Geographically speaking, the saxophone, a single-reed woodwind instrument invented by Adolphe Sax in 19th century Belgium, and the parai, a traditional Tamil percussion instrument, are worlds apart. But there is a spectral-yet-superstitious connection between the two.
Adolphe, as a child, had several potentially fatal accidents, including a gunpowder explosion, a fall from the third floor, and mistakenly drinking acidic water. His mother allegedly said, “He’s a child condemned to misfortune; he won’t live,” and his neighbours called him “little Sax, the ghost”. But the ghost grew up to invent an instrument used across musical genres.
Despite its rich history dating back to the Sangam era, the parai, over the years, was inauspiciously associated with death as it was played at funerals by Dalits. Practitioners of parai are now trying to break this casteist connotation.
German saxophonist Julius Gabriel was unaware of this connection between the two instruments when he performed with parai artists at the Indian Music Experience museum in Bengaluru earlier this week. For him, it was not death that brought together these instruments that originated on different continents; it was something else, which is as universal as death: art.
Julius is one of the 11 artists from Germany who are in Bengaluru as a part of the Goethe Institut’s bangaloREsidency program. For about two months, the artists get a space to pursue their projects and the opportunity to interact with local artists and experts. It has been 10 years since the inception of this residential art program.
“While working on a few projects before the bangaloREsidency, we noticed artists from Germany having close interactions among themselves and artists in India. That was the impetus for us to start bangaloREsidency,” says Maureen Gonsalves, the cultural coordinator of Goethe Institut in Bengaluru.
To enable the artists’ project, the Goethe Institut allocates each of them an art or cultural organisation that will host them. The Indian Music Experience, for example, hosts Julius.
“Though the artists don’t live or work together, there is a synergy among the artists, the hosts, the city, and Goethe Institut,” says Maureen, “We find that so interesting. Which is why we have continued a program we experimented with 10 years ago.”
One of the main reasons artists sign up for the program is to make art in an environment distinct from theirs. Bengaluru looks, smells, and feels different from Berlin. “These sensory inputs have a lot of impact on the kind of art that you are creating,” says Jayachandran Palazhy, the artistic director of Attakkalari Centre for Movement Arts, which is one of the hosts of the program.
Kathrin Lambert, a sound artist from Saarbrücken, concurs. Her work deals with the noises of everyday objects like building materials. With her Bengaluru host, the Indian Sonic Research Organisation, she is exploring soundscapes of a different cultural context. “I believe that cultural exchange or getting to know cultures through soundscape is a very different or even intimate approach,” she says.
For instance, she notices a stark difference between the silent cities of Germany and Bengaluru with its constant traffic. “The acceptance of noise is completely different in a different cultural context,” she adds. “[In Bengaluru], I find a strong contradiction. On the one hand, noise is accepted and even demanded -- for example, in traffic or certain religious contexts like Diwali. On the other hand, the cultural work of other groups such as musicians or artists is often perceived as disturbing, for example at club events or concerts.”
The work of Kathrin’s compatriot and draftsman, Matthias Beckmann, is also about exploring the cultural diversity of Bengaluru. “The rapidly growing megacity dominated by excessive traffic, an internationally important IT location, combines urban modernity with tradition,” he says. “You can see the coexistence of different ways of life with places of worship of different religions, markets, street vendors, exotic-looking colours, fabrics, ornaments.”
Instead of going from one place to another, Matthias is trying to present through watercolours a “kaleidoscopic view” of Shanti Nagar, which is the location of his host: 1Shantiroad, an art institution.
Suresh Jayaram, the founder of 1Shantiroad, says the bangaloREsidency program benefits German artists as well as local ones. “For instance, as a trustee of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath College of Fine Arts, I involve the resident artists to be a part of the college curriculum,” he says. “This time, we invited Matthias to conduct a masterclass with the students, who get a chance to pick his brain or collaborate with him. This way, we extend German expertise to the local community.”
Goethe Institut also realised the need for Indian artists to go to Germany. Since 2017, it has sent about 39 emerging artists from India to Germany as a part of the bangaloREsidency-Expanded program.
“An important outcome of these residency exchange programs is that future collaborations emerge. It’s more than just visiting, finishing the project, and leaving. Very often, we see artists making long-term associations,” says Michael Heinst, the director of Goethe Institut in Bengaluru.
Nikhil Nagaraj, for instance, met fellow sound artist Felix Deufel from Leipzig via the bangaloREsidency program. He worked with him to learn more about 3D sound. Later, they worked together in Germany when Nikhil went there as a part of the bangaloREsidency-Expanded program. Their long-term collaboration resulted in an art project, ‘If We Vanish,’ which explores “the sounds of silence in Nature.”
“It goes beyond their work, beyond art. The artists who come here make friends who are into their other interests as well,” says Maureen. She reckons the city itself has a role in nurturing these collaborations. “The people here are receptive to experimental ideas and innovations. Bangalore is probably one of the friendliest and most welcoming places in South India.”
Matthias offers a testimonial. “The mentality of the Indians is quite different from the German mentality. When I sit at a spot for some time, people come to me and ask things like ‘What are you doing here?’, ‘Where are you from?’, ‘How long are you staying for?’ ‘How do you like Indian food?’ It feels nice.”