The Egyptian Blind Girls Chamber Orchestra is all about food for the soul

It is breakfast hour at the 24/7 restaurant of The Lalit and a lavish buffet — stretching from Indian idlis to the Continental croissants — is pining for diners' attention. Among its guests are a throng of women — their heads covered in colourful scarves — scanning the dishes, and in hushed tones seeking each others' opinion on what to pick. “The dishes are more or less like our Egyptian food,” is what one hears soon from the adjacent table.

The women are a part of a one-of-a-kind orchestra from Egypt, visiting New Delhi for the first time to perform at the invitation of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations at the Kamani auditorium here early this week. Besides their marvellous music, what sets them apart is that each of the 35 members is legally blind. One shares the table with the orchestra conductor Aly Osman and Wafaa Gomaa, one of the oldest members of the band. And on the table is a selection of Indian and Continental dishes comprising supple idlis duly paired with creamy coconut chutney and sambhar, stuffed tomatoes, an assortment of croissants, hash browns and of course fresh fruits and tumblers of watermelon juice.

Spicy food

Aly Osman is all for spicy food but Wafaa, with a shy smile on her face, use her scant English to convey that she is a votary of the non-spicy. So, she would not mind the idlis minus the sambhar. Says Osman, “Though this is my first visit to India, I have tried Indian food before in Paris. I like your spicy dishes. I am originally from Sudan, we have spicy dishes too.”

Osman has been teaching music to visually impaired girls for the last 16 years. “I am the conductor of the Orchestra for seven years now,” he says. The chamber orchestra is a part of Cairo-based The Music Institute established by Samha El Kholy, former president of the Government-owned Egyptian Academy of Arts, way back in 1961. But the idea of the Institute had come from the founder of the Cairo-based NGO Al Nour Wal Amal Association, Istiklal Radi. “Our orchestra has all the four sections — strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. To date, the band has travelled to 17 countries including a performance at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The members are in the age-group of 17-40,” mentions Osman.

Wafaa joined the music institute at the age of seven. “It was many years ago,” is how she puts it. Removing her spectacles with thick, powerful glasses, she says, “Without this, I can't see anything.” She plays the piano and percussion instruments in the Orchestra.

Time to try out some cut fruits and Wafaa talks about fruits back home. Using her little English, she says, “Our fruits (read Mediterranean) are very juicy.”

Osman talks about training the members. “Once I ready a composition, I write it in Braille and give it to the girls to practice. Reading Braille on the stage while playing is difficult, so I make them memorise the compositions. It takes me about a week's time to ready a composition with them.” The Orchestra's repertoire includes the western classics of the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Purcell, Katchaturian, Weber, Tchaikovsky, Bizet and Ravel besides Arabic compositions of Abu-Bakr Khairat, Gamal Abdel Rehim and El Sonbaty. “For the New Delhi performance, we have also readied an Indian composition. It is a famous film song called ‘Mera joota hai Japani…. Our President was given a CD of this song by someone which he gave to us to practice,” he says.

And once the performance would get over, the Orchestra would join in a dinner hosted by The Lalit in their honour. “And there will be Indian food for us to try out,” signs off a smiling Osman.