepted Kaufmann’s dissertation on Gustav Mahler in 1934. Still, he declined to accept the doctorate after learning that his supervisor, Prof. Gustav Becking, was the leader of the local Nazi youth group. So carrying a letter declining the award of a doctoral degree, he went to the post office and then to a travel agent.

“I carried this letter to the post office, went to the biggest travel agent and bought myself a ticket to Bombay with the money I had received for the operetta (which he had composed),” Kaufmann recalled in his autobiography, which was based on memoirs recorded in 1934 but written up in the 1970s when he was a Professor of Musicology at Indiana University, Bloomington.

He arrives in Bombay

Boarding the Conte Verde in Venice, he arrived in Bombay, where he stayed with a friend until he could secure more permanent housing. His first wife, Gerty Herrmann, a French instructor and niece of Franz Kafka, joined him shortly.

It is reported that someone asked him why Bombay? He replied it was the easiest place to get a visa!

After arriving in Bombay, his first exposure to Indian music took him by surprise. He soon realized that Indian music would take some time to learn, so he decided to sell his return ticket to fund his stay. Regardless, he could not return to Europe while fascism was in power, so he remained in India for another 12 years until the end of World War II. India ended up saving both his and his wife’s lives. They had a daughter whom they named Katherina.

Kaufmann adapted to Indian culture in a way few of his fellow ex-pats could. A low salary and a position as director of European music at All India Radio (AIR) in Bombay awaited him in 1935. From 1937 to 1946, Walter Kaufmann lived in India and served as AIR’s music director.

When the All-India Radio station first went on air in 1939, he wrote an opera called “Anasuya” to celebrate the occasion. Although it had a European theme, the story was set in a fantastical Maratha kingdom.

Several people, including Mehli Mehta, under his leadership, founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society and established the Bombay Chamber Music Society, which performed every Thursday. Kaufmann taught piano in Bombay; he was Zubin Mehta’s teacher.

His stint in Bollywood

Kaufmann had a stint in Bollywood as well. Together with Mohan Bhavani, Kaufmann collaborated on films for Bhavnani Films and Information Films of India. To know more, please click here.

His works include operas, symphony orchestra pieces, ballet scores, chamber music compositions, and film scores. Among his works are ten string quartets, three piano trios, an Indian piano concerto, six Indian miniatures, and the Navaratnam.

His notable works include Musical Notations of the Orient: Notational Systems of Continental, East, South, and Central Asia and The Ragas of North India, and The Ragas of South India: A Catalogue of Scalar Material.

While the Western world has largely forgotten the Czech Jewish composer, his music is still widely prevalent in India. This concert is anchored by Kaufmann’s extraordinary life and the rediscovery of his concert works.

His archives

His works are archived in the Moldenhauer Archives in Spokane, Washington; the Houghton Library at Harvard University; and the Kaufmann Archive in the William & Gayle Cook Library for Music at Indiana University. According to an essay by Agatha Schindler, the Bombay Chamber Music Society performed several of his pieces from this period, including the Navaratnam, Ten String Quartets, Three Piano Trio, Indian Piano Concerto, Six Indian Miniatures, and Indian Concerto.

Friends in high places

Despite his many scholarly publications, and friendships with prominent thinkers like Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Max Brod, Kaufmann is often overlooked when discussing the history of Indian Jewry or European Jews in India.

Albert Einstein’s letter to Walter Kaufmann – Source

Synagogue President in New Delhi and Bene Israel Indian Jew Ezra Kolet founded the Delhi Philharmonic. The New Delhi Philharmonic Orchestra played a previously unheard piece by Walter Kaufmann in 1995 at a symposium on Jewish exiles in India hosted by Dr. Georg Lechner of the Max Mueller Bhavan. From all accounts, Kaufmann spent a few months in Madras, India, taking in the local culture and music. The music by Kaufmann was exotic and layered.

Walter Kaufmann died in 1984, but his signature tune is still played every morning.

Sources: 4

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