Remembering Anthony Gonsalves
MIDWAY through Manmohan Desai’s classic 1977 film about three brothers separated at birth, a man in a top hat and a Saturday Night Fever suit leaps out of a giant Easter egg to inform the assemblage, ‘My name is Anthony Gonsalves.’
The significance of the announcement was lost under the impact of Amitabh Bachchan’s sartorial exuberance. But decades later, the memory of that moment still sends shivers down the spines of scores of ageing men scattered across Bombay and Goa. By invoking the name of his violin teacher in that tune in Amar Akbar Anthony, the composer Pyarelal had finally validated the lives of scores of Goan Catholic musicians whose working years had been illuminated by the flicker of images dancing across white screens in airless sound studios, even as acknowledgement of their talent whizzed by in the flash of small-type credit titles.
The arc of their stories – determined by the intersection of passion and pragmatism, of empire and exigency – originated in church-run schools in Portuguese Goa and darted through royal courts in Rajasthan, jazz clubs in Calcutta and army cantonments in Muree. Those lines eventually converged on Bombay’s film studios, where the Goan Catholic arrangers worked with Hindu music composers and Muslim lyricists in an era of intense creativity that would soon come to be recognised as the golden age of Hindi film song.
The Nehruvian dream could not have found a more appropriate harmonic expression.
A few months back, a friend called to tell me about a new character he’d discovered in a story published by Delhi-based Raj Comics: Anthony Gonsalves. On the page (and accessible only if you read Hindi), Anthony Gonsalves is part of the great Undead, the tribe doomed to live between the worlds. It wasn’t always like this. In his prime, Anthony Gonsalves was a mild-mannered guitar player who had devised a magical new sound known as ‘crownmusic’. But his jealous rivals tortured him to death so that they could steal his work. Now, the magnificently muscled superhero emerges from the grave each night to prevent the desperate from committing suicide and to rid the world of evil, informed of imminent misfortune by his pet crow.
Repeated calls to Raj Comics failed to disgorge the phone number of Tarunkumar Wahi, the creator of the series, so I was unable to establish how the comic-book character had come to get his name. But I couldn’t help thinking how the predicament of the leotard-clad figure was not unlike that of the real Anthony Gonsalves, whose home in the sleepy Goan village of Majorda I had visited only weeks earlier: both had attempted to connect disparate worlds and both had been left with the gnawing dissatisfaction of a mission unfinished.
Thirty years after he quit the film industry in 1965 to avail of a travelling grant from Syracuse University in upstate New York, Anthony Gonsalves continues to arouse the curiosity of his contemporaries. He departed at the height of his popularity and, even after he returned from America a decade later, never swung his baton again. In fact, he scarcely bothered to let his former colleagues know that he was back. As I met with musicians in Bombay and Goa in an attempt to piece together a portrait of their lives and work in the studios, many of them insisted that he was still in America – if indeed he was still alive.
The 77 year old maestro offered no explanations for his seclusion. His speech was slow and his thoughts sometimes incoherent, as if confirming rumours that he’d suffered a nervous breakdown in America when he realised that he wouldn’t be able to make a living as a composer in a country whose music colleges turn out thousands of aspiring composers every year. But in moments of clarity (which formed most of the three hours we chatted), Gonsalves pulled out photographs and yellowing newspaper clippings to take me back to the time in the mid-1960s when he’d attempted to merge the symphonies of his Goan heritage with the Hindustani melodies and rhythms he had come to discover in the film studios.
In this, Gonsalves’ ambition outstripped that of his contemporaries. Goan musicians had been sought after by film composers since the ’40s, when A.B. Alburquerque and Peter Dorado teamed up with a Sikh saxophone player named Ram Singh to form the ARP Party – an acronym that in those uneasy years also stood for Air Raid Police. The source of their appeal lay across a yawning musical chasm: while Indian classical music has a melodic basis, western classical music – in which Goans had been rigorously trained in parish schools established by the Portuguese who had ruled their home state since 1510 – has a harmonic foundation. To wit, all the performers at an Indian classical music concert reiterate the same melodic line, but western classical ensembles play different notes of related pitches.
When Hindi film music entered a period of rapid evolution during the Second World War, composers realised that the small groups they’d previously used could not effectively convey the drama unfolding on screen. So they formed large orchestras that ranged dholaks and sitars along with banks of violins, swathes of trumpets and a Hawaiian guitar or two. Since not many musicians from other communities knew how to play saxophones or clarinets, Goans came to form the bulk of the orchestras. But they also had another, rather more influential role. Until then, composers would rehearse their groups (which usually had fewer than 10 musicians) until they’d memorised their parts before leading them into recording sessions. But if the members of an orchestra were to play in unison and the tone colour of their instruments was to be employed most effectively, they needed to read the notes off scores, with each musician’s role clearly laid out. Few Hindi film composers, most of whom were trained in the Hindustani classical tradition, knew how to score music for the new ensembles. That task was performed by a Goan ‘arranger’.
Typically, the work proceeded thus. The producer would organise a ‘sitting’ (as the Goans came to call the baithaks) at which the composer (most often a Hindu), the lyricist (usually an Urdu-speaking Muslim) and the arranger would flop down on comfortable cushions to listen to the director narrate the plot. When the director indicated the point at which a song was necessary, the composer would hum out a melody or pick it out on his harmonium. It was the arranger’s task to note down these fragments, which the composer would later piece together into an entire song.
But even then, the composer would craft only the verse and the chorus. The arranger was responsible for fashioning the melodic bridges, for shaping the parts for individual instruments and often even wrote the background music. The arranger wasn’t merely a secretary. As I discovered while researching a previous essay, the Goans drew on their bicultural heritage to give Bollywood music its promiscuous charm, slipping in slivers of Dixieland stomp, Portuguese fados, Ellingtonesque doodles, cha cha cha, Mozart and Bach themes. Long before fusion music became fashionable, it was being performed every day in Bombay’s film studios.
But Anthony Gonsalves wanted to push the envelope even further. He wanted to compose raga-based symphonies that could be performed in the world’s leading concert halls. He travelled to Bombay in 1943, already a seasoned musician at 16. He had been recognised as a child prodigy and appointed choir master at a local church at age 12. He found his first job in the city as a violinist in the group of the composer Naushad in 1943. His talent was overwhelmingly apparent and he soon graduated to doing arrangements for composers around the city. He was also a highly prized teacher.
Every Sunday, his apartment at Sushila Sadan on Bandra’s Linking Road was thrown open to eager students, two of whom – R.D. Burman and Pyarelal – would become significant composers themselves. Unlike many of his Goan peers, whose western-trained ears couldn’t quite wrap themselves around the sinuous lines of Hindustani tunes (though they could play them well enough from a score), Gonsalves developed a deep passion for raga-based music. ‘It struck me very hard in my heart and my mind,’ he explained. ‘Melodically and rhythmically it is so rich.’
When other musicians went off for a smoke between takes, he’d engage in jugalbandi call-and-answer jam sessions with the flautist Pannalal Ghosh. He sought out Pandit Ram Narayan, Pandit Shyam Sunder and Ustad Inam Ali Khan to deepen his knowledge of the tradition. Soon, he was trying to find ways to meld the two systems. After a hard day in the studios, he would spend his nights committing to paper the fantasies in his head. It wasn’t easy. ‘A raga isn’t like a ladder, on which you take one step at time,’ he told me. ‘It’s like a path up the mountain. It winds more and there are unusual intervals between stages.’
He gave his creations names like Sonatina Indiana, Concerto in Raag Sarang and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in Todi Taat. In April 1958, his dream took voice for the first time. Gonsalves founded (and funded) the Indian Symphony Orchestra, a group of 110 musicians assembled specifically to perform his compositions. ‘I paid my own money to put up this concert because I wanted to show the richness of our country’s music,’ Gonsalves explained. Featuring playback singers Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey as soloists, the works were performed in the quadrangle of St. Xavier’s College to an eager audience. ‘It wasn’t fusion,’ Gonsalves insisted. ‘I just took ragas and scored them for an orchestra and choir.’
Other concerts followed. But by many accounts, the experiments were hailed with less enthusiasm than Gonsalves had anticipated. The composer Vanraj Bhatia, who was in the audience, remembers the performance as being ambitious but ‘a little filmi.’ Nonetheless, the events boosted Gonsalves’ reputation sufficiently to earn him a fellowship to New York a few years later. He was vague about what he did in the US, but a proud certificate on the wall of his Goa house attests that he is a member of the American Society of Composers, Publishers and Authors. He claims he returned to India because his family needed him, but his chronology of events seemed confused. He shrugged off questions about why he didn’t return to the film industry and about how he kept himself occupied since.
It was time to leave.
Compared to the journey of other Goan musicians, Anthony Gonsalves’ story is unusual, not just for his singular devotion to Hindustani music but also for the brevity of his route to the studios. Even before they found their niche in the Hindi film industry, music had always proved a dependable avenue for Goans to make a living. Though some people have retrospectively developed what the writer Fredrick Noronha describes as ‘Lustalgia’, an inflated sense of yearning for the (often imaginary) benefits of the Lusitanian empire, the Portuguese did little to educate or employ Goans.
This necessitated a continuous stream of migration out of the emerald territory. Bombay – ruled by another European sovereign – was often a stepping stone to other territories held by the British. Goans marched into police and military bands across the subcontinent and in East Africa. Others made their way into symphony orchestras at royal courts. In an engaging article about Bombay’s early Goan musicians, the historian Teresa Albuquerque writes about Josique Menzies, a Goan musician born in the Seychelles who was employed by the Maharaja of Bikaner.
By the ’30s, Goan dance bands had been established in most major cities and hill-stations across the subcontinent. Though schooled in the western classical tradition, many of them demonstrated a strong affinity for a musical trend that was the rage across the globe: hot jazz.
To be sure, India was no stranger to African-American music. The first performance of ‘minstrelsy’ music in the subcontinent was held in 1849, when a legendary musician named William Bernard stopped in India on his way back from Australia. African-American performers followed each decade after that and by the time ragtime had metamorphosed into jazz, India’s appetite for hot music was being fed by a steady stream of records from America. Still, the Indian jazz scene didn’t really take off until the mid-30s, when the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay hired its first resident jazz outfit, a nine-piece band led by a violinist from Minnesota named Leon Abbey.
But it was the bands that succeeded him, led by a cornet player named Cricket Smith and a pianist named Teddy Weatherford, that left the deepest impression on the subcontinent: they hired local Anglo-Indian and Goan musicians – Josique Mezies, Karachi-born Mickey Correa and trumpet player Frank Fernand, among them – and helped them discover the song of their souls. ‘Jazz gave us freedom of expression,’ Frank Fernand, now in his late eighties and stricken with Parkinson’s, told me. ‘You played jazz the way you feel – morning you play differently, evening you play differently.’
When the Hindi film industry came looking for musicians who played brass and string instruments to brighten its hues, Bombay’s jazz musicians were their first targets. Soon after, as the demand for dance bands in the far-flung provinces declined with the departure of the British, more swing musicians were available to fill the rosters. The most famous of the post-Independence Goan entrants to the film industry was Sebastian D’Souza, who had led the house band at Stiffle’s hotel in Lahore and managed outfits in Muree and other towns in what later became Pakistan. After an initial struggle in Bombay, D’Souza found himself doing arrangements for the duo of Shankar and Jaikishan, striking up a collaboration that lasted more than two decades. ‘He expanded the palette of colours for the film orchestras,’ the composer Vanraj Bhatia said. ‘Shankar-Jaikishan wouldn’t have their signature style if it hadn’t been for Sebastian’s genius.’
But the figure from that period who really intrigued the jazz obsessive in me was a kinky-haired hornman who went by the stage name Chic Chocolate. Chic – who was born Antonio Xavier Vaz in Aldona in 1916 – died in 1967, two years before I was born. But his legacy lives on through the dynasty that he founded: his three daughters – Yvonne, Ursula and Kittu – each married a jazz musician, and my interest in the genre burst into life at their concerts. My curiosity about the man who was known as the Louis Armstrong of India reached fever pitch a year ago, when I came to realise that he’d actually cut several 78 RPM records in the ’40s and ’50s.
I made a frenzied flurry of phone-calls to his family to try to obtain copies of the songs, which are probably the first original jazz tunes ever recorded in India. As it turned out, they had only one. Still, they graciously let me leaf through their photo albums and their memories of the man his contemporaries credited not only with looking like a ‘Negro’, but also playing like one. (I later found a stash of Chic Chocolate records through fellow obsessives at the Society of Indian Record Collectors. His prowess, I was delighted to discover, had not been overstated.)
Like all his Goan contemporaries, Chic learned music at his local parochial school, and first earned acclaim as a child singing at ‘kheols’, street-side musical plays that are often mounted around Christmas. No one’s quite sure how he got his nickname. His wife, Martha, told me it was a contraction of his mother’s term of endearment for him – Chico, little one. His son Erwell, a drummer, told me that it was the residue of archaic ’40s slang. ‘When he was playing a really hot passage, the other musicians would say, ‘That’s really chick, man,’ Erwell said. Either way, it’s clear that by the mid-40s – after stints in Rangoon and Mussourie – Chic had established himself as Bombay’s hottest jazz musician. He was ‘in a class by himself’, stated a review in the now-defunct Evening News of India during that period. Another newspaper article from the time describes Chic Chocolate’s outfit as ‘Bombay’s topflight band’.
By the time he was leading an 11-piece band at the Taj, Chic and his family were living in an apartment in Colaba. The flat had one bedroom, but two pianos – Chic couldn’t resist the urge to buy a second after he found that Mehboob Studio was selling one for just Rs 200. The home was always filled with music: if the five children weren’t practising their scales, the Garad record changer was dropping down a stack of records by Basie, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and by Chic’s idol, Louis Armstrong.
Chic took his Armstrong impersonations seriously. ‘He’d watched movies like High Society, Hello Dolly and Five Pennies and tried to copy Louis Armstrong’s playing and singing as closely as possible,’ his daughter Ursula recalled. ‘He followed his every move.’ Before gigs, he’d instruct Martha to pack his case with at least half-a-dozen white handkerchiefs so that he could mop his brow in true Armstrong style.
One morning in 1964, Chic woke up his children at dawn, packed them into his black Hilman car and drove them to the Taj. They were lined up outside the lift. After a few minutes, Louis Armstrong, their father’s hero, emerged in a cloud of suitcases and sidemen. He greeted the children affectionately and departed for the airport. A few evenings before, the older children had been taken to meet with Armstrong’s singer, Jewel Brown, and she’d given them an autographed photograph of herself. They later went to see Armstrong perform at Shanmukananda Hall. But all these years later, none of them is sure whether India’s Louis Armstrong actually had a conversation with the man he’d admired so long.
Like many Goan musicians of the time, Chic Chocolate indulged his passion for jazz in the night, but his mornings were spent in the film studios, enlivening the movies with his swinging arrangements. He first grabbed the nation’s ears with his brassy work with the composer C. Ramchandra: tunes like Gore Gore (from Samadhi, 1950) and Shola Jo Bhadke (Albela, 1951) presaged by a decade the Indo-Jazz fusion encounters of the ’60s.
He also collaborated with Madan Mohan, who gave the trumpet player a photograph of himself signed, ‘To my most faithful comrade, Chick – with all my best wishes.’ The family looked forward to Madan Mohan’s visits with some amusement: his huge car would always run into problems when he tried to park in the narrow Colaba lane on which they lived. But Chic had no trouble getting Madan Mohan’s melodies to swing. The eclecticism of the influences he brought to bear never fails to surprise me. Only a few weeks ago I realised why an instrumental passage in Chic Chocolate’s arrangement of Madan Mohan’s Ae Dil Mujhe Bata De sounded so familiar: it was a phrase from the Portuguese fado Coimbra that I knew from my Amalia Rodrigues albums.
Chic’s lives as jazz man and as film musician sometimes merged. Albela actually featured Chic and his band on screen in a song sequence, dressing them in frilly Latinesque costumes. Chic capitalised on the film’s success by dressing his band in those costumes for their dance gigs too.
Chic’s career was tragically short. He died in May 1967, aged 51, his end speeded by his Goan fondness for liquor. His casket was borne to the grave by Bombay’s foremost musicians, including the accordion player Goody Servai and the drummer Francis Vaz, and his Selma trumpet was placed across his chest. Shortly after, Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat hit the screen. The bluesy song Rut Jawan Jawan featured several close-ups of the Louis Armstrong of India playing his trumpet solos from the bandstand. Whenever they missed his presence, Chic’s children would go off to Garrison theatre in the Colaba military area to commune with their father.
The Majorda sky was blue-black when my interview with Anthony Gonsalves petered to a close. I knew I had bothered the maestro too much already and that it was time for supper. As I said my goodbyes, he urged me to eat another piece of the delicious jackfruit just plucked from his garden and offered me a tantalising thought. He had a bundle of all his original scores carefully tucked away in a trunk in the next room, he said, and would like for nothing more than for them to be performed again. But thus far, no one had been willing to put up the money for a concert.
Over the last decade, the march of technology and changing tastes have displaced Goan musicians from the studio. The synthesizer, the drum machine and the digital sequencer are now in vogue. Besides changing the texture of Hindi film sounds, these devices allow the music director to be his own arranger – and play all the instruments too, if he should choose to. As in film music, so in the body politic. The privileging of individual needs over the collective good has made Nehru’s theme sound hopelessly off key. As I sped through the dusk on the back of a motorcycle taxi, my head buzzed with schemes to persuade Goan businessmen to fund an Anthony Gonsalves concert. It wouldn’t take much, I’m convinced, to introduce his crownmusic to the inheritors of the new millennium.
* The research for this article was supported by a fellowship from the Sarai programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.