Sunday, 1 June 2008

Swear on My Love, My Beloved

[Another first - a short story this time, reposted from here. As Kalyanda remarks, 'The dramatis personae are classical musicians, but the topic is hardly Shastriya Sangeet!' Enjoy!]

December 1978, a bitterly cold Delhi evening. The Guru and his Chela sat huddled over a Bajaj convector heater, warming their fingers and slowly sipping the single malt the Chela had bought from the Bangkok duty-free. 'So you just want to do a bit of reconnoitering preparing for the year's field work for your thesis on Thumri?' asked the Guru.

'Yeah, that year hopefully will begin in September ’80 but I’ll need that much time to work on my Urdu so that I don’t have to use interpreters for interviewing tawaiifs.'

'Of course' said the Guru, 'interpreters are a drag when you want to have a tete-a-tete with a tawaiif. When and where do you plan to reconnoitre?'

'I’ll start with Old Delhi from tomorrow and maybe in January go to Calcutta and look up the area where Wajed Ali Shah lived his last years. I believe Thumri started there and maybe there are a few old fossils who can tell me interesting stories. Then there is Bombay which I don’t know much about and you don’t either.'

Next evening the two were again huddling over the heater but in a far darker mood. The Chela’s forays in Old Delhi during the day had not yielded a single address where he could possibly find a tawaiif. And the Guru had just come back after a seminar with his mathematician colleagues; they had scheduled the departmental New Years’ Eve party at his flat because there would not be a Missus around to take the punchbowl away just as the party started to get interesting.

The Chela was quizzical. 'What is wrong with these chaps coming over with booze for a few hours just before midnight?' he asked.'Look, I listen to mathematical jokes so that I can make a living, but listening to such banter is not my idea of ringing in the New Year,' replied the Guru glumly. 'Oh, I will come over with some dancing houris to enliven things,' assured the Chela.

The Guru gave a start and said, 'Why don’t you just go and scoot off to Calcutta first thing tomorrow instead of trying to be helpful? These guys are Tamil Brahmins, vegetarians and would have apoplectic fits if they encountered a sarangi or tabla player in my flat whether or not the female was present.' 'That does it,' said the Chela, 'let me go and have a serious look around and if I find a suitable troupe I’ll book them. Today is the 29th, so we can’t waste much time.'

Reluctantly the Guru decided to accompany the younger man, knowing full well how dubious the tastes of his sitar student were. At least by accompanying him a veto on the final choice could be exercised. Having coaxed his Padmini engine to start the Guru and his Chela rode off into the deserted streets. After a meal at one of the Pandara Road eateries, the quest began in earnest.

'Where do we go now?' asked the Guru. 'Go past the New Delhi station and then we will turn left and I will guide you after that' said the Chela. Twenty minutes after leaving the New Delhi station behind and many twists and turns, the Chela said, 'you may as well stop here. The place I once saw dancing girls five years ago must be somewhere around, we’ll look out for it as we walk around.'

'G. B. Road,' said the Chela in response to the Guru’s query, 'what is this place?' They walked along a narrow pavement littered with an assortment of garbage and beggars’ bowls. The Chela stopped at a paan shop and asked where he could find ‘naachne walee larkiyan’ and the paan shopwallah replied in an exasperated tone that around here there are only ‘pesha karney walee larkiyan.’

This kind of Hindi was Greek to the Chela who could recite a substantial amount of Ghalib and Momin but was wont to respond to a simple query like 'Kya haal' with 'tasallee baksh!' So the Guru translated, 'There are no dancers here, only whores.'

Nothing deterred, the Chela dove into a narrow side street and almost at once the two could hear the sound of ‘ghunghroos’ and tablas.

They followed the sound and came to a dark and dank doorway.Stepping inside they were buffeted by a wall of stench of ammonia which can only be described by the Sanskrit ‘soochee bhedya’ (not pierceable by a needle.) As they climbed a rickety set of stairs, the ‘ghungroos’ got louder and finally on the third floor they came to a well-lit room where a thin fortyish man was pumping away at a beat-up harmonium. A tabla player fondling a duggi and a slightly built woman engaged in bargaining the price of the next number with a couple of dissolute customers.

Upon seeing the Chela’s Anglo-Saxon visage, all conversation ceased. The matron of the place came rushing over driving away the train of beggars who had followed the Guru-Chela duo up the staircase and asked the new visitors to sit on the not so immaculately white sheet, which covered the floor. As soon as they sat down, a young woman came in with two garlands of flowers one of which she put around a beaming Chela’s neck. She tried to do the same with the Guru, but he put up a deprecating hand and muttered 'Main driver hoon.'

The guru whispered to the Chela 'Let's get the hell out of this place. I am not having this lot enter my flat!' The Chela addressed the matron 'Main ghazal sunnaa chaahtaa hoon.' This request caused consternation, the dancing girl and the tabla player went away and a new girl came in with a new harmonium player.

She knelt in front of the exotic duo, and began humming gently. As the harmonium player trilled off a phrase or two of Jhinjhoti, she put one hand over her head in a vaguely danseuse like posture and opened her mouth. And an ear-shattering falsetto screeched into the night.

When the song ended the Chela wanted to know about the author of the ghazal. 'Qalaam kaun?' The Guru translated 'Yeh kiska ghazal?' The answer came with a flashing smile: the Chela jotted it down in all solemnity. Satisfied, he then stuffed a fifty-rupee note into the singer’s d├ęcolletage and the duo left.

The Chela remarked as they got into the car, 'I must find out who the poet was. The lyrics were pretty decent but I just cannot recall a poet, past or present, called Mohammed Rafi.'

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbat ki qasam
Phir mujhe nargisi aankhon ka sahaara de de
Mera khoya hua rangeen nazaara de de

(Swear on my love, my beloved
Give me again the support of your eyes
Give me back the vividness, the colour of my lost vistas)


Lalita said...

Sigh. Kalyan always rushes off. This was a guest blog he wrote for mine, and the link is here.

I did a translation of the song, which was how he was provoked into recalling how he first came across the song. I didn't quite believe it until he wrote it up, I must say.

Abhik Majumdar said...

No no, please don't worry, the article was indeed sourced from your blog, not the PDF Kalyanda sent me.

Your translation reads so much better than mine! Wish I could incorporate it. But if I am to do a thorough enough job, I'll need to repost the entire article under a new title, which in turn means having your comment deleted.

For now, let me gloat over the fact that, however jerry-rigged my translation might be, at least I got 'vivid' and 'vistas' right!

Anonymous said...

A "Shastriya Sangeet" blog and such drivel?? Shame on the poster/writer.

Stick to music and this will be a better site for it!

Abhik Majumdar said...

Anon, how do I respond to thee, let me count the ways.

I won't scream "Do you even know who Prof Mukherjea is?!!" I won't point to his academic achievements, nor the decades he spent learning the Sarod under Radhika Mohan Maitra. Won't even ask you to look up the Wikipedia article on him.

Instead, I'll ask you a simple question: Did you even understand the point of the story?

For the record, it addresses some Westerners' perceptions of Indian music; rose-tinted and comprehensively out of synch with reality.

It's easy to criticise, easier to take a frumpy moralistic stand.

Arnab Chakrabarty said...


Why in the world are you hiding beneath a cloak? This blog does not represent powerful keepers of status quo. You may voice your criticism fearlessly, but please do so openly.

As Abhik has rightly pointed out, you have either missed the point of the article, or (if one may take an exceptionally charitable view of your understanding of things), it did manage to ruffle your feathers!



james said...

why is anon criticized for posting anonymously? It is common practice on the internet. Why does it matter? James

Ingmar said...

Very entertaining, htis story, thanks.

Sandeep said...

A sequel- The Chela was able to trace the "poet" in question and this seems to have prompted his subsequent interest in cassette culture and popular music. So while the musical talents of the GB Road girl may not have been up to mark, we should regard her as the muse that motivated the Chela to write an excellent book on popular music!

Abhik Majumdar said...

I thought Muses help generate poetry and music and suchlike soffistikated things?

The book on cassette culture was more a work of labour, a labour of love, I'd say manuel labour even.

Sandeep said...

Ah Abhik ever the hair-splitter and pun-dit! Clio was the muse of history and the book certainly qualifies as one. Surely, you don't mean to imply that the book is unsoffistikated. Am reminded about the repartee between the poet on the street and the kotha girl in the balcony above who had requested the poet to pen a shayari for her. But such a joke can't be told here! I guess you'll next claim that driving the Padmini to GB road was a kalyan-kari event!

Abhik Majumdar said...

> Surely, you don't mean to imply that the book is unsoffistikated.

Book was soffistikated, agreed. The muse was not.

> I guess you'll next claim that driving the Padmini to GB road was a kalyan-kari event!

Wouldn't know about that. GB Road operates on terms strictly cash-and-kari.

Peter M said...

Dear Blog-bhais,
First of all, let me say that I will not stoop to responding to the outrageous innuendos linking me in any way to this tawdry misadventure, the likes of which no respectable ethnomusicologist would have participated in, much less cajoled his guru into attending. Nor will I stoop to describing a certain foray in Bombay in which this intrepid and indefatigable investigator, accompanied by a few male and female ‘Semester-at-Sea’ college students, sought (again?) to find the remnants of India’s hoary (no pun intended) courtesan performers, subjecting all to a socio-musical experience even more disastrous and insalubrious than that in which I participated—I mean, am alleged to have participated in--with Dr, Mukherjea.
These accounts do inspire me to reflect on some of the vicissitudes of my field work in India off and on over the last 35 years, which can be seen from one perspective as an ongoing series of foul-ups, fiascos, gaffes, and dead-ends, some of them comical in retrospect, and some just plain embarrassing. I get lost. I insult ustads by leaving them for other ustads. After an interview or music session, I offer nazrana when it is inappropriate to do so, or I fail to offer one when I should. I speak idiosyncratic Urdu (which, for better or worse, is what I learned) in situations where shuddh Hindi is what is appropriate. I get cheated by the scooter-wala; I incorrectly accuse another scooter-wala of trying to cheat me. As I stand in the crowded bus, my smog-irritated nose starts to bleed and deposits a gob of blood on the spotless white kurta of the sajjan seated below. I am a general pest to some of those whom I interview, who have better things to do than answer my tedious questions. I exasperate them by failing to understand well their Hindi (such that they often seem to preface their responses to my questions by saying, “Khair, jaise mainne abhi apko bataya,…”). I arrange a concert for Amjad Ali Khan in Wisconsin, but decide not to publicize the event extensively for fear that the small hall would be swamped; the result: no one came at all. I organize a mostly unsuccessful tour for Imrat Khan, and later realize that due to my incompetent bookkeeping, I had ended up overpaying him some $1800 out of my own pocket, and had to ask him to kindly repay me. (Quite the gentleman, he did.) At a conference on Braj culture in Brindavan, mostly of pandits and Sanskritists, I present a paper on the ribald (‘masaledar’) Krishnaite rasiyas that dominate the local cassette market. How does one say “went over like a lead balloon” in Hindi? The conference organizer felt obliged to abjectly apologize to the pandit host for including me in the program. In general, my repeated visits are something of a minor curse on the Indian subcontinent (albeit mitigated to some extent by the trail of dollars I leave). My mishaps and errors persisted in my trip of a year ago, and will certainly continue when I return to the Bhojpuri region for a month next year (looking for the roots of Indo-Caribbean and Indo-Fijian music).
Fortunately it has not all been disastrous, nor totally unproductive, and a few relationships have endured with individuals sufficiently patient with my perversities. One great ‘success’, as it were, for me has been my good fortune in having Dr. Kalyan Mukherjea as a guru and friend, and indeed, a mentor in matters both musical and non-musical. As readers of this blog perhaps already know, his musical (not to mention mathematical) erudition is extraordinary, and is matched by his generosity and—it is also worth saying—the fortitute and good humour with which he has confronted the adversities which life has been putting in his path.
Yrs etc.,
Peter Manuel

james said...

peter, very funny and brilliantly written. Your book on thumri is excellent. Do you still have an interest in thumri? James

Anonymous said...

Agree with James - a great book. And great anecdotes - no "drivel", only the lighter (or romantic (<- irony) side of the classical coin.

Abhik Majumdar said...

Uhh, Anon:

1. I think James was referring to Peter's comment, not the book.

2. The comment makes at least two allusions to anecdotes of a ribald nature - 'drivel' as you call them.

3. Agreed, Peter's not mentioned those anecdotes in his book. That doesn't mean he won't write about them on the blog, right?

I strongly hope he does contribute to this blog, on matters salacious and otherwise in equal measure.

I intend to write to him immediately, and formally invite him to contribute. Peter, here's looking forward to your writings!

Ingmar said...


sorry, wrong button press in my last comment- i am not anon, I am again Ingmar ....
1 Yes, first on comment, then on book. Let's compromise: both are great.
2 "drivel" was referring to a real anon post - comment nr. three. I don't call anything "drivel". I enjoy.
3 Right.
4 Looking forward strongly, too.