Opinion Columnists 11 Dec 2021 Shailaja Khanna | Th ...

Shailaja Khanna | Thank you, Mother, for the clarity and the music

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | SHAILAJA KHANNA
Published Dec 12, 2021, 3:05 am IST
Updated Dec 12, 2021, 3:05 am IST
Listening to musicians with her was a unique experience as she pointed out aspects of the music that no one else did
Late Lalita Khanna. (DC Image)
 Late Lalita Khanna. (DC Image)

They say death at a ripe old age is easier to bear; but loss is loss no matter how prepared you think you are for it. The knowledge of unending emptiness, forever, is a reality no amount of readiness can prepare you for. They say the long months of Covid prepared you to face death, with the dozens of tragedies affecting people known to you, but your own loss is something totally unique.

Most of 2020 was spent thinking of loss and death, of isolation and loneliness. Of making do, of fewer expectations, of adjusting. For me it was also a time of intense learning from my guru mother, of absorption of music with undivided attention. A time of enormous gain, a time of unparalleled closeness. There was nothing to hurry to, nowhere to go, no chores to perform. Listening to the old masters with my guru taught me things I had no time to absorb before; time stretching endlessly from hours into days gave our listening an unhurried intensity. Each listening session was accompanied with background context; the musician’s pedigree, my mother’s interaction with him or her, the raga and what it conveyed or should have conveyed; what was good and what was bad about the music.

 

My mother had had an unusual upbringing musically; on the one hand was an enviable lineage descended from Mian Tansen and Sadarang, on the other a puritan, aristocratic Punjabi reservation about women pursuing the classical arts, in an environment of purdah. Music tutors for the “basics” in vocal music in Shimla included Master Mohan, (brother of the child prodigy Master Madan), then Pt Madanlal Bali, and his guru Pt Dilip Chand Vedi. (My mother had an extraordinary voice, so though born into a tradition of “beenkars”, later surbahar players, she was trained in vocal music, too). The masters came to her home rather than the other way round! There was always a chaperone in the room. When elders in the family came to stay, the music lessons were discreetly cancelled to avoid shocking them.

 

Hearing about how a person in her position heard music was an eye-opener — in addition to very occasionally attending music conferences, as they were then called (ladies in her circle were not encouraged), there were private baithaks which none of the greats disdained. Hearing musicians like Ustad Allaudin Khan, Krishnarao Shankar Pandit, Pt Vinayakrao Patwardhan, the senior Dagar Bandhu, Ustad Mushtaq Hussain Khan and many more was a great, treasured privilege. All India Radio recordings were open to a select few; in those days it was understood that the musician simply could not record without an audience that understood music, so connoisseurs were encouraged to come and listen to spur the musician on, so to speak!

 

As important as the taalim were the close friendships with musicians; from “stars” Ustad Vilayat Khan to Ustad Amjad Ali Khan, from musicians’ musicians beenkar Ustad Asad Ali Khan to sarodiya Pt Radhika Mohan Maitra; from scholar musician Sumati Mutatkar to the earthy Pt Samta Prasad, who could never get around her nickname “Ita” and always called her “Rita behen”! Ustad Vilayat Khan, during his stay in Shimla, became a close confidant, sharing his music generously, sometimes in return for a few hands of poker (poker is not enjoyable with only two or three people so my mother’s presence was frequently required)!

 

Covid and the consequent changes in lifestyle for people all over the world also brought with it, for my mother, an intense desire to try and “heal” the world, to rid it of the karmic debt that humanity was paying for. A daily ritual became reciting the “Vishnu Sahasranam” in unison, to send purifying sound waves into the ether, on Mondays it was the additional reciting of the Shri Rudram stotra. Of course, a daily constant remained surfing YouTube for old music, and its analysis. We argued gently about who to hear — she preferred vocalists; I tended to enjoy instrumental music more. I wanted to hear unusual ragas to dissect them, her take was: “unless the notes are appealing, why waste one’s time on obscure ragas. I have been there, done that, now music for me is to soothe and elevate and only some ragas can do that.”

 

My mother, in addition to her primary guru her father, Raja Padamjit Singh, was also trained by the legendary sarodiya Ustad Hafiz Ali Khan, a master of rare ragas. A total purist, he shared his music with her generously, a privilege permitted only to his sons. A decade later, again in Delhi, she also learnt thumri from Rasoolan Bai; this diverse training gave her an unusual perspective on music — while being rigidly traditional Raga-wise; she appreciated the artistic licence that true thumri masters yield to. Listening to musicians with her was a unique experience as she pointed out aspects of the music that no one else did; whether it was the delicacy of execution, or appropriate progression, or authentic emphasis of notes that made the raga come alive. She used to say, “Everyone knows how to render Mian Malhar correctly; it’s a rare musician who can actually bring the rain.” (Though it must have been a happy coincidence that while in Bikaner, in the early 1970s, it rained after seven years when she sang the Mian Malhar herself, and continued to for several days!)

 

The loss will remain; thank you, mum for also equipping me to deal with it.

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