Thursday, July 5, 2007

The Darbari"


At the very first stroke of the sitar,Vilayat Khan begins to draw me away from my surroundings, deep into the abyss of my childhood memories. From where I am sitting, it's a billionaire's view that I get. From below me, the FDR drive is carrying the small but erratically steady stream of late-night traffic to and from Manhattan. What makes the billions however, is the hundred and forty degrees' view of the East River that I enjoy sitting at my desk. On top of it, the sparsely lit Queensboro Bridge hangs loose like a garland. As the Sitar-Nawaz slowly builds the mood of the alaap, my mind starts straying haywards and he lures it thousands of miles away to another city, another place and possibly a very similar view, although I must admit that I never quite had it from this perspective - it only exists in my imagination. Silently I begin empathizing with Ashima Ganguli and cannot but appreciate Mira Nair's insights in drawing parallels between the two images - one from a Calcutta window and the other from Manhattan.

I grew up in an almost perfectly middle-class Bengali family with even more perfected Bengali middle-class values. We didn't have a television set in the house - my father had almost no doubt in his mind about the power of the "idiot-box" to sway his sons' minds away from studies and telephone was still an item of luxury in those days. However, even amidst the typically frugal settings, Bengalees in those days had a few avenues of indulgence where they didn't stint on spending - for some it was travel, for others the performing arts. In our case one of our more cherished possessions, or so I thought, was our record player; a record changer to be more accurate. As you opened the wooden box, the white stylus greeted you, shining in its majestic glory. It was a Garrard, a pukkah Londoner till it found its way across the sinful seas to the small corner in our house sometimes in the 60's. There was only one technician in all of Calcutta that my father ever trusted for repairs, when the need arose; and whenever in my tiny little colourful world, the occasional smell of feuds between siblings spilt over, mostly from watching films, I could not help but ponder who amongst me and my elder brother would my father entrust this priceless piece of property with.

In my mind, it was like Alibaba's hidden cave. All you needed to do was to find out the right record and out came the magic notes ! We had records strewn everywhere around the house. Some of them old 78 rpm's, packed up in dusty boxes, some them tiny 45 rpm's, short and crisp in their content. For me, the most attractive however were the 331/3 rpms. Most of these had some kind of album-art on their covers that you would forever associate the record and the piece of music with. These were mostly photos or portraits of the artists in either jovial or musically engaged moods and of course there were the few occasional ones with vague artwork - the connection with the music a matter of zero or infinity, depending on how extrapolative your imagination could be.

As Khansaheb reaches the climax of the alaap, my mind goes back to my early childhood days. My father picked up his love for Hindustani Classical Music during his college days at BHU in Benares, then quite the haven for North Indian Classical Music. He must have been a rather devout fan of Vilayat Khan because I can recall numerous Vilayat Khan LP's in our collection - one titled "The Genius of Vilayat Khan" and the other one bore the simple and utterly nondescript title "Ustad Vilayat Khan". This latter LP had a rather princely picture of Vilayat on the cover. It was shot from the side - Vilayat must have been in his early heydays since he had a crop of hair combed backwards, sitting straight, eyes on his sitar, gaze lost somewhere beyond it and a black shawl thrown carelessly on his back. Though I did not have any understanding of the technicalities of the ragas (and do not till this day), one thing I was always keen on was knowing what time of the day a raga was meant to be played. I can still vividly recall that after pointing out that Darbari Kanada was a night raga, to be played in the late evening, my father also added that the essential mood of the raga was one of pathos. Funny enough that this particular LP did not have Vilayat's Darbari but for some reason, whenever I heard Vilayat playing Darbari, I thought of him sitting in that exact same posture, oblivious of the world around him.

One of my teachers had once pointed out that unless you have imagination, you cannot appreciate statistical thermodynamics. One has to imagine ensembles of molecules running here and there to appreciate the random and essentially statistical character of nature itself. I think the same holds true for almost all art forms. A true work of art builds its own imagery in the mind of the audience - every person's image being very special to him/her but quite different than the others'. Once formed, the images become associated with the work of art itself and adds a visual dimension to its interpretation - well, something like that ! Knowing the little that I knew about Darbari and the fact that it originally used to be played in the courts of the emperors, I created a little imagery of my own. In my mind, Vilayat Khan playing Darbari became the unrequited lover - the court musician. He was playing the last time in the court before the princess who would be married away the next day to her suitor to a distant land. He was playing for the last time, not for fame, not for splendour and not for the much sought after expression of appreciation from the emperor. He was just playing with his lover in his mind - the last music that he would play for her and the one that she would carry forever wherever she went and that would tie them - beyond the realm of space and time. With that imagery in my mind, the Darbari became perfectly suited. Even now, decades later as I listen to that music, the remnants come back and haunt me. One of my wildest fantasies that alas, cannot ever happen physically, even within the realms of theoretical possibilities, has been to hear Vilayat Khan play Darbari in the Taj on a moonlit night.

Sadly enough, I left classical music in latter school days. Like most kids from upwardly mobile middle-class families, my fancies were caught over the years by the predictable lot - western pop of the 80's slowly shifting to 70's and 60's rock, Bollywood music of the RD era and ghazals - almost in that order. I started listening to Hindustani Classical Music again only recently and to be honest, part of it was propelled by the willingness of the generous communities on the internet to share hard-to-find music with each other. However, I have been a listener on and off and whenever I have stumbled on this Darbari Kanada, somewhere deep within, something stirred profoundly. Within seconds, my mind would leave the forlorn lab of the late-evenings and drift elsewhere - be it Boston or NYC. Occasionally I find myself musing that I must have a deeper connection with this Darbari. Midway through the jhalla as Khansaheb's fingers finish casting the last few turns of the divine net around me, in my mind's eye I see my father, a student in Benares Hindu University, having a rare December night free when he could steal a few hours outside a concert to catch up with the late night maestros. As was the norm in those days for students and other enthusiasts who often did not have enough money to buy tickets, he must have had to settle for a place outside the enclosure and fight the bitter December cold while the ustads and the pandits played on. Could Vilayat have rescued my father on one such night with his Darbari ? To rid himself of the chill, as he embraced the Darbari a little more tightly while the notes crept out of the crevices of the pandal, did a few notes made their way into him and got locked up deep within his physical self ? And did they live long enough till 1974 to see the lights of the day, ... and the darkness of the night ?

Research on various different stages of sleep has shown that there is a period of sleep called REM sleep during which our brain is almost as active as normal and this phase becomes longer and longer during the later parts of our sleep. In the wee hours of the night, when the last cab in Manhattan has departed and the sifting arrays of lights from the streets falling on the walls through the shades in my apartment become almost a constant pattern, I enter this phase of my sleep. Slowly stepping through the gates in the dark, I enter the premises of a rather familiar looking building. As my eyes get adjusted to the soft shine of the moonlit night, I recognize the most talked after monument in history in front of me. There is no one else in sight and I slowly begin taking unsure steps towards the entrance. Gradually the outlines of a figure sitting at the iwan takes shape - a rather familiar figure. My pace becomes a little more deliberate and right at that moment, my ears catch a note or two. As I approach nearer and the music unravels itself, familiarity intervenes. He is sitting sideways, straight, with the shawl on his back and with no one else in sight. He knows that I am there but does not look up - he never does. A light smile shows up on his lips as he strikes a perfect chord; he somehow gestures me to sit down although I'm not quite sure how. I had thought that there were only the two of us but is there a third person too ? In the distance across the river, do I catch a glimpse of a figurette covered in white muslin adorning the frame of a window in Agra Fort ? Is she listening too ? As I surrender myself to the engulfing emotions, the Darbari plays on ...

At my age, I don't ponder very frequently about death and the end of it all and what it all means. But I hope that when it does come, one of these sessions never come to an end.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

One of my colleagues in the office was going through Michael Palin's Himalaya for a few days. Recently, one fine morning he woke up to the familiar sound of the alarm clock ringing by the bed. He opened his eyes, looked at his wife and told "Just got down from the Himalayas through Khyber Pass". Got ready for office in a hurry and left. The wife is a bit less imaginative among the two and felt something has certainly gone wrong with her husband. She needed a bit more explaination later on.

Bhalo likhechish Bnaru.

Kochi.

Dipta Chaudhuri said...

The visualisations of the various settings of the raag are perfect.

Only one condition - Regularly likhtey hobey.

Apoplexy said...

tumlog blog bhi kartta hai? eta j ami ta jano?

nilendu said...

aaro post kothay?

Anonymous said...

Pore khub bhalo laglo,amar mone pore gelo college jibone ekbar dover Lane e mesho ticket dite na paray January r site vivekananda Park e baire dnariye Girija Devike sonar smriti.Pore ek organizer bhetore dhukiye diyechilen, ar seidin i ki bhore Vilayat Bhairabi bajiye bhorer alo phutiyechilen/..ta aj ar mone nei

Sotti amra amader songit pritir jonnye babar kache ajonmo rini ar baba abar onar didimonir(didima) katche jnake bhor bela Dosaswomedh ghate snan korate giye baba Bismillah r sanaier dhoni sunechilo aro bohu bochor ager kono ek bhor phute othar mukhe.

Bhalo thakis

Dadabhai

Joydeep said...

nice reading.. landed here from a distant galaxy - the connection is non-obvious. myself - an indian-classical-music-enthusiast, love to play the sitar and get absorbed into the world of raagas. after all, music is the most fundamental aspect of nature - the universe is indeed an orchestra of strings (literally, as of string theory) vibrating with various frequencies.

srean said...

yes some of them become as much a family as the traditional ones, more like parents looking over us growing up in a certain way. They are there when you need them in the quiet and one grieves when they are gone.