Monday, July 22, 2024

A Harp Reunites Wales and the Khasi Hills


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TK Kharbamon and Glenn C. Kharkongor

The telyn, a harp

Art and music have revived the historical ties between Wales and the Khasi Hills. Cefyn Burgess, from Bethesda, Wales, is a renowned traditional Welsh fabric designer and weaver. He visited Shillong in February 2020 to discover the connections between the people of Wales and the Khasi people of northeast India. He depicted Shillong in a series of townscapes in stitch, print and textile. This collection of art work in various mediums has been exhibited at galleries in Wales. The project was supported by Welsh Arts International and the Presbyterian Church in Wales.

Mair Jones was a renowned Welsh harpist and the principal harpist of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, with whom she played classical music and even the occasional Beatles song. Mair had been inspired by Cefyn Burgess’ textile representations of the Christian tradition in the Khasi Hills, founded by the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Church in the 19th century. Before she died at the age of 88, in 2021, she had decided to donate her harp to the Khasi people in the effort to revive these ties with the Khasi community. “Telyn”, is a Welsh word of feminine origin, meaning harp.

While she was still alive, Mair and her friends had thought to buy a new harp to be sent to Shillong, but in the months before she died, Mair had begun to play, on this harp, hymn tunes that had been brought to the Khasi people by the original Welsh missionaries. After she passed away, her harp fell silent for over a year, until the daughter-in-law of the Reverend Nan Powell-Davies played and sang a hymn associated with the Khasi people at the Celebration of Mair’s life in June this year. Many of the most prominent harpists in Wales were present.

Meanwhile Dr Rajan Madhok, a prominent Indian orthopaedic surgeon contacted Dr Sandra Albert in Shillong to discuss a suitable recipient for a harp, and the suggestion of Martin Luther Christian University was initiated. Other conversations were also taking place. Cefyn Burgess was a close friend of Mair’s, and his mercurial connections came to the fore. Cefyn had met Professor Lisa Lewis and Dr Gareth Bonello, both at the Centre for Media and Culture of the University of South Wales, during his preparations for an art exhibition. Dr Lisa Lewis, a professor in theatre and performance, has published two articles on the Khasi-Welsh relationship: “Orality as Dramaturgy in the Khasi-Welsh Performance Exchange” and “Performing on the Tightrope: Sacred Place, Embodied Knowledge and the Conflicted History of Colonial Modernity in the Welsh and Khasi Relationship”. She readily concurred with the suggestion that MLCU and its music department would be a fitting establishment to locate Mair’s harp and to begin a collaboration.

These discussions and the ensuing correspondence culminated in the signing of an MoU between the Canolfgan Gerdd William Mathias Music Centre in Caernarfon, Wales, represented by Dr Meinir Llwyd Roberts, Artistic Director, and Martin Luther Christian University, Shillong, Meghalaya, represented by Prof TK Kharbamon, vice chancellor, on September 13, 2022. The signing ceremony, with the harp in the foreground was attended by the Mayor of Caernarfon, the Sheriff to the Queen, Dr Rajan Madhok and other well-wishers.

The MOU is the first step to establish and develop a collaborative relationship to promote cultural exchange between the two institutions for music teaching, performance and research. This collaboration will be taken forward in January 2023 with an art initiative and harp lessons to be conducted in Shillong. The Mair Jones Scholarship will be set up to support music education for young students.

The Mair Jones Scholarship

Mair was also a renowned teacher and she compiled and scored a collection of traditional airs to enable young people across Wales and beyond to develop their skills. Her book called “Hwylgyda’r Delyn” in Welsh, meaning in translation, “Fun with the Harp” is a popular learning text.

The scholarship will benefit those learning and practising the harp and in adapting and linking the indigenous music of Wales and the Khasi musical tradition. Musicians at MLCU will be able to extend their repertoire through having lessons via Zoom from the William Mathias Music Centre and sit for external examinations awarded by the UK Royal Schools of Music.

As a professional harpist, Mair had to have the best instruments, and she became a frequent visitor to the Salvi Studios in London, where beautiful Italian harps are displayed and played. Her concert harps were large instruments, over six feet high, but in April 1997, she went to the studios and bought a smaller model which she would use for smaller recitals, to play at chapel services and to teach young people.

This bequeathed Italian harp was crafted by the renowned Salvi Studios in London. When told of this project, Salvi Studios offered to professionally package the harp for its long journey from Wales to Shillong. In the company of Prof TK Kharbamon, the harp arrived in Shillong on September 24, 2022.

Mair’s harp has made its journey to Shillong for a purpose- to share and foster, to learn with each other and from each other, in a manner that reflects the shared friendship between the people of Wales and the Khasis over the last two hundred years.



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