Music has been a VERY
important and totally inseparable part of my life. It and my keyboard are two of the things that keep me alive, and if I had a chance to do it all over again, I would definitely be a musician, no matter how bad! The following is going to be a ‘Music and I’ sort of post, and because there have been SO many musical adventures in my life almost since I was five, for a period of more than fifteen years, and because music is SO close to my heart, this may be my longest post so far! So read at your own risk and patience! (For a moment I thought of posting it in bits and pieces, but then I felt it would destroy the continuity...)
I grew up in a household filled with Music. Although my parents don't have any formal training in Music, they have an excellent ear and appreciation for it. Whereas my mother is a big aficionado of old hindi film songs, my father is an intense classical music fan. Melodies from old hindi films, but especially Ragas sung by Bhimsen Joshi and Kumar Gandharva, are among my earliest memories of childhood. My father is especially addicted to Bhimsen's creations; he has a collection of a few hundred of his live performances. A few of them we got from the great master himself, the transaction made possible by a favourite student of my father's, who used to accompany the maestro for a time on the harmonium. To this day, and I am sure always, Bhimsen’s tunes stir me like nothing else. There is nothing like listening to a rendition of Raga Yaman or Raga Darbari Kanada from him, or of Raga Malkauns for that matter. Another noteworthy and harrowing set of melodies that have made an unforgettable impact on me is Kumar’s ‘Nirguni Bhajans’. As the name indicates, they talk about omniscient powers which are ‘Nirgun’, or without form. The abstract philosophy of the words, rendered in Kumar’s signature and inimitable baritone voice, can endear them even to atheists. Kumar, as may be recalled, lost a lung to cancer. That he could still sing these extremely hard-to-sing pieces with an eloquence that is unparalleled, is a tribute to his genius. In all of these, he characteristically eschews the use of any degree of sophisticated accompaniment, including rhythm; thus the power of the performance completely hinges on his ability, and he transforms you to a totally different level; you have to listen to them to understand what I mean.
In Marathi music, I love all old Marathi film songs, 'bhavageet' songs, and especially Bhimsen's 'Abhangas', but I am really stricken by the music of the father-son duo of Sudhir and Shridhar Phadke. Some of their compositions such as Ashi pakhare yeti
, Je ved majala lagale
, Mana manas umagat nahi
(a supremely austere song), Sanja ye gokulee
and Rutu Hirawa
are classics forever (In the last one, just check out the sheer power of Asha's voice; it blows you away). Another favourite and challenging Marathi song which I play on my keyboard is Sunya sunya mahifilit majhya
Someone introduced me to Western Classical Music when I was in 7th standard or so. I vividly remember listening to Mozart's 40th Symphony being played for me, and it’s an all-time favourite; it is quite unfair that I don't remember who played it for me, though! After that, although I had no great enthusiasts around me, I explored this realm myself. I quickly discovered Vivaldi's Four Seasons, Beethoven's 5th and 9th, Mozart's 36th, and Strauss's 'Die Fledermaus', to name a few, and they became timeless classics of rapt delight for me. Later, with the advent of the Internet and (illegal) file sharing, I let my explorations run amok, and today, I derive immense pleasure from many greats of different genre. Later on, I found a steadfast classical music companion in the form of my cousin from Mumbai, who introduced me to Verdi and Smetana. I was totally stricken by Handel, Mozart, and Bach, and they have become my favourites. However, it's to be noted that I know very little about the technical side of Western Classical. I remember and can hum many pieces, and even play a challenging few on my keyboard, and know about the 'movements', about ‘preludes and overtures' and 'prestos'. But I know nothing beyond that preliminary knowledge. However, I do hope to learn about some of the tricks of the trade someday...
All of the above would have simply made me into a big music fan. However, the one thing that makes Music the dearest thing in my life and a source of infinite wonder, is my keyboard.
I remember things vaguely; when I was maybe five or six, my mama from the US got a tiny toy keyboard for my elder sister and cousin. Being the irresponsible little kid in the house, naturally I was forbidden to touch it. However, my sister and cousin both did not show even the slightest interest in it, and finally, the ‘elders’ all acquiesced to let me play around with it. Nobody, and definitely not I, expected me to express interest in it for more than a few days, let alone play anything. So everyone was pleasantly surprised when I played the National Anthem on it. This was the start of my lifelong relationship with the keyboard; it was my first love, and will always be my inseparable companion. Here in Atlanta, I have bought a small but reasonably good keyboard, which I play almost everyday. Later on, in school, I started accompanying singers and musicians in about 4th standard; among other things, I remember playing for a nice Goan play, a few traditional bhajans and patriotic songs, the great song Ushakkal hota hota
, and another very nice Marathi song titled ‘Udhalita Shata Kirana’
. I still remember and can play the entire song, and I am ardently hunting for it on the internet or some other place; if anyone can point me towards a source, due returns are guaranteed to him or her. In 7th std., I also remember being the lead singer in a ‘Powada’, a traditional Marathi folk song, with the ‘feta’ (turban) and all, singing a song which had lyrics by Pu La Deshpande. (I believe it was from a piece by him called ‘Pudhari Pahije’). A photo taken during the performance perpetually elicits amused giggles.
One of the most important events in this regard was meeting a person who became my closest friend and musical companion. I met Anand in 6th std; he was very good at the tabla and bongo, and I still remember that we played together in that year’s annual social and immediately recognized our almost perfect musical compatibility. By that time, for some reason, someone also thought that I don’t sing very badly; I reckon it was because they couldn’t get anyone else to sing the lead part, and I and Anand ended up taking part as the lead musicians and singers in the annual social. In 7th std., we had to sing the really nice Quawwali song, ‘Pal do pal ka saath hamara’
from ‘The Burning Train’. Even today, it is one of my favourite Quawwali film songs. A photo from the program shows me and Anand in the front of the stage, dressed in traditional Quawwali clothes, and surrounded by a coterie of similarly dressed boys and girls, with their cheeks generously covered with pink talcum powder. The only catch was that while Anand was a plump little boy at the time, I looked like a Somalian refugee. Consequently, while the embroidered hat barely fit Anand’s head after valiant efforts by the staff members of our school, mine hung over my head like curtains. The photo is very enduring, needless to say! Even today, when we get together, a performance of ‘Pal do pal ka’ is a required rite of passage for us; he on the tabla, and me on the harmonium and singing. In 8th, we organized our first true orchestra as such, and played in the annual social in Tilak Smarak. One memory I have of this time was of a boy who was going to sing Sochenge tumhe pyaar
from 'Deewana'. When he started, he was frankly terrible, but our exhortations and his dedicated efforts finally made him sing a perfect rendition on D-Day.
Meeting Anand was one of the most fortunate events in my life, which gave vent to my musical emotions like nothing else. His father is a huge fan of Mohammad Rafi, and without a doubt has one of the rarest and biggest collections of Rafi songs in Pune, if not the country. He is a walking and talking dictionary of old hindi film music. Meeting him and Anand and playing and singing literally incessantly at their place became an almost weekly activity for me. It was then that I also got introduced to the brilliant Shankar-Jaikishen’s songs, and since then they have been my favourite music composers. Shankar-Jaikishen was a natural choice for a keyboardist like me; they were the first to introduce extended violin, piano, and accordion pieces with true symphony like musical accompaniment in Hindi film music, and started a revolution of sorts. Also, the 'SJ-Rafi' combination was always a bankable blockbuster combination. Consequently, their songs have very big musical preludes and fillers, with intertwining strings compositions. They are a definite and robust challenge for any musician. Reproducing ‘SJ’ songs (like we called them) became a big challenge for me. I started with one that was relatively difficult; Pyar hua ikaraar hua
from ‘Shree 420’. I remember agonizing over it, sweating over every small jump between scales, obsessively playing the tape backwards for every small detail, practicing it late into the night…until finally, I got it. The joy that emerges from having successfully mastered a work of art, no matter of what kind and magnitude, has to be experienced in order to be described. After that, the next big challenge for me was ‘Ghar aaya mera pardesi’
from ‘Awara’. In many ways, this piece is also challenging. The main body of the song does not start until after 5-10 mins of violin and strings spiels. It was a real challenge for me; especially at that age. For this one, I decided to abandon the keyboard for the harmonium, as I thought that the more natural and fresher notes of the harmonium would do better justice to the song. Again, the incessant late night practice followed, until finally, I could play it without interruption. This was just in time for a program that was organized in honour of the death anniversary of Shankar, at the music studio of Suhaschandra Kulkarni, one of the leading musicians and music teachers in Pune. I was relieved that I could play it well at the moment of truth, and everybody liked it. Another extremely challenging SJ song that I learnt to play, with flourishing and long piano pieces, is 'Dil ke jharoke mein'
from 'Brahmachari'. In general, it's always a challenge and pleasure for a keyboardist to play fast songs with piano or violin pieces in them. Yet another (non-SJ; C Ramchandra for this one) song that we play is the Lata-Usha duet Aplam Chaplam
Anand and me have played and sung SJ’s songs so many times and so relentlessly, that SJ and Anand have become inseparable in my mind. Songs like Aji aisa mauka
from 'An evening in Paris', ‘Kaun hai jo sapano me aaya’
and ‘Ghar aaya mera pardesi’
have become almost our theme songs; I don’t remember a single time in the last twelve years when we have met and not played songs like these three. I remember so many late nights, with the rain pounding outside, when we were enraptured in performing and playing these timeless classics, that the songs elicit memories in a manner vivid as none. A mere sampling of those unforgettable songs that we played and continue to play takes me back memory lane such as nothing else. These songs have become almost physically engraved in my mind, and when I play one of them today, I can’t stop myself from playing ten, or twenty more. Just a small sample:
1. Aaja sanam
from ‘Chori Chori’
2. Kaun hai jo sapno mai aaya
from ‘Jhuk gaya asmaan’
3. Who chand khila woh tare hase
4. An evening in Paris
from…’An evening in Paris’!
5. Badan pe sitare lapete hue
6. Sab kuch seekha hamane
and Kisi ki muskurahaton pe
7. Geet gatan hu mai
from ‘Lal Patthar’
8. Jiya o, jiya o jiya kucch bol do
from ‘Jap pyaar kisise hota hai’
9. Aaja re aa jara
from ‘Love in Tokyo’
10. Main chali main chali
11. Har dil jo pyaar karega
12. Bol re kathputli
13. Cheda mere dil ne
and Tujhe jeewan ki dor se
from ‘Asli nakli’
And many many many more…
Our practice sessions were enduringly memorable. One time in particular stands apart, sometime when we were in 9th or 10th I think. My parents were out of town, and we decided to play and record as many SJ and Rafi songs as we could, with songs by other music composers and singers added in for good measure. I remember that we started at 6.00 in the evening, and almost without a break, continued till 3.00 in the morning. We played every song that we could remember and that we had ever played. At the end of all that, we were hungry as wolves. What to do? Having promised my mother that we would eat outside and lacking the most elementary culinary skills, we fortunately remembered the one ‘restaurant’, that would be open at that hour; a dilapidated but popular shack on JM road. We had a nice ‘dinner’ there, and then realized we were short of 2 RUPEES to pay the bill! Cursing ourselves, I ran home and got the money…to this day, we remember the ‘2 rupees episode’.
With time, Anand exceeded his abilities as a percussionist (although he is still an excellent one) and he became a splendid singer. Needless to say, he revels in the golden tones and voice of Mohammad Rafi, and it is my greatest pleasure to accompany him when he sings these songs. In my opinion, for sheer melody, there was been no male singer in the annals of Hindi cinema, who beats Mohammad Rafi. Among female singers, the pure melody in many of Lata's songs is fabulous, but I think that for variety and sheer, supreme vitality, nobody beats Asha.
Anyway, some of the classics which Anand sings, and which I keep on playing and singing over and over again, include:
1. Tumne mujhe dekha
from ‘Teesri Manzil’
2. Man re tu kahe na dheer dhare
from ‘Chitralekha’ (This one is a true melodious masterpiece)
3. Din dhala jaye
4. Hum bekhudi mein
5. Bade he dil ke kale
from ‘Dil deke dekho’ (A classic duet)
6. Akele akele kahan jaa rahe ho
from ‘An evening in paris’
7. Yaad na jaye
from ‘Dil ke mandir’
8. Aap ke pahalu mein aakar
from ‘Mera Saaya’
9. E door ke musafir
from ‘Udan Khatola’
And countless others
Over the years, I have accompanied him so many times at so many places, that our musical compatibility has become fine tuned to a fantastic degree. Even now, when Anand and I are ten thousand miles apart and don’t play or practice for a year, when we get together, we can still put up a performance and sing and play these songs, without needing to practice a single time. That is exactly what we did when I visited India last December. We put up an informal program at my sister’s place and relived all those moments. Anand’s father is an audio equipment manufacturer and so we are never at a loss for speakers, amplifiers and microphones. I am proud to say, that on the 29th of last month, Anand’s aspirations and efforts borne fruit, when he put up a professional performance in the Yashwantrao Chavan auditorium in Pune, where he sang a variety of Rafi’s songs, on occasion of Rafi’s 25th death anniversary. I wish him the very best in all his endeavors.
There was a time when we used to participate in almost every music and singing competition that used to be held at places like Balgandharva, Tilak Smarak, and Bharatnatya. Tilak Smarak especially stands out in my mind as the venue for our annual socials. When we used to practice for them, we used to be in charge of the orchestra, especially in later years, and were given free rein to advise or berate any singer or musician. Practising and having fun when others were attending classes was an indescribable feeling. Many times, when no teacher was around, we used to run out of school and enjoy a nice cake, ‘peru’ or even idli-chatni at the local snack shack. After a lifetime of bunking classes in college, it is hard now to appraise the inestimable pleasure and freedom of being able to step outside the school campus during school hours, traversing a campus boundary that was almost like a ‘lakshman resha’ for us!
Once, we were invited to our Principal’s house to perform. At that time, I had ganged up with another of my musical friends, and we were well-known (notorious?) in school for singing the inimitable ‘Eka chatur naar’
from ‘Padosan’. I also used to sing ‘Babu samjho ishare’
from ‘Chalti ka naam gadi’. Any time there was a program in school that remotely had a musical component in it, me and my friend always used to be dragged out of the crowd to sing these all-time favourite and hilarious songs. Since my favourite singer was Kishore Kumar, I used to handle mainly the Kishore and Mehmood part, while my friend handled the Manna De part. For some reason, probably because we used to sing it impromptu, Anand never accompanied us for this song. On that day, at our Principal’s house, the three of us hoisted our instruments and ourselves onto the ‘stage’, when not surprisingly, our Principal asked me and my friend to sing ‘Eka chatur naar’. However, this time, Anand insisted on accompanying us. Anand had not heard the song carefully, and we did not know how it would turn out. And our expectations were exactly borne out! As we started singing, Anand, not knowing the pattern of percussion in the song, valiantly struggled to keep up, adding his own imagined percussion elements to the song! As we struggled to keep up with him and he with us, the song became a confused ramble of off beat rhythms and shrieking voices, even more disordered than the original, and in the end, people around us, including us ourselves, were almost crying with laughter, not having realized that the song actually had been completely ‘reinvented!! That was priceless and unforgettable!
As we got into college, we started to get invited to participate in professional musical competitions and shows. Due to the humdrum of 11th and 12th, I couldn’t do much. I did take part in ‘Purushottam Karandak’ in 11th. That was also very exciting…maybe a post on that sometime. Once or twice, I also got invited to accompany singers in Ganpati festivals, which were organized by large housing societies near Parwati and in Kothrud. But frankly, this was not too much fun. The reason was simple. I was treated like a professional paid ‘employee’ and required to do things the way they insisted. Even though I enjoyed playing on stage, and the people were nice, there was none of the camaraderie and warm fun that used to spruce up our other performances and practice sessions. Because of this and also constraints of time, I stopped doing that after two years. But once I got into my first year, we were given a chance to perform in Verve.
Verve is one of the more popular college-fests in Pune, and this promised to be a nice experience. So Anand and me started putting a team together. We found a fantastic female singer. To this day, I cannot remember having met a singer as good as her; she was truly professional, and later, she started her own professional show, in which she very creatively remixed (and I mean this in the most positive sense of the term) Kabir’s Bhajans. This girl had immense innate talent. I remember once accompanying her for a competition where she had composed a tune for a Marathi poem. It was just the three of us in Bharat Natya Mandir; her, me on the harmonium, and a fellow on the tabla. Her performance was amazing. After the program, the great Hridaynath Mangeshkar personally congratulated her on her performance. Sometime later, she also clinched the best actress award for a fine performance in 'Purushottam'...
In any case, we got her, and we found an excellent male classical singer to sing a semi-classical song from a film, and we also got a very good percussionist. However, we woefully lacked instruments. At the time, I had not yet bought my professional and excellent Yamaha PSR-630 keyboard, and we finally borrowed a reasonably good one from a friend with whom I had participated in ‘Purushottam’. Still, we lacked a very important component; a guitarist, who is the heart and soul of a band or orchestra. Finally we found someone, who was…ummm…not exactly competent. We finally decided to resort to the devious tactic of letting him just sit there with the guitar, strumming a few pseudostrings!!
And so we started. There were many categories; a classical category, an Indi-pop category, and an original song category. For a long time, we could not decide what songs to choose. In addition, as anyone who has participated in such events knows well, a lot of time is spent in ‘doing tp’ and cracking jokes, and everyone constantly has to be brought back on track; of course that does add to the experience, but it is not great for the end product. Finally, we managed to put up a gig for the preliminary rounds, which were held in Vaikunth Mehta Institute on the University Road. I remember playing ‘Akele hai to kya gum hai’
from 'QSQT' which we had to really teach our young classical singer to sing without the ‘alaap’ and ‘taan’ flavour which he was accustomed to!! (I could have sung it, but I was crucially needed at the keyboard). The other song was ‘Hume tumse pyaar kitna’
(the female version) which the female singer sang with unerring virtuosity. We were glad when we were selected for the finals.
Still, our program preparation was in pandemonium. We could not find appropriate songs for many categories, and kept on choosing, practicing, and then discarding. For the classical category, we settled on ‘Aaye sur ke pancchi gaye’
from ‘Sur Sangam’, which our classical music expert beautifully sang. For the Indi-pop category, we finally decided on ‘Tu’
by Sonu Nigam. Needless to say, Anand did a great job with it. For the Quawwali category we chose ‘Chadhta suraj dhire dhire’
which a lean, quiet fellow from a rural town from Maharashtra did great justice to.
However, the most astonishing thing I remember was a Kabir Bhajan for the original composition category, admittedly the hardest of them all. The female singer who I was talking about had composed a completely original and BREATHTAKING tune for it. Even now, when I remember her singing it and organizing the musical additions, I feel awed. With no claim to greatness, I challenge today’s egregious remix makers and singers to come up with a devotional song and turn it into a remix that was half as good as what she did. We even added RAP to it, something that I could not have remotely imagined! And still, in the end, it sounded like sheer bliss, with not a trace of irreverence and all innovation. It was unforgettable…
It is a fact that I will never forget…we actually chose and practiced the final selected numbers during the night of the day before the program, in the ‘recreation hall’ of Ferguson! I still find it hard to believe that we could actually think we stood a chance on such short notice.
The day of the finals arrived. They were being held at MIT, and the sun was shining mercilessly on us. When we collected backstage, we were stunned when we took a look at the other teams. Impeccably equipped with the latest instruments and equipment and having more than enough singers, keyboardists, and most importantly, guitarists, they looked like they could crush us with a single rendition. We looked like amateurs in front of them, with our single keyboardist, sparse singers, a drummer (we rented the drums from a great drummer who lived in a shady looking place in the cantonment area) and a carefully kept secret- a pseudoguitarist! I especially remember the Bharati Vidyapeeth team. They had everything that a band could ask for; THREE guitarists, two keyboardists, an electronic drum player and everything else. Their performance was good, but we thought not great. However, we also thought that we would not stand a chance…
Then we stepped on to the stage. I will always remember the air of anticipation that hung in the air, and the hundreds of eyes that were upon us. After making sure our secret weapon was cosily nestled in a chair, we asked the sound engineer to tone down the output from the guitar as much as he could! Then there was silence, as we waited to be given the signal to start from the judges. Then, and this was the defining moment in my opinion, our stalwart of classical music stepped on to the stage, took his ‘tanpura’, and actually sat down cross-legged on the floor to begin his song. This was an iconoclastic image, something that had never been seen before, and that would not be seen in later performances. At this unlikely but daring event, the audience erupted in cheers. In the middle of all the noise and high-tech strumming and drumming, what triumphs is the traditional, and the simple. I was quite moved by the whole spectacle.
The show began, and our young friend gave a fantastic performance. After this, as song after song followed, our confidence went up. Anand did a fine job with ‘Tu’, with plumes of stage smoke going up around him. Needless to say, the icing on the cake was the remarkable remix of the Kabir Bhajan. I am one hundred percent sure that it was that, along with the classical piece in the beginning, that clinched our place at the top and won the judges’ hearts. After we finished, the anticipation we felt was completely unnecessary. And all our confused, itinerant, but dedicated efforts finally borne fruit. The ‘gold’ medal from Verve-1999 occupies a place of special and unique pride in my shelf.
But this was just the first act. Because of our success in Verve, I got a chance to do something that was my lifelong dream- perform in Ferguson’s old and prestigious Amphitheater in front of hundreds.
I had always been enthralled when I had attended the famous ‘Insync’, the competition at Ferguson that used to draw teams from around the country every year. As a small kid, because of my parents, I always used to get first row seats in the magnificent open-air theater that used to be constructed on Fergi’s airy grounds, at the seat of the ‘Tekdi’.
I used to be enthralled by the orchestras and the bands, and always hoped to play sometime in Fergi. However, as is well-known, there are always more people who want to cause trouble in such events, than those who want to make them a success. One year, some drunken student stabbed a faculty member, and that was the end of Insync. After that, Fergi tried to resurrect its artistic tradition in the form of an annual social, but that too was banned because of vandalism. Finally, the only surviving student event of any kind became ‘Quicksilver’, which emphatically banned any big music programs, as these are the ones that are notorious for inspiring eve-teasing, vandalism, and all kinds of untoward events. It’s a great pity but that’s how college events can be…
In any case, that ended my dream of performing live in Fergi…or so I thought.
In 1999, the year that our team clinched Verve, a few of us conferred and decided to try our best to convince the administration to let us perform that year. We made many trips to the principal’s office, to the cultural secretary’s office, and the vice-principal’s office. We implored them to let us play. We had won a prestigious student competition, and couldn’t we just repeat the performance? After a lot of cajoling, and pulling a few strings, we heard the verdict; yes, we could perform, provided we don’t play ‘loud songs’.
On the last day of Quicksilver, a few hundred people packed into the Fergi auditorium to see us perform. My joy at the event simply cannot be described in words; playing and performing on stage gives me unadulterated pleasure that is second to none.
We had a complete blast. In addition to the usual songs, we sang and played many extra ones. I sang an old favourite of mine with a melodious friend; the hilarious ‘Paanch rupayya bara aana’
from the classic ‘Chalti ka naam gadi’. I wished that the show would never end…
However, there is no free lunch, and in the end, someone did break a few windows and manhandle a professor. Luckily, our show had ended by then, but after that, musical orchestras were permanently banned from Ferguson College, and to my knowledge, such a show has never again taken place in Fergi. Some years ago, the arts circle was dissolved, and now, except for literary and academic fests like ‘Wall Street’ no musical program will grace the campus of Ferguson College. I count myself very, very lucky to have been able to perform in that Amphitheater, whose walls have resonated with words and notes for almost a century now…
As I progressed in my career, it became impossible to sustain my passion for science with an equal passion for music, and I had to say no to many invitations that I received for playing, especially from Anand, who continued his musical celebration. The last time I participated in a semi-professional program, was in 2001, when me and Anand organised a show in the Ganpati festival for a housing society off Tilak Road. It was a nice, homely program in a makeshift 'theater' in the parking lot, and there were many 'farmaishe' (popular demands) from the audience. We sang many Marathi songs and catered to the wishes of the senior citizens in the audience. The kids in the society never balked from coming to the front and dancing to the tune of fast numbers. Old and young members alike were tapping their feet to the music...It is a fond and enduring memory...
Luckily, as a hobby, music is something in which one can indulge quite extensively, and I believe that very few hobbies compare to the satisfaction gained from playing a musical instrument. For that, I will always be thankful.
Thus, my musical journey has given me the best time of my life, and will continue to do so. Music is truly the food of the heart, and as Handel said, there is no passion that this king of the arts cannot arouse and quell. My faithful musical companion Anand will continue to accompany me on this journey; we have planned another informal program this December when I visit India. Indian and Western Classical music, and most importantly, old hindi film songs that I first played years ago entertain and provide an emotional buttress for me like no other, and they take me back to my childhood and an infinitude of memories. Here’s to more Decembers, more SJ songs, more performances, more late night practices, and a lifetime of melody and rhythm...