Indian classical: The anchor in a migrant’s journey

Few would have heard of Jay Visvadeva outside Indian arts circles, but mention him to any musician of note in the Indian sub-continent or Britain, and you immediately connect.

By Prasun Sonwalkar

Published: Fri 11 Jun 2021, 12:15 AM

Last updated: Fri 11 Jun 2021, 4:54 PM

It can rank as one of the incredible migrant journeys: born in one culture, growing up in a different continent, uprooted from there and arriving in another continent as a teenager, learning about the original culture in a foreign land and going on to promote Indian classical music over 50 years while interacting with legends and others.

Few would have heard of Jay Visvadeva outside Indian arts circles, but mention him to any musician of note in the Indian sub-continent or Britain, and you immediately connect. Born in a Gujarati family in Kenya, he arrived in London as a teenager in May 1970, when Asians were being expelled from east Africa. Today, sitting in his small office in Ealing, Visvadeva is surrounded by books and thousands of hours of recordings of over 1,780 events he organised over the decades in London and across Britain, featuring every major performer from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

He recalls: “I was interested in devotional music while in Kenya, but the main thrust into Indian art and music began in London. I was a run-around lad, making chai, during the Sanskritik Festival of Arts of India in the Southbank Centre in 1970, when I met Ravi Shankar and George Harrison. I felt I had found something. That exposure was God-sent; we didn’t have such level of events in Africa. It was all fascinating, listening to Ali Akbar Khan, Nikhil Banerjee — it created a melting pot.”

Visvadeva remembers listening enraptured to Girija Devi, but was not familiar with the Purabi-Awadhi words she used; so he set about learning written and spoken Hindi and later contributed to BBC Hindi and Voice of America. It was a time when India and aspects of Indian culture were gradually becoming popular in Britain, with increasing attendance at classical music concerts. Several individuals influenced and helped him in the journey, including radio producer and ethnomusicologist Deben Bhattacharya, philosopher J Krishnamurti and priest Pandit Vishnu Narayan. While evolving his arts oeuvre, Visvadeva read Law at London University and specialised in intellectual property law that he later used to help musicians.

“I set up the Academy of Performing Arts and Music in 1977 and Sama Arts in 1987, organising concerts of all the greats, including many from Pakistan, such as Nazakat Ali Khan and Salamat Ali Khan, Mehdi Hasan, Noor Jehan, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ghulam Ali. London is a meeting point of the Indian sub-continent. We provided a platform for performers from India, Pakistan and elsewhere, including Runa Laila from Bangladesh. My training in law helped to advise many musicians on protecting their rights, because as you know, they do not care about law,” he says.

In 1992, Visvadeva and colleagues Vibhakar Baxi and Kirit Baxi launched Navras Records, releasing 450 albums from recordings of concerts he organised, but the label faced challenges as file-sharing and Internet proliferation altered business models. “I still have thousands of hours of recordings that we are in the process of cataloguing and archiving, and I am working on three books on my journey, besides podcasts, talks and film series,” he says.

Over the decades, Visvadeva interacted closely with all the legends and others, but is uneasy with the off-stage persona of many: “India is a star-struck society. There is a big ego problem, they get confused between off-stage and on-stage engagement. I used to say to them that they should not demand veneration. Deifying them is wrong, they are humans after all. It is also true that every performer cannot be a good teacher. We need good teachers”.

Visvadeva’s knowledge of Indian classical music and engagement with legends comes through in his writings and social media interventions, but a remarkable aspect of his journey is that he has never lived in India. “If I were to add the days spent in India during visits, they would not add to more than six months over my lifetime. I got it all in London, built relationships with the masters and others. I did not miss India, but created India within,” he adds.

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