To the uninitiated souls of music, the Guru Shishya Parampara may sound like a hallowed place that is brimming with eager, chastened budding young musicians lapping up every nuance of precious sermons from the long bearded Rishi with matted hair.
It is so amazing that the Guru is always shown as that while the lesser mortals – the students – are always clean-shaven, having just been weaned from their mothers – soft arms and legs and reciting some esoteric mantras in unison. Or you may have heard of a lone ranger called Eklavyaa, who having been summarily rejected by Drona – the Guru of his dreams – works the hell out of his modest hut in a remote jungle, in front of an image of his arrogant, racist Guru.
Thankfully, things have changed – for the better or worse depends on the reader’s pre-conceived notions of the parampara. The word parampara too evokes a lofty concept of knowledge handed down orally over the centuries. Knowledge has now taken the shape of information technology that has broken through the barriers of caste, gender, age and what have you. One can type ‘kedar’ in the Google page and out comes millions of websites describing, apart from the Raga Kedar, hundreds of subjects remotely connected with the word Kedar.
In my case – a clean shaven budding seeker anxious to improve his command over the Sitar, having just returned from “States’ -the idea was just to find the Guru of my dreams. The thought that I would one day be privileged enough to sit in front of my dream Guru and learn straight from ‘the horse’s mouth’ one-o-one was as weird as becoming the World’s swimming sensation Michael Phelps. Come on; I didn’t even have a job as yet.
So it was a simple search, through friends, acquaintance and relatives – for the ‘go to’ Sitarist who will make me a adept enough to be able to perform a few Hindi Film songs on my sitar in front of ready made obliging audience, comprising the same characters – friends, relatives and acquaintances.
My heart was pining for a chance meeting with the Guru of my dreams – Halim Jaffer Khan- but finding him in the city of dreams itself was as difficult as looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. One of my good friends Vinubhai somehow came to know about Sohel khan who he said must be equally good. I had just returned from “States “ and instead of finding a much-needed job, was looking to continue my proper training in Sitar.
My uncle, overcome with pity or sympathy at my yearning for Sitar, funded a new sitar for me and I was ready to fall at the feet of this young Guru. So, the ‘Go To’ Sitarist turned out to be a young Ustad Sohel Khan, who used to reside at a three-storey quintessentially Girgaun building called “Sharavati Bhavan”. One could gaze at the vast expanse of Arabian Sea and the cricket grounds of Gymkhanas.
The Sons of great Ustads are born with the title of Ustads, no matter how they fare in their lives later on. They virtually do not have to work towards that title.
So here goes my experience with Ustad Sohel Khan:
The very first day at his flat in Sharavati Bhavan was a dampener. He, with his sitar in his lap, kept conversing with his girl friend cum disciple – a Gujarati girl named Geeta, whose fascination for her Guru literally shone in her big eyes. “So Raj Saab, (nice of him to give respect to an older disciple), who did you learn the Sitar from ?” Sohel, asked almost mischievously strumming the sympathetic strings of his Sitar.
“Oh I had some initial training under Pandit Manahar Barve…” my reply was drowned in a hearty laughter
“Don’t tell me you learned the Sitar from a Ganewale (Vocalist) who never was a Sitarist?”
“He knew many instruments including Sitar” I hesitated to add.
“That is no way to learn the Sitar. Achchha, to aage bataaiye?” his penetrative gaze was unnerving
“Well after learning the basics, I just took my sitar with me and landed in the U.S. for further studies. There was no sitar teacher where I had been. So I kept listening to the sitar music from great maestros like Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilayat Khan….”
Sohel winked at his girl friend and repeated mockingly “ Geeta, Raj Saab has learnt from the GREAT Ravi Shankar!” She giggled unabashedly.
“Ok, then let me see how you play some Ravi Shankar piece?”
That was an insincere challenge but I had no other option. I was doomed to fail.
Thoroughly disheartened, I picked up a sitar in front of me and started playing the theme from “Apur Sansar” trilogy that Ravi Shankar had composed. Almost half way through the theme he brushed me off to stop and turned to his court jester Geeta
“You know he is playing Ravi Shankar!” and rolled his eyes.
The mortal in me was duly flummoxed.
“Raj Saab, you have still not grasped the very basics of sitar playing, do you know? Samaz mein aataa hai aapko?”
Prodding the girl “Tell me what is wrong with his playing technique?”
She dutifully rattled off:
“His jod (second string next to the main playing string) is totally silent.
The way he wears his mizrab is improper.
And he uses two of his fingers of the left hand on the scale ? That is not done!
Moreover, he holds the sitar in a funny sort of way…”
“Dekhaa Raj Saab? Even a novice like Geeta knows what is wrong with your technique. Bahut mehnat karni padegi aapko”
“Yes. That is why I am here, Khan saaheb” I laid particular emphasis on “Khan Saheb”
“Ok, to kalse aa jaanaa, theek saade das baje” and abruptly he was done with me for the day.
It was a Hobson’s choice. Damned if I go, damned if I don’t. I had to take it for whatever it was worth. The vision of me playing to the small gathering of friends, relative, acquaintance egged me on.
The very next day, I landed at his door and rang the doorbell. An elderly maid opened the door. “Raj saab? Aaiye, Khan Saheb is waiting for you. This way please” and I was led to the living room of the apartment. The noise of the traffic outside on the road was irritating but Sohel Khan was busy showing off his skills to a novice by playing the popular song “Inhi logo ne le leena dupatta mera” from the Meena Kumari magnum opus “Paakeeza”, making the disciple sway from side to side in appreciation.
“Oh, come, come Raj Saab. “ then turning to the other guy, whispered “he is the one I was talking about” whereupon the guy smiled in anticipation of witnessing my weird techniques of Sitar.
“First of all, learn to wear the mizrab properly. Thodaasaa tight paheno. Ab gaane wala kyaa jaane mizrab kaise pahene?”
His jibe at Pandit Manahar Barve, my first initiator Guru, rankled in my mind.
“The way you are holding the Sitar is all wrong. The sitar must be held slanting to the left as we play, not like a pole, as the great Ravi Shankar holds. One can’t pull the string effectively otherwise”
The flustered Raj saab did his best to follow his advice. His left hand fingers that had cut-marks that had healed, started bleeding. One of Sohel Khan’s baby brothers sprinted across to get a medicated tape for me.
“Now, the most important issue- the right hand stroke has to be strong and it must touch the jod string as well, every time you strike” Sohel went on.
“The way you use both you fingers of the left hand on the scale is nothing short of heresy. Allah Allah. You have to play only with the index finger that must slide from one note to the next and the next. You can place the second finger only when you reach the end of your phrase – that is, in this case, aaroha scale ending at upper Saa”
“One more thing – apne daahine haath ke angoothe ko sitar ke jawaari (bridge) ke paas chipkaa ke rakha karo. Usko dance mat karao. Ravi Shankar ki shuruaat ki training dance se hui thi naa? Is liye vo aise bajaate hain”
With so much to learn, unlearn and grasp I was confused thoroughly. Nothing was going right for me. His girl friend disciple Geeta made an entry at this point and positioned herself at the back, giggling all the time to my discomfort. I had read about difficult Gurus with weird teaching techniques. I had read about temperamental Gurus with a stick in the hand, ready to spank an erring shishya; Gurus who would get the disciple wash the family clothes and clean utensils and generally be attentive to all the needs of his Guru.
But this was total disillusionment. This drama went on for about a month or two. His other nasty habit was to command me to go with him to the home of some of his other disciples after a hearty South Indian breakfast, at my expense, at an Udupi restaurant across the street.
Once he literally whisked me off to the residence of one film actress, Kalpana who had been taking some lessons from him for a scene in a movie that required her to play the Sitar. She had acquired fame through a hit movie called “Professor” and basking in glory at the time.
Even after about six month my improvement never satisfied him. I noticed that he played with comic jerky movements of his head that would suddenly look up skyward, apparently to seek some divine note. He was a perfect showman trying to play to the gallery.
His relentless deriding big names of Sitar finally got too much for me to bear and I discontinued going to him.
Years rolled on. My plethora of jobs took me to small towns, big cities where work pressure never allowed me to pursue my interest in Sitar.
My first encounter of Guru Shishya Parmpara ended in utter disillusionment.