DEEPLY UNSERIOUS: THE CONTRADICTIONS OF LOVING HINDUSTANI CLASSICAL MUSIC

Anu Kumar

Image: Divya Adusumilli

Image: Divya Adusumilli

A Google search invariably brings up an impressive catch. But memories and people and things we loved?

Things like some of my father’s old classical recordings, from his collection that once included long playing and the shorter 45 and 78 rpm discs.    Black shellac discs, almost like frisbees with no lips, delicate in their thin paper covering,   with the grooved lines and the tiny writing at every disc centre.  There was one record whose every detail I can still recall. Its green and red cover, the cellophane over the writing and the letters that for a time made no deep sense – that is, in the way it takes for something to be loved.  Two singers and their song, a thumri, that lasted just four minutes or maybe a bit more. But I know from the way I listened to this record time and again, that the thin paper covering frayed in no time, the cellophane came to wear a blurry look.  And the times I was overeager to pull the disc out, so its paper cover tore a bit, I learnt to stick a piece of cello tape cleverly on the inside, hoping it would not catch  my father’s attention.

But the older that 45 rpm record looked, the more meaning it acquired. Not just for its frayed look but the music it had inside.  And of course, the two became inseparable, even in memory.  I simultaneously remember that thumri and the record it came from. Long after, when I glimpsed the two musicians in a YouTube clipping, it was like meeting something loved long ago but in a quite different way.  I was reminded of what I had listened to, almost in an obsessively repetitive way, but it rendered that memory sharper. Many years later, I listened again to the thumri of my childhood as it played on a CD I just had to buy. And while my old memories were not written over, yet the raw pain of nostalgia was considerably diminished.  And I can’t tell if that’s a good thing.   Some things are best left as they are.  I can’t quite explain to myself if its holding that thin paper cover of a 45 rpm disc that I really  miss, or something else altogether. The secret listening that became a secret falling in love and like all secrets, hard to ever find again.

The thumri I lost and then retrieved in a totally different and altered way lay in one of my father’s many 45 rpms. And I first had the chance to listen to it around 25 years ago. My father had several of these playing discs in every format. These had been stored in five boxes whose existence till then I had had no idea about. But these were taken down from an old wooden almirah and displayed on a low divan, the same day he came home with a portable player. We lived in Cuttack then, a city with only one notable music shop to its name, from where my father made his purchase.  Shopping then wasn’t  the consumerist experience as it is today, and people didn’t come back home loaded with plastic carry-bags,  so we all crowded around  father as he spliced  the carton open. There was in the end, after  all the strings had been loped off, the tapes slashed through,   a free standing portable speaker and a turntable,  with a hooked claw like apparatus that he said was very delicate. This was the stylus with a hardly visible playing needle hooked to its very end.

That night after he came home with it, there were other treasures he unveiled, such as the neat rectangular cartons that once opened, revealed his collection of vinyl records.  Most were covered by a thin paper sleeve, the bigger ones had a jacket with more details; several had the words ‘Columbia’ or ‘Hindustan’ on it.

It was from my father’s collection of records that I was first introduced to Hindustani classical music.  My father tells me now that his love too began in similar ways. In the mid 1940s, an uncle of his released after four years in jail celebrated his freedom by buying a second hand record player and some records of Khan Abdul Karim Khan, Ustad Faiyaaz Khan, Gangubai Hangal and some others. I can imagine the two of them, uncle and nephew, in that crowded house, listening to a music that only they loved (or had time for).  Still it was blissful: his uncle soaked in freedom once again while my father had found a love of sorts.

For my part, I listened to this music in secret. My father  would play his records as he sat in his lounge chair, on the darkened veranda that framed the house and overlooked the river Mahanadi.  He would listen to the music as the river  turned from  sombre blue to gray and then changed to a black ribbon as night came on, bringing with it the garland of forest fires from across the river.

I was supposed to be studying and not letting my attention stray but it did.  I would strain to catch and remember for myself the first line of most pieces, and this in the instance of Hindustani classical vocal always took some time as I soon realised. But when father was on tour or in office, I got his set out, read through every record label till I found the one I had heard the day before.  That was indeed how I first heard Nazakat Ali and Salamat Ali’s thumri in Gorakh Kalyan, ‘eri mori ali piya’.

*

It was quite a chaotic education, catholic and secular in equal measure, but also much more than these words  can ever hold.  I randomly listened to other pieces,   and something about a piece could make me listen on: It could be the deep melancholy in Amir Khan’s voice, the sensual robustness in Gangubai Hangal’s, the thunderous majesty that came so easily to Bhimsen Joshi, the dexterity and free falling grace in Kumar Gandharva’s voice that reminded you of rivers of the plateau and that unique mix of youth and age that you noticed in DV Paluskar’s.

Because I liked their music and couldn’t understand what I liked, what the record flaps revealed was almost educational too.  Sometimes these explained the progressions and variations in a raag but had other information too: Ali Akbar Khan had composed Medhavi in memory of Rabindranath Tagore,  Ustad Amir Khan had died in a car accident in 1974,   Nikhil Banerjee had once been a disciple of Allauddin Khan, who had also taught others who would go on to make a name for themselves and others who couldn’t quite, such as  the khan sahib’s daughter, Annapurna Devi.  There would be things  I’d read elsewhere and randomly picked up, such as the short   biography of Allauddin Khan in my English reader. The great maestro had had a rich and varied life and  had run away from home to join a jatra group. His music education was eclectic but the maestro enriched the tradition with his own contributions.  Allauddin Khan learnt from Ustad Wazir Khan of Rampur and even took violin lessons in the western classical tradition from a musician from Goa.

Years  later, this love stays with me,  though any random meeting with  a connoisseur can put me to shame.  For the life of me,  I cannot wax knowledgeably on the different  progressions of a raag,  its rhythmic variations and the modifications and experiments of great musicians.   I can tell what a drut is,  but will stumble between a khayal and a thumri.  In an age when in several ways a totally different kind of music is popular,  I remain an anachronistic, even at times a lone defender,  of Hindustani classical music.  And my defence of the music is at times more a loyalty to the artiste.  I can stay still while  Ustad Amir Khan sings the Hamsadhwani,  or at the evocation a cloud filled sky that Nikhil Banerjee conjures up in Raag Megh, even as I learn that raags too adhere to a distinct hierarchy.  So I know Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Amir Khan will render  Marwa in their own unique ways, but  I’d like a bhajan in Bhairavi by Shruti Sadolikar just as much as by anyone else,  for the bhairavi is that versatile after all. On the other hand, the powerful Malkauns would require the attentions of a genius to help it occupy the night.

In my amateur love and defence of classical music,  I have  felt like Zuleika Dobson in Max Beerbohm’s eponymous novel set in early 20th century Oxford, often echoing like her, ‘I don’t know anything about music really but I know what I like.’  The connoisseur can silence everyone by her knowledge  while the amateur lover knows  just what she loves. Such a  lover occupies a strange mid way land. At best she can put up a weak defence, offer a staunch loyalty or  a blind devotion.  Sometimes, it’s a treacherous love as I’ve found on some occasions.  It’s a love that I have most times also inadequately defended.

Any conversation with someone else,  professedly ignorant of classical music,  would go like this:

What he is singing?

Me: But he is a great man. 

How is he  great?

Me: He sounds good to me.  And he is good and great.

In college there were the SPICMACAY concerts organized at different venues and I travelled as much as I could to listen to artistes first hand and watch them perform for those were pre YouTube days after all.  It was an experience, to realize that for the artistes,  the fact of being great did not matter, or that it was not worth it.  They gave themselves up to music with an effortless grace and you  were moved by the divinity and the simplicity.

When Ustad Imrat Khan came to perform at the management school where I studied,  there were just five of us in the small music room, and we  had bunked our evening classes to listen to him.  The ustad  played before us as if we were a royal audience or rather as if the minimal audience  did not really register on him.  He had come that very evening on the train from Calcutta,  but there was no sign of fatigue in him as he played  timeless pieces over and over on his surbahar.

In Ahmedabad,  there was a lone music shop on CG Road that I frequented in my  underpaid, overworked days as a management trainee.  It was a small corner shop,  in a four storey building,  remaining there for a long time while glass fronted high rises grew all around it. The owner stocked cassette versions of most of the records I had once loved.  I spent hours there, while outside vendors played Altaf Raja and his then popular qawalis. My cassettes and   walkman moved with me as I moved cities, shifting from hostel to paying guest accommodations to tiny congested flats that I shared in suburban Bombay with  my husband.   The cassettes metamorphosed into CDs and the shelves occupying them grew in number even  as I remained hard pressed to explain my strange love.  The exuberance of an artiste at a particular note would evoke amused queries that would be a secret affront to witness and even a form of  disloyalty.  Yet sometimes a rendition could not be held within your headphones and there was a special happiness if a voice you loved was recognized.

‘So this is Amir Khan?,’ asked my husband once.

‘Ustad Amir Khan,’  I said,  touching my ears that I had learnt was a gesture of respect.

*

I was once part of a sparsely populated audience,   watching a dance recital by Pandit Birju Maharaj. That hall,  huge and majestic like a tiny universe,  its lights appeared to exist only to catch his every move,  heighten his twirls,  his mesmeric hand gestures.  His anklets had a  life of their own, resounding in all that space.  There was a man, ordinary in every way, in the audience.  He must have stopped by on his way back home from office.   His office bag and the way he was dressed gave that away,  considering that dressing up for an event is as much a performance today.  There he sat,  hypnotized,  the sparkle of tears in his eyes,  and when a particular movement was over, he got up,  as if he could not help it.  He walked  up to the foot of the stage and stretching out, he  held out something in his hand.  It was perhaps  an ill-expressed measure of his  happiness, for there  were titters,  even a hiss of shock.  But the Pandit acknowledging the man’s homage paused, raising the gift to his forehead in a brief gesture, twirled away and danced on.  The man did it time and again,  but I understood a bit of his sad, inexpressible love.

***

Anu Kumar

Anu Kumar

Anu Kumar is in the MFA program in writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She has written for children and also for the older reader.  Her collection of short stories, Girl in a Washing Machine and Other Stories appears in early 2015 (Kitaab).
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