Walter Kaufmann

The man behind the AIR signature tune….

The other day I was sitting at our local Tamil restaurant in Cary and munching a rava dosa, happily musing about my days in Chennai (it was Madras when I was there, but not so long ago) and the fantastic food in Hari Nivas and so many other places, while at the same time glancing around the packed restaurant. One could see a smattering of the desi populace here, Tamilian families – the IT crowd, some Andhra guys, Kannadigas, but no other Malayalees, they venture out rarely for some reasons I suppose only they  know, I suppose. But there are always one or two tables with the gora’s sticking out in the brown ambiance, and then my glance would linger for a while at their countenances and the food they had ordered. You see it is a south Indian Veg restaurant where you do not get naan and chicken tikka masala.

It is the countenance that arrests you at times, for you see no confusion or consternation that one saw before. These guys know the food they are eating. They eat dosas like they should be eaten, with their fingers while you see some of the gujjus or punjabis handling it gingerly with two fingers and supping the sambar with a spoon. These guys dip the dosa into the sambar and munch it with glee signifying the amount of time they have spent in our mater-land, perhaps Bangalore or Madras.. where they learnt these new eating habits. As the dosa is munched and the filter coffee is sipped, you see the bliss on their face (I am exaggerating some) and I feel happy..ahh..I say, one more entrant into our fold.. perhaps wise chaps like we are??

But this is not about South Indian food or anything of that sort, It is about a person who came to India and lived there for a long time. He left behind a legacy for us, one of the best. I had mentioned him once before and over the years, I have received so many mails from so many people I have never met or known, asking me questions about the person and his everlasting composition.

The composition, if you have not guessed until now is the lovely AIR signature tune that we hear every morning. People like us who are away from India, marvel at that simple tune, and remember the mornings as I described it in my previous blog (linked here). That was a popular blog of mine, it has been copied and reproduced by so many people in parts. I will provide an excerpt from that blog and continue on about the creator.

I have no doubts that some of you, once upon a long time ago, listening to the radio at the break of dawn, have heard this tune. It was a time when the lady of the house would be up, starting up the activities at home, after her bath, with wet hair hanging loosely tied, slightly damp sari with the one end tucked into her hip, getting the coffee and breakfast ready, the wood fire in the kitchen up and going nicely, smoke tendrils creeping up the chimney, clinking sounds of various brass & steel utensils in the background, while the man of the house and his father would be shaking themselves out of their beds, the younger anxiously ready to face life, the elder cursing his arthritic creaking bones and the various indignities of life as one gets older. Through this all, the child of the house would be fast asleep under his thin blanket, dreaming of animate & inanimate things; the boy had at least another two hours to dream before he started off for school.

The younger man would move slowly, still drowsy and with unsteady legs, to the living room. He would reach up to that wooden plank on the wall steadied by the two L brackets, where the old valve radio set was placed and turn the brown stained knob to click the radio on. It took a minute for the EL 84 vacuum tube valves to start up and glow as the man could see it through the cloth front of the radio. But it was not yet time; he heard only the hiss of static. Sunlight had started to streak through the gap between the wall and the roof, also through the glass tiles, and the man idly looked at the dancing dust particles in the beams for a while as his body warmed up. One could not help but notice the webbed antenna of the radio near the ceiling, where a number of spiders were busy with their own lives, spinning webs and waiting for their flying prey.

Then he did what his father had once routinely done during his entire life time, he walked across to the other side of the room and wound the wall clock, always remembering his fathers words ‘Son! Not too much or the spring will break…never should you move the needles back. If the time has to be changed, move it only forward – and as you move the needles make sure the pendulum is stopped carefully’…It was a clock imported from the old blighty (bilayath), and Papaji had to wait a two full months after placing the order at the local Spencer’s. It had cost all of fifty rupees in those days.

It was now 0530 AM, and the lady of the house called out from the kitchen ‘coffee is ready, come and have it before it is cold’. Papaji had also come out after his ablutions, he would touch food only after all that was done and after he had finished his bath, and like he said every day, he grumbled “the younger generations are not right, ugh! They drink coffee without brushing teeth”.

The magic eye tuner of the radio narrowed to a slit like cat’s eyes, the station came on air and the Akashwani signature tune started. Kaufmman’s immortal work composed on the resonating Tanpura, Viola and Violin echoed in the room. The Indian day had started.

And thus the many millions woke up to a new dawn in the teeming Indian villages, towns, cities, metropolises to toil and hustle to reach their own dreams…Many would remember the AIR signature tune in their lives, at some moment or the other – like I did today!!

That was the tune that set the trend for the day, a tune that many people attributed wrongly to all kinds of musical ustads. Some said Ravi Shankar, some said Vishnu Govind Jog, some others said John Foulds and some said Thakur Balwant Singh,

Debashish Chakraborthy a reader clarified then with details

At the risk of being called a revisionist, let me say that Walter Kaufman did compose the AIR signature tune but not as a signature tune. In fact, it was an extract from a sonata commissioned by Mehli Mehta the well-known violinist who later became the first violin of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester, and ended his days in California at the tender age of 92. He was, ultimately, better-known as the father of Zubin Mehta, the conductor. Mehli Mehta played the violin for the signature tune which, thank Heaven, has not been "improved" by any charlatan. He remained justly proud of this fact to the end of his long life. However, let me assure you that all the assertions about the AIR signature tune which I have made are correct. Mehli Mehta confirmed the facts to me in a letter after I wrote to him. Before he died, I was able to bring the letter to the attention of PC "Tiny" Chatterji, one of the most enlightened Directors General of AIR. He knew Kaufman in India, being an AIR old timer, and was delighted to read it, even though he was very sick…

So we know that the person behind this magnificent tune is one Walter Kaufman. Who was he? Why was he in India? What did he do? Why did he go back? Is he still alive? So many questions, which need answers, at least to some people… So the next part of this blog is a little account of Kaufman in India compiled mainly from the essay written by Agata Schindler, my heartfelt thanks to her and Bhatti for the book Jewish Exiles in India which I perused recently. I thought it would be nice if I left something here for people to refer to someday if they had a doubt about such matters, for it is not easy to get data on people like Kaufman. I myself am particularly blessed to have three fabulous libraries in my neighborhood, the NCSU library, the UNC Chapel Hill library and the Duke library to feed my frantic searches for such information. The only grouse I have is a lack of hours left in a day to devote to these researches after regular office hours and also the risk of upsetting domestic harmony with a head buried in musty pages and spectacles becoming thicker as the years go by..But I manage..

Freda and Walter Kaufmann
Back to the 30’s. Walter was from Karlsblad (B 1907) then in Bohemia (today’s Czech republic) living in Prague (He left Berlin in 1933 for safer Prague) and known as ‘a musician with an instinct sure to sweep you off’. Ah! Prague, I have been there once or twice, a lovely little city with a castle and a typical European layout and a lovely bridge that has a lot of history. His friends circle boasted Einstein, Haas, the Kafka family and so many others. By the age of 24 his compositions were being played in various orchestras. Later he worked for many radio stations (Berlin and Prague). But Walter knew he had to leave his abode, for he feared Bohemia would also be no longer be safe for Jews. The Nazi’s were tightening their anti Semitic noose and Walter’s friend had just been killed in Berlin and they were no longer safe in Prague even. It was winter 1933, early 1934.

Unlike others who went to all kinds of usual places, Walter chose India on an impulse and went to Bombay which was to be his home for the next 12 years. One of the persons he worked with in Bombay was Willy Haas another émigré, with whom he conducted many orchestras and composed energetic and exhilarating music. During these periods in India, he composed many pieces of music with an Indian flavor using new instruments and even taught at Sofia College in Bombay. He went on to write voluminous books on North and South Indian Classical music, both of which are now considered reference books on the subject. In addition to performing, composing and lecturing, he began collecting Nepalese traditional music, which he described as “a strange combination of Indian, Tibetan and Kashmiri music and learnt Indian and Urdu notation, before incorporating these into his own compositions.

Why did Walter chose India over other more exotic safe havens like Singapore, Hong Kong or Shanghai? Why did he not even say goodbye properly (he did it on the phone) to his father and girlfriend? Let us see what he himself had to say in reply to these questions

My reasons to go to India were relatively simple, I could get a visa. I had a friend in Bombay and his inspiring lectures at the university had roused my curiosity, (Note - the friend was Mohan Bhavani and they met at the UFA studios at Berlin, even V Santaram did a stint there). When I heard the gramophone music for the first time, I found the music to be so alien and incomprehensible. However 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. As this music was alien to me, I decided that the fault was entirely mine and the right way would be to undertake a study tour to the place of its origin. A ship Lady Trietine ‘Conte verde’; was scheduled to leave Venice in the next 4 days and I found I could still catch it if I hurried. My friend in Bombay had assured me lodgings for the first few days. My most difficult task was to explain my plans to my father. It was impossible for me to travel fast to Karlasbad, so I had to settle the matter over the phone.

Walter had by now another problem; he could not collect his doctorate when he found his professor Franz Becking to be a Nazi and refused it. Another catalyst for the impulsive decision was the fact that a rich listener brought outright the rights for one of his incomplete orchestral pieces (Die Weisee Gottin – a tale of an Indian king and a European damsel – later completed from India). He (Felix Braun possibly) paid Walter 10,000 Krona and with that Walter went to the post office to post the letter to the university refusing his doctorate. On his way back he walked into the Travel agency and purchased the ticket to Bombay.

Walk along Warden Road, Breach Candy – today it is called Bhulabhai Desai road, an affluent part of Bombay and imagine a time when Kaufman lived there, when you could hear the tinkles from Kaufman's piano as the virtuoso perfected his melodies and compositions or learned Indian music. Today Bollywood tunes fill the air, the world has advanced, I suppose. That is where he lived, at Rewa House.

Walter’s stay in India got prolonged and it took him all of 12 years to learn the music and write two very big books on the south and North Indian music as well as many others on notations and so on. As he started out, the first thing he did was to sell of the return ticket and get his wife to Bombay. He married his girlfriend Gerty Herrmann (Franz Kafka’s niece) by proxy so that she could join him later in Bombay. Soon he landed a job at the AIR in Bombay (1935) and it was then that the signature tune was composed using the Tanpura and violin, based on the Raga Shivaranjini. Many people contributed and provided inputs for his work in the AIR later, one being Dinakar Rao. Of his own days at the AIR, Walter explains in a letter to Edith Kraus – I am the key person in music of AIR, I am something of an extraordinary bureaucrat, I do not have a high but comfortable income, lots and lots of work a lot more of intrigues and squabbles and few chances for a better future!!

He learnt Indian notations and music slowly, dabbled with music for films (he did music for Bhavani’s ‘The Mill’ (‘mill ya mazdoor’ – Premchand also left the movie midway), which was unfortunately banned and later did ‘Premnagar’) made in Bombay and created the Bombay Chamber music association and formed a string quartet. In this period of time he wrote seven masterly books on music. He created music for documentaries “Information of India’. It was in this Bombay chamber music society that Mehli Mehta played. But he was also affected by the difficulties of life in India for as a foreigner, he was sick often with flu, malaria and dysentery..and eventually managed to get his music blended with a lot of Indian tones as his own psyche was. He was highly influenced by Buddhism. It was during his stay that Moritz his father died in a concentration camp in 1942. Two years later his daughter Katherine was born. As you could see, Walter’s flight to India has saved his life, certainly and for that he paid back the country with his writing and music, at a time when nobody else had popularized Indian music overseas.

His years in India were certainly an eye opener for him, in terms of music. Take this for example from his book ragas of North India. He reports a conversation with a leading musician in Bombay in 1934. Kaufman interacted with many musicians and many he says, were illiterate, but were masters in their field. The musician said..

Do you know that you people in the western world will soon experience a terrible disaster? And do you know why? Because you people in the west abuse music and perform it at wrong times and occasions. You play funeral marches and sing dirges when there is no funeral and no cause for sadness, you sing love songs and spring songs when there is neither love nor spring, you play nocturnes during the day, wedding music when there is no wedding. How long – he roared- will the universe tolerate this abuse of music, ………….music, mind you a sacred thing?..

The musician in Bombay perhaps had the foreboding; for the WW II took place 1939-45 and since then many more wars both in India and the western world…

Soon it was time to leave and he had applied for British immigration, and joined the war service in the Royal navy, West was beckoning again. His heart was telling him to go to the USA, he wanted to compose soulful film music for Hollywood. Why did he leave? Was it to fight against the Germans? Was it because of Hindu Muslim riots in Bombay or was it the uncertainty over the partition after independence? It could have been one or a collection, and that was the time yet another great artist left Bombay, about whom I will write soon, named Sadat Hasan Manto.

After war service he was a guest conductor 1946-7 for the BBC in London and assistant music director for J. Arthur Rank films. He moved to Canada in 1947 and spent 10 years there teaching as well as creating symphonies and orchestras. In 1951 Kaufman married Freda Trepel, a pianist and teacher. In 1957, he finally realized his dream and came to the USA with Freda, to join the University of Indiana where he taught musicology. A prodigious composer, he applied raga techniques in some of his works and combined western and oriental traditions in others. He taught until 1977 and eventually bid adieu to this world in 1984, sadly not realizing his last wish which was to catalog all his Sikkim, Nepali and Hindukush collections. Perhaps somebody in Indiana University will do it…some day..

Back to the present - Another day starts in India and the rare few who are awake (or those who do not have a preset FM station) tune into the AIR to hear Kaufman's composition…...

Growing with Canada: the émigré tradition in Canadian music- Paul Helmer
Walter Kaufman - A forgotten genius – (Jewish Exile in India 1933-45) Agata Schindler
Exile country India as the source for creative works of Walter Kaufmann – Agata Schindler

Picture – From University of Indiana site Acknowledged with thanks.


Happy Kitten said...

That was a wonderful read!

FM and TV has taken the place of AIR.. else the scene you described is so apt! the radio was seldom switched off.... brought back sweet memories...

But what happened to his first wife? Did she join him in India?


Very nice read , and full of interesting facts. thanks, Maddy.

My twisted logic said...

Though i am not very old, i still remember listening to that AIR tune in early 90's as a young boy.My grand father used to get up early and tuned to listen "Yohannans Preach"..then This AIR tune and Vandemataram...Thanks for helping to giving me those memories back, that i still cherish...


Dan said...

Hello Maddy! Thanks for the splendidly evocative writing. I enjoyed reading it very much. I met Kaufman briefly a few times back when I was at I.U. I wonder if his music recordings are preserved there? I know he wrote what was for a long time the only serious study of Tibetan monastic ritual music, including the very difficult study of its notation.

My best!

harimohan said...

thanks Maddy for this wonderful info and above all taking me back with that tune that filled my younger years

Maddy said...

Thanks HK,
Yes, Gertrude Hermann did join him in Bombay and I believe she taught French in Bombay. Katherine was born to them in Bombay in 1942, but I am not sure about Gerty's fortunes since then. A few people asked me the same question, so I will try to hunt some or get in touch with the family.

Maddy said...

Thanks Raji..
hope you are doing fine, Seattle is going to get cold soon..

Maddy said...

Thanks DC..
I am glad you enjoyed it, for some it brings back memories, for some it brings back days when they were forced out of bed at dawn and so the tune is a bad memory..

Maddy said...

Thanks Dan,
Perhaps you can answer HK on what happened to Gertrude, if you know. I aim to get and read a couple of his books anyway. I know that the Indiana university has a collection of his music, but I could not listen to them though..

Maddy said...

thanks Hari..
you are just back from India - I am about to start my trip..

Anil Nair said...

Maddy.. you took us back two decades just thru that sound snippet; much more through your searches to its source.

Thanks, as always.

P.N. Subramanian said...

How nostalgic. Very interesting. Thanks for the hard labor put in.

Brahmanyan said...

Wonderful information as usual meticulously prepared by you. As an Octogenarian I appreciate the efforts taken by you. When I heard the signature tune of AIR my memories took me back to my younger days, when my father brought our first Radio set in 1942, which got a rightful place in our house and spread hours of happiness with chaste news and music.

Vijay said...

What can I say other than awesome! Wonderful post Maddy- that signature tune took me years back to fond memories, Thanks for a wonderful and informative post.

Maddy said...

Thanks Anil, PNS and Vijay..
these days dial tones and other jingles rule the roost..but there was a time when this tune ruled the morning waves...

Maddy said...

Thanks Brahmanyan..
Your simple words made my day..With each article I write, I hope that I connect up with at least a few like minded people, and I hope I suceed...Thanks again..

windwheel said...


ashok said...

Wonderful read...great posts Maddy...loved reading a few. Will be back for more...keep it up.

Maddy said...

thanks windwheel & ashok.
glad you enjoyed it..

Unknown said...

Hello Maddy,

This is year 2020 and someone was recirculating the AIR tune on social media with W. Kaufmann's name. I had very mysterious feeling to know more about W. Kaufmann. And I stumbled on your blogpost.

Thank you for all the pain you have take to research on him. This is a legacy and a important historical fact which we should pass on to next generations to come.

Uday Ganeshwade

Maddy said...

Thanks Uday
Am trying to see if I can lay my hands on some of his Indian music based compositions such as Madras express..

sumanspati said...

SO it was an extract from a SOnata!
Which Sonata, any idea, Mr Maddy?

I retired very recently from AIR as a senior producer. And i feel very embarrassed that we knew so little about the composer or the tune! Thanks a lot!

SUmanaspati Reddy
96761 80802