Did a child force the great Sitarist Imrat Khan to walk out of a concert in a huff?
The celebrated Sitarist Ustad Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan, in his last interview to Sangeet Natak Akademi, drove home a point to the interviewer, Pandit Nayan Ghosh: “He is not a man who does not have a child in his heart”. This at the age of 90, coming from no less a person than Ustad, raises the bar for any one, not just musicians. Every child secretly wants to become bigger till it reaches a plateau and then it wants to force its way back to childhood. There are instances in India where people claim to be older than they actually are so that they can apply for jobs. Of course, when it’s time to retire, that long-ago decision suddenly appears ill-thought and premature.
Back to Khan Saheb’s observation, no matter what an artiste has accomplished in his life, he or she should listen to music with a child-like curiosity and fascination. As the Ustad comments on the role of a Guru: “A true Guru never really teaches anything. S/he simply becomes a medium for the disciple to witness the unlocking of musical gates with pure fascination and that allows the disciple to build upon it with his or her own interpretation. So it seems to me that a child is most suited to explore music with innocence and a sense of fascination because “you are your own Guru, unlocking the gates of learning yourself”.
Circa 1977. Our daughter Cookie, then a toddler, is the subject of this story. She being our first child we were over the moon, trying to raise her, albeit clumsily, with none of our respective elders to advise at close range. To say that she was a chatterbox is an understatement. She learned to walk, talk much ahead of her time. One of the ways she demonstrated her attachment to me was to sit on my left knee when I took up the Sitar on my right knee for my riyaaz, and look at me for a sign of approval. She must have imbibed her first classical music lessons from that vantage position, apart from the numerous late night concerts that she attended, fast asleep on the mattress in front of us, while the artist performed intricate taans on the stage.
Ahmedabad has now become a prestigious hub for renowned classical music artists, but in the 70s, great Sitarists rarely visited Ahmedabad to perform. Pandit Nikhil Banerjee of course was an exception. We remember many nights of his blissful concerts, both informal and formal.
That is why I greeted the news of a forthcoming performance by Ustad Imrat Khan at the recently inaugurated swanky Premabhai Hall with great anticipation. The tickets for the concerts were not exactly affordable, but how could I miss it? While not being too sure about how a typical Amdavadi would feel about it, I found myself to be one of the first to queue up to grab two tickets. The announcement said nothing about barring entry for infants. Let us worry about what to do with the baby later, I said to myself.
Cookie was no stranger, as I said, to the Sitar. Her Dad must have qualified as the best and the only Sitarist in the world in her little eyes. But here was one of the genuine best in business – the Great Imrat Khan, about to perform live right there in Ahmedabad. Would Cookie appreciate competition between Imrat Khan and her Dad if only to decide who was better?
Should we take her along or entrust a neighbour to look after her while we enjoyed the concert? The idea of leaving her with someone else did not appeal to us. The next best option was to administer a harmless antihistamine syrup known as Phenergan just before leaving for the concert. My brother-in-law, a medical representative, had assured us that it was a popular solution used by many parents when faced with such situations.
So, onward to Premabhai Hall, having completed the ritual of administering Phenergan syrup to our hyperactive Cookie. During the 20-minute drive in the three-wheeler, my wife Ranjana and I held on to Cookie lest she should fall asleep on the way and tumble out of the moving vehicle. That’s because Cookie had this remarkable ability inherited from her Dad to fall asleep before you could even sing a line of lullaby. Once we had tucked her in the bed between her mother and the wall, and in the morning all hell broke loose. Cookie had disappeared from the bed! She had actually fallen off the bed, along with the cushions, through the tiny opening between the bed and the wall on to the tiles, and had quietly continued sleeping there in that position all night without any cry or noise that could have alerted us.
On the way to the auditorium, however, she did nothing of that sort, instead kept looking out at the shops and passers-by with a great deal of fascination.
Finally, we arrived at the auditorium and slipped into the air-conditioned foyer. Ranjana found a nice, raised platform to sit on and started patting Cookie to induce her to sleep. I watched the who’s who of Ahmedabad streaming in, happy to be a part of the elite audience, looking forward to impressing their friends on the next day with ‘we-were-there-you-know’.
Soon, the bell sounded for the people to get into the auditorium and the two and a half of us made the grand entry. And how was Cookie doing? She was alert, glancing around with mischievous eyes.
“The syrup has to work, soon now,” I comforted Ranjana. Some people in the audience saw us gingerly walking towards our seats and made a face that said: “How on earth could these guys bring babies to a serious classical music concert?” They were unaware that Cookie had had a better appreciation of the Sitar and classical music than many of those gathered there.
Thankfully, the organisers of any event keep a safe cushion in announcing the timing. The standard joke is that when the announcement says ‘Programme will start at 7 pm’, it actually means 8 pm. While I always prided myself on being punctual, that evening I reluctantly prayed that the strains of the Sitar would start as late as possible, giving more time to our Cookie to fall asleep.
It is standard practice for Indians to become friendly with strangers’ children and the parents too are happy to let their child be cuddled by strangers. As we settled down, a young couple seated next to us started cooing to Cookie, trying to make her smile and talk. This unwarranted indulgence delayed the drowsiness that should have set in by now. To politely discourage this couple from going too far, Ranjana pulled Cookie towards her and hid her in the folds of her sari and started the patting routine that always worked. But the little bundle started playing peek-a-boo with the strangers. I was however encouraged by a faint yawn that I thought I saw. Was that an illusion? Or wishful thinking?
The curtain rose, and for once I welcomed the delay caused by the announcements, the introduction of the artiste and accompanists, the mandatory presentation of bouquet. The couple next to us shifted their attention to the stage, leaving Cookie with no other option but to gaze at the artists on the stage. I alternately shifted my gaze from the imposing personality of Imrat Khan and the not-so-drowsy Cookie. Soon the artist began the recital with an alaap, the slow exploration of notes that characterise the raga.
Cookie was all ears, probably thinking of running up to the artist on the stage to tell him: “My Dad has a much better Sitar than you, man!” I didn’t know if Ustad Imrat Khan was the kind of a man to indulge his inner child, as my Guru recommended. In fact, I had read stories of how his brother, the great Vilayat Khan once walked out of a concert in a huff when someone in the audience let out a cry of appreciation at the wrong time. Imrat Khan belonged to the same gharana (school of music) and god knows how he would react to Cookie letting out a big cry of appreciation or otherwise during his performance. That was a truly scary thought. I could almost read the headlines in the newspaper the next day about how a thoughtless couple had brought an end to a much-anticipated recital by Ustad Imrat Khan because they wouldn’t leave their noisy brats at home.
Ranjana and I shivered in the unforgiving cool ambience of the auditorium but our hopes were still pinned on the trusted Phenergan.
Imrat Khan steadied his Sitar on his lap and began the mandatory tuning and adjustment of the instrument. A lot of people wonder why classical music artists do not come prepared with a tuned instrument and instead waste time on the stage. To me, the tuning is a part of the recital. In fact, it the artist didn’t do it I would be skeptical of his lineage. It is as much a part of the performance as the ready-steady-go routine at the start of a 100 metre race.
What happened then? Did Cookie fall asleep just in the nick of time? Did she let out a big scream at the artiste? Did Imrat Khan leave the stage in a huff, just like his brother Vilayat Khan had done?
That answer in my next post. While we wait, here’s a recording of Imrat Khan, playing Raag Darbaari: