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India-born pianist revives Canadian icon

March 06, 2009 12:33 IST

India-born pianist Karishmeh Felfeli, 26, lives in Ireland. She teaches music and performs across the globe. She's also promoter of an organisation called Sarabande, which promotes the music of Canadian classical pianist extraordinaire Glenn Gould.

Felfeli, who is being hailed as the woman who is turning a new generation of listeners onto Gould's music, spoke to Rediff India Abroad's Ajit Jain.

What made you take up the piano?

After listening to a recording by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, my whole brain and being was seized! So, I decided to become a pianist.

Tell us about your musical background.

I come from a non-musical family. I started lessons at the age of 4 with an Australian missionary, Enid Roberts, who had set up a small school in Pune. Even as a child I loved music. I didn't have a piano. I would go to Miss Roberts's house at 5 am before school just to practice. I was only 8 years old.

I have always loved sharing music with people, with an audience, and telling them about the pieces I was playing. It was the most natural thing in the world for me to have a life in music, but I've had to work very, very hard for it. Listening to Glenn Gould's recordings simply gave me the extra push I needed.

What took you to America?

I received a music scholarship to study in America. Upon graduating from school, when I was 16, I worked in a school teaching music for two years to save the money for the flight.

Are you able to share your music with a wider audience by living in Ireland than you would have, had you been living in India?

I believe that I was able to reach a much more advanced stage of performance, technically and musically, by studying with teachers outside India. My teachers in Pune felt that they had taught me all they knew. However, I feel the love of music that was instilled in me when I was in Pune was something nobody could share with me outside of India where it is more about ego, fame and money than the music itself.

I didn't have any connections, wealth or contacts. So, I had to simply start out, work very, very hard in the process.

Does India not have good pianists?

Western classical music is not that mainstream in India because the tradition of Indian classical music is just so amazing! Apart from Zubin Mehta -- who came from a very musical family -- on the worldwide stage, there are not that many piano players. Timothy Marthand is another, but again both are from well-off musical families.

Do you visit India? 

I do travel to India. My parents are still there. I think the artistic world in terms of Indian classical music is fantastic, but for Western classical music one really has to try very hard for small performance opportunities, and they usually take place at embassies and ambassador residences. Unfortunately, the audience to these places is wealthy Westerners and a few Indians. So, the purpose is defeated. Therefore, I do the concerts in Europe and then travel to India, where, besides giving concerts, I visit the charities where I volunteer and give the proceeds of my concerts to those charities.

You're an internationally known classical pianist at 26!

We live in a very different world now, where with the help of the Internet, media and press, anyone can acquire recognition. This is my problem with society -- that there is no need for true greatness to emerge, that mediocrity can also acquire enough recognition.

[Johann Sebastian] Bach and [Wolfgang Amadeus] Mozart were not recognised in their lifetime. Mozart was buried in an unmarked grave. To this day we don't know where he was buried.

I don't care for recognition much. My work, of course, is very well known in Europe and Canada for which I have had to work very hard every single day. But there are far greater rewards for hard work.

I think maybe what I do is different. I didn't go to [New York's famed] Julliard [School of Music] to train as a concert pianist. My parents were not wealthy to make it easy for me. I didn't even have a piano to practice on till I was 15. I've had more of a colourful life story.

My interest in Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, and the fact that I have combined his life, music, and the music of great Western classical composers with that of Indian and more folk/popular composers, have helped me immensely get recognition. I have also done numerous concerts which present young people who deserve the opportunities. That has added to the fact that I'm recognised now as someone who pushes boundaries. There is no shortage of incredible concert pianists who can play the entire difficult piano repertoire. Who cares? I'd rather be remembered for creating new things, for challenging ideas and inspiring people and raising awareness about other things. I spend time helping charities as there are people who need our help.

Do you think you are a role model for young people learning music?

I love working with young people. I want them to have a passion, not just this chalta hai [anything goes] attitude. I want them to work hard to fulfil their ambitions and dreams, and not simply go down the same old route.

What do you generally tell your young audience? 

There's no such thing as 'better' music or 'worse' music; it is possible to love a rock band and Bach equally; that they can also perform in a rock band and still be amazing classical musicians. And I always tell them to leave the concert thinking about something else, whether it's one piece, the composer, the performer -- to have an opinion whether it's good or bad.

You teach music in Dublin?

I'm an educator, and performer and I also present a critically acclaimed radio programme. Yes, I teach and perform in equal measures both in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

Do you perform in India?

All the concerts I did in India were before I was 18 years old. I played in all the major venues, including the Tata Theatre at the NCPA [National Center for the Performing Arts, Mumbai]. I would love to play more concerts there now, particularly for charities and causes that I want to raise awareness about. And I would absolutely love to introduce Indian people to Glenn Gould -- his life and musical ideas. But it is difficult being abroad for so many years to find the right venues and places with a piano to present concerts. 

Who have been your mentors?

When I was a teenager, I didn't really have any mentors. My piano and singing teachers were my driving force. However, there are many people I have admired, in particular my English piano professor Philip Fowke, who really instilled in me a great sense of discipline for Bach's music. There are plenty of others I have admired all my life. Glenn Gould is obviously one of them. My mentors also include Leonard Bernstein, American composer Charles Ives, and Indian composer A R Rahman.

Glen Gould is where my interest is now, as that's the story I am doing. 

Tell us about the charities you are involved with.

I always think that people in Europe, particularly those involved in Western classical music, are fairly well-off. It may not be like this in Canada, but it is here.

I have always felt there has to be more to music than simply performing it, receiving applause, standing ovations and using the money to buy a nice house and do the same thing for the rest of your life. Look around you; the world is a pretty messed up place right now.

There are people -- including my parents -- who have to make do without electricity 24/7, who live very differently as to how we live in the West.

When I was a young girl, I used to help out at the School for Orphan Blind girls in Pune and had also visited the Helen Keller Institute for Deaf Blind in Mumbai. I was determined that if I ever got successful as a musician, I would do my best to help these people.

Even a profit of Euro 200 to Euro 300 from a concert is a tremendous amount when you convert it to rupees. It is enough to buy a vehicle to transport the kids for days out, or buy Braille books and materials for them. So, the possibilities are endless.

These are children who need help. They don't have big fundraiser events or black tie dinners. The volunteers work tirelessly for these kids and receive nothing.

It's the same with animals. Glenn Gould loved animals. He even said he loved animals more than people! He also donated half his estate to the Toronto Humane Society for Animals.

The problem with today's world is that we are greedy for more money, for more fame, for more success. I don't really care about all that as long as I have a roof over my head and food to eat and am able to make music, so I give what I can. It's not complicated.