Slave and Bondsman

And so why is it that the East is East and the West is West, and the twain cannot meet? Well for one thing, musically, in the West they lay a lot of store by the quality of the voice in a singer. When the great tenor Enrico Caruso died, the Times wrote in the obituary, “ …no tenor voice equal to his, in its combination of power and beauty of sound, has been heard in our generation”. And so the king of Italy ordered that the funeral service be held in the chapel hitherto reserved for royal funerals.

To this day lovers of opera regularly vote as their favourite classical singer of all time, Jussi Bjorlings, the Swedish tenor of the mellifluous voice, with, I guess the Irish tenor McCormick running a close second. And Sweden also gave the world Jenny Lind, who was brought to America by P.T. Barnum, and took the place by storm as the ‘Swedish Nightingale’.

Here in the East we think rather differently. There is an unwritten adage, which we don’t flaunt too often, but it is a part of our lore; that the quality of the voice is of no consequence, if it is in ’Sur’ it will sound beautiful! Now you are free to scoff at this as another bit of Oriental exotica. But even in the West one legend was Louis ‘Sachmo’ Armstrong. And if you ever heard him, you’d know that he didn’t have a voice, just a lot of husky breath. But it was in ‘Sur’. And nearer home, at least in some phases of his career, the great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was the same.

And yet, I think the saying is a simplification meant for the uninitiated. It is a mild hint at a much deeper and profounder truth which we understand, and which lies at the very heart of our musical tradition. In the West they grope for it when they occasionally admit that ‘a great singer does not sing just with his voice, but with his whole life’s experience’.

So what is it that makes great music? Sometimes it is visibly manifest, and is there for you to see, if you have the eyes! If you ever heard Ustad Vilayat Khan playing his magical Sitar; and the Sitar would sing away, and sometimes his own music would carry him away, and he would sing himself. And he had a wonderful voice, but that was not all. There was a radiance which sat on his brow and shone with an unearthly glow. Or maybe you saw it in the eyes of Ustad Amanat Ali Khan?

These were both strikingly handsome men, but that is not of the essence. Because one of the people in whom it was most manifest was Roshan Ara Begum. This was all of fifty years ago, and if you wanted to have a concert, it had to be in the open because there was, as yet no concert hall in the country. I had a very young Mushtaq ‘Dhako’ Hashmi with me, and as she paused in her music he came, as if, out of a trance and whispered, “How beautiful she looks when she sings”!

This was at the old ‘Alhamra’, and the Arts Council had just acquired one of the first ‘tape-recorders’ in town, and we had recorded her, and the next morning she dropped by on her way back home, as I was listening to the recording. I asked for tea for us and said, “Malika, come and listen to some music”! She sat and heard herself with her hand on her cheek, and following each note with eyes far away. The music ended, and she sat back and turned to me, “Hashmi saab, kal to hum bohat acchha gaaey”!

I do not wish to be melodramatic and say there was some great revelation for me in that simple phrase. But half century later I am very clear on exactly how it struck me. Here was a human being who knew her place, her ‘Maqaam’ precisely; not only in music or among her peers, but in the whole fabric of the universe. It was not something she had to prove to anyone. It was just a wonderful possession which sat in her heart and glowed, and gave her that serenity.

It is one of the few regrets that I was too late to have known, or heard her Ustaad the legendary Abdul Karim Khan. There are few photographs of him, and in fact I have seen only one which they put on the sleeve of the single long-play record they made in the old days. But it was enough. Even in that faded and grainy picture one can see that the same serenity was even greater and deeper there. Look deep into the eyes and you will see a man who was not of this world. And that is what makes great music!