Bitty Ruminations #37

Posted on January 26, 2011

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JAN 26 – Pandit Bhimsen Joshi’s passing made me recall my early grappling with that strange beast I now recognise and respect as Hindustani classical music, and which, as a child, I simply called Get To The Next Part Already. A lot of this had to do with growing up in a household that listened to Carnatic music and venerated Ariyakudi to the extent that there was a photograph of Iyengar – stern and turbaned and every inch the emperor of music he was – in the living room, and it used to be embarrassing whenever a benighted buddy who walked home with me from school asked if the man in the photograph was my grandfather.

As a child, or when you first listen to Carnatic music, the only aspect that interests you is raga identification. Someone would be singing and they’d suddenly stop and ask you what it was, and if you got it right, you felt like you won the gold medal in Sack Race or Lemon in the Spoon. (Yes, those were legitimate sporting events, whose prizes were much coveted, and if you’re too young to remember, why don’t you just go and watch Tangled a second time!) Or it would be that morning’s Arangisai on AIR. Between tying shoelaces and making sure the morning’s lunch did not consist of gross vegetables – which my father was sure to try to get me to eat, for that’s what fathers do at one point in their sons’ lives, try to make them better men, as if brinjal and bitter gourd were all that it took to make men better – a few ragas would be identified and filed away in the memory.

Once you cross that phase, you stop name-dropping ragas, because you realise it’s not about what they sing but how – who cares if it’s Madhyamavati or Brindavana Saranga if the heart is moved to tears, if the world stops spinning in those few seconds? And sometime then, a cassette tape of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi came my way. And I just couldn’t take it. What was this strange emphasis on phrases, and where was the next phrase (or was there a next phrase)? With Ariyakudi’s characteristic briskness having come to define what an alapanai was – four or five golden-nugget sangatis that would instantly shape in mind not just the raga, but also the composition to follow – this protraction was simply unbearable, and it was not until later, much later, that the fog began to clear, and I could begin to at least get what this music was about.

Even today, I’m not much of a Hindustani music listener, and when faced with it, I slip back into the habits of childhood – raga identification, and then I’m over and out. Then again, like music often does, there are times it seeps under your skin, under your soul even, against your conscious will, and you emerge from a trance a while later, a better man than what a lifetime of brinjal and bitter gourd consumption could have made of you. Rest in peace, Panditji.

PS: The vilambit composition that alarmed me so was Kaise sukh sove neendariya (Behag, teental), and it’s, of course, unavailable on YouTube, which, unable to deliver my demand, helpfully offered results for “kaise sukoon,” the first entry under which was “Talat Aziz sings Ab kya ghazal sunaoon.” Thanks but no thanks.

PPS: Happy Republic Day. I’m assuming that’s the appropriate form of greeting today, even if you’re not exactly traipsing around with a tricolour badge pinned to your khadi kurta, taking advantage of this unexpected break midweek, trying not to think that two more days of drudgery lie between you and that oasis for the working classes known as the weekend.