ENCOUNTERS WITH HINDUSTANI MUSIC
I first heard Indian classical music in about 1967 or 1968. England didn’t offer many opportunities for listening, but the proprietor of a tiny jazz-music shop in the small village where I went to boarding school had a copy of Ravi Shankar’s vinyl LP Sound of the Sitar. Buying this record was literally a life-changing event for me. My interest was further fed by a BBC radio documentary on Hindustani Music by Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy, and by a talk on Carnatic Music by John Marr at an arts centre somewhere in London.
For quite some time I had little chance to hear anything live, and the very first time I did so was at a concert of Indo-Jazz Fusions in Cheltenham. I had the good fortune to meet the band’s tabla player, Keshav Sathe, and through a growing friendship with him a new musical world began opening up before me. I started going to concerts in London, hitch-hiking there and back from rural Oxfordshire, and I quickly developed a list of heroes that has been with me ever since: Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan, Vilayat Khan, Imrat Khan, Mahmud Mirza, V.G. Jog, Bismillah Khan. Somehow I got to meet Vilayat Khan sahab at one of his programs and he took me under his wing, or rather he tolerated my presence at his house and let me go along with him to private recitals. I was in seventh heaven: how could life possibly be this good?
As a novice listener, it took me some time to make the transition from instrumental to vocal music. One day, perhaps through Keshav, I heard a recording of Salamat and Nazakat Ali Khan singing raga Megh — a recording that I keep re-acquiring as the recording formats change: vinyl, tape, CD, MP3. The singing was divine, but what really captivated me was the sarangi accompaniment: what was this ethereal sound? By this time I had accumulated various books about music, so I knew what little they could tell me about the various instruments; and before too long I had my next milestone encounter. Very fortunately, one of the musicians to perform in London fairly regularly in those days was Pandit Ramnarain (Ram Narayan), and when I heard him I was hooked. On my first trip to India in 1973 I started taking sarangi lessons with Ashiq Ali Khan, a professional musician in Allahabad, buying a sarangi from him for ₹ 100. I must have been the worst pupil ever as I massacred the spirits of Ragas Yaman and Jaunpuri; but the physicality of "simply" playing the notes of a scale increased my awareness of the music a hundredfold. In our very first lesson the electricity went out and I encountered the instrument by candlight. I was tense with excitement. तुम्हारा हाथ ढीला होना चाहिए — “Your hand should be relaxed”, Ustadji told me. I didn’t know what ढीला meant; so he took my wrist and wobbled my hand as though he were shaking crumbs out of a cloth. Got it — ढीला ! My ustad and his family knew no English, so I learnt a lot of Hindi from them all. My lessons often took place on the roof of the three-rupees-a-night hotel I was living in. Perfection.
Back in London I did my best to practise the paltas and other exercises I had learned, and I tried to pick up a few basic compositions in Jaunpuri, Bhairavi and a few other ragas from Bhatkhande’s Kramik Pustak Malika books, but having no teacher I was in deep water and the instrument stayed mostly in the velvet-lined, brass-handled wooden case I made for it. Somewhere along the way I acquired an esraj and also another sarangi, but I have no memory about what happened to them; maybe I gave them on permanent loan to more worthy players.
For some reason I didn’t take sarangi further on my next visit to India. Instead, I had an initiation into tabla. My teacher was a watch-repairer and amateur musician called Radheshyam “Savita” who accompanied the devotional singing at Choti Sarkar, a Radhavallabhi temple in Vrindaban where I was doing research. This fine, gentle, and wise man became a friend and mentor to me, and I still treasure his beautiful letters from later years. As with sarangi, I didn’t get beyond the basics in tabla-playing, but again the knowledge of some basic thekas was inspirational, and helped me understand the workings of literary metre as well. During that same period, or a little later, I got to heard Dhrupad sung by Pandit Vidur Malik at Jai Singh Ghera — another life-changer. It was this musical journey that led me to a broader interest in Indian culture; quite early on down the path I began a BA degree in Hindi at London, and then there was no turning back.
More recently, I felt nostalgic for my sarangi days (or daze) and decided to get a new instrument, thinking it would revive my interest. Through the advice of my colleague, the distinguished sitarist (and senior disciple of Pandit Ravi Shankar) Professor Stephen Slawek, I had a sarangi made by Naeem Sitarmaker in Maharashtra, who had earlier made a beautiful sitar for Steve’s very talented pupil Aruna Kharod. At my request Naeem sahab sent me a series of photographs of the sarangi at various stages of manufacture, and you can see them here. I have always been fascinated by the art and craft that goes into building instruments and this was a very special event for me. When it arrived in Texas I quickly discovered that the little proficiency I once had on the sarangi had eroded to nothing; I’m a complete beginner again. A retirement project, maybe…