First published in ABRÁCE LIVE!
A royal courtesan scorned by her lover
A warrior princess who makes her life over
Brothers cursed to turn into beasts
A farmer’s wife who cooks up a feast
The first songs I heard throbbed with dreams and rivers
That’s what music is, a lifelong lover.
A bottle of fortified milk with its sipper inside my mouth, I would lie on the bed or the sofa as the story of Buddhu and Bhutum, two royal newborns cursed to the lives of a monkey and an owl, entered my toddler ears. Long before I knew what music meant, my ears were getting trained to catch a variety of notes. Saving money from their modest salaries, my mother and her younger brother would buy LP records to play for us on a turntable in my grandparents’ house where I was growing up. They were bringing home a variety of musical influences — Rabindrasangeet — songs written and composed by Rabindranath Tagore, the Bengali Nobel laureate, shyamasangeet — written and sung in the praise of Goddess Kali, Atulprasadi — devotional and love songs written and composed by Atul Prasad Sen, a Bengali composer, lyricist and singer who was also a lawyer, social worker, educationist and writer. Of everything that was played, though, what I and my brother, nearly three years older than me, loved were dramatized musicals (also known as dance dramas) by Tagore and musical folktales of the kind narrating Buddhu and Bhutum’s story in Bengali. The heightened effect of drama, rendered through songs and musical dialogues was the perfect blend of music and storytelling that had our attention, hungry for the goofy.
At the Monday/Thursday class
eight of us circle our guru,
his cotton wool beard just about
eclipsing that concessional smile.
Bageshree holds the room
and our octaves together.
(From my poem, Bageshree)
While singing and listening to music remained a constant in both home and school, it was only in middle school that I came to identify the octave’s notes. My mother enrolled me into private classes in Hindustani classical vocal music, one of the two branches of Indian classical music (the other being Carnatic). She saved money again, this time to buy a harmonium to help me practice my lessons at home. In school, we got to learn a fair share of Hindi patriotic songs and Rabindrasangeet.
And then there was the radio at home. In between preparing for school work and practicing my classical music lessons, the radio — our primary source of listening to music — had replaced the turntable by this time. To me, the radio was a magic box. You turned on a knob and it brought you Hindi film music from the golden era of the 1950s and 60s, you moved the knob to your right and it played English pop songs and Western classical music. Somewhere in the middle, if you persisted, you could catch BBC World News, albeit with the hissing impatience of a faltering signal. Twice a week at dinner time, my mother religiously tuned into two Western music shows — Forces Request on Mondays and A Date with You on Thursdays. While the former featured songs requested by members of the Indian armed forces, the latter was a request show for regular listeners. This was my first window into The Beatles, The Carpenters, ABBA, The Beach Boys, Glen Campbell and many other singers and bands. That they coexisted in my musical universe with luminaries of Hindi film music like Sahir Ludhiyanvi, Sachin Dev Burman, Shailendra, Salil Chowdhury and many others as well as Rabindrasangeet in the melodic voices of Kanika Bandopadhyay, Suchitra Mitra and Debabrata Biswas was simply as natural as the multilingual world I inhabited that required me to switch form Bengali to Hindi to English based on the environment I found myself in.
In grade eight, my musical world became even richer as our first cassette tape player entered the house. It was a small machine, custom made for us by an acquaintance. In the machine’s early days, our cassette collection totaled to two tapes. Yet, the musical wealth these two cassette tapes brought was truly infinite. You’ll see why.
The first tape was a predictable choice — a Rabindrasangeet album my mother bought. The other one, procured by my brother, would alter my musical universe forever. It was a jugalbandi (duet) of sitarist, Ravi Shankar and sarod player, Ali Akbar Khan, accompanied on the tabla by Alla Rakha , legendary musicians all three of them. It was a concert, Ravi and Ali, guru brothers — a relationship tag disciples trained by the same guru would go by — recorded at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City in October 1972, a month after the death of their guru, Allauddin Khan, who happened to be Ali Akbar’s father and Ravi Shankar’s father-in-law. At the beginning of the tribute concert, Ravi Shankar introduced him as one of “the greatest musicians.” I find it curious that the year and the month of that particular concert coincided with my brother’s birth.
The virtuoso musicians played three rāgas (“a melodic framework for improvisation in Indian classical music akin to a melodic mode. The rāga is a unique and central feature of the classical Indian music tradition, and has no direct translation to concepts in classical European music. Each rāga is an array of melodic structures with musical motifs, considered in the Indian tradition to have the ability to “colour the mind” and affect the emotions of the audience.”), opening with Hem Bihag, created by the departed guru, Allauddin Khan himself, followed by Manj Khamaj and Sindhi Bhairavi.
Listening to Ravi Shankar and Ali Akbar Khan strum the strings of two different instruments in such meditative and yet unintrusive harmony took me to a place I’d never been before, and one I didn’t want to leave. To say that they were complementing each other would be woefully inadequate. It was as if they were playing each other’s instruments, not the one they themselves held. I hadn’t had the opportunity to listen to a true jugalbandi before this, and I remain grateful to this day that my initiation to this collaborative form happened with such a stellar performance. The moment I heard the first notes of the sitar and sarod in alaap (the non-rhythmic melody structure revealing the rāga), at once pensive and uplifting, I knew this was the love of a lifetime. Once they moved on to Manj Khamaj, this time their notes finding the company of Alla Rakha’s beats on the tabla, I felt being enveloped in Delhi’s December sunshine, an experience I’ve forever cherished, with a balmy tropical winter sun bringing a kind of warmth which instead of whip-lashing you, cloaked you in a warm embrace.
A soothing sadness, the colour
of mellow afternoons, glides in.
Tears soak stationary hours
and passing cataclysms.
Negotiating years and terrains
Manj Khamaj keeps breathing.
A footsure confidant. In its
folds, wars lose their way.
(From my poem, Manj Khamaj)
To this day, listening to this Manj Khamaj jugalbandi teleports me to such a comforting, snug tropical winter afternoon. As I listen to it for a millionth time, the music embeds itself into my immediate surroundings with such intimacy that I can’t tell where one instrument takes off and the other follows, as if the sitar and sarod were two brothers themselves, with the tabla as their loving guardian that held them together and became playful with them in turns. Through all my musical discoveries and learning, this album has remained a sublime true north that never fails to bring me back home, metaphorically and otherwise. It’s a discovery I made because of my brother, and that memory, entwined with the divine effect of the music itself, makes this widely-acclaimed concert intimately personal for me.
Ever since that brush with music at the deepest level, at the level of the spirit, I’ve found my musical world continue to expand, to include Sufi music, Latin American jazz, African folk music, the work of innovative composers like Gustavo Santaolalla and Ludovico Einaudi. In this world the inner and the outer become one for me and boundaries lose all meaning.
Music had held me by the hand when the world seemed to slip away from under my feet; it has calmed my nerves when medicine or sleep couldn’t; it has brought me joy in the middle of enervating ennui and it has often taken me back to that crispy sunshine of my childhood winters in Delhi.