Thursday, April 2, 2009

In memoriam Stuart Cary Welch, 1928 - 2008

This afternon will be a memorial ceremony at Memorial Church at Harvard University for Stuart Cary Welch, who was Curator of Islamic and Later Indian art at the Harvard Art Museum from 1979 to 1987, among other positions. For me, this will be a bitterwseet occasion, mourning Cary's passing, while celebrating the richness of his life and remembering his generous spirit, as well as his intense interest in the related arts of poetry and music.

I first met Cary in 1968 through Jim Rubin and Hyman Bloom (see my previous entry, and continuing here an exploration of connections between music and painting), when he kindly sponsored a house concert at his home from my sitar teacher, the late Ustad Ghulamhusain Khan, during a U.S. tour that I organized as a guru-dakshina (offering) following my becoming his ganda-bandh shagird (or lifelong disciple--see my earlier post.)

It is generally felt among seasoned lovers of Hindustani (north Indian) classical music that the best performances occur in a small gathering, or mehfil, where there is the greatest possibility of intimate contact, even interaction, between the performer(s) and the audience. And on that occasion at Cary's home, along with the performance itself, there was a continuing discussion among those present of some of the principles of the arts of India, with Cary sharing some of his expertise on Indian art. Of course, one looked around the walls of his home and saw various exquisite samples of Indian miniature painting, of which he was one of America's most accomplished collectors.

When I came to teach at Harvard in 1973, at every possible opportunity I sat in, along with my senior colleague the late Annemarie Schimmel, in Cary's superb annual lecture courses, which each year focussed on some period of either Mughal or Rajput painting. A person of considerable financial means, and a collector of exquisite taste and eye, Cary had gathered over the years a range of masterpieces in these genres, which were on rotating display at the Fogg Museum, where as noted above he was Curator of these genres.

In 1980 I was approached by H. Peter Stern, then and currently President of the Storm King Art Center in Mountainville, New York, to organize an annual concert of Hindustani music in the Indian room at the Fogg in collaboration with Cary, with the intent of having a musical mehfil among some of the greatest works of Indian miniature painting, with traditional floor seating and no amplification (something that has come to mar the majority of small concerts these days). Thus, in a room that could accommodate, in addition to the artists, 40 people at most, we were able to experience in natural sound wonderful musical evenings, in what was indeed a recreation of the divaan-e-khaas, or the private audience of the Mughal emperors.

On a previous recording trip to Indian with Jim Rubin in 1968, I had met the late vocalist, Pandit Amar Nath, and I had hoped in the ensuing years to arrange a U.S. performance for him.
He sang in the style of the much revered vocalist, the late Ustad Amir Khan, who had developed his own own distinctive style of singing khayal, the dominant style of Hindustani vocal music, and who is considered one of the greatest vocalists of the last half of the Twentieth Century. We were fortunate to arrange for him to come to Cambridge exclusively to inaugurate this series.

The second year, we arranged for a performance by Ustad Nasir Zahiruddin Dagar and Ustad Nasir Faiyazuddin Dagar, known as the Younger Dagar Brothers, who were at that time the leading practitioners in the dhrupad style of vocal music, the most ancient of the north Indian classical vocal genres. The Dagar family played the central role in the propagation of dhrupad during the second half of the Twentieth Century, and is generally credited for saving this august tradition from extinction.

In the third year the performer was Ustad Imrat Khan, the world's acknowledged master of the comparatively rare surbahar, which he is credited has having brought as a solo instrument to the concert stage. Followign an opening solo on the that instrument, he took up his sitar, and was accompanied (also on sitar) by his eldest son, Nishaat Khan, and his youngest son, Shafaatullah Khan, on the tabla.

(Because it seemed to me a missed opportunity to have only the one exclusive concert by these outstanding artists, in the second and third year's I organized a Saturday night public concert, following the previous night's event in the Fogg, which we termed divaan-e-'aam, referring to the hall of public audience of the Mughal emperors. This was held in a large room in Hilles Library which could accommodate perhaps two hundred people, most sitting in traditional style on the floor, with chairs arround the walls to accommodate those for whom floor seating was difficult.)

But the defining experience of the Fogg concerts was precisely the experience of divaan-e-khaas, with Cary presiding over the occasion with his inimitable combination of erudition, wit, and warm hospitality, and the extraordinary visual treasures he had collected over the years adorning the walls in truly regal glory.

(More to come following today's memorial.)

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