Tuesday 1 September 2015

ShortStory 2015, FeaturedWriter Mahesh Sowani

Her Master's Voice

It was cold and misty outside. The sun was rising on the Ganga lumbering through the woods and the puff of the morning breeze brought from the unseen ghats the scent of the damp wood-smoke, incense and rotting half burned bodies. That was the true smell of Varanasi and if once it creeps into the blood of a man that man will at last forget everything. He will return to Varanasi to die.
Nalini tied her braid tightly in a jiffy and waited for the train to stop. Chennai to Varanasi was an arduous journey of  1800 kilometres. The journey was emotionally draining as well. She was the lone woman passenger in the compartment.  As the train proceeded from Chennai everything changed – the terrain, the language and even the man-woman ratio in the compartment. After Bhopal she was the only woman in the compartment. It was not the case that her fellow passengers leered at her or caused any other inconvenience to her. This journey had been different from any other journey that she had undertaken in her life of twenty-seven years. It was taking her away from the safe haven to a distant land which she had always dreamed of.

She had been learning music from her disciplinarian mother since she was three years old.  By the age of seven she was a certified artiste of the All India Radio Chennai. Her mother had consented to her performing at the radio studio for the sole reason that she was going to sing only Carnatic music. Amma, as Nalini fondly called her mother was a puritan when it came to music. If by chance she found Nalini humming any film tune she would rebuke her and ask her not to waste any time and practice her music lessons. It was Amma who was to be attributed for Nalini's initial success. It was her discipline that perfected Nalini's notes. Once Nalini had missed a note during a performance. Her mother had slapped in full view of the audience. “Never miss a note, not even by mistake” were the exact words. Those words echoed in her ears till date.

The train came to a screeching halt and Nalini's reverie was broken. Juggling her two suitcases she alighted on the platform. Rickshaw pullers  and auto drivers swarmed her asking where she wanted to go. This was Kashi, this was Banaras- the place she had hankered to go to learn Hindustani classical music.

She gently relieved herself from the rickshaw pullers  and auto drivers. Still they tried their best to pander her with the best hotel and dharmashala deals. Chacha had written that he would send an auto for her. She dialed Chacha. But before Chacha could pick the phone a man in his late forties with a skull cap appeared from no where. “Are you Nalini? Chacha has sent me. Give me your bags.” He said. Nalini had heard enough  tales about Kashi. So she accompanied him but did not let him touch her bags.

In her early twenties Nalini had realized that she wanted to try something else. She was looking for something more. One day she heard a dhrupad in the National Programme of music on Doordarshan. She was totally smitten by the beauty of the composition which was such an integral part of Hindustani music. Such was her plight that she could not even share her feelings with her mother who was also her guru. The worlds of Carnatic and Hindustani music had been divided not only by Godavari but also by the prejudices which the followers of these two schools of music harboured towards one another.

Nalini had started to lose interest in music. In spite of her mother's cajoling she some how was unable to connect with Carnatic music any longer. She was attracted by the Hindustani gayaki especially Dhrupad. She wanted to learn it, but did not know how she would find a guru to teach her the same. She began making enquiries with those in the music circle in Chennai. No one was of any help for they had spent all their life in Carnatic music only. However those to whom she had expressed her desire to learn Hindustani ensured that her wishes reached her Amma. That was when all the hell broke.

Amma confronted Nalini as to why she had a desire to learn Hindustani when Carnatic tradition was so rich. Nalini told she had no logical answer to this question. All that she knew was she had a deep desire to learn and master the Hindustani style. Amma was furious on listening this. Her daughter who was also her shishya had dared to open her mouth to oppose her guru. Apart from Nalini there had been hundreds of others whom Amma had been imparting lessons in music. But no one had behaved like Nalini. Amma somehow composed herself. The only words that came out of her mouth were “Nalini get out of the house.”

Nalini had learnt about Chacha from a magazine. The magazine had described him as the oldest dhrupad singer in India. She wrote to him and asked if he would teach her. Three months therefrom she  had received a reply on a postcard that she was welcome. This was how she had landed in Varanasi. The decision was impulsive for sure. But aren't all the decisions taken from the heart impulsive? Nalini had enough of Amma. She loved music. But she felt her music would whither away in the strict disciplinarian approach of Amma. Nalini wanted to live life on her own and sing her own song.

Chacha was in his late seventies. His beard was free flowing. He stooped a little when he walked. He occasionally had bouts of coughs and even forgetfulness. But when it came to singing even at this age his sonorous voice could mesmerize the Gods in the heaven. His own children had little interest in music. They did not do well in studies as well. Hence both the sons of Chacha were school drop outs. They worked as labourers somewhere in Goa. Chacha's only daughter Nilofar was married off and she lived in Bareli.  Chacha spent his life in the only company of music and his obedient wife. Hence Chacha opened his house and heart for Nalini.

On reaching Chacha's house Nalini touched his feet. Chacha blessed her and asked her to take a dip in the Ganges. He also asked her to offer white flowers to Baba Vishwanath. “Gangaji is our mother. We sit on her lap. Baba Vishwanath is the guarding deity of this place. How can we stay at his place without paying respects for him?” He asked Nalini with his toothless grin. Sensing her amazement on seeing a Muslim holding Ganges and Vishwanathji with so much of reverence he added “Music knows no religion. It directly reaches the God.” Nalini's respect for Chacha grew by leaps and bounds.

As dawn broke over the city the prayers of Chacha hum through the narrow lane where his house sat. He evoked the Almighty. Much later he had told Nalini that the only prayer he made to God was to allow him to sing until his last moment. To give him the strength to teach those who come to learn from him from long distances. It was his daily routine. After getting up early in the morning and offering his prayers he would never pray again during that day. “People pray five times in a day. I pray for all twenty-four hours. Whenever I am singing I am praying.” He would say.

After prayers he would sit with his tanpura, hookah and pandaan.  His day would start with the morning raga Bhoop. “Bhoop Roop Kalyan Ras” He would sing unhindered. The notes flew. Sometimes the notes would be interrupted by bouts of breathlessness. But such was Chacha's will power that he would catch the notes again that too gently as if he was giving them a sugarcoated kiss. Afterall the more than seventy years that he had spent in learning classical music were not in vain.
Soon Chacha developed a great liking for Nalini. The liking was reciprocal. It was not that Chacha did not have any other students. There were many students who came to learn from him. However there was no one who had time to listen to his stories. Though Chacha was elder than her father Nalini's relationship with him was more of friendship than a guru and disciple or a father and daughter. He would tell her anecdotes from his life and Nalini would listen to them with all ears. 
“Music is music. There is no distinction like Hindustani and Carnatic, classical or pop.” One day Chacha said to Nandini as they were walking along the banks of Ganga.
“You listen to pop Chacha? People will not believe that the most celebrated dhrupad singer of the world listens to pop.”
“Let them not believe. I sing for my rooh - my soul and not for those morons. True music is that music which emerges from the soul and touches another soul.”

This was a complete different approach from what Amma had. It was liberating for Nalini to sit at Chacha's feet and learn music. Nalini was happy that her decision to migrate to Varanasi was a correct one. Chacha was the teacher she needed. He was a friend, father and of course her guru. Yes the shift from Carnatic music to Hindustani was not that easy. In Carnatic music there is no separate grammar for instrumental music. All  instruments replicated vocal patterns. In Hindustani music instruments largely followed the tenets of tantrakari which were aspects specific to instrumental music. This was completely new for Nalini. Her training in Carnatic music had ensured that she had perfect technical command over the swaras or vocals but she was finding difficulty in following the notes which Chacha would write and ask her to play on the tanpura. “A singer who sings along with the tanpura is the only one who indeed sings. For he is in perfect sur, meter and pitch. All others don't sing. They simply cry.” Chacha had told her once. Plus language was another problem faced by Nalini. She was having difficulties in writing in Devanagari script. Music though appears to the lay listener only to be emerging from the vocal chords requires a perfect combination of skilfully moving fingers on the tanpura and mental calculations of the notes in the head.

Sometimes Chacha would go down the memory lane. He would take out his trunk in which he had kept all his memorabilia. He would take some fading black and white photograph and tell Nalini “This one in the middle is me. I was seventeen then. Can you recognize the gentleman with the turban?” Nalini would nod her head expressing ignorance and Chacha would continue. “He is Pandit Vishnu Digambar Paluskar, the father of Hindustani classical  music. I was just seventeen then. I remember I had accompanied him on a tour to Delhi. My only job was to offer pan to him. I had begun learning music from my father when I was five. However he did not allow me go on stage for the next twenty-two years. Manch par jane ki tayaari to honi chahiye, he would say. He began my lessons by teaching the base note sa and did not allow me to learn anything for the next three years. Can you believe it ? For three years I only sang sa, the first note in alankar.”

It had been three years since Nalini was living with Chacha in his home at Varanasi. She was treated like a family member. She was very happy. Never for a day Chacha or his wife had made her realize that she was an outsider. She had received all the love which lacked in her family.

She had learnt a lot in all these years. Not only had she learned music and Hindi language but also picked up the Ganga-Jamni tahzeeb or elegant mannerisms.  She would hear a new word and ask Chacha its meaning or find its meaning in the dictionary. When she would learn a new word from Hindi she would be elated. She would mentally repeat the word several times. She would wait for the opportune moment so that she could use her newly learnt word into conversations. She had begun to appreciate the beauty of Hindi language. It was indeed rich, elegant and respectful. It appeared sweet to the ears.

Now whenever Nalini sang a bandish she began to pay attention to the words. She had been singing with Chacha for all these years. However she had never paid attention to the words of these melodious compositions. These compositions had been transferred from one generation to the other through the word of mouth. It was rather surprising that the old Hindi language was passed without any distortions. There were many words which were no longer in vogue in daily conversations. However these musical compositions had retained those very words. Unfortunately neither Chacha knew its meanings nor the dictionary documented it. They were enigmatic, intriguing yet attractive to Nalini.

Nalini's newly found love for the meaning of words had begun to show its effects. Sometimes she would be so engrossed in feeling a word that she would miss a note or the beat on the tabla. This was a grave mistake and any music teacher would have reprimanded her for it. Chacha too told her politely that yes words were important too, but when it came to classical music it was sur or note which was the soul of the song. He told her that while singing if a word was compromised it would be easily overlooked by the audience. Rather they would not even realize it. But just try missing a sur or beat the entire auditorium including the lay listeners would pinpoint to the the mistake. Nalini just nodded. She had even enrolled for a course in linguistic at the Banaras Hindu University. She fully agreed with what Chacha said but she was so enchanted with the words. It was like when you are in love all that you think about is your beloved and conveniently close ears to the advice given by your parents.
By now both Chacha and Nalini had understood that their ways, their approach was going to be different. Nalini had great respect for Chacha. However she wanted to pursue her own calling. She knew in the deepest of her hearts that Chacha would be hurt. But wasn't Chacha the one who had told her that the song should emerge from the soul? Nalini decided to part ways before it became uglier. She told Chacha that she was leaving. She told that it was the meaning of the words which was pulling her more than the notes of music. Chacha heard her patiently. But did not utter a word. His face was expressionless.

Nalini moved to the hostel in the Banaras Hindu University. The 10 ft X 20 ft hostel room which she shared with two other girls was going to be her new home. But she had no regrets in making the adjustments. After all she had abandoned her home long back. A step outside the home is all about adjustments. But still it gives you freedom and allows you to follow your heart. That is the most beautiful thing about leaving home. Hence minor adjustments were never an issue for Nalini.
Nalini completed her course in linguistics. She wanted to do something new, something unheard of, combining the words and music. She had compiled old bhajans of Kabir, Tulsidas, Surdas and Meerabai. She designed a concert which was indeed unique. She had her own apprehensions. But she wanted to give it a shot. She named it Hari Darshan.

Her first concert was to take place in the Ram Lila Maidan at Varanasi. She had found a sponsor in the form of a small time oil merchant. The programme was widely advertised in the local media. Nalini was sure that Chacha too must have had whiff of it. However she did not dare to go and personally invite him. Deep in her heart Nalini was feeling terribly guilty. She felt she had breached Chacha's trust. He had sheltered her when she was a totally stranger to him. He had given her all the love that a father would give to his daughter. He was indeed her friend, philosopher and guide. Traditions are something highly reverred in the classical music. They are strictly adhered to. The day you make a guru, you accept that you would strictly abide by the rules of the gharana and never ever drift away from it. Nalini had committed the crime of disobeying them. She had defiled the sacred lineage. She had overheard few people calling her a traitor. But what others said hardly mattered to her. What Chacha said definitely mattered to her. But unfortunately he did not say anything and that pinched Nalini the most. Even if Chacha had yelled at her, disapproved of her attachment for the words and their meanings and rebuked her, she would have definitely felt better.

Finally the day of concert arrived. Nalini was stressed. She felt a unique combination of excitement and anxiety coursing through her. She went early morning to the Panchganga ghat. She had a dip into the holy waters. She went to the Vishwanath temple and prostrated before the Lord. She sat cross-legged in the temple sanctum and prayed the Almighty to be with her and make her concert huge success. She mentally prayed to Chacha as well. She asked him to forgive her and bless her.
When Nalini took the stage she realised that the ground was packed with people. Like her they too were apprehensive as to what a woman was going to offer in a show called  Hari Darshan. For the first time Nalini felt as to whether her choice of venue for her first performance was right. She thought it would have been better if she would have started with the urban audience of Delhi. She consoled herself saying that these thoughts were of no use and she had start the concert.

Again remembering God, Amma and Chacha, Nalini struck the chords of the tanpura and began to sing. As she took up the notes “Sa Ga Ma Pa Dha Ga Ma Pa” of a famous bhajan by Meerabai, a screen behind her came alive with a montage of Meerabai's pictures. The pictures narrated her journey since her birth till she breathed last. Such was Nalini's choice of pictures that she had ensured that the picture would be apt for every line that she would sing. She had also seen to it that those words which were not in vogue were also shown on the screen alongside its meaning pictorially described. From Meerabai, Nalini went on to sing the renditions of Surdas, Tulsidas and Ramdas. The audience was mesmerized by her performance. They had never seen or experienced something of this kind. They were totally in awe of her performance. That was when Nalini announced that she would end the concert with Kabirwani. The audience wished the concert should never end. Someone from the crowd even said it aloud. But Nalini explained them that all good things have to come to an end for the greater good and went on to sing the last song. The audience was  smitten by the concert but not satiated. They wanted to hear more from her. There was a demand that Nalini should organize another concert soon. Nalini expressed her gratitude with folded hands.  The local media covered the concert. They had highly appreciated the novelty of the concert. They even said that Nalini's concert would go a long way to introduce the younger audience to the great saint poets and particularly the nuances of the language used by them.

Since then there was no looking back. Nalini's concert was much in demand. She was performing pan India. Today she would sing in Delhi, tomorrow in Kolkota and day after in Mumbai. She became very busy. She was happy that her love for language was reaching for everyone. Earning money from the concert was never her aim. She had started it because something within  her had compelled her to do it. Nalini still felt guilty for deceiving Chacha but now she got little time to ponder over it. What added fuel to the fire was Amma's interview to a newspaper. Amma had said in her interview that Nalini was accustomed to using her gurus and then throwing them away. Nalini was deeply hurt. But her commitments kept her busy and did not allow her much of free time to think about these issues.

One day while Nalini was getting ready for her performance at NCPA in Mumbai, she received a telephonic message conveying that Chacha was dead. She felt frozen. However her legs trembled. She somehow composed herself and slumped into the chair. Chacha, her Chacha was no more. The person who taught her everything about Hindustani music was no more. He had taught her without any expectation and what she had given him in return? Betrayal. Nalini felt terribly guilty. She cancelled the show and took a flight to Varanasi.

By the time Nalini reached Chacha's house the burial was over. The house appeared very different in Chacha's absence. Nalini felt Chacha would somehow emerge from the ether and sing a taan. But she knew that he would never return. Why does a man feel something when he knows that it will not happen? Nalini just sat there for sometime and left after offering her condolences to Chacha's wife and daughter Nilofar. When she had reached to the gate she heard Nilofar calling her. “Chacha has told to give this to you.” She said as she handed over a sealed envelope to her.  Nalini tore open the envelope and began reading.

“My dear Nalini,
You will always remain my dear daughter no matter what you do. When you first came to me I saw my younger days in you. I too was like you, wanting to learn something new.

Nalini you can not imagine how much happy I am to see your Hari Darshan concert going long way. It requires courage to defy traditions and find your own calling. I always wished to try out something new, but I was trapped into the cage of traditions. I never had that boldness to break rules and age old traditions. But now that I am getting old and nearing death I feel that I should have been a little bold and courageous. I will die with one regret in my heart that I did not follow my heart. I would have been satisfied even if I had given it a try and failed. 

Nalini my child, I am happy that you followed your heart. You will not die with a heavy heart like me. I wish I could have attended your concert. I had read newspaper advertisements about it. I knew you would come to invite me for the programme. There would be a knock at the door and I would think you had come to invite me. I would hear footfalls and I would feel that you had come to extend an invitation. But you never came. May be you thought what Chacha would feel. May be you thought I was angry with you. 

You are not the only one to be blamed. Even I could have come to your programme without any invitation, by purchasing a ticket like those hundreds of commoners. But even I didn't do that. Now there is no point in speaking about the things of the past. My child remember, no matter where I am, I am always there with you.  I am very happy for you.” 

Nalini held the letter close to her bosom. She could not read it any further. She knelt on the floor and cried profusely. Mourners came and left. They saw Nalini crying. For them Nalini was  Chacha's traitor and her grief was nothing but  shedding  of crocodile tears. Somethings are...

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