It was a dappled three-storied house, away from the bustling skinny alleys of Benaras. There was a profound tranquility about it. Set in the heart of a lush garden, you could stretch your arms from a window and caress a sociable parrot. A small amphitheatre hosted many soirees under the starlit sky. And then there was a room with elegant French windows – the taalim room. At least twenty men and women spent hours there, immersed in their music. The sitar, slide guitar, vocals, sarod, santoor, tabla – all rising to the didactic call of Ravi Shankar, who sat on a raised platform, singing, playing his sitar, instructing. The Guru would sometimes smile, sometimes frown, but he would not relent until every single disciple who had gathered at Hemangana, from all over the world, had absorbed his every single musical utterance.
Behind the Guru towered a striking black-and-white portrait of his master Baba Allauddin Khan. The music flowed from one teacher to another. History was made, careers were shaped and souls stirred in that music room in Benaras every year. And I was lucky to have witnessed what was perhaps one of the last few days of the traditional gurukul.
The world may choose to remember Ravi Shankar, who would have been 99 today, as a brilliant performer, a prolific composer and the country’s most well-known cultural ambassador. But to me, he was, and will always be, Guruji Dadu (a guru and grandfather), a nomenclature that was suggested by him. He was a father figure to my father, the Hansa Veena exponent Barun Kumar Pal, besides his mentor and universe.
Countless followers would come to Benaras, Delhi and Calcutta to learn from Guruji Dadu. And he seldom turned them away. Even when he had no inclination to take them under his wings, he would not send them back without something to remember him by.
Sometimes, the visitors were tourists and backpackers, whose India experience was incomplete without a musical lesson at his former address in Lodhi Estate. Sometimes, they just wanted to buy a sitar to carry home or click a photograph with the legend (I have seen one pinned up at a cafe in Kathmandu). But many times, they were genuine seekers – musicians who spent days and nights, making the most of the time he had earmarked for taalim. My father was one of them.
Taalim, for Guruji Dadu, was not only about the music. Like a true master, mentor, guide, he would sculpt the artist in every aspect of artistry. Even if you were not a musician or a student, there was much to learn from simply observing him move, speak, eat, carry himself in a room full of greats.
Nudged by my father, I slowly became aware of the fact that Guruji Dadu was a wonderful conversationalist, who knew how to engage with anyone, whether four or 84 years old. He was also a good listener. He would ask questions, show interest in people, their work, their lives. His mind was alert, curious and happy to be entertained. He was incredibly informed. As one of the world’s greatest musicians, he had an admirable depth of knowledge in everything from poetry to politics, spirituality to economics. It was easy for me, one of the smallest persons around on many occasions, to simply watch, learn and get inspired by his sharp mind and sparkling wit.
There was a secret to his personality that I learned over the years. Guruji Dadu was not a big, burly person. But he always managed to appear larger than life on stage, even in person. No trick camera angles or special effects. Just the way he dressed and the confidence with which he carried himself. His shoulders never slouched. His chin never dropped. His eyes never lost their sparkle. I was told it was thanks to the days he spent in the performance troupe of his elder brother, the legendary Uday Shankar. He simply came alive on the stage and assumed a stature that could fill up performance arenas.
There were a hundred other things about him that couldn’t have been learnt by fans. Things that only a child like me hanging around in the green room, music room, dining room, kitchen or the car would have noticed. His abiding love for Bengali food, cooked the homely way. How he travelled with his portable altar – a collection of miniature deities and spiritual gurus. His ability to make someone feel special simply by a smile and a half-wink. The way he would transform from a frail elderly man to a powerhouse performer as soon he was on stage. His love for wordplay and his many quirks – including the obvious pride he took in sharing his birthday with William Wordsworth. “I hope I am worth my word,” he would quip sometimes. He had even composed a verse for me, in response to my first attempt at writing him a poetic note.
Over the years Guruji Dadu battled several health scares, controversies and a million other problems. Looking back, he seemed to be at his most relaxed in his hometown Benaras. On one occasion, we were joined by the legendary photographer Raghu Rai. I remember that evening as we – a group of his students, Rai and some guests – walked the gullies around the ghats, stopping to shop for bangles and the occasional snack. He was showing us around the streets of his childhood, introduced us to his favourite paanwalla and later took us on a ride on a bajra, or budgerow, down the Ganga. I remember his frame against the setting sun, the sound of water lapping against the weathered wood, and Rai clicking away furiously. Just as I remember him walking a little ahead of us in the gullies, his students maintaining a respectful distance. My father whispered into my years, go ahead, walk with him, never make him feel he’s all alone.
I don’t know if the company of a ten-year-old child mattered to the maestro. But I keep revisiting this moment every time I think of him. And I tell myself, I walked with a legend.
All images courtesy Barun Kumar Pal.