If you have a problem, fix it. But train yourself not to worry, worry fixes nothing. - Ernest Hemingway

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

The lovers of music

Fifty years ago, when I was a child, the telephone was invariably black, with circular dials and a heavy, dumbbell-like receiver. It was to be found only in a few privileged households. Individual owners of cars were the equivalents of billionaires of the present time. Pishemoshai had one, a black Hillman usually driven either by himself or a nattily dressed Gurkha chauffer, Samuel. The car was the chariot for our rare journeys to the other half of the world. Once, after seeing off aunt – who had just left on one of her many trips to England – at Dumdum airport, pishemoshai took my sister and me to Trincas, an upmarket restaurant in Park Street. It was shortly before noon on a Sunday, the place was almost empty. A European couple were dancing on the floor to the beat of recorded music. Sister and I ate banana split: half a banana cut along its length and stashed away between two slabs of ice cream sprinkled with nuts. For a long time, I couldn’t get over the surprise of discovering a banana in an ice cream. During childhood, it was our only foray into an air-conditioned restaurant with liveried waiters.

Unlike the telephone, a gramophone was seen in many houses. It was a defining symbol of middleclass happiness. Shukhi grihakon, shobhe gramophone, said the HMV slogan. (Happiness is shown, if there’s a gramophone.) 

Happiness became visible in our house when I was seven or eight, shortly after an aborted attempt by father to buy a new radio, a story I’ll tell later. The heavy second-hand teak-wood gramophone was housed in a large wooden cabinet in which a spiralling speaker was hidden behind a screen. Its timbre was magnificent. With enormous patience we would wind the gramophone every time we wanted to hear a song for four to five minutes. A cousin of my father gave us a record of Pandit DV Paluskar: it had Chalo man, Ganga-Jamuna teer and Thumaka Chalata Ramachandra. It was much bigger than ordinary 78 RPM records. On Sundays, that uncle would visit us and listen to the songs with a wistful look on his face. Much later, I heard Tamal Kaku was a talented singer who could not pursue a musical career as he had to take care of six younger siblings. One of his brothers, Rakhal Kaku, did take music seriously. He was a disciple of Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. Whenever we went to their house in Bhowanipur, we found Rakhal kaku practising classical music alone, with the accompaniment of a tanpura. He did not become a successful singer because he died in his thirties, possibly because of substance abuse. 

In the 1950s and 60s, programmes of classical music were held in the winter in theatres and open-air auditoriums. One of my numerous uncles – I do not remember who he was – once took me to a music conference. We all sat cross-legged under a marquee on hessian mats covered with milk-white cloth. Every inch of that large make-shift auditorium was taken up by eager listeners who sat with rapt attention in pin-drop silence. There were many people outside the venue too. Amplifiers were fitted so that they could enjoy the music gratis as they braved the nippy Kolkata winter under an open sky. I fell asleep as soon as the first singer began his slow, languid prelude and was woken up when darkness was giving way to light. 

Although I slept through the programme, the seriousness of that audience was deeply etched in my mind. Much later, when I went to hear the Pakistani singer, Mehdi Hassan at an indoor stadium in Hyderabad, I was surprised to see tea and peanuts being sold and people talking even while Hassan was singing his lovely gazals. When I was a child, I didn’t know that no significant Indian classical musician would consider that they had had a successful year unless they performed in Kolkata during the winter, and was admired by the audience here.

The musical world of the city had space for the less highbrow genres too. On Sundays, Pankaj Kumar Mullick conducted a programme on the All India Radio (AIR) to train listeners on singing. Although the name of the programme mentioned sangeet, Pankaj Kumar taught almost exclusively Rabindra Sangeet or songs of Tagore. People listened to the programme with utmost seriousness, although most of them didn’t fancy their chances of becoming singers. Other musical programmes were popular too. AIR was the only body of its kind and enjoyed an importance that can be scarcely imagined by the numerous TV and radio stations of today. Also, despite having no competition, it didn’t drift into lazy complacence. The high standards of their productions were apparent even to us children. But the announcers were dull; they merely announced the names. They would hardly talk, unlike the present day radio jockeys, who build up a warm rapport with their audience. 

In the morning of the first day of the Bangla calendar, a music programme would be held in the theatre opposite our house. Almost all the famous popular singers and film stars would participate in the function. It would begin with junior artistes and as time progressed, more and more formidable performers would take the stage. The last slot was reserved for Hemanta Kumar every year.

The theatre accommodated about five hundred people, but at least ten times that number gathered outside to listen through amplifiers fitted by the organisers, as in the case of the classical music programmes. The crowd ignored the scorching April sun and stood on the pavement for the pleasure of listening to good music and to see film stars in flesh and blood. A ripple of excitement swept them whenever someone important turned up. The greatest excitement happened when Uttam Kumar arrived.

[Acknowledgment: The photograph Pandit DV Paluskar is from Wikipedia.]

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