Every breath he takes: Shadowing Hariprasad Chaurasia

Sathya Saran | Updated on January 10, 2020 Published on January 09, 2020

Fine tune: When not travelling, the artiste spends time in his gurukuls to ensure that students are not homesick   -  K RAMESH BABU

A daunting assignment turned into a voyage of delight for the author of a new book on Hariprasad Chaurasia

Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia came slowly down the steps that led into the room. A simple cotton kurta and dhoti accentuated his fragility. But his voice was firm, as he bade me welcome, and we settled down for an interview.

I would glimpse then the first signs of the humour that marks his conversations. Quiet, sharp yet innocent, like a child telling a joke. His wit would sparkle at serious moments, while he would be describing some episode, or an incident. Like when I told him how honoured I was to be writing his biography, his eyes twinkled, and, after a pause, he said, “Well, obviously I cannot write it myself, I only know how to play the flute.”

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The thought of a book had struck me in 2018 as I sat enraptured by Kathak maestro Birju Maharaj while he sang, demonstrated mudras and told us stories about his life at an event organised by the Mumbai Gurukul run by Hariji. There was so much that we did not know about these great artistes who’d kept our legacy of dance and music alive, I said to myself: We needed to capture and chronicle their life stories for posterity.

I wondered what stories Hariji, 81, would have to relate. The illustrious flautist sat quietly at the Mumbai event in one end of the room, but I could see how engrossed he was in his friend’s narration. “Let us get a biography done on your father,” I texted Rajeev, Hariji’s son. “Just what I was thinking,” he responded.

As a consulting editor with a publishing house, I saw the opportunity to float another book. All I had to do was find a writer who knew enough about classical music to write one. Or so I thought. But neither Hariji nor his family was keen on a work that would lean heavily on the musical intricacies of his playing. They wanted one that would trace his life, and written in a readable and humane manner. Before I knew it, the task was handed over to me. I accepted it — with mixed feelings of elation and anxiety.

What I took on as a daunting assignment turned into a voyage of delight. Pushpanjali, Hariji’s daughter-in-law and manager, smoothened my path by offering me books that featured him. The most valuable of them was the biography of his mentor Annapurna Devi — the celebrated surbahar player — which gave me insights into her reclusive life, as well as Hariji’s interactions with her.

My first meeting with Hariji for the book was at the gurukul in Mumbai. I waited for him in a spacious hall cooled by softly whirring fans, as young students, all holding flutes, flitted in and out. I could hear an obvious novice practising the scales, up and down in cycles of breath.

Over the many meetings, I would come to know the maestro better. I realised that the fragility of his body was offset by a fiercely independent will that enabled him to travel extensively, hopping from one city to another, playing at concerts across the world. I learnt that nothing could stop him from honouring a commitment. He once performed with a dislocated shoulder though he had met with an accident on his way to the performance venue.

On another occasion, he cut his thumb while slicing betel nuts just before a recital. He quietly dismissed it as a small cut, wrapped a bandage around the wound and stepped on to the stage. The extent of the injury was known only when the wound bled on to his kurta during the recital. Yet, he played on as if music was the best antidote to the pain. Perhaps his early bouts in an akhara (wrestling gym), where his wrestler father made him spend long hours, trained him to be stoic.

Extensive interviews with his wife and children were carried out to get a peek into Hariji, the family man. His wife, Anuradhaji, was particularly helpful, recalling detailed events from his earlier days in Cuttack, Odisha, when she first met him. He was an artiste and music director with AIR then, but equally involved in creating music for Odissi dance dramas. His felicity with the flute and his sweetness of temperament made him a great favourite.

“He was always surrounded by girls, like Krishna,” she recalls.

At the gurukuls in Mumbai and Bhubaneswar, I interviewed students, both new and old. In Bhubaneswar I saw how, though he was revered and loved by his students, Hariji did not place himself on a pedestal, choosing to eat his meals with them in the dining room, like a father sharing a meal with his children. When not travelling, Hariji spends all his time in the gurukuls to ensure that his students are not homesick. “These children have left their families for three or four years to come and learn here. I cannot let them do that while I enjoy the comfort of being with my family,” he told his wife once when she remonstrated with him for not spending enough time at home.

To fuel my own impetus, I listened constantly to flute music, played by the maestro himself, as well as by his students, as I worked. I think the writing first took wing as I sat in-between two-hour sessions of interviews with Hariji in Bhubaneswar, listening to his students, tucked away in corners of his gurukul, practising their own distinctive versions of the afternoon raga, Bhimpalasi. The music wove itself into my consciousness and the story unravelled with the ease of a note flowing from the bamboo flute.

Sathya Saran is a journalist and editor based in Mumbai

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Published on January 09, 2020
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