Tribute to Prof. David Reck: The cultural traveller

Musicologist and veena artiste Prof. David Reck, who passed away recently, loved India and spent much time exploring its musical traditions

Music of the Whole Earth. Who would be audacious enough to come up with such a title for a book? David Reck was. On September 30, I suddenly decided to flip through this huge volume and pulled it out from my bookshelf. It was the umpteenth time I was going through the book to get information about music practised in some remote part of the world. I discussed it with students in my English class, playing a video of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and stressing on the need to build their vocabulary to express musical ideas and feelings. I had no idea that David Reck had breathed his last that very day in Amherst, Massachusetts, US. A great lover of music, he loved Chennai and its culture. A veena artiste extraordinaire, he was laid to rest to the sounds of this instrument, said his wife Carol Reck.

Musical journey

David began a journey into the world of Indian music in 1967. He was then a struggling young musician in New York. Someone suggested that he should apply for the Rockefeller scholarship to learn the music of another culture. Soon, he got a call for an interview at a coffee shop. The interviewer was waiting for him, having already ordered a tall glass of lime juice, which toppled and spilled on his clothes when David extended his hand to greet him. After this, David was sure he would not get the scholarship. But a couple of days later, he was called to the Rockefeller Centre in New York City. The same man, who David met at the coffee shop, was sitting behind a large desk in a huge room. It was none other than David Rockefeller. He asked David which country he would want to go to. Without a second thought David said, “India”. “India it will be,” said David Rockefeller.

But David and Carol had no idea where to go in India to learn music. And when novelist Raja Rao, whom David had met in a residency programme, was asked, he suggested Rishi Valley School in Madanapalle, as the principal’s wife there knew music. So the couple headed straight to Madanapalle from New York. “The veena chose me,” David Reck had once said in jest, since the principal’s wife in Rishi Valley played the veena.

Someone suggested that they must visit Madras during the Christmas holidays. Heavy rains lashed the city when Carol and David arrived in the December of 1968. They decided to attend a music concert at Perambur Sangeetha Sabha. After the concert, as they waited for the rain to stop, a gentleman came up and offered to drop them at their hotel in Royapettah. When the small van pulled up, they saw the musician who had performed that evening seated in front. It was M.S. Subbulakshmi and the gentleman was her husband, Sadasivam.

Finding out the purpose of their visit, Sadasivam suggested that David and Carol relocate to Madras and made arrangements for David to learn from Tirugokarnam Ramachandra Iyer in the Karaikudi style at the Carnatic Music College. He also helped them rent an apartment.

David Reck elaborating a raga on the veena and Mrs. Reck is recording it. 

Sleeping on straw mats, cooking on a kerosene stove, walking or cycling to music classes, and meeting musicians brought much joy to David. Carol, a photographer, was interested in folk arts and would often go to Karnataka to watch Yakshagana performances or to Andhra Pradesh to meet the puppeteers there.

Coming back often

After three years, the couple went back to the U.S. but applied for a Guggenheim Foundation grant to return to the city. They kept coming every year, till David fell so ill a few years ago that doctors forbade him from travelling. The veena was so dear to him that lying on the hospital bed he played ‘Shree Satyanarayanam’, a composition by Muthuswami Dikshitar, with the instrument placed on his chest.

In the U.S., David went to Wesleyan University to study ethnomusicology and wrote the book Music of the Whole Earth. The book is actually a survey of all sorts of world music. It became a bestseller and Amherst College offered to set up a department for world music for him, from where he retired as Professor Emeritus. An Italian edition, Mondi Della Musica, Le Musiche del Mondo, co-authored by Reck, was released recently.

“Carnatic music and living in India transformed my life,” David told me when we walked into the campus of Amherst College, when I was there to give a talk on Mahatma Gandhi.

David Reck with Karaikudi S. Subramanian and David Reck during a concert. 

Occasionally, he did give concerts. Every year, when in Madras, he and mridangam artiste Umayalapuram Mali would go to Ramana ashram at Tiruvannamalai and perform. David was drawn to both Ramana Maharshi’s philosophy and the ashram.

Brhaddvani, the Chennai-based research centre for music, honoured him with the ‘Sangita Sethu’ (bridging musical traditions) title.

The writer is a cultural activist and Gandhian scholar.

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