“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection.” ~Anaïs Nin
And that, I suspect, is what I am doing today. Among the many posts I have shared about the city of my heart, I have failed to mention a key experience: music by the warm, glittering bay.
I don’t quite remember when I first stepped into the NCPA. Perhaps I was 6. Or younger. But my earliest memories include watching the Peanuts at the Tata Theatre and wearing a pleated plaid dress to watch a comedy at the Experimental, (for which the actors borrowed my water bottle as a prop). Music by the classical masters formed a backdrop to my life, and for this gift, I cannot give enough thanks.
The morning dress-up ritual for school was punctuated by the gentle strains of Strauss’ Blue Danube (keeps tension at bay, Daddy used to say) and I may have developed a Pavlovian response to Sunday dhandar, fried fish, and Mozart. Our neighbor two floors down was a piano teacher, whose fingers would fly across the ivories to amuse herself on weekends, and the strains of her layered, rich playing were heard throughout the building. Time trundled on as it is wont to. My teenage years brought on other, varied musical interests, and our piano teacher-neighbor passed away. But the enduring legacy of my upbringing was an emotional connection to the NCPA.
It was never just about the music. There were rituals, and unspoken codes, and if you were lucky (?) enough to be born and bred into them, then you’d pick them up effortlessly, sailing through the crimson-carpeted hallways with your pearls and grandma’s handbag, knowing not to clap between movements, and acknowledging other regulars with air kisses and tilts of the head. If you were a member, you received the month’s program in the mail, and knew precisely what pieces you’d be hearing that evening. You would know the insiders from the one-offs, who, clad in rani pink or bright orange, would shuffle unsurely toward the bar and food area, not knowing that the cold coffee and chicken sandwiches were the best things on the menu. Or that the delightful Stop Gaps, headed by good old Alfie, would hand out Christmas mementos after every concert of the Festival of Festival Music. And Karla Singh, god bless her, would be her funny, naughty emcee self and have us chuckling year after year.
There is a definitive confidence that comes from knowing your space. From viewing it from the inside out and breathing through the familiar placenta, rather than witnessing from extraneous layers. I’ve watched myself at concerts at London’s Barbican Centre and San Francisco’s Davies Hall. I’ve noticed how my posture, although tall, is just that slightest bit unsure. The music is exquisite. The experience, just as wonderful. But the space and the power that comes from knowing it intimately isn’t mine. At the Jamshed Bhabha or the Tata, I am in my element. I know exactly how many beads of perspiration will break out on my face in the dash from the car to its chandeliered entrance hallway. My shoulders are thrown back, a stole wrapped casually around them, the familiar faces popping up almost right away. That there, is my school English teacher. Over this way, three of my neighbors. Hi there, Cousin, new date? The low buzz and laughter, the making our way over to those familiar crimson seats amid exclamations of delight, hugs and hellos, the gentle bell peals and dimming of lights to indicate we should settle down, and then finally, the collective hush as the conductor strides onto the stage.
The music. The delicate, the thundering, the fragrant, the vicious, the gloom-and-doom, and infinitely worthy of elation, it scoops you up in scented lavender tissue, escorting you through mid-air to plunge you into an expansive pool of bubbling delight. You gasp, the heady rush leaving a buzz in your brain. Your feet are singing. Your fingers move of their own accord. Your liver is yodeling in high Cs. And you are enveloped in the purest delight this universe has to proffer.
You know your cues. And they, you. In these hallways of insiders, being of them matters, even if only just to themselves. There will always be the odd Bollywood superstar who will show up at (only) a big name concert, ruining the experience for the rest of us with traffic jams, security and paparazzi. And this is probably the only place in the world they will be pretty much left alone. For the star of the evening is the melody, and the people who make it flow.
In my misspent youth, I could calculate the seriousness of my relationships by the number of NCPA dates I’d had with the guy. Small wonder then, that I’m married to the one who topped the list. This piece of earth at the tail end of Bombay’s financial district, was, in our days of courtship, a world unto ourselves, a space so private amidst the public, that we still talk about it like we’re there. We still follow each season of the SOI, if only through the emails we receive. We still mention it when Zubin Mehta or Marat Bisangaliev are “in town”. And we wonder what Zane Dalal will be conducting at the grand finale. Plays are eagerly scanned for familiar names, half my college being the Bombay theatre scene today, and I am kept abreast of film festivals and gallery exhibits by a cousin who is a regular.
As the holiday season approaches, we’re already wistfully thinking about what we’ll be missing. Where we now live is undeniably glorious. But every so often, all one needs is one’s own comfortable home, with its breath of recycled air. And no matter where I park my boots, my beloved NCPA and I, we’re an item for life.