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Concert tales

Friday, November 16, 2018

As the classical music concert season is upon us, Raju Kane recounts some interesting anecdotes from a lifetime of attending them.

It was sometime in the mid-eighties and I was at the St. Xavier’s College quadrangle for my annual pilgrimage to the Indian Music Group’s concert.

The main act of the night was the legendary maestro Pandit Kumar Gandharva. Kumarji, as he was lovingly and respectfully called by all classical music aficionados, had his unique inimitable style of singing.

Hailed as one of the brightest young prodigies Shivputra Siddharamaya Komkalinath, (hence the nickname Kumar Gandharva—Kumar, as in young, and Gandharva, of course, refers to the celestial musicians in Lord Indra’s darbar according to Hindu mythology), had given his first performance at the age ten. In his early twenties, he contracted tuberculosis, and it seemed as if his musical career was over. After a long period of recovery, Kumarji returned to classical music. But he had lost the use of one lung.

While his illness and recovery had happened long before I was even born, every time I heard him sing, I was awestruck. If he could produce that kind of magic with just one lung, how incredible his music must have been with the use of both!

IMG concerts those days had peculiar seating arrangements. The front row sofas were generally reserved for sponsors’ representatives or patrons. Then came the high-priced seats, progressively getting cheaper as you went further from the stage. The peculiarity was in what IMG did with their lowest priced tickets—the only kind I could afford. People buying these  had to sit on the floor along the corridors of the quadrangle. So if you came in early, you could actually sit very close to the stage, albeit without the comfort of a chair. We were young and things like chairs didn’t really matter too much. We would rather pay the minimal price and still be close to the action.

This particular night, Kumarji took the stage and, within moments, mesmerised the audience. There was a gentleman, I distinctly remember, attired in an expensive red silk kurta and churidar, quite obviously ‘dressed’ for the occasion.

It soon became clear that his “knowledge” of Indian classical music was even more limited than a novice like me. He was very vocal with his Wah Wahs but almost invariably at the wrong places. What was worse was that he was doing it audibly enough not only to disturb people around him, but the maestro himself.

Now, if there was one thing Kumarji was known for, apart from the heavenly quality of his music, was for being a stickler for proper baithak etiquette. Sitting in the corridor, just a few feet from the stage, I could see he had started to get visibly irritated with the guy on the sofa. About half an hour into the performance, as the Raga Bhatiyar (I still remember the raga) was reaching his crescendo, Kumarji suddenly stopped. He looked down at the gentleman and said, “Kaun sa raga ga raha hoon?” (‘Which raga am I singing?’) Then, looking at the man’s stunned expression, he said, “Nahi pata na? To chup rahiye, please” (‘If you don’t know, please shut up’).

As Kumarji resumed singing, the guy quietly got up and left shamefaced. I am not sure he ever attended another classical music concert, but I doubt it.

The next memory is a few years later. I was in Gwalior visiting my uncle. As it happened, this was during the Tansen Sangeet Samaroh, a three-or-four-day annual concert organised as a homage to arguably the greatest musician India ever produced. The concert takes place near Tansen’s tomb, in a village called Behat, about 30-40 kilometres from Gwalior.

My uncle, a hardcore classical music fan,  had tickets. As my luck would have it, his friend who had accompanied him for the earlier night, had fallen sick. I grabbed at the opportunity.

It was a wintry night (the concert generally happens in November or December) as my uncle and I rode his scooter to the venue. The music—as it always is at the Tansen Samaroh—was fantastic. If memory serves me right, that was the first time that I attended a live performance of Pandits Rajan and Sajan Mishra. Pandit Jasraj was supposed to provide the finale. But it was getting really cold and my uncle was also worried since he had an early morning meeting, plus we had at least an hour’s drive back. Reluctantly we got up and started walking towards the scooter. It seemed quite a few members of the audience had a similar idea for they were also leaving.

Unknown to us, Panditji had already taken the stage and as we were halfway to the scooter, the first taan of his Raga Lalit wafted through the air.

Wordlessly, my uncle and I stopped. I could see several other people doing the same. All of us turned around and started walking back to the venue. And this is the incredible part—though there must have been at least about 50-60 of us doing this, no one spoke a word; we were so enraptured with the music.

While there are many such memories, I will end this piece of nostalgia, with one that is closest to my heart, because it also involves my most favourite musician, Bharat Ratna Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. I actually have several great memories of Panditji’s concerts, but this one is special.

Before I proceed, a little aside. I am an atheist, have been one since I was ten or eleven. But every time I listen to Bhimsenji, I feel touched by what believers describe as divinity. You close your eyes and lose yourself in his music and feel the voice is coming from this deep cave, resonating all the way. If there is God, as most people tend to believe, I think he would sing like Pandit Bhimsen Joshi.

I was visiting my maternal uncle in Sangli. And with my luck, it happened to be the day Panditji was to perform. The concert was, understandably enough, completely sold out. But seeing my desperation, my uncle decided to help. Now Sangli was a small town and my uncle’s family was one of the prominent ones. He knew someone, who knew someone and before long he was speaking to one of the organisers, requesting him to somehow accommodate me. I was asked to report to the venue.

I arrived early and realised I wasn’t the only one in this predicament. There were quite a few others. We waited, not knowing if lady luck would smile on us. Then one of the organisers came and took us through a back entrance; before we knew it, we were seated on the stage! Apparently the organisers had had a word with Panditji and he sportingly agreed to have us seated on the stage—provided, of course, none of us disturbed him.

So here I was, sitting on the stage, less than ten feet away from the God of music. I could have died of happiness. Of the hundreds of concerts I have attended, this is my favourite memory.

As the years passed and these giants of music passed away—Kumarji, Bhimsenji, Pandit Ravi Shankar, Ustad Vilyat Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Pandit Nikhil Banerjee, Ustad Alla Rakha, Kishori Amonkar and even comparatively younger geniuses like Veena Sahasrabuddhe—my concert-hopping reduced considerably. Somehow the magic was gone.

Yet, thanks to technology, even today, if you happen to be near my place late at night, you will find strains of the music of one of these titans wafting out of my home.

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