The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Jun 8, 2008


Until the moment that the music teacher asked us to gather around the piano, we had all been rather unruly. We had been leaping over each other, kidding around and being quite unmusical. When Natasha Domracheva sat at the piano, though, and started to play the prelude to Swan Lake, my classmates went rapt with attention.

Ten seconds later, feeling a tad bored, I gingerly tapped at the keys closest to me. The light tinkle that emanated was lost in the midst of Natasha's virtuosity. Emboldened, I hit the keys harder. A violent discordant clash resounded through the room, and Natasha's playing faltered momentarily. Smirking, I looked around the class and saw twenty hostile eyes boring into me. The teacher shook her head, and even Misha, my usual partner in crime, was disapproving. The Russians, I learnt then, took their music very seriously.

A couple of years later, aged 11, I found myself equally bored at a music class in DPS. The teacher, for some reason known only to himself, insisted that we - boys numbering about 6 or 7 - practise stick-fighting for ten minutes before settling down to some singing exercises. The stick-fighting consisted of mincing up and down the room waving a lathi and producing strange patterns in the air. My instinct was to hit the other guy's weapon every chance I got. The ensuing dull thuds were nothing compared to the ringing in my head when the teacher clipped me one above the ear.

To add to his horror, I jumped over the tablas when leaving the room. He shuddered. He winced. "Treat the instruments like God," he intoned, forcing me on my knees and instructing me to touch each tabla I had defiled and then touch my forehead.

I never did learn much more than sa-re-ga-ma in his class. As my mellifluous voice rose above the others', he would grit his teeth and wave me down.

Around the same time, on National television, we were beginning to see some programming that was of interest to us, young ones. Cartoons, you know, like Tom & Jerry, always a favourite, and animation from Disney. We didn't have a television at home, so a visit to our friends who had one was always a treat. One day, full of anticipation for an hour of cartoons, we sat cross-legged before the TV, snacks strategically positioned by our side. The TV was switched on. We gaped at it reverentially. The picture crystallised into four men sitting in a semi-circle. The largest of them was writhing on stage, while his companions pounded away on tablas and harmoniums. Aghast, I didn't know what to say. My parents chuckled. "No cartoons today," they said. I was close to tears. "Go away," I shrieked at the large man. He shook his head, stretched his right arm to the heavens and, cupping his left ear with the other hand, moaned, "Nahin."

My introduction to Hindustani classical turned out, therefore, to be as inauspicious as that to Western classical. By the time I went to college, though, I was well on the road to appreciation - of the artistes, even if not the oeuvre itself. I forced myself to listen to this raga and that taal, and even renditions of the same piece by different singers, and emerged from this exercise with a very small, infinitesimal even, smattering of understanding.

SPIC-MACAY was very active at Delhi University and I attended as many concerts I could. The stalwarts all performed. I couldn't pay attention to every swirl and twirl of melody, and I absorbed the experience only briefly. Bu the mehfil sufficed.

I began to tease my father for inappropriately playing the Venkatesa Suprabhatham in the afternoons. His interest was only in the music but I, snotty Stephanian, thought I should show him what was what.

Still, I had a long way to go to true expertise. One day my friend Guru and I found ourselves scanning the racks of an HMV store at Connaught Place for cassettes of the greats. In the background sang a formidably deep voice.

"Ah," I said, sagely. "Bhimsen Joshi. Rag Todi."

Guru looked suitably impressed. The proprietor of the shop overheard me. His lip curled like a dog's tail.

"It's Gangubai Hangal," he said.

While Guru roared, I skulked out of the shop.

A few years later, surrounded by the overwhelmingly south Indian population at IISc, I began to listen more and more to Carnatic classical. Several of my friends had studied this tradition deeply and were more than happy to give me listening tips and expert advice. Armed with new-found knowledge and forgetting the Connaught Place experience, I strode into the HMV store off M. G. Road and imperiously beckoned to a lurking salesman.

"What is a good interpretation of the Pancharatna Kritis?" I asked.

Wordlessly, he pointed me to a rack with several CDs of Thyagaraja's finest. I picked one at random. Then I looked around the shop. There was only one other customer, a young woman. I thrust my chest out and sucked my paunch in.

"Will there be anything else?" said the salesman.

"Yes. A Gayathri violin compilation," I said.

The salesman looked puzzled.

"What, sir?"

"Gayathri," I said, louder than I intended. Enunciating slowly, I added, "Vi-o-lin."

The young woman began to smile slightly.

The salesman shook his head.

"We don't have, sir."

I was surprised.

"Gayathri?" I said again. "Violin?"

"I think he means 'veena'," said the woman, now grinning broadly.

The salesman brightened like Sirius. A second later, a CD was in my hands. Verily, it was of Gayathri - and she was wielding a veena. Not a violin in sight. I stared at it for a while. Then I stared at the salesman. Soon thereafter, I looked at the woman. She could barely contain her giggles.

What could I do? I ran.

Update: It appears I am not the only one unable to recognise genius either by its voice or by its ability. [Via Guru] Bhimsen Joshi's childhood music master didn't think very highly of his vocals:

‘Good lord!’ said Pahadikaka after the usual pleasantries were over and Bhimsen left us. ‘I can’t believe it is the same boy. He came to me all the way from Poona to learn music. He had a voice like a buffalo calf with cold. I told him he had no future as a singer but I might be able to find him a petty job in the New Theatres Studio. He lived in my house for a while. I would pay him a tenner or two for running errands and then he suddenly disappeared one day. Good heavens! Astafullah! How can this man be the same Bhimsen?’


Gurusharan said...

Well this is a revelation. I always found you eclectic and educated on music! I guess we all start as beginners. But hey I like the style of your readable piece. You did not add ypur own singing senastion years in Stephens - i remember you sang a oldies song pretty well. Of course tehre was no one classy enough to appreciate it except yours truly!

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