Dense swirling clouds blur the horizon, but I know they are there, the low hills of Mewat, slung like mute sentinel around this plastic matchbox city. Young Jasraj is playing, Kunj Bihari, all spry and sombre at once; recorded perhaps in the year I was born…. There’s been a belated systolic rush of monsoon, and the glass door of my eyrie is fogged over. A flotilla of aural shards and fragments swim into memory; a mélange of things heard. Rifling through them, I absent-mindedly play a little game of mirrors. Place three canonical, popular figures of Hindustani vocal music—Ustad Amir Khan, Bhimsen Joshi and Pt Jasraj—in front of a mirror. What happens?
All three answer, one way or the other, to the conventional description of good-looking. Amir Khan, soft and professorial, introverted. Bhimsen, craggily masculine, and knows it…but couldn’t care less. Jasraj, dimpled, preening, not above looking at himself in the mirror. Is this valid musicological analysis? Despite myself, I try to trace a movement, from the attitude towards the self to its musical analogue—passing from the tactile, things like texture, to something one can’t touch: a musical persona, the sum total of a set of cultivated habits and practices. Here, Amir Khan comes across as the stillness at the centre of the dervish’s whirl, he passes clean through the glass to the silence on the other side. Bhimsen is all copper and gravure; writ in pyrography. And Jasraj? He shimmers and dances on the surface of the glass itself. At his best, he enters a charmed pictorial world on the other side, a Brindaban suspended in miniature art, a peacock-studded bucolic idyll. Enchantment is the rule here, a touch of flirtatiousness that’s quite krishnal, to coin a word. He was self-consciously that: Kunj Bihari, thaari re, bansuri laage man-pyaari….thy flute, Krishna, allures me so. Enchantment was utterly within reach too: here was someone who bodied forth the sensuous. Timbrally pleasing, rich velvet on the low tones, but a metal ductile enough to be drawn into thin filigree, though the upper register was perhaps not his most natural habitat.