Ferieda Havewala (née Postwalla) – Music. Speech. Song.

Introducing Ferieda.

Twice already I have written about the value of certain people in my life – I have insisted that real friendships transcend time, space and distance; that sometimes, the most valuable relationships are forged by reconnecting with one’s mentor, teacher or guardian from an earlier time and place in one’s life. These ideas lead me to introduce the second tribute article on this website, dedicated to a woman who has devoted her entire life to transforming the musical and intellectual imaginations of generations of Indian children and adults via her tireless work in the areas of classical piano, voice, speech and drama. Despite the fact that I am based in Dublin, Ireland, my association with Ferieda Havewala (née Postwalla), the founder and director of Cantabile in Pune, India, goes back to 1988-1989, when I was a mere child of seven or eight. At the time, a very young Ferieda was assisting Miss Enid Roberts in the group singing classes at the now defunct St. Cecelia’s School of Music. She was also a very talented student of voice and piano – I vividly remember hearing a young Ferieda sing and play in the annual concerts and being utterly inspired and enthralled by her exquisite singing voice, her excellent piano-playing, her warm, unaffected personality and her beautiful fashion sense! Despite the fact that I never studied solo voice myself (I always felt more comfortable on the pianist’s bench, and my voice was too weak to train classically!), growing up in Pune, Ferieda soon became both my personal musical inspiration. Not only was she always on hand to answer my musical dilemmas, she was also my teacher of choral singing, speech, drama and effective communication, a mentor and as years went by – a very dear friend.

The St. Cecelia’s years.

There are two distinct periods of Ferieda’s working career that closely match my own musical path and life’s aspirations – the first spans the extent of her work with me when I was a student of Sr. Priya, Enid Roberts and most importantly Veera B. Pooniwala (piano, music theory). Let me focus on this time period for now. During this time, my association with Ferieda was confined to an ancillary capacity – her responsibilities increased as far as teaching group singing was concerned, but she also took me on in her first group of Speech and Drama students first privately, and later as part of St. Cecelia’s as well. Studying this new subject with the dynamic vocalist and pianist was a revelation. As a shy, physically awkward, ugly ducking sort of kid, I really loved my piano and music theory lessons – I could hide behind the scores and practice away my insecurities and shyness! I could channel my ambitions and aspirations into the piano – with speech and drama, there was suddenly nowhere to hide! I was definitely introverted when it came to drama unlike the other girls in the group, all of whom were a couple of years older than me, and much more extroverted, funny and popular – or so I thought at the time. Ferieda was incredibly sensitive to my needs as a student – she was kind, patient, warm, witty, and she made sure I did not feel excluded or left behind because of my ever-serious manner and my inability to crack jokes on the spot! If anything, she ensured the other girls in the drama group included me in all the activities, and she always chose prose extracts and poems that reflected my quieter temperament and serious side. I’ll never forget the poems she chose for me – the reflective, haunting “The House with Nobody in it”; Munro’s “Solitude”; and of course, Gwendolen Fairfax from Wilde’s Importance, for when I was a little older and more able to tackle a meatier role with wit and panache!
The St. Cecelia’s years also reflect Ferieda’s mentorship for me as a rising star pianist and accompanist in the city – she was instrumental in pushing me to accompany more and more difficult choral works, and she pushed me to develop my part-playing skills and sight-reading ability in a way that no other teacher did. Observing her lead the St. Cecelia’s group singing classes also allowed me to learn this art – something I would emulate and replicate during my time as a music teacher at the city’s Bishop’s School a few years later. Perhaps the most important attribute that Ferieda passed on to me during the St. Cecelia’s years (via both group singing and drama) was inner confidence in myself. I was always notoriously self-critical about my physical appearance, a quality that is rooted in developing very late as a teenager, and feeling very small, ugly and basically unattractive for most of my teenage years as a result of this late-blooming! (see photo comparison below).

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The author circa 1996
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Masters graduation, over a decade later…

But with Ferieda, I began to see a change in myself. Here was a beautiful, gifted music teacher who was able to project a certain quality of inner calm and confidence irrespective of the task at hand. Her confidence in herself and her teaching abilities rubbed off on me – gradually I came out of my shell via accompaniment, speech and drama. I observed the way Ferieda carried herself, the way she spoke to her students and fellow staff; her sense of humour, but also her seriousness when it comes to getting work done. These are all qualities that have shaped me as a person; they have inspired my own life as a pianist, teacher, radio broadcaster and academic. The way Ferieda has carried herself as a teacher, musician, artist and person has influenced the way I have carried myself as a woman and a human being. It is no exaggeration to state that the single biggest musical and personal influence on my life is not Glenn Gould, or Mozart, but a selfless, dynamic, visionary music and drama teacher from Pune, India – Ferieda.

Cantabile, Trinity College London Representation and beyond.

My association with Ferieda ended (or at least took a long hiatus) when I got married nearly sixteen years ago, and went off to forge a life and career in Dublin, Ireland. She continued working at the St. Cecelia’s School of Music, before the death of my ex-teacher Veera B. Pooniwala. Following that, Ferieda set up her own music school, “Cantabile”, on Napier Road (just up the road from St. Cecelia’s). What I’d like to do next is focus on the changes this move has brought about in my mentor and friend’s musical life and career trajectory and the ramifications of these changes for my own intellect and development here in Ireland.

To be sure, professional associations and friendships go through periods of silence. I especially don’t like to maintain frivolous, “time-pass” friendships – my husband is my best friend and beyond that, I have plenty of professional contacts and associations, and only a handful of close friends. I like to keep it that way. Ferieda and I have always had an understanding that when the time comes for us to reconnect and renew our relationship, it will be done effortlessly! Such has been the case since she set up Cantabile – each year, the school has gone from strength to strength, and Ferieda balances her teaching commitments by doing stellar work as the representative for Trinity College London’s exams in Pune. She manages to achieve these work successes by maintaining a work life balance that ensures she has plenty of time and energy for her two children; moreover Ferieda is not shy about delegating responsibility and the school has thrived harmoniously as a result of such a strong work ethic and business acumen.

The major developments in Cantabile are to do with the rise in standard of the musicianship of the students – both technical and communicative. To put it simply, Ferieda has ensured that the standard of performance in Cantabile is very high – her teaching is extraordinarily thorough and her conviction to make sure India produces a high standard of Western classical musicians is undiminished. She remains a terrific musician herself, and a warm and sympathetic teacher who is a hard task-master when the music calls for it. There is plenty of scope for fun with this music teacher, but personal dramas, jokes and other time-wasting takes a backseat when it comes to getting the work done – thereby ensuring the students’ money is well spent.

What is especially fascinating to me is the way in which Ferieda imparts Western musical knowledge to Indian students with mixed backgrounds, from diverse socioeconomic settings. There is no one-size-fits-all method to her teaching or her attitude, instead her daily routine and work life involves modifying her approach to suit every individual student – an often thankless and tiring task. Add to that the herculean responsibility of managing some 500-600 students appearing for exams at this venue in the city, as well as speech and drama classes and choral work, and you have one incredible human-being!

Concluding comments – it’s personal! 

It is impossible to write about Ferieda in the present day without touching upon the ever-changing nature of our relationship. The inner-confidence which she bequeathed me with not only as a musician or teacher, but as a woman, continues to be a daily inspiration. This time round, I’m able to be there for my mentor and friend, and support her work activities by sharing thoughts and ideas on her advanced students, their playing, repertoire choices, technical strengths and weaknesses and varied musical competencies of students in Ireland and India. I’m able to impart the pianistic and technical knowledge gained from the great piano teacher in my life – the English pianist Philip Fowke; I’m also able to share everything I’ve learned by becoming a music theorist and analyst. More importantly, I can relate to my brilliant and beautiful friend on a personal level, by bypassing idle chitchat for meaningful coffee convos and and in-depth (yes – REAL) conversations about every aspect of our musical and personal lives. This time round, our concern for each other is rooted in mutual struggles, but also in a deep admiration for each other’s strengths. We will never lose touch with each other; I can’t wait to see what the next, new chapter in our relationship brings.

Here’s to a lifelong musical and professional relationship with one of India’s most gifted personalities – more importantly, here’s to a lifelong friendship with my dearest mentor. A friend, teacher, guide and guardian – Ferieda is truly one in a billion.

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Ferieda Havewalla (née Postwalla) pictured with the author.