Tryst With The Titan

Celebrated author Amos Oz says that you cannot write unless the subject is given to you by the Governor who rules the universe. So the days when his output is insignificant, he does not feel guilty. His duty, he says, is to open the shop every day. Whether there’ll be any footfall on a given day is not in his hands.

When reading the interview of Oz not only did I feel relieved, but it also occurred to me that in most cases I never had to choose the subject for an interview as the opportunity dropped on my platter almost always from an unexpected source. Some of these gifted people even appeared in my dream before I could meet them.

Sounds from far off always get me somewhere. Whether it is the azaan, birdsong, moan of a railway engine at night or the daytime drone of a plane, I immediately fall in a trance-like state. But one sound that takes complete possession of me is the strain of a shehnai riding the wind.

Once, ambling along Riverside Road at Barrackpore, my favourite haunt where I often go alone to de-stress, I heard this faint sobbing note of the instrument coming from afar almost like Bimala’s heart-rending cry in Home and the World (Ghare Baire) by Rabindranath Tagore. And I under its hypnotic spell, went in search of the place the sound was coming from, but had to abandon the search as it was getting dark.

Shortly thereafter, I got a call from my friend from Varanasi: Would I try my luck and meet Ustad Bismillah Khan?

Just opposite my friend’s home at Sonarpura I put up at Shri Sanatan Gaudiya Math. On 26 January 2006, we bought a packet of sweets from the famous sweet shop Kheer Sagar. “Ustadji likes sweets”, my friend told me. Then we climbed into an auto and headed for his haveli.

The onset of the interview went somewhat awry. “No tape recorder”, he sternly said. I got shaken up a bit, for he spoke chaste Urdu and I was afraid the words would escape me. But now, in hindsight, I realise why he took no chances and chose to speak off the record. Ustadji on occasions too many was paid a pittance for his performance. The matter was made worse when some people recorded his rendition without his knowledge and profited from such piracy while Ustadji was deprived of his legitimate due.

The maestro was not in a mood to deliberate on anything but music. Sometimes he would resort to singing the pakad of a raga in response to my question to convey his sentiments and like a strict teacher would ask us to follow suit. To dare sing before Ustadji? I felt like bolting for the exit! My friend however was brave enough to hum a golden oldie. Naturally, his voice quivered, and the pitch at places went off key before he was thundered into silence. Ustadji took up from the place where my friend had faltered and like a first-rate vocalist rendered it perfectly.

Just as Ramakrishna Paramhansa used to enter into a state of samadhi watching a flock of birds flying in formation, Ustadji told us how he always passed into a heightened state of awareness just touching the stone walls of any Benares temple.

He never went after riches, always preferred a rickshaw to a car, had no fascination for a trip beyond the country’s border and chose to live by the side of the sacred Ganges till the last day of his life, in a state of poverty, but never going hungry or without the basic needs. “If you are true to yourself”, he told us, “God takes care of you. You do not have to ask for anything. Whenever you are in urgent need of anything, it is sure to appear as if by magic. But life without music is useless.”

When we got out of the haveli, my head was filled with a rich mixture of classical music and Urdu couplets. I was acutely aware that if I didn’t get them down quick, they would vanish like an evanescent dream. I asked my friend to take me to the nearest ghat where I could jot down Ustadji’s outpourings. The piece was published in The Saturday Statesman on 25 February 2006. Was it my soul’s ache for his divine music that conspired to bring me before Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan, the top classical musician of all time and that too just seven months before his passing on? I often wonder…

First published in The Statesman

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