Abigail Storch, M.A.R. ‘18
Photos by Joseph Kemper, M.M. ‘18
Over spring break, Yale Schola Cantorum traveled to India, performing Bach’s Magnificat in D and Reena Esmail’s inventive piece, This Love Between Us: Prayers for Unity, which had been commissioned by the ISM, and premiered in New York and New Haven earlier in March. Along with the Juilliard415 orchestra and conductor David Hill, Schola visited three cities, performing three concerts and a church service, and taking in the sights, sounds, and smells along the way.
Prayers for Unity is a seven-movement suite that fuses Western and Hindustani musical idioms into a lyrical whole. Accompanied by baroque orchestra, sitar, and tabla, each of the seven movements features a text on the theme of unity, drawn from one of the seven principal religious traditions in India: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Sikhism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam. Mirroring the fusion of musical styles, each movement weaves together the text in its original language with the English translation, and the result is a sometimes meditative, sometimes triumphant polyphony of musical voices offering up the same prayers in different tongues.
The experience of singing Prayers for Unity while traveling through India was nothing short of astounding. It was humbling to witness the variety of religious practices present in India by day, and to present a work of musical and cultural synthesis to an Indian audience by night. The first full day of the tour, which began in Delhi, we visited the ruins of a thirteenth-century ] mosque alongside the Qutb Minar, a towering minaret constructed of red sandstone and marble and completed in 1220 A.D. The rich reds and browns of the walls and pillars served as the canvas for carvings of astounding intricacy and detail. During our time in Mumbai, a few of us ventured to an island off the coast to see the Elephanta Caves, a network of Hindu cave-temples that date back to the fifth century A.D. Inside the caves are enormous statues of gods and goddesses, and a relief of Shiva on the back wall of the largest cave stands sixteen feet tall. In Chennai, the final city of the tour, we visited the Kapaleeswarar Temple, the largest Hindu temple in the Tamil Nadu region. The kaleidoscopic exterior of the entrance features hundreds of colorful gods and goddesses dancing, conversing, celebrating, and gazing pointedly at the viewer. We also made a special visit to the St. Thomas Cathedral Basilica in Chennai, where the body of the apostle Thomas was purportedly interred. Of special significance to us Yalies was the Sunday morning service we sang at St. Mary’s Church, the oldest British building in India and the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez, and where, in 1680, Elihu Yale married the widow Catherine Hynmers.
Throughout the tour, Prayers for Unity perfectly expressed the amalgamation of religious practices that we encountered, but it did more: it highlighted the yearning for love, the communion that all of us long for. After visiting Muslim and Hindu sacred spaces and feeling a kinship with the worshippers there, I sang the music differently. The cultures and religions that I encountered in India shaped the way that I understood the music I performed, and the music caused me to see an unfamiliar place and the people who inhabit it with a renewed vision of what all of us share. “See yourself in others. Then whom can you hurt? What harm can you do?” we sang night after night as we offered up a musical prayer for wisdom and for oneness.
Above all, the eleven days we spent in India opened our eyes to unity in multiplicity—the world we inhabit is vast, and the cultures innumerable, and yet we share a common humanity. From the aromatic spice market of Delhi to the majestic Taj Mahal in Agra, from the coastal sunsets of Mumbai to the seaside temples near Chennai, each new city we visited revealed to us a different way of being the same: endless variations of how we understand what it is to be human, and the ways that we respond to that understanding through craftsmanship, through creation, and through song.