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Shekina Mootanah: State of grace

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There are some moments when time no longer counts and just hangs there, a vast and sustained presence. Such moments happen without warning and are there to be appreciated. Meeting the young pianist Shekina Mootanah was one of those moments.

We met in the heart of the island in the Maison de L’Étoile in Moka, a former colonial residence that has long lain silent bereft of human presence in a corner of the Eurêka Estate. A large room, furnished only with a grand piano and two large mirrors on either side of the room, reflecting the room into infinity. Long red drapes hang around the French windows that open out onto the veranda.

It has just stopped raining. Remnants of mist hang in the sky above the nearby Ory Mountain. Fragrant aromas emerge from the lush vegetation.

It is Sunday and Shekina, a student in her third year at the École nationale supérieure d’architecture de Nantes in Mauritius, has a free day to devote to her other passion, music. The owners of the Maison have extended an open invitation for her to come and play the piano whenever she wants. “I have become fond of this place.

I gave my first recital here last year”, says Shekina, 22. However, rather than featuring Chopin or Debussy whose work she admires – “ the experimentation and technical skills of the first, and the grace and lightness of the second ” – the programme consisted of her own compositions.
 

INTRODUCTION TO THE PIANO

“ I learnt the piano very late although I felt it calling me from an early age. As a child, I took traditional Indian dance lessons while my brother learnt the guitar. It would have been difficult to get involved in another activity that would have required buying a piano. ” The years passed and Shekina’s ambition to play the piano did not dim. Her mother, a make-up artist, eventually relented, bought an electric piano and enrolled Shekina, then 12, in classes given by the piano teacher Marie-Christinne Clarisse. At 19, Shekina was awarded her diploma from the Associated Board of the Royal School of Music, and was already composing her own pieces.

“ I came to music very naturally. It was almost a physical need. While other people keep a diary, I felt the need to play and express my emotions in music. I didn’t choose the piano, it chose me. Sometimes I hold my hand above the keyboard and wait for the keys to guide me .”

 

EXPANDING THE WORLD

 

The dog of the house has come to sit next to the piano and will not be budged. Shekina picks off the notes like drops of golden rain. The influence of Debussy, the composer of La Mer and Jardins sous la pluie is recognisable. Like him, Shekina has the gift of creating images with notes and silences. “ Sometimes, it’s about telling a story like the piece called Il était une fois (“Once upon a time”). Other pieces transmit emotions such as Fear where the fear mounts in the rolling of the low notes”, Shekina points out, going on to add : “ My mind is disturbed and racing when I start playing. And gradually the piano calms me. It is like a kind of meditation. ”

Music expands the world and gives it another dimension. Shekina has long carried this secret within her, before she felt ready to share it. “Many close friends and family didn’t know that I played the piano. My parents had never heard my compositions. Then I gave my first concert. I wasn’t afraid because these pieces are what I am. They can’t sound wrong. You can like or dislike them, but they are real”, Shekina says without false modesty or pride, simply fully present in the moment. “I loved playing in public and I realised that it could also do other people good. Sharing my compositions is also a way of ridding myself of them! Once freed, I can continue learning, developing my technique and studying. Learning nourishes me.”

Shekina cannot envisage the future without finding a way to combine her creative interests – music, dance and architecture. “Don’t you think they are connected?” she asks. “Whatever the instrument – the body, a musical scale or geometry – it’s about drawing space, sculpting silence with music, modelling space with architecture or even, in an ephemeral way, with dance.

These are methods of expressing oneself that echo one another.”

Outside, above the lush green foliage, a tight formation of white birds sketches a line across the vastness of the empty natural landscapes below.