Temper indigo | India Enterprise Law Journal
Soli Sorabjee was equally enthusiastic about law and jazz, but the latter used his spirit, writes Pallavi Shroff
M.The earliest memory of Soli Sorabjee is from the 1960s in Ahmedabad, where my father was appointed as a judge. Soli was a close friend of my father’s and was invited home for a vegetarian Gujarati meal. I remember watching the dinner party behind a lattice frame that made me invisible. A gentleman seemed to be the life and soul of the party, wowing dinner guests with his infectious sense of humor and imitation of some of the greatest names in law and politics. His one-liners found their traces directly. I found him very entertaining and adorable. I was later told that this person was Soli Sorabjee, who was related to our neighbor, Mona Chinubhai. A few decades later, my family’s friendship with Soli survived, believing that a friend would be a phone call away if ever needed.
Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co.
I really got to know him when I became an active legal practitioner in the 1980s. He was a man with a quick mind and a razor sharp mind. For the first few months we talked about a matter that I needed to tell him about. Given my age and relative inexperience, I was understandably nervous, and he was relentlessly grilling at the conference, but I held my own. At the end of the meeting, he paid me a rare compliment and addressed me as “Jhansi” (I assume Ki Raani). I was pleased. It meant that he considered me a worthy colleague. We have worked with him on many commercial and constitutional cases over the years, and our bond grew stronger with each interaction. He was kind, compassionate, and caring. When I had spinal surgery, he arranged all of the conferences at his home so I wouldn’t have to climb the stairs to get to his office.
Soli was a man of music and poetry. He was a great patron and connoisseur of jazz in India. I remember the various discussions we had about jazz between briefings and I was enchanted by his broad knowledge and understanding of this very nuanced genre of music. For solos, “Jazz is very warm and personal. It speaks to the heart ”. Perhaps the influence of jazz can explain his direct and uninhibited demeanor. Soli set no limits in conversations and spoke from the heart.
When Soli was 18 years old, a visit to the renowned music store Rhythm House in Bombay (now Mumbai) changed him forever. A salesman there gave the young Soli a 10-inch record of Johannes Brahms’ Hungarian dance. Soli had “heard nothing of the kind before as it played some very different sounds”. He was hooked and played the record on a loop. So began his initiation into music. Soon he discovered Tiger Rag by Billy Goodman and the fascinating track turned out to be education and joy. Billy Goodman’s transformative performance showed a young soli which variations a melody can inspire.
Jazz happened to solos before the law happened. In college he formed a “jazz crew” called the SS Quartet, and he was often seen playing the clarinet and humming. He’s sorry on college socials now. He was also invited by All India Radio to play something he wore as a badge of honor. At my husband Shardul’s 50th birthday party, Soli surprised everyone by removing the singer’s microphone and breaking into a song, All of Me. This was the best birthday present anyone could ever give Shardul.
Once I asked Soli, “What is your first love, law or jazz?” He promptly quipped, “Both keep me alive, but jazz keeps me alive mentally.” Soli thought it was great that a jazz piece offered ample opportunity to improvise, and he enjoyed the freedom that it gave a musician to bring his own thoughts and feelings into a piece of music. He liked the idea of not being restricted because he strongly advocated and defended freedom of expression and opinion in his ideology and legal practice.
In the 1950s, Soli, who had been in his legal practice for three years, dropped a trial to fly to Karachi and hear jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The effect of Dizzy’s compositions on solos cannot be emphasized enough, and this excursion sparked Soli’s musical interest as he began to incorporate various ethnic elements into his music collection, such as the Afro-Cuban rhythms.
Soli and I went to Kashmir once and after a hard day’s work we went to a restaurant and while he was enjoying the delicious food he briefed me on how jazz was affecting his legal practice. Soli said he prepared for a case by writing headings and was not content with taking lengthy notes. He thought this allowed him to improvise, modify, and re-modify as he did while composing or playing a melody in jazz. This was further aided by his unparalleled knowledge of Shakespeare’s sonnets and poems by John Keats who traveled with him everywhere.
Soli believed that promoting jazz as a creative and educational tool would do a lot of good, especially in countries that were poor and did not have much media exposure. A tribute to Soli’s enduring contribution to jazz is Jazz Yatra, an annual jazz festival he started in 1978. The festival traveled to New Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and Kolkata, and everywhere Soli’s constant wish was his favorite, Sweet Georgia Brown. Soli lamented the youth’s declining interest in jazz and their preference for pop over jazz, but in his later years he saw a gradual revival of that dwindling interest, which he enjoyed greatly.
Solicited India’s history, and for those of us who knew him, he graced our lives. I say goodbye to him knowing that wherever he is, he has to play his favorite music with a glass of wine and feel pretty happy about all the honors that pour in for him.
Pallavi Shroff is managing partner of Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co.