Evening. It was nearing five. Finishing her tea, Tarabai got up, pressing a painful knee with one hand. She stood gazing out of the window. The long sloping road was crowded with buses and cars. The noise of the traffic drowned the sound of the sea beyond the parapet wall. Tarabai thought to herself how nothing had remained as it had been fifty years ago. Even the seemingly unchanging sea had changed. Waves that had lashed at the parapet wall only to recede an inch or two had now receded quite a distance. The sound of the sea, which she could once hear day in and day out, was now audible only for an hour or so in the quiet of the early morning. Barring the monsoon months of June, July and August, when the combined commotion of wind, splashing rain and waves could be heard, the sea, like a giant crocodile attacked by human beings, had retreated. Despite her now impaired vision, its changed colour hurt Tarabai. Of course the sea does change its colour all the time — pale blue-green in the morning, shining silver in the afternoon, crimson at sunset and inky-blue at night. But its characteristic colour always manifests itself from within all these colours. If it lost its clean colour it was only during the two months of monsoon till Coconut Day, when, due to constant churning, it looked opaque, angry, red. Otherwise, for the rest of the nine months its basic clean colour never changed. But now it wore the pale, yellowish colour of the skin of a chronic asthma patient gasping for breath. It had become dull and muddy.
Feeling the wrinkled skin of her hand, Tarabai wondered if, like her, the sea too had become an old man. What had become of its boon to remain young forever? Had it suffered the same fate as her own youthful dream of marriage?
Suddenly it occurred to her that she had been looking for something else and had ended up looking at the sea instead. Her habit of watching the sea in her spare time would not leave her.
She turned her gaze to the road, but despite her best efforts, she could not see the familiar figure of Bapu, slowly advancing, leaning on his stick. She could no longer be certain of what she saw. Nowadays there was always a watery film over her pupils. Occasionally, she would feel a tear trickle down her cheek. It was not as though she was fond of reading, but if she tried to read a book for even ten to fifteen minutes, her eyes would feel dry and start hurting her. Still, thanks to Lord Mangesha, she had not developed a cataract. She could manage with specs and there was no reason to complain. But because of her advancing age, her joints had started aching and her voice was no longer steady. Earlier, she had had to restrict learners clamouring to enroll for her singing classes; now she was left with just a few beginners. All the learners were from affluent families. They had enrolled their daughters or daughters-in-law more to show off Tarabai Kankonkar’s label than for any real interest in music. They had neither haggled over fees, nor had they enquired about the progress of the pupil. They probably chose to enroll with this ageing “queen of melody” because it made better sense than to train under a male teacher or some young hard task-master of a female teacher. Only one of them had a natural, though marginal understanding of music. But she too probably felt tired of having to extract the right note from Tarabai’s now unsteady voice and reproduce it correctly. Earlier she would never have tolerated it if anyone missed as many sessions as this lot. They gave different excuses each time like, “My son had a fall, suffered a gash on the head,” “Guests arrived unexpectedly. I had to help my mother,” “I had my period, had cramps.” “A prospective groom was coming to approve of me in the evening” — “But then you could have come in the morning” — “But I had to make preparations for the evening.”
Tarabai thought to herself “Why single out students? Bapu too bunks on various pretexts such as — ‘I have become too old, my B.P. has shot up, I suffer from gout; you have no idea how much my foot aches; it’s not just ordinary arthritis.’”
Tarabai thought, as if it was I who was after Bapu to write my biography. It was he who had insisted on it. “If Champabai’s not-so-gifted disciple could write reams and reams on her, why can’t I write your biography?” he had persisted. She had said “no” twice or three times. As a last resort, like old times, he had made a childish plea, “Baiji, if you don’t help me, then I’ll write from what I remember. Then don’t object and say — “This did not happen” or “So and so never said this.” I’m not undertaking this task because I have nothing to do after retirement, and don’t know what to do with the time on my hands. Once through I’m going to publish it at my own expense. I’m not going to get any recognition either as a great writer, or as a music critic like your daughter. If the book is well received, it’s going to be you who will gain more fame.”
“But why would I want more fame? Am I going to give more concerts and earn newer titles? I was honoured with the “Padmashri” and the “Padma Bhushan” and I’m stepping closer to my grave. If anything, your writing might invite some controversy.”
“What controversy? Rubbish.”
“Suppose, after reading your book, people asked me to sing?”
“Would you? If people were to ask you to sing?”
“If I were to, I might find myself in the same state as Balgandharva who had to be propped up on the stage. And though he did not look good in Rukmini’s garb, beautiful notes issued from his throat, old age notwithstanding. With me it would only be a wheezing and a persistent cough.”
“Baiji, the writing and the publication of the biography will take two years at least. You have not sung anywhere in the last eight years and you had announced your retirement publicly. Are you really likely to get carried away and land yourself in any embarrassment just because of my book? I know you too well for that.”
Tarabai chuckled and said, “ Don’t say I haven’t sung in eight years. I coach girls every morning and I practise regularly.”
“Oh, let’s not talk about that kind of singing. You show them a note by shaking your head, or by raising an eye-brow or finger, and these gullible girls try to produce it.” This kind of arguing and counter-arguing went on for a while. Finally, she started to narrate the story of her life. The description of Goa had taken two or three sittings. Its description had begun on a quarrelsome note. Tarabai had opposed the description when Bapu first broached it.
“Bapu, everyone goes to Goa. Almost everyone has seen it. Why repeat the details?”
To this he had replied, “Our description of Goa should make more impact than the one at the beginning of Champabai’s book.”
Bapu had brought the book with him. He opened it and began to read, “Hers begins with Goa means Gomantak; how it came to be called Goa; Goa’s natural beauty, temples, its musical tradition, how the notes emanate from its very soil. And then goes on to explain how to reach Goa — by train, boat, car; how long it takes to reach Goa by respective transportation, the places worth visiting on the way, Mandavi, Kalangood, Agwad Fort, Panaji; how they look while travelling by train, how one comes upon Doodhsagar waterfall and so on.” Bapu read out the longish descriptions mocking the write ups.
Then he said, “We are not going to describe Goa like this. Ours will be much better. Is this any description? These descriptions of road and waterways would befit any guidebook. I am going to describe Goa in such a manner that after reading those six or seven hundred words, the reader will end up straight in Goa.”
“Straight in Goa means where exactly? Like being air-dropped at Konkan by helicopter? In our front yard? But our home isn’t there anymore.”
“Don’t you make fun of me. How discouraging you are. Forget it. I shan’t write anything about Goa in front of you. I shall write it at home. I’m ready to forfeit even my name if the reader doesn’t get transported to Goa after reading it.”
“That’s how some people feel after reading an article on music — they feel they have already heard it, don’t they?”
Bapu had finished his description of Goa within two days. His Goa was “rich and embellished with beautiful flora and fauna, embraced by the sea on all sides — the fortunate Gomantak — serpentine patterns of sand dotting its sea-shore, the white foam encrusted waves rushing forward laughingly to wipe it off, coconut trees standing tall in benediction, air laden with the aroma of beautifully golden ripe cashew fruit, the heady fragrance of bakul, surangi, mogra, madanban, jasmine, jai-jui, sonchapna wafted by the breeze, fish shining like silver brought to your door every morning! And the spicy exchange between the fisherwomen and customers over its quality and price.
The steady downpour in the rainy season, earth wrapping itself in a green shawl, embellished with green emeralds, the turquoise blue sea and its roar in the night, stars shining like diamonds in a clear sky.”
Bapu had done his best. But with the mention of emeralds, diamonds and blue gems, Tarabai got distracted. “How did I feel in Goa?” she wondered. She had spent the first fifteen years of her life there. She remembered Mai’s house at Konkan clearly — the house, the front yard, trees lining the courtyard. A small village of forty or fifty houses. Just as a child feels happy with his head burrowing under his mother’s saree, she too must have found it happy and secure then.
But in subsequent years after coming to Mumbai, she never felt any yearning for Goa. Mumbai — with its tall buildings, smooth tarred roads, trams, horse-driven carriages, cars running like squirrels, giant buses, lighting, the Taj Hotel, Rajabai Tower, the Gateway, Malabar Hill, the sea encircling it on all four sides, its sophistication, style and affluence.
She visited these places greedily again and again. She went on foot to the places closer to the house; to others in horse-driven carriages. She was fascinated by what she saw. She must have roamed about like that for about seven or eight months.
Narayandas had never objected to her love for roaming around in horse-driven carriages. Not even once did he crib about the amount of money she spent on roaming around. He took her out himself on many evenings. He never objected to her roaming on her own. Even if she went out alone in the afternoon he never complained. He was never suspicious even if she went out alone. If anyone did make a fuss, it was Mai, and she herself accompanied Tara on many occasions. But when she realized that there was no complaint from Narayan Das, she stopped. Shyamamawshi and Kalyani had also accompanied Mai to Mumbai. So she was able to see Mumbai without any difficulty, sometimes with Kalyani, sometimes on her own,.
It is no longer the same Mumbai anymore. It has become filthy. But then, what has remained the same? I myself, with my aging face, neck lined with creases, painful joints, have become a caricature of my former self. Was I like this in the past?
Despite her wandering mind, Tarabai had her gaze fixed on Bapu’s face. He did not notice her lack of response to his choicest jewels for a while. He was disappointed.
“Baiji, what are you thinking about? You are not paying any attention.”
“I am listening….”
Tarabai was gifted with a sharp memory. Not only could she remember musical notes, but she could also quote lines word for word. Now she quoted Bapu’s last long-winding, bejewelled sentence and he fell silent.
“After listening to your description if somebody wanted to visit Goa, he would require railway or boat time-tables and for that Champabai Madhavi’s book will come in handy. How do you like that?” Tarabai looked at Bapu teasingly. This annoyed Bapu.
“I have put in so much effort to write this and all you do is discourage me… I will tear off these pages.” He made as if to tear off the pages, but Tarabai stopped him. She knew, though, that Bapu was not going to do anything of the sort. He would have made thousands of excuses if anyone were to ask him to consider transferring even one of his emeralds in that bejewelled description from here to there. But Tarabai realised that she should not have teased him. It was not nice to push anybody to the brink.
After listening to Bapu’s description of Goa, Tarabai realized that though born in Goa, she had spent most of her life in Mumbai, so that Mumbai had become her home. Then why not include its description in the biography? When asked, Bapu replied, “People of Mumbai and Pune will read the book. We need the description of Goa for them.” So the description of Goa was final although she had not wanted it, while the description of the Old Bombay, which she had grown so fond of, was excluded. Even if Bapu were the writer of the biography, it was her biography. Shouldn’t it include what she wanted?
Her legs started to ache from her frequent trips to the window. Her eyes began to ache from scanning the road for Bapu. Finally, she sat down on the sofa. She felt disappointed at the thought that Bapu would probably not show up. Taking a clove from a small box, she put it into her mouth, and called to Laxmibai for more tea.
By the time the tea arrived, the doorbell rang. It was Bapu. She felt a sudden surge of energy on seeing him. Bapu too called for his cup of tea. Though his description of Goa had spoken of the harmonious, rhythmic tones of its people, his own voice was that of a demon.
Bapu said, “Let us begin at your birth.” Tarabai decided to drop the argument over the description of Goa, dismissing it as too trivial a matter to pursue. “Let us start. Take it down.”
“Tara was born in 1920 to Anjani who belonged to the community of Kalawantin in a small village called Kankon. Tara’s mother was not only beautiful but intelligent and wise. Tara was born when Anjani was thirty years old. In keeping with the custom, Anjani was initiated at the age of 15, but till she reached her thirties…”
“Baiji, why should we write about Mai’s initiation here? We will say you were born. That’s all!”
“But there is a reason why she decided to have a baby so late – when she was thirty, isn’t there? Shouldn’t we mention the reason?”
“What reason? Some women have children early, some late.”
“Bapu, you know the entire history; she was short of money, did not have any dependable patron and though she had not heard of family planning methods, she avoided pregnancy by using age-old methods. When Dada Sardesai became her patron, gave her money, gold, and a house, it was only then that she allowed me to be born. Isn’t that so?”
“But why write all this Baiji? I am not writing Mai’s biography, I’m writing yours. Mai must be applauded for her wisdom in training you to be a singer. Why go into this rigmarole?”
“Rigmarole? It is only because of Sardesai’s favour that she started Gopalrao Tambe’s tuition for me when I was thirteen. He was paid Rs. 40/- per month. Forty rupees in those days.”
“You call that training? Didn’t it stop right away? Because of Gopalrao’s character?”
“Why do you say that? Despite the intermittent intervals due to his addiction to ‘feni,’ it lasted two full years.”
“All right, we will say that the training under the first master lasted for two years.”
“First master? Master! Meaning you don’t want to mention Gopalrao’s name? Isn’t that so?”
To this he responded dramatically, touching his ears with both hands, “Who said that?
One must mention the name of the master. So I will write that there was this gentleman called Gopalrao. He was a maestro. Little Tara got her basic training from him.”
“Basic training? So you don’t want anyone to infer that we are talking about Gopalrao Tambe? But why not? Let the poor soul get that much credit. Let me repay at least that much of my debt to him.”
“But Baiji, he was a drunk, went to all kinds of women, and in the end he died of that kind of disease. If we mentioned his name, people would start speculating.”
“Where is the room for speculation? My practice session used to be in our house. Mai would keep a strict eye on him. If she felt that he had had a peg more than usual and was inebriated, Mai would sweetly ask him to go back. He might have had his addiction, but we are considering his talents in singing and we must bring them in.”
“Okay, okay. I will put his name in if you so desire it.”
Satisfied, Tarabai started recounting her memories of him – what a beautifully modulated, high-pitched voice he had had. She tried to reproduce it but her aged voice would not comply. Yet, she went on recounting his mannerism — how he would press a small piece of betel leaf in his left cheek and start the session, how the colour of the betel leaf would spread on to his lips from the corner of his mouth, how, while fully immersed in music, he would pull up his dhoti and pick up the rhythm on his bare thigh.
Then Mai’s voice would intervene, “Cover, cover that thigh…she is a young girl” and the embarrassed Gopalrao would pull his dhoti down.
“Do you really want this to be included in your biography?”
“No, of course not. I am just narrating what I recollect.” She continued, “Gopalrao taught very little. Some four or five songs from plays and two or three thumris. But he ignited the passion for singing in me. He made me understand music. Mai had tried to teach me many many times. But Mai’s voice! Do you remember it? Heavy, rough, toneless. I never felt like singing after listening to her. It is Gopalrao to whom I am deeply indebted. He showed me the path to music. His name must be mentioned.”
“I have agreed to it Baiji.”
“I was tutored under Shailshankar at Belgaum thereafter. Do you remember? How will you remember Gopalrao? You must have been barely two or three years old then. But after my initiation when we went to Belgaum, you were six or seven. You had accompanied Mai then for a few days.”
“Initiation, initiation. Can’t you think of anything else?”
“Bapu, am I telling you about initiation or about Shailshankar? We went to Belgaum from Goa where I stayed at Sardar Hukerikar’s bungalow. Why? After my initiation only, isn’t it? One sees Mai’s farsightedness here as well. Dada Sardesai was still looking after Mai. She was not short of money. She was not trying to make money out of me. She had rejected two of the moneyed customers. Hukerikar was not from Goa. He was far away in Belgaum. Though he had a big house, he was short on resources. Mai had noticed this. But he and Shailshankar were close. Mai had only one condition. My music tuition must not stop. She accepted Hukerikar’s patronage for me with an eye on the training from Shailshankar.”
“Why mention Hukerikar’s patronage? Instead, just say, in 1935, Mai took Tara to Shailshankar to continue studying music. Why write so plainly? Are we Christians that we have to confess? Haven’t we heard innumerable tales of the desperate search women have to undertake for a patron or a protector? Did anyone of them become famous like you?”
“But why hide the vessel when asking for buttermilk? While writing a biography, shouldn’t we write of events as they happened? Don’t you think while writing about my training in music we will have to write why we had to stop Shailshankar’s tuition after three years?”
“But Baiji, why mention it? Why not say that Mai had to shift from Belgaum because she ran out of money.”
“Meaning you don’t want to say anything about Hukerikar’s son? Isn’t that so? When I was initiated he was the same age as I, sixteen or seventeen. He was full of resentment against his father. His mother was dead. He was angry with me in the beginning because his father chose me. I would have put up with that. But the next three years saw a complete change in his attitude. He started trying to touch me, rub against me every now and then. Hukerikar was not a bad man. Many times he behaved like a father to me. But I didn’t know how to tell him about his son. He had started showing his ‘talents’ outside the house. One heard tales. But I kept quiet, thinking that it was none of my business. But one day he entered my room and bolted it from inside. He created quite a crisis. I screamed and somehow managed to get away from him. And then, I left for Goa immediately. You know this? Don’t you?”
“I returned alone, Bapu. Mai wasn’t with me – nor anyone else either. I was not used to travelling alone. I was scared every moment of the way. Besides, I was worried that Mai would get annoyed. She would be absolutely furious. She would say it was all my fault. She would wonder how I was not able to handle the boy. I was scared of all that.”
“True enough. But how is all this connected with your music?”
“Can’t you see? I had to say goodbye to Shailshankar.”
“We would write that. Who says no?”
“To tell you the truth, Bapu, I did not feel sorry about having to leave the training. I was so relieved that I had managed to get away from the clutches of that scoundrel.” While acknowledging the loss of Shailshankar’s tutelage, she had inadvertently admitted to not having missed it.
“Baiji, you have forgotten a lot while narrating all this. How else would I have known about it? Whatever I know is from either Mai or you. True, Mai had spurned the offers from wealthy people. But only one of them was really wealthy — Tatyasaheb of Nageshi. But what use was his history? He tortured two of his wives. It was rumoured that the first one died of his torture. He had, on three occasions, picked up young girls from our community only to abandon them shortly after. So there was no guarantee that he would provide support. On the contrary it was certain that he would not. And the other was Vitthal. Am I right? He was in his twenties, in the prime of youth. In the first place, since he was young, he was bound to be unreliable. In addition, Vitthal was obstinate and rakish and bluffed all the time. He was sniffing around outside since he didn’t like his wife. He just bluffed about his money. So Hukerikar was the only one. Whether it was Tatyasaheb or Vitthal we have nothing to do with them. No point in writing about them. I mentioned them because I remembered them.”
Listening to all this, Tarabai felt terrible. “Vitthal was not bad, Bapu.”
“Baiji, you were young; Vitthal used to roam about in style, speak to you sweetly but Mai told me of his reputation. Remember what became of him later?”
“Because Mai refused him he.…”
“Oh, Baiji, do you really believe it even now, at seventy, that he destroyed himself from pining for you?”
“Not that, but.…”
“Let us forget about Vitthal; and Hukerikar too did not accept responsibility for you just like that. Did he not say that he would decide only after listening to your singing?”
“I remember, Bapu. And what is there to object? It was the normal practice to ask the girl to sing and dance before offering her patronage.”
“My dear, he made you sing because Mai had asked if her daughter would be accepted by Shailshankar as his pupil. He was an expert in music. Hukerikar might have been pleasure loving but he was a connoisseur of music. He wanted to be certain that Shailshankar would accept you as a pupil.”
“All right. Then write what you like, even if you don’t see Mai’s perspective.…”
“I do not deny that. She definitely had foresight – that we must say. Only we should omit her spurning offers by wealthy men and your initiation with Hukerikar. Instead we will say Tara’s mother asked Sardar Hukerikar if Shailshankar would coach Tara in music. Hukerikar and Shailshankar were close. Tara’s mother hoped that her daughter would get trained under a maestro. Hukerikar listened to Tara’s song. He was so pleased — no, let us say he was moved — better still he was deeply impressed and he took the entire family to Belgaum and Tara’s training began….”
After reconstructing her history, Bapu sat looking at Tarabai pleased with his ideas. For Tarabai it had stirred the beehive of past memories. Slowly, coming out of the spell she asked, “And what are you going to say about how the training stopped after three years?”
“Well, let us say it briefly. People were jealous of Tara’s progress in music….”
“What? Besides Shailshankar and Mai nobody was even aware of my music. And as if I would really sing that well at 17 or 18?”
“Why say that? Hukerikar was aware, wasn’t he? So we will say that Tara made tremendous progress under Shailshankar. Invitations to concerts started to pour in. Seeing Tara’s progress, Hukerikar felt very happy that his trust was not misplaced. But this was not appreciated by Hukerikar’s family. It led to jealousy, conflicts in the household. So, for the sake of Hukerikar’s mental peace Tara had to leave Belgaum.…”
“Leaving her birthplace, bidding farewell to Goa, staking everything — it is true to say that you staked everything, isn’t it? After all, you agreed to live with Hukerikar — Tara had managed to become Shailshankar’s disciple.”
Tara wondered whether she had indeed staked everything. She had liked Vitthal better than Hukerikar who was forty-five years old at the time. She did not dare to say this to Mai. Mai decided everything. It was not as though she had not wanted to learn music. But if she were to balance Shailshankar and elderly Hukerikar on one side of the scale and young Vitthal on the other, Vitthal would have tipped the scale.
She was becoming quite accomplished as a singer. But then that had proved to be her undoing. Because of petty squabbles and jealousy she was deprived of Shailshankar’s teaching.
“Well? Do you now understand how to put things across? Mai herself taught you to sing in the beginning.” Tarabai was shaking her head, saying “No, no,” but Bapu continued, “You yourself told me that. Try and remember the various songs she taught you. We must mention those. Not things like “Mai’s voice was flat and toneless”. Let us not say that she did not awaken the love for music in you. Such a renowned singer that you are! You must have had an inborn love for music. One does not require someone else to do it for you, does one? Later Gopalrao… he introduced you to the intricacies of Khya-Gayaki. I accept your feeling that you will never be able to repay his debt. Tell me systematically the details of all the ragas and songs he taught you. And also what you sang to Hukerikar to get accepted by Shailshankar as his disciple? All this is of utmost importance. Do try and remember the song.”
“Oh Bapu, it has been so long. How can I remember that?”
“All right then. We will put in one of the verses Gopalrao taught you. Leave it to me… Later, Shailshankar. We will write freely and openly about what you owe to him. Baiji, while writing a biography, one has to be careful. Incidents, personalities have to be altered according to our needs. It’s true that under their garments the whole world is naked but one should observe decency in public.”
“No Baiji. Let’s not argue anymore. I have stayed for a long time today. I could not write it all down but we have recollected forgotten memories. Gopalrao had slipped from my mind. I will think about how to write about him. You do one thing. Try and remember the first time you sang. When you were very young, may be three, four or five. Let us think about how to present it effectively. I will come again tomorrow.” Bapu got up to go. It had got very late. He did not linger as usual but left immediately.
It had become quite dark outside. Tarabai had not noticed it because Laxmibai had switched on the light. She had laid the table and was waiting for Tarabai to finish. It was well past dinner time. Due to her old age, Tarabai hardly ate any dinner. Besides it had become very late today. She asked Laxmibai to sit down to dinner with her. She had a piece or two of fish, a little rice and solkadhi. Then, making a paan for herself, Tarabai returned to the drawing room. But her mind was still in motion.
There was nothing new in what Bapu had said. After coming to Mumbai, she had become accustomed to discussing personal matters with nobody except those who were very close to her. Her life had been spent in hiding this and covering up that, not mentioning this subject or not talking about that person. But now new questions had cropped up and head started troubling her. What did I get out of all this concealment? Who got misled? On the contrary, the habit of keeping mum had created more misunderstandings. There was a world of difference between a singer living respectably under the shelter of one patron, and a prostitute. But many failed to understand that. Though because of her acquisition of various titles she never faced ‘that’ kind of trouble, she could never enjoy the status of a woman of a ‘good’ family. When young, she had longed for marriage — later, for the marriage of her daughter who was then completing her education. Now leave alone herself, her daughter too was well past that stage. But she had achieved what a woman from a privileged class could not have achieved. If I do not dare to tell the truth, who will?
Shall I tell Bapu? Very clearly? Bapu had his way in describing Goa rather than Mumbai. But will he listen to me in this regard? He has begun to hold me in high esteem in the last fifteen years. He respects me. But because of this he will refuse to say anything that will bring dishonour to his elder sister in public. He will be adamant. If I insist, he will drop the idea of the biography. What shall I do? Tarabai felt exhausted with all this thinking.
Music was any time better than writing.
Tarabai caught sight of the tanpura covered with a piece of cloth, standing in the corner. She felt a rush of love for the instrument that had been her steady companion for forty years. This tanpura and myself. Who else has given me this kind of companionship for days and nights together? Who else has helped me to quieten my troubled mind? Who else had sutured my fractured, disintegrating self?
Despite not having any talent for singing herself, what Mai, with her farsightedness has given to me, has no parallel.
One starts singing a clear note to the accompaniment of the tanpura, one starts sharing what one feels like, without any hindrance. Those ragas and raginis are my friends. Who could stop me from opening my heart to them? Who could dictate — hide this, cover that? For some years — till the age of thirty-five — I abided by the rules laid down by Ismail Khan. But having become adept at singing, one could take liberties with the rules. One could decide how much liberty would lead to sweetness and create a longing in the audience to hear more.
The rules and regulations disappeared. One never had to struggle with ‘bandish’, cheez’ or ‘notes’. Ismail Khan’s training was such that one never felt inadequate when accompanied by an able tabla player. In later years, during her concerts, she was no longer even concerned about pleasing the audience. The audience was bound to be swayed by the clear pronunciation, the precisely articulated notes.
For the last few years, that music still reverberated in her ears despite having stopped her concerts. Though her voice no longer gives outward expression to it, the music was in her inner being.
People have written a lot about my music. Shriram Belgaonkar’s three long articles, Vaman Rao Kulkarni’s chapter in “Sursangat”, her collection of cuttings from newspapers and magazines. Critical appreciation by her daughter Veena. Where have I written anything myself? About how I felt? Then shall I go by what Bapu says? Restrict myself only to music? Shall we start with the memory of my first encounter with music?
Searching for her first encounter with music, Tarabai entered her childhood. She remembered her house in Goa. Small but neat and compact. She had never found it small in her childhood. But after staying in Mumbai for seven or eight years when she visited Goa again she found it extremely small. There were four coconut trees, two pophali, and one rai-awla tree in the backyard. Tarabai remembered Bapu’s description of it. In his description the house had become a little mansion and the trees had become a thick grove.
What do I remember about the house? When I was three or four years old? She remembered Mai’s crimson coloured jari-bordered nine-yard sari. Mai later made a quilt out of it. She remembered her neighbours Babli and Suranga. She remembered Babli’s passion for the game of kachapani. She remembered the beating she got when she broke the new bangles Mai had brought for her for the game kachapani.
But where was the memory of music in all this? She tried very hard and then remembered how she had blocked her ears when Mai had started to sing. This made her laugh even now.
She remembered how she was dragged to school by Mai. She must have been seven then, certainly not three or four. Then school. Still she could not remember anything about music. Probably nothing must have happened till then. She must not have had any encounter with it till then.
Then she remembered one of her school trips. In the town itself. All the girls were taken to a grove on the outskirts of the town. The teacher had ordered them to sing one song each before their picnic lunch. Sitting before their tiffins in a circle, all the girls began to sing whatever they could with their eyes on the teacher.
Most of them recited small routine “shlokas” like “Vadani kaval gheta” the shloka recited before commencing the meal or something of the sort as fast as they could. But one of the girls, Maina, sang keeping time with her hand against her thigh. What was the song? Something about Krishna playing the flute. She had a beautiful voice. She started singing without paying attention to the teacher. Immersed in her music, she was probably repeating each line to build the mood. But she was abruptly interrupted by the teacher who passed on to the girl sitting next to her. She rattled through several shlokas by Ramdas Swami in a grating voice.
Maina must have been disappointed at having made to stop in the middle and I too must have been equally disappointed. Because I escaped the group, gave the teacher the slip, left the tiffin untouched and ran to a small stream that the teacher herself had pointed out to us. I sat there alone, my feet immersed in the water. Absolutely alone. The flute was playing in my mind and without my realizing it the musical notes issued forth from my lips, accompanying it. The notes of the water rippling under my feet, and the notes playing on my lips. It sounded as though the flute itself was playing. My gaze must have been fixed on the water running over my feet but I was not aware of it. I was humming to myself. It must not have been a clear note. But it must have made a mark on my inner being. It must have been as childish and superficial an experience as the water of the stream, which had no depth. But like the water it had purity and life. The word “kanha” was reverberating in my mind. In a little while I felt as though I heard the sound of the flute. Never looked around to see where it was coming from. I kept gazing at the water, in a trance.
The Ramayana that unfolded later was predictable. The teacher came searching for me. I had to take a beating from her for having run away from the group unannounced, and for having caused her anxiety. Later from Mai too after the teacher had complained to her.
That day I did not feel anything about having been beaten. Mai was amazed at my reaction, as she knew that I would have been inconsolable even if somebody were to slap me once.
Tarabai was immersed in that song and in her memories. For a minute she became oblivious of her house, her surroundings, the late night hours. Sometimes one searches for a lost object but forgets what one was searching for on finding it. Similarly, Tarabai too had forgotten everything.
Soon she remembered — Bapu writing her biography, beginning it with her first memory of music….
How does Bapu see my biography? A bejewelled description of Goa at the beginning; initiation, Dada Sardesai, Hukerikar obliterated. Why should we abuse Mai’s voice? One must highlight her greatness. Bapu is writing a biography of pluses and minuses.
Tarabai’s mind rebelled. She felt she must not share this memory with Bapu. Such delicate, newly emerging musical notes. But in Bapu’s biography, instead of Maina’s song, it would be a ‘cheez’ sung by little Tara. It was only a small body of water, but it would become a river or a noisy stream. And the singing would be turned into a small informal concert in the grove by girls in their long petticoats.
The song that emanated from Maina’s lips ages ago had touched her soul. Not sung by Tara but merely heard by her. But this listening was but a trigger. Its subsequent unfolding and evolving in her inner being, which barely found any expression externally. Those first few notes she ever uttered. Bapu would never be able to hear them.
It was as though everything that one was aware of were to be lost in the darkness due to a sudden power cut, and one was groping for a torch and suddenly the power supply were to resume in a flash, throwing clear light on everything. The writing of a biography was Bapu’s idea, not mine. He was after me. I was saying ‘no’ all along.
On recollecting the memory of the song in the grove, Tarabai began to feel at peace with herself. She gave a yawn. It was followed by another and yet another yawn. She stretched and at peace with herself, made her way to bed.
Translated from Marathi by Shirin Kudchedkar.
AMBIKA SIRKAR. Was professor of Economics till her retirement and has been deeply interested in Theosophy as well as in Buddhist thought. Besides a novel and two collections of short stories, she has written critical assessments of her contemporaries such as Saniya and Meghana Pethe. Her familiarity with an older world and its system of values enables her to empathize with women who belong to it even though it is not her world. Her works include Chahul (Premonitions), Prateeksha(Awaiting), both collections of short stories and a novel, Eka Shvasacha Antar (The Span of a Breath). She has won the Maharashtra State Awards for Chahul and Eka Shvasacha Antar.
SHIRIN KUDCHEDKAR. An eminent feminist critic, was formerly Head, Department of English, SNDT women’s University, Mumbai. director of the Canadian Studies programme at the SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai. She was the editor of the Gujarati section of the two volume Women Writing in India,edited by Susie Tharu and K. Lalita. She has taught English for forty years and is an experienced translator. Has also edited a number of anthologies of poetry and literary criticism.