The sign on the gate is a familiar one, with the illustration of a forbidding canine, except that it says “Beware of musician”. “I intended it for pesky salesmen who invariably come while I’m practising, but it hasn’t worked — they just ring the bell all the same and ask nervously whether I have a dog,” says Neecia Majolly, with her full-throated laugh.
Majolly is well-known in Bangalore’s Western classical music circles, for her piano and vocal performances as well as her music classes. But she is also on a mission of sorts to promote the genre, in Bangalore and in the rest of India.
Her latest effort is a Festival of Classical Song, to be held in September this year, organised by her Majolly Music Trust, which will be organising the country’s first choral competition. “There are a couple of major competitions a year for pianists but nothing at all for choirs,” she says, at her idyllic studio-and-residence near Frazer Town.
One tends to associate choral music with the Christian church, but Majolly points out that there is a lot of beautiful choral music outside gospel.
Announced in April, the competition has already received a few entries, and choirs will be singing repertoires from the Baroque period to the 20th century. Majolly is equally excited about the grand finale of the festival, the performance of Handel’s Messiah in its entirety. “We’re half-way there,” she says.
The one-year-old Majolly Music Trust is looking to raise funds to help elderly destitute musicians. A few concerts have been organised as fund-raisers, but the corpus is still not big enough to provide sustained assistance, which she says will be given to musicians irrespective of genre.
She also founded Madrigals, Etc., a choir that sings music from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The music from this period, she says, is unique because it is polyphonic — which means that each individual voice is important, instead of the emphasis laid on “top voice” and harmony in music from the 1600s onwards. “There is a lot of interweaving, and it is quite difficult,” says Majolly.
She was introduced to this period when she was studying music at the Western Australian Conservatorium in Perth. Formed 13 years ago, the choir has at least two performances a year, and sometimes tour the country with their repertoire.
The pianist and singer’s own musical journey started in the Kingdom of Brunei, where she was born, when her father began giving her music lessons at two-and-a-half, though she has no memory of them. Her first public performance was at the age of six. “My father was an amateur violinist and pianist, and he taught me till I was 12,” she says. (Her unusual surname, incidentally is a combination of her parents’ names, and came about because her father felt it unfair that she should take only his name since her mother carried her for nine months.) She went on to study music in Australia and Singapore, before settling in India.
Ask how many hours she used to practice, and she laughs again. “Conventional wisdom says that students, especially in conservatories, practice for six hours a day. But I never could — I practise for two hours. The teachers don’t mind as long as you show results — and I was the best graduating pianist in my year.”
Her favourite composers are Beethoven and Debussy, particularly the former because she identifies with his temperament. “A lot of 19th-century repertoire is out of bounds for me because of my fingers” — they are not the long, slender digits one tends to associate with pianists, she says, spreading her palms to prove it.
Majolly is also an artistic advisor to the National Philharmonic of India which, mysteriously, is based in Japan. The organisation was started by an American composer in Japan, and funded by non-resident Indians there, and even had a programme where young musicians from all over South-east Asia would receive scholarships. Sadly, Majolly says she has not heard from the group in years.
Among all her varied activities, Majolly’s first priority is her music lessons. She employs five teachers and personally teaches around 30 students, though she no longer takes beginners. She proudly says the teachers are paid 70 per cent of what students pay as fees. “In fact, one of my students is going to quit her job in human resources, as is another software engineer, and devote all their time to teaching music. This is my way of ensuring that music can also be a viable career option.”
Ask her whether she has unfulfilled ambitions, and she declares “I want to be in a rock band!” The fact that she hasn’t yet is not for lack of effort. “Rock musicians,” she says regretfully, “are not really a disciplined lot.”