Friday, July 3, 2020


In everyone’s life there’s a Summer of ’42, and I am no exception. In my case it happened a decade ago, in 2011, which will be remembered as the year when the magic vanished from the Indian Classical stage, that is, when Pt. Bhimsen Joshi died.

There are string trios, there are piano trios, and there are even mixed trios, like Nirvana, and we dubbed ourselves a home-grown vocal trio, devoted entirely to Indian Classical Music, Hindustani, to be precise. Prajakta, Rutuj and me, Prathamesh. “Accompanying Prajakta Apte on the Samwadini is Rutuj Bapat and on tabla, Prathamesh Kulkarni”.. That is how we used to be announced, on the stray occasion a ‘comparer’ was around..

Our home Pune is different from the rest of the world so far as Classical music is concerned. There is a sense of mission, of ownership. The art and profession of music has reached a sort of critical mass here. There is money in Classical music, not in a crass materialistic sense, but in the sense of value. Our trio was not averse to worldly trappings, but our music meant much more to us. We equated the pursuit of music to the worship of Goddess Saraswati, everyone professes that, but we were Believers..guileless Believers. We saw the Goddess in our Guru, and if you belong in Pune, you’ll greet your senior by bending down to touch his or her feet, regardless of whether you are a musician or not.

Prajakta, Rutuj and I. Accidentally we had come together, like a planetary conjunction. They say, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. Our Pune variant is: a serious vocalist with moderate means, must be in want a ‘reasonable’ tabalchi, or tabbalji as they respectfully say here, and a peti-wala. The three of us came together in the course of random molecular motion dictated by the mechanics of Prajakta seeking suitable accompanists.

Pune audiences will go to the world’s end to indulge youngsters and newbies, and we could as a trio keep busy by ourselves, the three of us were self-sufficient, in healthy complementarity  Of course the star was Prajakta and people beholding her on stage for the first time would be relieved to see that such a decorous voice belonged to a such a pretty face…

Just as the default instrument in Western is the piano, in Indian it’s vocal. The piano has fixed notes while the vocal chords are akin to a violin. That default instrument is responsible for the way the notes or swaras are defined in the respective systems. I was a physics student who took acoustics seriously and had familiarized myself with the science of swaras, based on frequencies. Prajakta was put-off by mathematics, like most of humanity, but her intuitive swara was strong. Rutuj was the happy-go-lucky type who had the intellect to understand harmonics, but was lazy.

Indian music follows the ‘natural scale’, consisting of the keynote, usually shadja, and its overtones. In the natural scale, the ratios of frequencies of any note with the successive note on the same scale are different. It is called the ‘just intonation’ technically and this is the point of departure for Indian Classical and Western Classical. Western, on the other hand uses the ‘equal temperament’ scale which involves choosing a set of notes having minimum mutual dissonance, so as to enable a fixed note instrument like a piano to play the widest gamut of tunes. But the Indian ragas require notes differing by subtle shades.

Western classical was always in the background of my consciousness, like a foil to the music we practised. There would be these huge arguments between the three of us on the relative superiority of Western Classical and Indian, Prajakta and I pitching in for, you guessed it right, Indian, while Rutuj was enamoured of Western. I had a sneaking suspicion about the finality of our claim, but one had to stand by one’s livelihood isn’t it? And stand by Prajakta…

Like many great Hindustani vocalists, Prajakta had this small difficulty with the tala, or rhythm. A tabalchi has a major responsibility in such a situation, and can make or mar the show. Aside from stretching and bending matras, or beat-intervals to accommodate her erring taans during concerts, I was also her tala tutor. You have to get the laya, the grace and tempo into your body and mind, I used to tell a nervous Prajakta before recitals. Madhya laya is your heart-beat. One of her birthdays, I gifted her an electronic tabla, prescribing that she set it in the morning to madhya laya of the tala to be used in the ensuing recital, and let it play endlessly in the background, so as to etch it in your RAM- the read-only-memory. That helped a lot and episodes of the type I have mentioned above became rare, and Prajakta ended up calling me Guruji in jest, when we took the stage.

We were young and it was human after all, the whole world seemed full of romance. Flirting is unknown in our universe. It would embarrass me to wake up sometimes in the night, ear-lobes flushed, choking, feeling Prajakta’s presence around, her soft breath mixing with mine, stinging in my nostrils like a tangy fragrance…embarrassing, for she was a fellow pilgrim on the path leading up to Saraswati. Keep it platonic Prathamesh, I would tell myself, but…hmm!

Normally accompanists cannot aspire to hang out with the lead, but in our case, rather than fraternize with her peers, Prajakta would abide with the two of us. We would reach the venue of our concerts on our bikes, Prajakta riding one of the pillions. My tabla would be in my lap, straddling the fuel tank. Rutuj was at a disadvantage when the pillion was involved, for he had to secure his harmonium on the pillion, unlike me. Anyway, even when we were travelling without our instruments, Prajakta preferred to ride with me, for I came out as safer of the two of us. It was sheer heaven when once in a while Prajakta’s soft frame brushed against my back.  I would sometimes discern this mischievous gleam in her eye when she alighted at the destination, her hand firmly placed on my shoulder for support. Or was I imagining things?

Amusingly, as the green shoots of endearment emerged, I started getting a different feel from lyrics, particularly semi-classical, like thumri or dadra. I started comprehending the poetry of the bols of the composition, which we always approached sort of mechanically.  Khayal gayaki was always indifferent towards the words of the compositions, and many great vocalists look upon words as so many pegs where to hang their swaras. Bols could be trite, like the usual gripe against ‘saas’ and ‘nanadiya’, whether the raga was light or sombre. Prajakta joked that the creator of most traditional bandishes, Sadarang, was perhaps blessed with a particularly nasty mother and sister! A big smile always appeared on her face when in the course of a recital she came to this part. I’m not sure it happened to her, or to Rutuj, but that was the first time I realized the emotiveness residing in allusions to rain, clouds, the piyu or sanwariya that is beloved, in light classical! Why only classical, even Hindi movie songs took on a new meaning, and some of the lyricists I disdained rose in my esteem!

Prajakta was simple, uncomplicated, a bit nonchalant, and was not ruffled easily. She did not appear overtly emotional, but once you got to know her better, she was as sensitive as anyone else. Bageshri, which moved me to tears, also affected her likewise. Rutuj was not our type. He was so deep into each raga at an intellectual level, you could say the familiarity bred indifference…

Prajakta had a striking built, and had a certain grace. A habit of hers which I found endearing was her constant humming under her breath. I read somewhere, happy people do that. Mostly it used to be some Hindi film song based on the raga of her forthcoming recital, for which she would practice hours on end. She avoided even listening to a raga which was close to the one she had to sing next, for fear of contamination. She had to sing Puriya once and I tuned in to Marwa accidentally, and boy…how she got wild at me! Between Rutuj and me, she tried to keep equidistant. Both of us had a tendency to look at each other’s plate so far as her attentions were concerned. Obviously, tabla and the harmonium were equally important for her!  I furtively kept a tab on the number of times she exchanged glances or nodded in approval sympathetically with either of us at some turn of musical phrase, we ran almost even! At our jokes even, she laughed and laughed in equal merriment! And even Prajakta’s parents, themselves musicians, showed an equal deference to the both of us!

Our trio by and by attained a respectable status amongst audiences, invitations trickling in mainly from upcountry places like Aurangabad, Nasik, even Indore!  In October, on 6 October 2011 that is, which was the Dussehra day, we were invited to perform classical, followed by abhang and bhavgeet at Ratnagiri. The recital was in the morning, and we would get to present morning ragas like Bhairavs or Todis, which are nowadays losing out to evening and night concert ragas like Multani, Yaman or Kalawati, as audiences prefer evening engagements. That is the charm of Diwali pahat or Dussehra pahat- audiences can listen to early morning ragas to their heart’s content.

Prajakta’s recital was arranged in the precincts of the Thiba Palace, which was in fact a revelation for the three of us. It’s a beautiful palace in Burmese Buddhist style built in 1910 by the British to accommodate the deposed, incarcerated Burmese King Thibaw Min. Bal Gangadhar Tilak, the most illustrious son of Ratnagiri was exiled by the British to Mandalay from 1908 to 1914, and the Burmese King was exiled from Mandalay to Ratnagiri from 1905 to 1916! Whether this reciprocity was coincidental or by design, the Govt officials we met there could not tell..

We were to arrive in Ratnagiri on the fifth evening, perform on the morning of Dussehra, that is the sixth October, and depart for Pune on the seventh morning, thus spending two nights and a day at Ratnagiri. The road from Pune to Ratnagiri is circuitous and we went via Amba Valley in a cab. The journey was uneventful, but the post-rain Konkan was all emerald green and a pleasure to behold. We had been warned that the audience would be ‘discerning’ which somehow weighed on our minds. We were put up very comfortably at a swank new hotel, called Konkan Niswarga close to the beach and the roar of the sea and a heady oceany smell were our constant companions. I and Rutuj were on the third floor, sharing a spacious double room, and Prajakta, on the second floor in a similar room, which she had to herself. Rooms number 303 and number 202, two numbers I’ll always remember.   

The recital was scheduled for 6 morning and so we decided to have an early dinner and turn in by 10. We took a stroll after dinner, and Prajakta, who like all Marathi girls, had a fancy for bedecking hair with flowers, kept looking for flower-braids made out of kewra and aboli, for which Konkan is known. It’s too late for gajras we were told, we assemble them at 7 in the morning, a flower-girl told us, and you’ll find me at the local beach. We parted with the usual three-way hi-five, which was our custom.

As is usual for Maharashtrian venues, things worked with clockwork precision. The enclosures were full and audience, predominantly seniors. Prajakta sang Bilaskhani Todi, followed by Desi, topped with Abhishekiji’s Bolawa Vitthal, Ashatai’s Kenhwa tari pahate, and ended with a Panditji’s befitting Bhaja mana ram charan sukhadayi in Bhairavi, for which she got an encore. Indian audiences are parsimonious so far as applause is concerned, but that day, perhaps due to the early morning hour, sea breeze, and the classic ambience, the emotional build-up was unmistakable and there was a spontaneous applause. Throughout the recital there were ‘kya baat hai’s and ‘wah, wah, wah’s, mostly for Prajakta, a few coming Rutuj’s way. Audiences pay attention to the tabalchi mainly in instrumental recitals, in fact the tabalchi ambushes the audience till there is an applause! However, any day, I’m not the one to upset the lead with clap-traps. The chief guest happened to be a cashew-nut dealer, and we got a kilo of unshelled raw cashew-nuts each, in bonus! Breakfast, or rather the brunch was sumptuous, cooked in Malwani style. People came right upto the entrance to see us off, exchanging the usual vows to invite/perform next year, and the next! Someone would personally come to Pune with the album and the CDs and the recordings, we were told…

Suffice it to say that by mid-day, we were swimming in an ocean of bliss and contentment. This was perhaps our best show ever. The star of the Dussehra pahat was indeed Prajakta, who giggled endlessly at our jokes, and I couldn’t keep myself from admiring her flushed cheeks and wayward tresses all the time. A hundred waves would rush through my whole being, when our shoulders brushed…

We were to check out by 9 next morning and we rounded up the day after doing full justice to the aquatic delights of Konkan, that is the pomfrets the bombil, and the rawas. It was 9 by them time we took to our beds, and the two of us instantly fell asleep, exhausted emotionally and physically as we were…

Shortly, I woke up with a start, around 11... I did not want to lose Prajakta! My mind sank at the thought of parting ways with her someday! I wished to set my eyes upon her that very moment, look into her eyes, and ask her if she’d be mine for ever! I was certain that she cared for me. And if she said yes! The name Ratnagiri had always sounded felicitous to me, didn’t it? On an impulse I got up, changed into a silk kurta and trousers, brushed my hair, looked into the mirror and wished me good luck. She had her Masters’ exam the day after, and needed to read Pt. Bhatkhande’s Kramik Pustak Malika 4 which she was carrying, she had told us. Rutuj was asleep, snoring mildly. I opened the door and latched it, leaving it a little ajar. I walked on cat’s feet, preferring to use the staircase, Prajakta’s room was the second one towards the right. I could hear the rustle of pages turning, from the room. And a Chandrakauns being hummed. I reached for the door-bell, but shrank back, thinking it would be more appropriate to deliver a light rap, given the unearthly hour. But suddenly I developed misgivings about the propriety of this nocturnal mission for Prajakta’s quest. What will she think? Here we embark on a journey to expose our blessed art, and I hasten at this hour to propose to our Muse. I turned back, sanguine at my own decision, after all I could wait till we reach Pune, El Dorado was only of a day away!  
I came back relieved, took refuge in my bed, and pulled the soft quilt on my head.

It was six by the time I got up, still dark outside. Rutuj snored happily. I emerged from the wash-room, my morning chores over, after an hour or so, ready to take on the world! Rutuj was in jeans and a silk kurta. Did you step out for a morning walk, you appear to have changed…I asked. Rutuj whizzed past me towards the wash-room, mumbling something I could not make out.

We met, the three of us, for breakfast in the restaurant at around 8. There was a couch behind the dining table, and two chairs opposite. Prajakta, glowing in her pink dress, an aboli braid adorning her hair, eased herself in the couch, and hastily Rutuj claimed the other couch seat, which was somewhat unlike any of us, normally we, the boys would have taken the two chairs. They glanced at each other. Rutuj got me the aboli braid in the morning, she said excitedly. Shall I tell him said Rutuj to Prajakta, let him be the first one to know... Prajakta’s eyes were animated, and shone, as light from the morning sun fell on her beautiful face at an angle. Rutuj, she said haltingly, savouring each word as she spoke, knocks my door at 11.45 in the night, and standing in the door proposes to me…and Prajakta says I’ll ask my parents first, Rutuj laughed. No, I said yes first and then told you I should talk to my parents before we tell anybody, they’ll feel bad otherwise. True said Rutuj, taking Prajakta’s hand, I was so nervous till your came up and whispered Yesss through the closed door and no one was there when I opened the door…

This whole exchange lasted not even half a minute, and my world came to a standstill! That explains why Rutuj woke-up in his jeans and silk kurta, I thought.

It’s beside the point to tell you about my feelings, but I do go over that Dussehra day now and then, the day my Universe changed. I dismiss the thoughts of being a loser, it is only that at that instance Rutuj’s instinct was superior to mine, in any case I was standing before door number 202 half an hour before, and he happened to somehow breast the tape before me!

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