I come from what, even by Indian standards, is a very large family. Counting only close relatives—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, first cousins—they number in the region of fifty. While I was growing up, of this vast brood only one member ever willingly listened to a piece of music. I would have remained a music-illiterate myself, had I not been in bed one monsoon with asthma, and listened to the radio to fill the hours. Around two a. m. one night I chanced upon some haunting music being played on the General Overseas Service of All India Radio. While the rest of India slept I listened, and was converted. The music went on for half-an-hour, but at its end the announcer allowed me to place its provenance. The instrument was the shehnai; the raga, Durga; the player, the incomparable Bismillah Khan. This happened almost thirty years ago as I write. I can hear Bismillah’s shehnai still.
The following summer I joined Delhi University, and to my great good luck fell in with a crowd which had imbibed classical music with their mother’s milk. My first girlfriend learnt to sing, fitfully, from Deepali Nagchaudhuri of the Agra gharana. My closest male friend was a Tamil whose home was stacked with old records of Semmangudi and Subbulakshmi. There were also two older Bengalis, one who played the flute, the other who was learning the sitar from a student of Ravi Shankar. With these four, and others, I would troop off to hear concerts in the ring of auditoria that surround Mandi House in central New Delhi. If the evenings ended early enough, we had dinner in Bengali Market; if they ended too late, we caught the last bus back to the campus and made do with tea and biscuits in our room.
Cricket by day, and music by night; these remain my sweetest memories of five years in university. An artist the Bengalis taught me to especially appreciate was the vocalist Mallikarjun Mansur. He belonged, in terms of lineage, to the gharana of Alladiya Khan, which my friends insisted was the ‘highest form of musical expression’. But he also belonged, in a geographical sense, to my own home state of Karnataka. From distant Dharwad he would come to Delhi two or three times a year, to sing rare and difficult ragas other (and better known) vocalists would not dare attempt. He wore a dhoti and also, in the Mysore style, a black tunic tightly buttoned up to the neck. A particular idiosyncracy of his, which never failed to delight me, was to vigorously rub his bald pate with a white towel between khayals.
Studying in Delhi in the seventies, I was lucky enough, too, to catch two spectacular all-night concerts in honour of Ustad Allaudin Khan. These featured the maestro’s son, Ali Akbar Khan, on the sarod; and the maestro’s prized disciple and one-time son-in-law, Ravi Shankar, on the sitar. Accompanying this duo was Allarakha Khan on the tabla. Here were three instrumentalists at the top of their craft; as talented and complete a trinity of musicians as ever came together to perform on a public platform. The concerts were held under a capacious awning in the grounds of Modern School. Sitting on the carpet I listened to the music and the musicians; to and fro on the bus I listened to gossip about them, to stories of how Ravi Shankar had allegedly suppresed the talents of his first wife (the surbahar player Annapurna), and of how that other great sitar wizard, Vilayat Khan, was so consumed with jealousy that he never failed to make a crack at his rival’s expense. A sample, which I later heard in person, was of Vilayat prefacing his last piece in a concert with the words: ‘Ab main Bhairavi bajaunga. Shudddh Bhairavi, jisme koi mael nahin hain’. (I will now play Bhairavi for you, pure Bhairavi, without any polluting admixture—the remark aimed at an absent Ravi Shankar, who was known for his partiality to that composite raga, Sindhu Bhairavi.)
Some years ago, in an interview to this newspaper, the novelist Amitav Ghosh suggested that the only Indians who strive for perfection, as well as achieve it, are our musicians. I guess Ghosh came to this knowledge early, for he belongs to that most musical of Indian communities, the Bengali bhadralok. (As it happens, we were in boarding school together, where I played cricket, and he the violin.) Speaking as a very kaccha rasika indeed, I must say Ghosh is very much on the mark. Our cricketers, our writers, our painters, our scientists—by any objective standards they are somewhat over-rated. Perfection, or even a glimmer of it, is not within their reach, let alone their grasp. Perhaps only the best among our traditional craftsmen come close to our musicians in this respect. Indian classical music must be valued in itself, but in the present climate it must also be cherished for its effortless and unselfconscious contributions to religious harmony. This past winter I have been privileged to attend two concerts by that sublimely skilful vocalist, Dinkar Kaikini. The first time he sang Raga Multani, and I asked myself: this raga now being sung in Bangalore—are there traces of it any more in its original home, Multan? (Probably not, for the Islamic Republic of Pakistan has been deeply inhospitable to classical music.) The next time he sang a beautiful dadra, which he prefaced by saying that it was a favourite composition of Ustad Fayaz Khan, the great Baroda singer known as the ‘musican of the century’. To some of us in the hall the invocation was particularly resonant, for in the Gujarat riots earlier in the year, a rampaging mob had destroyed Faiyaz Khan’s tomb in Baroda. But these Hindutva fanatics failed to destroy the heritage of his music, here being nobly carried on by a Saraswat Pandit from the Konkan, Dinkar Kaikini.
Music has united Hindu and Muslim, and sometimes North Indian and South Indian as well. I was recently told the story of an accomplished Carnatic vocalist named Madurai G. S. Mani, who in the nineteen fifties took an office job in a private firm in New Delhi. There were no cutcheries to be had in this city, so to feed his soul Mr Mani would attend, by invitation, peformances by courtesans who still maintained a practice in old Delhi. He would sit and listen to their singing, but, when time came for this to give way to alcohol and else, the courtesans would politely tell him: ‘Panditji, ab aap ghar jaa sakte hain’ (Panditji, you may now go home). He would depart, content; the music was all that he wanted, in any case.
Many years later, Mr Mani turned up at the door of a friend of mine in Lucknow who, apart from being a ranking civil servant, is also a scholar of Carnatic music. The singer had just been to Benares with his family, to offer prayers at the Kashi Vishwanath temple. That was one ambition fulfilled; now he had journeyed further north to fulfil a second. This was to pay his respects at the mazaar, or tombstone, of his friend of Delhi days, the finest of all courtesan-singers, Begum Akhtar. An ancient Hindu temple, the mazaar of a Muslim woman singer, and a pilgrim who comes to visit them both from Madras. Such are the uplifting juxtapositions of the music, and musicians, of India.