The Symphony Orchestra of India’s February season begins on February 10. How did the country’s first fully professional symphony orchestra come into being?

When I was at the National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) recently for the Nakshatra Dance Festival, I was accommodated in a ground floor room usually reserved for the renowned violinist and conductor Marat Bisengaliev from Kazakhstan. Little did I know then that this conductor had brought his orchestra to perform at NCPA in 2005. This was the beginning of the establishing of the Symphony Orchestra of India in 2006, a dream of K.N. Suntook, Chairman, NCPA, one that the late Dr. Jamshed Bhabha, former chairman of NCPA, shared.

Bhabha was deeply passionate about Western classical music. Beethoven was his favourite composer. For the Symphony Orchestra of India’s (SOI) first anniversary in September 2007, Suntook had specially curated Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 but unfortunately, Bhabha passed away in May that year. “I remember when I told him that I would like to create an orchestra for NCPA, he had asked me if I would be able to manage. When I said I would, he gave his consent and told me that if the cause was good, the means would follow.”

I asked Suntook how many Indian musicians there were in the SOI. “Fifteen,” he said. At my surprised look, he added, “You won’t believe this; even the Malaysian Orchestra does not have more than a few Malaysian musicians, the rest are international musicians.”

Suntook spoke enthusiastically about the SOI, and about the music school it has established. “We have put into place educational initiatives that now bring music to hundreds of local children. The repertoire we learn and perform is quantifiable on the international stage. We have made opportunities for our local musicians to contribute to the ensemble and provide a resident conservatory atmosphere of teaching year-round,” he said. The SOI also provides lectures and talks in music appreciation.

Impressively, the NCPA has been able to attempt professional opera productions with international bodies, creating a new, modern era of professional opera in Mumbai. In 2008, it performed Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, followed by Tosca in 2010. In February 2012 came Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, the Cav-Pag Italian double bill. “In what was totally unfamiliar territory, we succeeded in staging the operas in the Indian context,” said Suntook. “The demands of a full operatic production, challenge us when we create it anew.”

I remember that Mumbai’s Royal Opera House was where legendary thespian Prithviraj Kapoor staged his plays. Later, films were screened there. I don’t know if any opera was performed there despite its name. But now Mumbai has a theatre — the Jamshed Bhabha Theatre at the NCPA — that can serve as an Opera House. Bhabha had visualised a theatre that could fulfil multiple roles and this was established as a space for large-scale international productions and orchestras. When the NCPA was still just a plan, Bhabha had visited Los Angeles Music Centre. Celebrated conductor Zubin Mehta, the then director of Los Angeles Symphony Orchestra, introduced him to renowned architect Welton Becket, who travelled back to Mumbai to look over the plans for the NCPA. It was Becket who persuaded Sir Dinshaw Petit to donate the magnificent 150-year-old baroque Italian marble staircase from the soon-to-be-demolished Petit Hall for the theatre’s foyer, along with four antique crystal chandeliers. And today, the SOI has an awe-inspiring venue to perform in. And perform they do.

Padma Shri awardee Dr. Sunil Kothari is a noted dance historian, scholar and critic.