Hariprasad had always been a good pupil. Even if an unwilling one.

“Unwilling” was indeed putting it mildly. He hated it all. Waking up as the cock crowed in the distance, rubbing oil on the body even as the sun was still a sleepy red blob on the horizon. No soft sari pallu to wipe his face after he had washed it...Instead, a strong-armed father waiting at the akhada.

He hated the routine, the daily exercises, the fact that every bout in the mud ended up with an opponent sitting on him, pinning him to the ground, and keeping him there endlessly. His bones ached at night. But he was a good pupil. An obedient son.

When your father is Chedilal Pehelwan, often referred to reverentially simply as “Pehelwan sahib”, a renowned wrestler who believed that the best way to bring up motherless children was to teach them to wrestle, it was safer being obedient.

Pehelwan sahib might have struck fear in many a heart, but he was a good albeit strict father. Choosing not to marry again after his wife’s death, he took upon himself the upbringing of his three surviving children – Hariprasad, his elder sister and his younger brother. Hariprasad remembers the freshly ground almonds, and from the thronging street shops of Allahabad, the delicious, rich, ghee-soaked jalebis, rabdi and milk rich with cream as part of his dietary regimen.

He remembers too that music fascinated him from the earliest years of his life. “When I was a baby, my mother would sing lullabies to me. She wanted me to sleep very well. And she would sing. And I would listen properly. Perhaps my love of music started then.”

Both his father and his uncle sang bhajans, and the boy also found himself responding to the music that filled the temple courtyard in the early evenings. Memory often mingles with legend when one delves into the origins of iconic talent, and the story goes that one day, the priest, who often saw the young Hariprasad singing bhajans with the others, asked him to sing solo.

The boy, unabashed, sat down and let his voice flow. When the pandit mentioned it to Pehelwan sahib the next day, elaborating that his son was musically blessed and could carry a song wonderfully well, the father was only slightly impressed.

Music was for the rich, an indulgence that the likes of his family could not afford. If the boy chose to sing at the temple, that was fine, but his real future lay in the akhada. He still had a long way to go, but he would learn.

And indeed, the hours in the mud pit were helping in ways yet inscrutable. The easiest way to wash off the grime and mud was to jump into the river, where the strong currents would cleanse, soothe and cool the body. The river also held a promise of forbidden fruit...luscious, ripe melons and cucumbers grew on the other bank, and it was not long before, his body strengthened by the hours of exercise, Hariprasad could keep pace with the older boys and swim right across the river to steal and gorge on all they could plunder.

Other temptations beckoned as well. A new neighbour had shifted in. In close-knit communities, such comings and goings usually draw many curious onlookers, and chances are Hariprasad too watched as the man and his wife moved with their belongings into the house that stood next to his own, divided only by a common wall.

His curiosity was piqued when he heard music floating out from within. He saw young people about his own age, coming and going. It dawned on him that the man who occupied the house was a singer who taught music. Hariprasad even knew some of the bhajans he was teaching. How wonderful if he could learn too! It would invoke the unique feeling of peace that he often felt as he sang at the temple.

He hit upon a ruse. Singing rather loudly, he wandered about, close to the house. Often, the singer’s wife, looking for a subject on which to lavish her thwarted maternal affections, would invite him to taste something she had cooked. Hariprasad would gladly partake of the delights offered. And at every opportunity, he would sing, hoping the teacher would listen and be impressed.

A singer’s ears are ever alert to music, and it was not long before Raja Ram, as the neighbour was called, heard the youngster singing and called out to him.

Raja Ram was a kindly man, a dhrupad singer who earned by teaching bhajans. Childless, he and his wife enjoyed listening to the young voices resounding in their home for the brief duration of the classes. The music eased away the shadow of loneliness that looms over couples who face old age without their offspring around them to brighten their path.

When Hariprasad, elated that his ruse had worked, sat cross-legged and earnest in front of his future teacher and sang a film song, Raja Ram was overjoyed. He realised the boy had a natural gift for music; though untaught, he could carry a tune.

Master and pupil delighted in each other. Soon, the lessons, surreptitious and unknown to Pehelwan sahib, were well under way. Realising that Hariprasad could push beyond the calibre of most of his other students, Raja Ram started teaching him the rules of classical singing, step by step. The young student bounded up the steps admirably, with enthusiasm.

Hindustani classical music demands of its singers a substantial range of voice. Being able to sing in an octave higher as well as lower than one’s normal pitch ensures the singer can glide up and down with ease as he delineates a raga decorated with intricate taans.

To his disappointment, Raja Ram soon discovered that his ardent pupil was limited in range. His voice would never rise beyond the low octave. But seeing that the boy was indeed devoted to learning music, and that his lungs had the power to hold a note steady for a long time, Raja Ram suggested Hariprasad find an instrument that made use of his breath, and continue his journey.

“I could not afford an instrument like the sitar, which was very popular at that time,” Hariprasad recounted in an interview organised by the NCPA. “The flute was easily available, it was sold at festivals and fairs. It was cheap. Besides, I had seen it with Lord Krishna. It was always a part of him in the temples, whether he was alone or with Radha, and I knew it was one of the oldest instruments. It was so simple too, no strings to tune, no leather to maintain. Just a stick of bamboo with holes, and one had only to blow into it to create sound. I chose the flute.”

Breath Of Gold

Excerpted with permission from Breath of Gold: Hariprasad Chaurasia, Sathya Saran, Ebury Press.