I grew up in the hills of Northeast of India, surrounded by the misty blue hills of Patkai. Growing up often means we move away not only from our childhood, but also from that very sur that somehow holds us together like a sutradhar and gives us our identity.
The Northeast is rife with various shades of politics from migration to Partition, from militancy to language--and its many forked tongues. But amidst it all, strangely enough, it is also home to some of the most original musical trends the country has seen.
For those who live in an industrial town, your home is yours only till your father’s next promotion, the maids change, as does the topography, the swirl of the staircase and the perks too. What didn’t change for us though, was the music that floated around the house. My father, a Hindustani classical musician, played the tabla and the esraj and tinkered with other instruments.
On days when he was free, he even taught music to some young enthusiasts. When I look back now, I sometimes think we were the happiest and most aromatic on Sundays, when Baba would don a white kurta and pajama, brush his curls, walk around the house in his soft Kolhapuris, managing to somehow look like a young Uttam Kumar with a classical bent of mind. He would play LP records--a soft sarod or a sitar recital by Ali Akbar Khan or Ravi Shankar--while Ma cooked mutton for us.
On such days, Baba’s students flocked into the living room trying to imitate their guruji and his wavering curls, while he burst upon the tabla.
Soon however, this routine gave way to another flurry of activity. Baba and his musically inclined friends had set up the Bhatkhande Memorial Committee, to honour the legacy of Pandit Vishnu Narayan Bhatkhande, the earliest Indian musicologist who wrote the first modern treatise on Hindustani classical music.
In his time, Pandit Bhatkhande had travelled throughout India, meeting with the top musicians, researching on music and devoting all his time in establishing a system to classify prevailing forms of Hindustani music, and ensuring that a coordinated theory and practice was set in place.
As a consequence of these endeavours, many Hindustani classical music schools throughout the country opened up. My father’s attempts were in a similar direction, with the intention of introducing Indian classical music to this remote corner of Northeast India.
Soon after, a string of classical musicians hopped in and out of our small town, gracing the stage at the club, and sometimes at our home too. I remember Amjad Ali Khan for example, wearing a magnificent black Kashmiri stitched shawl, playing the sarod for an hour to thunderous applause.
The likes of Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Shahid Parvez Khan and Pandit Mahapurush Mishra soon followed, but more importantly stayed on, to discuss music and talk to budding artists.
It was 1982, my sister was born. Indira Gandhi was still the Prime Minister and the film Nikaah had just released to become a huge blockbuster. The songs of the film, especially those sung by the doe-eyed heroine Salma Agha in her oddly nasal voice, Dil Ke Armaan Aansuo Me Bah Gaye was the rage and would be played everywhere from weddings to funerals.
By this time, the Assam language riots had re-started, almost every other day there was some news or the other of someone being killed, hacked to death or being burnt alive. The Assam Accord was still a few years away, and political rallies, picketing in front of government offices and blackouts were the norm.
My father was forced to leave for his office in the refinery in the wee hours of the morning, to be back only at night, by which time the lights would have been switched off and we would pack our bedding and run, in the stealth of the night, to our neighbours’, where all those who were perceived non-Assamese would sleep together.
On nights like these, when we had exhausted ourselves of dark room games, we sang to each other softly. Bolstered against the wall, with pillows and uneasy heads resting against each other’s, we would sing softly, often crooning each other to sleep or just attempting to drive away our inner fears.
Inevitably someone would start an old Bollywood song, while we were huddled under the quilt on cold winter nights while the screams and fights raged into the night from a perceivable distance. I think my love of both ghost stories and old Bollywood songs had begun in those hideouts.
While at home I had largely been exposed to classical music, here was something more fun and eminently hummable. But since we were under the pall of dark and the whole idea was about not revealing ourselves, we had to hum the soft numbers.
And so we sang, Jaane Kahan Mera Jigar Gaya Ji/ Abhi Abhi Yahin Tha kidhar Gaya Ji to soft duets, imitating the quickened heartbeat we felt at every odd sound we heard outside. Or there would be the sudden odd friend, who would break into a jig with Ina Meena Dika, Daai, Daamo Nika from behind the confines of a curtain where she might have placed herself. Peals of submerged laughter and sparks from a matchlight later, the song might die down, but the music remained in us.
I could never really pin point, when these frightening nights became so mixed in our innocent musical soirees, and when Kishore Kumar and Rafi became childhood companions, or for that matter, when we all suddenly grew up and it all went away.
Maitreyee B Chowdhury is a Bangalore based poet and writer. She has four books to her credit, The Hungryalists , One Dozen-Hasan Azizul Huq( Trans) , Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen- Bengali Cinema's First Couple and Where Even The Present Is Ancient: Benaras. She teaches poetry and design at NIFT Bangalore, and is editor at The Bangalore Review. She can be found at https://www.maitreyeechowdhury.com/