While most Indians do not know Walter Kaufmann’s name, they have almost certainly heard his work. A Jewish refugee who arrived in India in 1934, Kaufmann was a composer and musician who developed an appreciation for Indian classical music during his years in the country. He eventually became the musical director of All India Radio and, in 1936, composed the station’s now-iconic theme (which you can listen to here.)
In their new play “The Music in My Blood’ co-writers Shubhra Prakash and Sonalee Hardikar blend both Kaufmann’s story and journey several generations of women take during that era. The play, which opens on June 6 at the American Theater of Actors in New York City, uses Indian classical music as a storytelling device to shed light on what life was like as an Indian woman in the 1930s and 40s.
We had the chance to talk to Shubhra Prakash about her new play and what it was like to learn more about this often-forgotten part of Indian history.
The Teal Mango: This play is based on a true story that few people know about. How did you first learn about Walter Kaufmann and his work with All India Radio?
Shubhra Prakash: I learned of Walter Kaufmann through Samara Weiss, who is herself a playwright in New York City. We had worked on the beginning drafts of The Music In My Blood and Walter is someone she brought up.
Once I learned about Dr. Kaufmann, I looked up sparse articles about him. Sonalee Hardikar’s (co-writer and director) suggestion of contacting Amrit Gangar who has written a book on Walter Kaufmann called “The Music That Still Rings At Dawn Every Dawn” gave us much more insight on his journey.
A Jewish refugee, Walter Kaufmann moved to India in the 1930s and soon became fascinated with Indian music. Sonalee Hardikar
By sheer serendipity and happenstance Simone Lazer, Dr. Kaufmann’s niece contacted me on the day of his 111th birthday, which is April 1st. That was also the day we were performing this play unknowingly in Rockville, Maryland. Can you imagine? We were doing this show on Walter’s birthday!
I had the privilege of spending some time with her and her father William Lazer, Walter’s brother in law in late April in Florida and learned much more about a man who worked tirelessly to get the music of the East documented.
TTM: While many people might not know Kaufmann’s name, they know his music. Can you tell us a little about the work he wrote in India?
Prakash: Kaufmann extensively researched the music of India and went on to write many books about it. His work ranged from annotating ragas to recording details on every kind of music he encountered during his stay in the East. He traveled within India and Tibet. If one were to look at the volumes of work he has produced on not only Indian music, but Tibetan and many other Eastern cultures, one could not deny that such scholarly work could only result from one’s obsession of the craft.
TTM: This play is also about several generations of women who are redefining feminism at a time when India was on the verge of independence. Can you talk a little about that and about how you wove those two stories together?
Prakash: The way these two narratives exist together is when Walter Kaufmann appears to Prema as a spirit and questions her decisions of running away from her past that required her to follow the path of being a classical musician, she begins to revisit the story of her family. This causes her to recall the way her grandmother passed on the tradition of their music to her mother. We get to see Prema’s upbringing in the tradition and her mother, Archana’s story. Many characters are revealed through this journey and central to this are the choices and sacrifices those individuals make so they could uphold the tradition of this music.
The 1930s was also a time of social progress for women in India, a theme the play explores. Sonalee Hardikar
TTM: I thought the title ‘The Music In My Blood’ was very striking because music has been such a big part of your own life. When did you realize that you had a passion for music and performance?
Prakash: Growing up I had an affinity towards theater and performance. I had to be part of school plays and anything that had to do with being on stage and being an actor. And if you come from a culture such as mine, East Indian, where music and dance is in your blood, then most performances include music, dance or both. So as long as I have been a performer I have loved music and now as a theatre maker this has become a part of all work I put up.
TTM: How would you explain what a raga is to someone who isn’t familiar with Indian classical music? How do you incorporate ragas into this show?
Prakash: Ragas are the bones of Indian classical music. Often described as a certain melody based on which many songs can be constructed. Ragas are unique because they can also be classified based on seasons, time of day and are known to invoke a mood or emotional effect. They are present all throughout the play, in the way our characters, who are musicians themselves, identify with the world around them and of course in the music that is based on many ragas.
TTM: But I also read that while you’ve always loved music you actually didn’t discover your interest in Indian classical music until you moved to New York?
Prakash: It has been interesting because when I was in India as a child I would sing in school as part of the choir, or in plays, whenever I had the chance I would sing. When I came to the US as a teenager after many years of not singing at all, I began to take classes in Broadway-style singing with several coaches because I felt I could be cast as an actor in musicals. And for that, you have to have a certain technique and style.
It was only after I got to New York that I began attending programs and learning more and more about Indian classical music. In particular, I was once in a workshop for ‘Monsoon Wedding’ the musical and realized that all the Indian music influences in the show needed me to visit this style of singing.
Basically, going to my coach who taught me Broadway-style singing was one part of preparation. I also needed to learn from someone who would teach me how to tackle the parts that are influenced by Indian music. The source for that is Indian classical music. So I ventured to see who I would learn from, how could I make myself a better singer in that particular style.
Indian classical music was always intriguing but never something I thought I would even attempt but having a great teacher motivates you. I listened to concerts of Sandip Bhattacharjee at the Brooklyn Raga Massive event and started to learn from him. My goals with singing are quite simple, to sing in tune, in a healthy manner and with true connection to the song. Singing I say is the most freeing activity for me. I feel truly happy when I can sing.
“The Music in My Blood’ runs from June 6-17 at the American Theatre of Actors in New York City. For more information, head to the show’s Facebook page.