Indian Music in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Indian Music in Canada

In 1986 in Canada there were approximately 280,000 people of Asian Indian origin, the majority of whom had arrived after 1968. Earlier immigrants from India were mostly Sikh labourers who arrived ca 1905-8 from the Punjab.

In 1986 in Canada there were approximately 280,000 people of Asian Indian origin, the majority of whom had arrived after 1968. Earlier immigrants from India were mostly Sikh labourers who arrived ca 1905-8 from the Punjab. The Sikhs have remained a sizeable group within the Indian community, though most later immigrants have been Hindus from many different regions of India. Asian Indians have settled throughout Canada, with large areas of concentration in British Columbia and southern Ontario.

Canadians were introduced to Indian music through the visits of dance companies and touring musicians. Probably the first such visit was paid by Uday Shankar and his Hindu dancers and musicians, who toured North America during the 1930s. In 1960 Dancers and Musicians from India, a company directed by Indrani Rahman, appeared in Montreal. A few years later musicians visited to perform at the India Pavilion at Expo 67; some settled in Montreal. Among these were Rahul Sariputra (sitar) and Swami Anand Veetarag (tabla), who together formed the Naveen Gallery Company, which has performed at Canadian colleges and universities and toured for the JMC (YMC) in 1977-8. Other Indian artists who have appeared in Canada include the mrdangam player T. K. Murthy, the sarodists Ali Akbar Khan, Ashish Khan, and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, the sitarist Ravi Shankar, the tabla player Pranesh Khan, the singer T.V. Sankaranarayanan, and the dancers Sujata and Asoka. The conductor Zubin Mehta made his North American debut with the CBC Symphony Orchestra 26 Apr 1959 and served 1961-7 as music director of the MSO. The son of Mehli Mehta (a guest conductor with the MSO), he once was married to the Canadian soprano Carmen Lasky. His brother Zarin Mehta was the manager 1981-90 of the MSO.

During the 1970s programs of Indian classical, folk, and popular music, often combined with dance, were presented in many cities by professional and amateur groups, some based in Canada, some visiting from India. Such presentations often have been sponsored by universities and religious or cultural community organizations, generally to celebrate Indian festivals. Examples of the cultural organizations are the numerous branches of the India Canada Association (found across Canada); the Toronto-based Bharathi Kala Manram (which stresses South Indian culture); the Raga-Mala Society of Calgary (founded in 1974 to encourage the presentation and performance of Indian classical music); Hindu Societies in Vancouver, Winnipeg, and other centres; the Friends of India; and the Chinmaya Mission in St John's, Nfld. In Montreal Rashmi Sharma, who was commissioner of the India Pavilion at Expo 67, remained in Montreal, where she has become an impresario for Indian dance, handicrafts, and musical events. In Toronto the dancer Menaka Thakkar's Canadian Academy of Indian Dance (Nrtya Kala) has offered instruction in, and concerts of, music and dance.

Traditional songs have been performed at Sikh and Hindu temples in Toronto and Vancouver and also in private homes, where folksongs (including wedding songs) have been perpetuated for use on certain occasions. Courses in Indian music theory and history and in vocal and instrumental performance techniques have been offered at several Canadian universities. York University has organized and sponsored many concerts of Indian music and dance. Those who have taught in the program at York include the mrdangam player Trichy Sankaran, the tabla player Robert Becker (a founding member of Nexus), and the US-born Jon Higgins, who was head of the York program until 1979. Other musicians teaching at the university level include the sarangi player Regula Qureshi at the University of Alberta, the tabla player James Kippen at the University of Toronto, and the sitarist Kathy Hansen at the University of British Columbia. Research into the music of Indian communities in Canada has been limited, and much remains to be explored.

Canadian musicians who have spent time in India include Welford Russell, a missionary doctor there 1925-41; Rosette Renshaw (b Montreal 4 May 1920; D MUS Toronto 1949) who studied Indian music on a grant from UNESCO and presented CBC TV programs on the subject in 1957 and 1960; Harry Somers, who visited in 1971; Gilles Tremblay, who went there in 1972; and Teresa Stratas, who travelled there alone and later worked with Mother Teresa in 1981. The call to prayer of a muezzin in Kashmir provided inspiration for Somers' Music for Solo Violin (1973, premiered by Yehudi Menuhin at the Guelph Spring Festival in 1974). Bailey and John Bird and Charles and George Sippi were born in India, as was the baritone Bernard Johnson. The Czechoslovakian-born Walter Kaufmann, who lived in Canada 1947-59, was music director 1938-46 for All India Radio in Bombay, became an authority on Indian music, and wrote several books on the subject. Among the Kaufmann compositions performed in Canada some had Indian themes (Madras Express, Six Indian Miniatures, Three Dances to an Indian Play). His article 'The forms of the Dhrupad and Kyal in Indian art music' was published in the Canadian Music Journal (Winter 1959).

A Canadian Jesuit missionary, Ed McGuire began to organize a violin school for coolie children in Darjeeling in 1980, producing a student orchestra which in 1989 frequently played under the conductor of the Calcutta SO. The students took the London Trinity College examinations, and one came to Canada in 1989 to study with Calvin Sieb, former MSO concertmaster.

By 1991 Indian Canadians had created numerous musical communities, differentiated mainly by shared language, regional origin, and religion, through organized bodies that serve to articulate the particular group's identity, creatively defining its nature in the new Canadian context. Performance is a dominant model for such articulation: people assemble to listen to one or more designated performers who become the voice of this identity. Examples from western Canada: 1) Hindu Temple. Sunday morning Puja, priest chants Sanskrit scriptural texts, local singers with harmonium, tabla, and cymbal accompaniment sing bhajans (devotional hymns, 'light classical' musical settings); also weekly evening bhajan meetings by specific worship groups, eg, devotees of Sai Baba. 2) Sikh Gurdwara, established with a similar pattern, hold Shabd Kirtan, solo chanting of scriptural verses from the Granth Sahib alternates with a group singing of the shabd (hymns, based on classical ragas), accompanied on harmonium and tabla. 3) Indian Christians have congregations with singing of hymns (musically influenced by Western hymns), also heard regularly on community TV. 4) Muslims chant unaccompanied hymns, mostly in private assemblies, but also in the Shi'a Imambargah and Ismaili Jamatkhana and in the basement of the mosque. 5) Cultural events: Musha'ira assemblies to present chanted poetry, and, most of all, 'music parties,' frequently held house concerts of mainly popular and light classical songs by local amateur musicians (again harmonium and tabla are the standard instrumental accompaniment), but also of classical music by singers and instrumentalists, including players of sitar, sarangi, flute tabla for Hindustani music, and veena violin and mrdangam for Karnatic music. 6) Family events, especially weddings, celebrated with a rich repertoire of wedding songs sung informally by women to the accompaniment of a dholak.

This 'assembly' model has been increasingly transferred to the public stage and to concert format, in the form of essentially two kinds of musical events: 1) Mixed offerings of regional vocal, instrumental, and dance performances presented by a great variety of local amateurs, many of whom are skilled and extremely dedicated performers. In every Canadian city there are known musicians who frequently contribute to a diverse range of occasions, from local art galleries and fund-raising events to Canadian and Indian holiday celebrations. 2) Classical music concerts of both Hindustani and Karnatak sangit (ie, vocal and instrumental music and dance).

A variety of artists, mostly well-trained amateurs, have settled in Canada. They play a major role in providing musical and dance training on a broad basis; every major city in Canada has one or more teachers or schools for Indian music and/or dance (eg, the India School of Dance, Music and Theatre in Winnipeg), run mostly by women. A most significant trend is the emergence of a number of promising and accomplished second-generation artists, thanks to a wide-ranging commitment by Indo-Canadian parents to induct their children into their musical heritage, including advanced training in India. The Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute's ongoing program of performing arts grants has contributed substantially to this development (eg, that given to the outstanding Bharata Natyam dancer Anuradha Naimpally).

Another strong boost to classical music has been increasing access to artists from India. In order to enable financing and management a number of local music societies grew up in the 1980s, based entirely on volunteer labour. Best known is the network of Ragamala societies. Regional associations often co-sponsor artists from their particular region, especially Bengali, Maharashtrian, and Tamil Societies, the latter also holding annual Tyagaraja festivals in conjunction with major Karnatic music concerts. At the national level the National Ragamala Society founder Jagannath Wani (University of Calgary) holds an annual music conference on the model of the Indian Music Conference (established early 20th century). Its major accomplishment has been the publication of the annual Indian music journal Bansuri (begun 1984), containing highly informative and diverse articles and interviews with a strongly Canadian content. Bansuri also offers an annual scholarship for Indian music in memory of former York University professor and Karnatic singer Jon Higgins.

Further Reading