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Music beyond boundaries: The story of Jon B. Higgins

“It was a grey chilly morning on December 7th, 1984. Jon Higgins rushed to my house carrying his cassette recorder and folders containing sheets of swara-notated music and his electronic shruti box. We sat together cross-legged on the rug preparing to begin our music lesson, but first turned to a discussion of our forthcoming trip to South Africa and to the political problems there that warranted some concern. Jon expressed his feelings as to why he thought we should take the opportunity to perform in such a troubled area, particularly stressing that our concerts should only be performed in non-segregated auditoriums. He at least wanted to show the South African government that his ensemble was a multi-racial one and was thus a small but sincere protest against the racist policy of apartheid.

We began work on a Tamil kriti, Adinadeppadiyo, in kalyani raga, adi tala, composed by Muttuttandavar. Jon liked the song because he felt it had “the depth and majesty of a Muttuswami Dikshitar’s kriti”. Since it wasn’t a Dikshitar kriti, he wondered what elements were responsible for giving it that character. My response was to say that although the sahitya was composed by Muttuttandavar, the tune (the original being lost) was set by my teacher, the late Sri T.N. Swaminatha Pillai, who belonged to the Dikshitar school. Jon indicated his desire to learn more Tamil pieces of this type for the South African tour”. These are the words of Dr. T. Viswanathan, teacher and colleague of Jon Higgins at Wesleyan University.

Early Life

Commonly known as Higgins Bhagavatar, is America’s Jon B Higgins, who was a musician, a musicologist and a teacher. Jon spent most of his educational and professional life in Wesleyan University. Jon was born in a village called Andover in Massachusetts on September 18, 1939. He received his early education from Philips Academy, where his father taught English and his mother taught piano. Jon later received three of his degrees, B.A in history and music, M.A in musicology and PhD in ethnomusicology from Wesleyan university.

Being a westerner and European musician, Higgins studied Indian classical music under Vidwan Trichy Sankaran. He returned to Wesleyan university to serve as a professor in music and went on to become the Director of the University’s Center of Arts.

Music initiation

Higgins initially started learning Carnatic music in Wesleyan university under Robert Brown and T. Ranganathan. He was so drawn to this form of music that it brought him to India. He came to India under the Fulbright scholarship and started his study of music under Dr. T. Viswanathan in Chennai. Higgins was so passionate about Carnatic music that within a short span of time, he rose to the level of singing in Thyagaraja aradhana at Thyagarajaswami’s Samadhi and gained a lot of appreciation from stalwarts and scholars.

He continued his study under Smt. T. Balasaraswati and wrote an essay on music and dance. Later, he served as a senior research fellow in American Institute of Indian Studies. He gave concerts on various prestigious platforms that garnered huge appreciation. However, a tragic accident cut short his dynamic life on December 7, 1984.

Most rasikas in India knew Jon as ‘Bhagavatar’, but few knew of the responsibilities he shouldered in his professional life as a teacher and administrator, in addition to his quality of being an extraordinary human being.

Career in Music

Higgins earned appreciation and attracted attention of rasikas by singing Saint Thyagaraja’s tough composition “Endaro mahaanubhaavulu”. His presentation was perfect in terms of raga bhava, pronunciation of sahitya and sincere bhakti. This kind of a presentation mesmerized everyone. He popularly sang the compositions “Krishna nee begane baro”, “Shiva Shiva enarada”,”Kaa vaa vaa”,”Amma ravamma”. Many of his programmes were broadcast on All India Radio.

Here is a  rendition of “Krishna nee begane baro” by Higgins:

His rendition of “Amma Ravamma”:

Jon continued to perform alongside his study of music. He performed to a packed auditorium when he sang for the first time at Delhi’s Fulbright house. Many of the “connoisseurs” present were there to see how this foreigner would sing and how he can be ridiculed. When Higgins sang Saint Thyagaraja and Muttuswami Dikshitars’ tough compositions with utmost ‘bhava’ and perfect pronunciation, everyone was left dumbfounded.

Jon had put in long hours of relentless practice and had mastered all the aspects of a concert presentation including appreciation of accompanying artists like ‘shabhash’ to the violinist and ‘bhale’ to the mridangist. He donned crisp white attire when he was on stage. During one of his concerts, when Justice K. S. Venkataraman acknowledged his knowledge of music and called it the ‘merit of the past life’, the ever smiling, humble, passive Jon called it ‘merit of this life’ and attributed this privilege to his knowledgeable guru.

Jon loved and admired Carnatic Music so much that even after he went back to Wesleyan university, he organized navaratri festivals there. He performed Saraswati puja worshipping music and literature.

Remembering Higgins

                                                           

That such a dynamic and sensitive person, who had so much more to give, should be deprived of life, strikes one as a cruelty beyond comprehension. We can be thankful for his contribution to the world of music, but most important is the legacy he left of promoting cultural understanding through arts. For a man with a conscience in a troubled world, Jon gave something great. May he be remembered in his role as a “cultural ambassador” – who showed the world that there aren’t any boundaries in music and it takes lot of dedication, perseverance, passion and commitment to rise to great heights.

Other Famous Musicians to Follow

2 Comments

  1. DIPAK CHATTERJEE DIPAK CHATTERJEE February 3, 2019

    Met him at the Kodambakkam street today. He is nice gentleman.

  2. DIPAK CHATTERJEE DIPAK CHATTERJEE February 3, 2019

    Can I have his email address?

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