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Remember the Signature AIR Tune? Meet the Jewish Refugee Who Composed it!

Remember the Signature AIR Tune? Meet the Jewish Refugee Who Composed it!

In 1938 Albert Einstein himself wrote a stellar recommendation for Walter Kaufmann.

For an entire generation, the radio and the All India Radio hold a very cherished place. I remember my grandfather tuning it each evening listening to the news. My mother tells me stories of how she and her sister would huddle around the device to hear the latest songs.

What strings all these memories together is the signature tune that would play at the break of dawn.

Based on raag Shivaranjini, the lilting violin notes playing to the background of a tambura evokes a sense of nostalgia – almost eight decades since its composition.

While millions are familiar with the tune, few are aware that it was created by the most improbable source – a Czech Jewish refugee fleeing the Nazis in Europe!

Shown here performing at the Willingdon Gymkhana with Kaufmann at the piano, Edigio Verga on cello and Mehli Mehta playing the violin.      Photo Source

A Czech national, Walter was born in 1907 in Karlsbad, today known as Karlovy Vary. His father, Julius Kaufmann, was Jewish while his mother had converted to Judaism. Julius died near the Czech border after they fled Karlsbad under the Nazis.

In 1934, after Hitler’s invasion of Prague, 27-year-old Walter Kaufmann arrived in Mumbai. A refugee, Walter perhaps did not intend to stay on in India for as long as he did. He was in India’s city of dreams for fourteen years.

One may wonder why he landed in Mumbai of all places in the world. In one of the letters that were later published, he even says, “I could easily get a visa.”

Early days

However, having come to India, his initial years were not easy. As a trained musician, he was hoping to find takers for his talent, but his initial tryst with Indian music was not pleasant. He found it beyond comprehension.

Undeterred, he founded the Bombay Chamber Music Society within months of his arrival, which performed every Thursday at the Willingdon Gymkhana. Walter’s correspondence with his family back home confirmed that he stayed at Rewa House, a two-storied bungalow off Warden Road (now Bhulabhai Desai Road) towards Mahalaxmi temple.

In one year, the society had performed more than 130 times, while the audience at these performances kept increasing.

Walter Kaufmann
Photo Source

According to Scroll, in the same letter, Walter is disarmingly honest in describing his initial reactions to Indian music. The first records he heard were “alien and incomprehensible.”

But he wasn’t willing to give up.

“As I knew that this music was created by people with heart and intellect, one could assume that many, in fact, millions would be appreciating or in fact loving this music…I concluded that the fault was all mine and the right way would be to undertake a study tour to the place of its origin,” he wrote.

Walter’s stint with All India Radio (AIR)

From 1936 to 1946, Walter worked at AIR as the director of music, and it was here that he composed the iconic signature tune with noted Indian orchestra conductor Mehli Mehta, who played the violin for it.

It is amazing that the tune that generations of Indians grew listening to was created by a European – proving that music knows no boundaries, and is truly a universal language.

Connection to the Hindi film industry

Walter moved to Mumbai at a time when there was a shift from silent movies. His adept mastery over western music helped him in the Indian film industry as well. He composed the background score for several films by Mohan Bhavnani (a friend he had met in Berlin).

Recommendation from Einstein

Albert Einstein’s letter recommending Walter Kaufmann                                                                                     Photo Source

Albert Einstein, in a letter dated 23 January 1938, wrote a recommendation letter for Walter Kaufmann.

In that letter in German, he wrote, “Mr Walter Kaufmann of Prague, currently in Bombay (India), has been known to me for years as an inventive and gifted musician. He has already written many compositions, he is an authority on Eastern music, and he has had extensive experience as a teacher as well. With his youthful energy and likeable nature, he would be eminently suited for the position of director of choirs and orchestras in schools or universities.”

After India

In 1946, Walter left India and went on to spend a year in England, where he was a guest conductor at the BBC. From 1948 to 1957, he was the Musical Director and Conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

It was in 1957 that Walter moved to the United States permanently with his second wife, Freda.

Freda and Kaufmann                                                                       Photo Source

He joined the School of Music at Indiana University in Bloomington as Professor of Music in the Department of Musicology, where he taught till 1977. He died there in 1984.

While it has been over three decades to Walter Kaufmann’s demise, he has been immortalised through his signature tune that millions of Indians continue to wake up to.

(Edited by Shruti Singhal)

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