Coomi Nariman Wadia – India’s first female conductor of choral music
Coomi Nariman Wadia is a music conductor of Mumbai’s Paranjoti Academy Chorus. In 2017, at the age of 84, she completed 50 years in this field. She joined Paranjoti Academy Chorus in year 1967, formed by Dr Victor Paranjoti’s Bombay Amateur Light Opera Sabha group in 1960. She started conducting the same year, after the death of Paranjoti, and she has been associated with the group since then.
In 2023, she was honoured with fourth civilian honour Padma Shri by government of India. Coomi entered the scene when female conductors were rare even in the West, and she owns the credit of first ever female conductor of choral music from India. Wadia has been PAC’s conductor for 56 years when Padma Shri was honoured. By that time, she had already led more than 200 concerts, with tours in 18 countries.
Coomi Nariman Wadia lost her father at a young age
Her mother was only 31, when Coomi lost her father. At that time, to teach her music was not there, even in dreams. But suddenly, one of her dad’s friends gave her a second-hand piano, saying, ‘Make Coomi learn this.’ She was only 9 when she started playing piano, and by the age of 15 she started participating in choirs of schools and colleges. Thus since young, music has been an integral part of her life.
A pianist with two diplomas from The Trinity College of London
When she joined at Paranjoti Academy Chorus as a soprano, she was a pianist holding two diplomas from The Trinity College of London. She joined as a singer, and sang many concerts under Dr. Paranjoti. She got married to Nariman before she joined the Chorus Academy. She got only less time with Paranjoti, and in that short span she learnt a lot from him. After his death in February 1967, it was a great challenge for her to take over the charge as a conductor. Her husband encouraged her saying, the choir won’t survive if she won’t take over its supervision. Thus, began the glorious era of Coomi as a conductor with the group.
She conducted her first performance on May 24, 1967, at Patkar Hall, Churchgate. During the glorious days, it was the only group which conducted many concert tours abroad. They also invited choirs from other countries like Germany, Spain and Japan, and have arranged their concert tours all over India. They conducted world tour in 1989. In 1974, PAC represented India first time ever in IX International Choral Song Festival, and won first prize for Overall Excellence. She rose to prominence after that. It was a time when only less female conductors were there in scene.
Under her baton, the troupe performed in 22 languages, which even included compositions of 16th century. Many times even when none of the chorus members know the language, Coomi Nariman Wadia made them sing authentically. She has been a perfectionist very particular about our pronunciations and intonations, who also served as a taskmaster during rehearsals. From a Goan folk song to a tango to song from the Vedas or a western classic symphony, she conducts a wide range of music with equal flair.
Her contributions are immensely huge to put India on the global choral map. When she was honoured with Padma Shri in 2023 at the age of 89, she has been the Music Director and Conductor of the Paranjoti Academy Chorus for long 55 years.
Coomi Nariman Wadia – Some interesting and less-known facts
1. Since the age of 12, she was interested in rallying the neighbourhood kids and making them put on concerts and organise evening performances.
2. Though she has been very strict as a conductor even during rehearsal sections, once the sections are over, she used to be a very fun person sharing memories of her heydays and also personal things, including how she met her husband.
3. Wadia was awarded ‘Laadli of the Century’ in 2018.
4. She was once invited to do a course on Bach with popular conductor called Helmuth Rilling in Germany.
5. Her husband passed away in 2016, one year before she completed 50 years with Paranjoti Academy.
6. When asked if she misses singing, her reply was, “No. Being a conductor is far more challenging and fulfilling”.
7. A time when the field was completely dominated by West, she conducted music wearing India’s traditional attire – Sari, which caught attention of many.
8. She introduced new western choral music into India and acquainted West with beauty and sonorities of Indian music.
9. At the “Stuttgart Partnersingen” in 1981, she conducted the final concert with over 700 singers.