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Sathya Saran's magnificent paean to Hariprasad Chaurasia

February 10, 2020 04:15 PM

NEW DELHI:Imagine a gently gurgling brook. Now close your eyes and let the magic woven by India's greatest flautist transport you to a never never land. That's the effect that author Sathya Saran's "Breath of Gold" has on you as it unravels the journey of Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia, who, if his father had his way, would have become a wrestler in the family's tradition rather than one of the defining musicians of modern times.


"Most Indian classical musicians restrict passing on their knowledge to anyone outside their immediate family, but he teaches anyone who reaches out to him, if he finds they have the aptitude and ability to learn...I have noticed the generous love he gives to his students, not holding back anything as he teaches them. I don't think he gives his family the same degree of love. Though he is very dutiful as a family man, and thinks far ahead for all of us, including his granddaughters, " Saran quotes Chaurasia's wife Anuradha as saying.

That just about sums up the essence of the 81-year-old maestro who has mesmerised audiences at home and around the globe with his live performances, composed music for haunting albums like "Call of the Valley" and films like "Chandni", "Darr", "Lamhe and "Silsila" and has been conferred a plethora of awards, including the Padma Vibhushan, India's second highest civilian honour, and the Sahitya Akademy Award.

The late Carnatic vocalist and multi-instrumentalist M. Balamuralikrishna expressed it rather succinctly when he was moved to remark after attending a solo recital by Chaurasia: "My name is Balamuralikrishna, but you can call me Krishna because he has taken away my flute".

"Perhaps nothing symbolises Hari-ji's personality as perfectly as the instrument he loves. Like the flute, he is simple, with no trappings; close to nature, unchanged by artifice. Like the flute, his quiet humility belies the power that his music holds...the power to move, to create emotion, to build a rapport with all who listen to him play. And like the flute, I have found its player, too, is in his own way, beloved of the gods, " writes Saran, the editor of "Femina" magazine for 12 years, in "Breath of Gold" (Penguin/pp 256/Rs 599). This is her seventh book on a diverse variety of subjects.

One telling example of Chaurasia's prowess was his performance at the Nobel Peace Awards ceremony at Oslo in 1998 that was planned to last 30 minutes.

"As he started playing, he quickly moved into jhala (overwhelming of the melodic component by the rhythmic component) and signalled to (daughter-in-law) Pushpanjali (on the tanpura) to sing shlokas in Sanskrit at a slow pace, " Saran writes and then quotes Pushpanjali as saying: "In fact, perhaps because I might be a bit nervous, he himself started reciting the shanti slokas with me, then let me continue."

"The contrast proved electric; the slow, soft rhythmic recitation set against the fast tempo of the flute left an impression not easily forgotten, " Saran writes.

The book begins on a sombre note, on the main lawns of Mumbai's CCI on December 13, 2018, when "his flute would not sing". He was rushed to hospital the next day where three stents were inserted into his heart.

Thereafter, it adopts a rather unusual format - no chapters/heads but sections - as it takes the reader through various stages of Chaurasia's life, ranging from his early days in Allahabad; his first job with AIR in Cuttack, where he also took his first steps as a composer; the years in Bombay when the Shiv-Hari (with Pandit Shivkumar Sharma) partnership took root; his obsession with becoming a student, even at his prime, of Pandit Ravi Shankar's wife Annapurna Devi; his performances abroad, including at the Royal Albert Hall; an invitation from Holland's Queen Beatrix to perform on her birthday as a present from her husband; rock versus raga when he played with Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, his long association with the Rotterdam Conservatory and his creation of a symphony for the Birmingham Royal Ballet...the list is quite endless.

How did this format come about?

"In each of my books I try to approach my subject from an unusual angle. To make the reading more exciting and less predictable despite following a chronological format. This book is in small segments. It keeps the pace racy and goes against the supposition that a book about a serious classical musician should be sombre and heavy. I tried to capture Hariji's personality in the format... he has so many facets, and showing them through anecdotes works better than explanations. The format kind of worked out by itself, " Saran told IANS in an email interview.

Why is the book narrated in the present tense?

"I was looking at his life as if it was a film I was watching. And the present tense made it seem real for me. I hoped it would be the same for readers. They could travel with Hariji through the years. It was something that happened naturally as I started writing. And I let it stay, " Saran said.

The conclusion is rather abrupt - Annapurna Devi's death and Chaurasia's tribute to her when the "joyous singing of his flute can be heard right through the night, ushering in the early hours of the morning".

How come this?

"Well there is little drama in the life of anyone who in his 80s is still performing so I could not create it. Hariji comes across now as someone grateful to be able to teach and play to audiences across the world despite his health issues and his age. It is like the stillness of a tranquil lake in the moonlight. I brought the book to end on that mood. I am sorry if it seemed a let down - maybe TV dramas hone our

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