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Indian Music for the Netherlands - John Eijlers

Historical Perspective by Eva-Maria van Straaten
(March 2013)

With the recent closing of the Tropentheater in Amsterdam, an era of Indian music concerts in the Netherlands seems to have come to an end. One of the main forces behind the organisation of these concerts of Hindustani classical music as well as a variety of classical and folk dance performances in the Netherlands, was the late John Eijlers (1943 - 2004). His involvement with Indian music started with the organisation of small concerts in his home town Abcoude in the summer of 1970, and ended with a concert of bansuri player Hariprasad Chaurasia at the Tropentheater almost three decades later in 1999. John was very passionate about this music, describing Hindustani classical music as opening Western listeners "a way of being that you would otherwise not experience". His motive for bringing this music to the Netherlands was best expressed in metaphor: "If I have a house with a lot of rooms, but not all of those rooms are lived in, then this music opens a room that would otherwise be closed and dusty." In the following I will give a brief overview of John's activities regarding Indian music in the Netherlands.

Disappointed with the university system, mainly due to the lack of depth he experienced in his studies of psychology and social pedagogy at the University of Amsterdam, John started his first travels to India over land in 1968. At that time he associated India mainly with Tagore, Ravi Shankar, Gandhi and Buddha, but also with friendly and relaxed people, a beautiful scenery and a country you might simply want to visit in case you want to smoke some hash. When John came back to the Netherlands in 1970 he started working in the youth centre Mahadma in Abcoude, where he organised his first Indian music concerts. In the summer of 1973 he was appointed at the Mozes and Aaron church in Amsterdam, where he began organising weekly sitar concerts (with amongst others Jamaluddin Bhartiya and Darshan Kumari, who were both living in the Netherlands at the time) as part of a project implemented by the local government to attract more youth tourists to Amsterdam. This series of concerts turned out to be so successful, for both tourists and locals, that John continued with its organisation on a freelance basis after the project was finished. The audience at this time was, as John retrospectively suggested, mainly interested in "the East"; there was a strong perceived relation between meditation, smoking joints, and sitar music, a music that at the time was mainly popularised by Ravi Shankar'’s connection with the Beatles. Tripping hippies balancing themselves on the church banks was not an unusual sight during concerts of that time, which was not always appreciated by the musicians playing at the church.

From 1974 to 1976 John went back to India, and upon his return in 1977 he again started organising meditation sessions and India concerts at the Mozes, still on a freelance basis. First building on the knowledge and network present at the Tropeninstitute, mainly personified in ethnomusicologist Felix van Lamsweerde who had studied in India with both Vilayat Khan and Imrat Khan and had been organising concerts of Indian music since 1957, John slowly built up his own network in the years to follow. Most artists that were considered the stars of Hindustani classical music performed at the Mozes at least once, including but certainly not limited to Nikhil Banerjee, Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Ram Narayan, Bhimsen Joshi, the Dagar Brothers, Imrat Khan, Shiv Kumar Sharma and Hariprasad Chaurasia. During his time working for the Mozes, John organized twelve concerts a year, the number of visitors for each concert ranging from 250 to 500 persons. Although the church's acoustics were relatively unsuitable for the performance of Hindustani classical music, the allegedly spiritual atmosphere of the church space and the by now relatively knowledgeable audience was much appreciated by the musicians who traveled from India to perform there. And importantly, the personal contact John kept with all the musicians, the continuous energy he put in personally picking artists up from the airport, making sure their hotel was comfortable, that they were brought to the concert venue and that there were enough biscuits available to keep their tummies satisfied, made him an appreciated host for musicians.

In the following years, mainly pushed by the Dutch government who partly funded his organising activities and urged him to make his program more "meaningful" to a larger part of the Dutch citizens, John expanded his organisational activities to Vredenburg in Utrecht and De Doelen in Rotterdam. Radio and television organizations such as KRO, VPRO, NOS and Concertzender were regularly recording these concerts and broadcasted them in programs like De Wandelende Tak and Horizon. Finally, in 1989, when the concerts could no longer take place at the Mozes because it had to close due to a rebuilding of the church, John was invited by the Tropeninstitute to continue his programme there. He successfully continued his organising activities for another ten years there, until his final concert in 1999. Until the closing of the Tropentheater on the 1st January 2013, Francis de Sousa has continued the organization of concerts of Hindustani classical music in this concert hall.

All in all, John has played an important role in the popularisation and promotion of Hindustani classical music in the Netherlands. His influence might be illustrated by the fact that he got Prince Claus, the late husband of Dutch Queen Beatrix, to visit a Ravi Shankar concert and to buy a number of LPs of notable artists in 1988. But mostly, the energy and love he put in the promotion of Hindustani classical music in the Netherlands, will be remembered by the many musicians and audiences he brought together in and through this music!