I grew up in what, in those days, could be called an almost perfectly middle-class Bengali family, one that abided by a set of even more perfected middle-class Bengali values. Long after it was available, we did not have television in our house – my father had almost no doubt in his mind about the power of the ‘idiot box’ to sway his sons’ minds away from their studies. Likewise, the telephone remained an item of considerable luxury. Even amidst these typically frugal settings, however, Bengali families of that era did not stint on spending on a few indulgences. For some, this niche was travel; for others, the performing arts. In our case, it was the cherished family gramophone.
In my mind’s eye, I can still clearly see that wondrous contraption. As you opened the wooden box, a white stylus would rise up to greet you, shining in majestic glory. This was a Garrard, which had been a pukkah Londoner till, sometime during the 1960s, it had found its way across the sinful seas to a small corner of our house. There was only one technician in all of Calcutta whom my father ever trusted for repairs, on the few occasions when the need arose. Whenever the possibility of feuds would crop up between us siblings (mostly over watching films), I could never help but wonder to whom amongst us my father would eventually entrust this priceless piece of property.
In my memory, our gramophone was something like Ali Baba’s hidden cave: all you needed to do was find the right record, and the Garrard would allow for a sudden stream of magical notes! There were records strewn everywhere in our house – old 78s in dusty boxes; tiny 45s, short and crisp in their content. But my favourites were the 33 1/3s. The covers of most of these included oddly fascinating album art that a listener – certainly this listener – would inevitably forever associate with that particular record and its music. These were mostly photos or portraits of the artists in jovial or ‘musically engaged’ moods. Of course, there was also the occasional album with exceptionally abstract artwork, for which the connection between the visual and the audio had become a matter of either zero or infinity, depending on the extent of one’s imagination.
My father had picked up his love for Hindostani classical music during his college days at Benaras Hindu University, which at the time was quite the haven for North Indian classical music. In those days, he must have been a particularly devout fan of Vilayat Khan, the young sitar maestro, for I recall more Vilayat LPs in our house than any other. One was titled “The Genius of Vilayat Khan”; another said simply, “Ustad Vilayat Khan” and included a princely photograph of the ustad on its cover. It showed the musician’s profile in his heyday – a crop of hair combed straight backwards, with a black shawl thrown carelessly across his back. He is sitting straight up, with eyes focused on his sitar but his gaze lost somewhere beyond the instrument.
Though at the time I had no understanding of the technicalities of Vilayat’s virtuosic ragas – an understanding that, indeed, I lack to this day – I was nonetheless always keen to know what time of day a particular raga was meant to be played. I can still vividly recall that, after pointing out that the majestic “Darbari Kanada” was a night raga, to be played only in the late evening, my father added that the essential mood of the raga was one of pathos. The “Ustad Vilayat Khan” LP did not have a “Darbari Kanada”; however, from early boyhood, for some odd reason, whenever I heard that piece I always thought of him sitting in the pose he had struck on the cover of that album. For the longest time, I have held on to one fantasy in particular: to hear Vilayat play “Darbari Kanada” on his sitar at the Taj Mahal. Alas, with the ustad’s passing away in 2004, that will only remain a dream.
A teacher once told me that unless you have imagination, you cannot appreciate statistical thermodynamics – that one has to imagine ensembles of molecules running helter-skelter in order to appreciate the random and essentially statistical character of nature itself. I think the same holds true for art. A true work of art builds its own imagery in the mind of the audience, such that every individual’s image is unique to that person. Once formed, those individual images become intrinsically associated with the artwork itself, oftentimes adding a visual dimension even to something specifically non-visual, such as music.
I only had a small bit of knowledge about “Darbari Kanada”, but this included the fact that it was originally played in the courts of the emperors of India. Seizing hold of this nugget, I added layers of parallel imageries of my own, in addition to the pose of the album cover. In my mind, Vilayat Khan playing “Darbari” became that paradigmatic unrequited lover, the court musician, playing for the last time in front of the princess, before she was married away to a suitor from a distant land. He was playing not for fame, nor for splendour, nor for the much sought-after appreciation of the emperor. Rather, Vilayat was playing purely with only his secret lover, the princess, in mind – this was the last music that he would ever play for her, and embodied the single melody that she would carry with her wherever she subsequently went. This melody, then, the “Darbari Kanada”, would forever tie them together, beyond the realm of space and time. Even now, decades later, whenever I listen to Vilayat Khan playing “Darbari Kanada”, these aching remnants come back to haunt me.
For one reason or another, I turned away from Hindostani classical music in my latter schooldays. Like most kids from upwardly mobile middle-class families, my fancies became caught up in the predictable lot – Western pop of the 1980s, slowly shifting towards the rock-and-roll of the 1970s and 1960s, and finally to Bollywood music of the R D Burman era and onwards to a new appreciation of ghazals. It is only recently that I have started listening seriously to Hindostani classical music once again. Interestingly, a significant part of this renewal of interest was facilitated, if not propelled, by the Internet, where an astounding number of people and virtual communities proved welcoming and willing to teach about – and to share – hard-to-find music.
Even during the period of my self-exile from Hindostani classical music, whenever I happened to hear “Darbari Kanada”, something profound would stir inside of me – leaving the forlorn, late-evening labs in which I found myself, and drifting languidly elsewhere. Indeed, occasionally I found myself pondering whether I in fact had some deeper connection with this piece of music.
Midway through the jhalla on one such late evening, sitting alone by myself, as Khansaheb’s fingers finished casting around me the last few turns of their divine net, I suddenly had an image of my father. Still a student in Benaras, he was having a rare free night in December, when he could steal a few hours outside a concert venue to catch up with some maestros’ late-night ragas. As was the norm in those days for students and other enthusiasts too poor to buy tickets, he had been forced to settle into a spot outside the venue, fighting the bitter December cold while the ustads and pandits played on inside. On one such night, I wondered, could Vilayat have come to my father’s rescue with his “Darbari”? To rid himself of the chill, I envisioned my father suddenly embracing the “Darbari” a little more tightly. While the notes crept out of the crevices of the pandal, perhaps a few made their way deep within my father – until that fateful day in September 1974 when I was born, and they could again see the light of day and the darkness of night.
One of the stages of sleep is called REM, for ‘rapid eye movement’, a period during which the brain is almost as active as during waking hours. As a person sleeps through the course of a night, this phase becomes longer and longer. During the wee hours of the night, when the last cabs in Calcutta or Karachi or Manhattan have departed, and the arrays of lights from the streets falling on the walls of my apartment, sifted through the shades, become almost a constant pattern, I enter the REM phase of my night’s rest, and have a waking vision.
Slowly stepping through the gates of my dream’s darkness, I enter the premises of a familiar-looking building. As my mind’s eye adjusts to the soft shine of a moonlit night, I slowly recognise what is perhaps history’s most talked-about monument to love. There is no one else in sight, and I begin taking unsure steps towards the entrance. Gradually, the outlines of a figure sitting at the iwan, the entrance hallway, begin to take shape. Like the structure next to which he is sitting, this figure soon shows himself to be familiar. My pace becomes a little more deliberate; a few steps later, my ears catch a note or two. As I approach, the music being played slowly unravels itself, and familiarity, again, intervenes.
He is sitting sideways, straight, with a crop of hair combed backwards, a shawl thrown loosely across his shoulders. No one else is in sight. He knows that I am there, but does not look up – he never does. A light smile creeps over his lips, as his fingers strike chord after perfect chord. I lose sense of how much time passes but, eventually, he gestures for me to sit, though I am unsure as to how or where. My initial perception had been that there was just the two of us here, but I slowly come to realise otherwise. In the distance, across the river, I catch a glimpse of a female figure, covered in white muslin, adorning the frame of a window in Agra Fort. Is she listening, too? As I surrender myself to the engulfing emotions, the “Darbari” plays on and on into the nighttime mist.
In general I do not spend much time pondering death, nor contemplating the end of it all, nor wondering what it all means. But I do hope that, when the time does come, one of these darkened sessions will never come to an end.
~ Anirban Banerjee is a post-docotral researcher at the Rockfeller Univesity in New York City.