January 4, 1983, New Delhi, India. That cold, crisp Delhi winter day was a pivotal one in my life, marking the culmination of a romance with Delhi as well as of an anticipation of a future as husband and family man. A bittersweet farewell to bachelorhood is something that most headstrong and adventurous young men experience and I suppose it was not different in my case.
At the time, Delhi had yet to fall victim to the brash excesses of wealth spurred by economic liberalization. It had patina, endowed by an eternality that has formed the character of few cities of this world. The patina was not just limited to the city’s physical appearance. The people of Delhi, its pace of life, its collective intellect and accents reflected a relaxed, self-confident continuity. Most people in Delhi felt comfortable in their skins, whichever their walks of life.
This was the second trip I had undertaken to Delhi, the first being a year earlier when I had been overwhelmed by romance; a romance as much inspired by a woman as by enlivened family legends that had permeated an upbringing in Karachi in its—and my—formative years.
(With backs to camera) In silver hair and black jacket, Syed Mehdi Hasnain; with black hair and silver sherwani, his son.
Raaga Shayam Kalyan / Qaul - Man Kunto Maula / Raagas Hameer & Bilawal
Some Family Background (skip this if you wish)
My paternal grandfather, Khan Bahadur Syed Ghulam Hasnain, had established himself in Delhi to pursue a career with the Government of British India. Thus, well before the Second World War, Delhi offered a second familial home in addition to the ancestral seat in Chhath Banur, in Patiala State.
Banur, Delhi and Simla—the summer capital of the British Indian Government to which my grandfather and his kunba (dependent extended family) migrated every summer—were my parents’ formative geographical and social triangulation.
To this cocktail was added Aligarh where my father, the eldest child, went to university. Both of my grandfathers and my father were alumni of the Aligarh Muslim University. My maternal grandfather was definitely the most colourful of the trio, as he was one of those known as the Aligarh Grandees, scions of the North Indian-Muslim elite of the early part of the twentieth century, to whom academic pursuits were a mere side show that interrupted the Good Life of their university days. My maternal grandfather had a formidable aesthetic sense and knowledge of poetry and music, all of which did not amount to much when it came to the business of life and managing worldly affairs. But that is another story.
10 Raisina Road, New Delhi, was the government residence allocated to my paternal grandfather, and this was the home where he nurtured his offspring and his elder brother’s grandchildren—my mother and her siblings. Being a widower who never remarried, his home and the children were tended, in earlier years, by the elder ladies from the extended family in Banur and later by my mother as the senior daughter-in-law. A feature of his home was that he regularly hosted some of Delhi’s most colourful and prominent personalities for evenings of bridge, music or general conviviality and elegant dining. Such was the rigour of his principles that he never touched the Golden Stuff despite it being served to his guests in ample amounts. My father and the brother immediately younger to him were altogether more colourful.
My mother and aunts were educated at Lady Irwin School and College to be groomed to perfect examples of cultured urban Indian womanhood according to the social norms of the day. They were chauffeured to school in my grandfather’s car by a liveried and starched attendant who maintained the vehicle in pristine condition and guarded the young women of the household with ferocity.
My mother’s younger brother, Mamu Jan, attended St. Stephen’s College. Among his closest chums was Mansoor Bukhari, son of legendary wit, diplomat and man of letters, Patras Bukhari, and nephew of the great broadcaster, Z. A. Bukhari. Uncle Mansoor joined the Pakistan Tobacco Company and later took over the EMI recording company in Karachi. Under his stewardship, in the late sixties and seventies, EMI preserved and released many gems of music by Pakistani artists. This was a work of love rather than profit, since the EMI releases of classical and semi-classical music enjoyed a pretty thin market. Pakistan owes him a debt of gratitude for his untiring and selfless efforts in preserving our musical heritage.
Another not-so-notable college class fellow at St. Stephen’s was one Zia-ul-Haque who was commissioned in the army and, primarily due to a combination of good luck, sycophancy and cunning, ended up running the Pakistan Army and the country. Pakistan also has a lot to “thank” him for, albeit the gratitude is of not quite the same nature as our dues to Uncle Mansoor!
Music was very much in the air in Delhi, then as now. One of the regular musical fixtures at the Raisina Road house was Shamshad Bai, singer, paramour of one of my grandfather’s closest friends and grandmother of Saira Bano, an actress of considerable fame and Dilip Kumar’s wife. My mother and aunts were not allowed to be part of the audience in Shamshad’s mehfils, which were strictly male affairs, so they got great thrills from listening to her sing and observing her mesmerizing presence from behind latticed partitions established as a purdah [veil].
In addition to private mehfils, my grandfathers and father regularly attended music conferences that featured the likes of Ustaad Fayyaz Khan, Ustaad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan and other giants of the Indian classical scene of the interwar period.
My parents were married in Delhi in 1942. My mother was 21 and my father 27. One of the first orders of duty for my mother was to organize my Phuppi’s nikkah, which was to be solemnized early in 1943. Phuppo was to be married to a young captain holding a commission in Probyn’s Horse, an elite cavalry regiment of the British Indian Army. The groom hailed from the UP and was closely related, by marital ties, to the Raja of Pirpur. The Pirpur family were to be hosted in Delhi for a week, for the nikkah, with my mother bearing the responsibility for catering to the finicky Pirpur protocols and culinary tastes. I am told that, despite her youth and being in the family way (she was carrying my elder brother), she showed herself to be an immaculate hostess, earning her the deepest respect in the Pirpur family.
In the Pirpur entourage were two mirasans, Imam Bandi and her daughter, Hussain Bandi, who were brought to recite Phuppajan’s sehra. Hussain Bandi, familiarly known as Kajjan Begum, was a huge hit with the hosts, the men especially, who would sit her down and listen to her perform light classical all night long. She was summoned to Delhi a few months later to sing in celebration of the birth of my elder brother in 1943. At the occasion she vowed to my mother that she would sing at Bhaijan’s wedding, which she did some 30 years later in Karachi.
Phuppajan was a typical example of the “native” British Indian Army officer of the time. He was awarded the commission primarily due to his education, breeding, manners and elegance. At the time it was said that anyone could learn the art of war, but not too many could be officers and gentlemen. Shortly after the nuptials he departed for Iraq and then for Burma to participate in the British campaigns against the Axis. Phuppo’s sophistication and unbounded capacity for love endeared her to all those she encountered in Pirpur, Rampur and Bhopal.
The Delhi of her youth was, to my mother’s vivid recollection, the epitome of genteel existence, of strong kinships, of firm bonds of friendship lasting for generations, of social openness, of gracious living. The mere mention of the names of familiar streets and localities caused her eyes to mist over. It was her Paradise Lost.
Recollection of this and more is what inspired the romance with Delhi.
Delhi—Prelude to the Concert
So here I was: a Pakistani by birth and culture; Indo-Pakistani by inheritance; connecting with a past thirty-six years after Partition had cleaved the two countries, creating unbridgeable fissures.
Delhi seemed so familiar, comfortable and…well…enjoyable.
It was decided that our marriage would be held in Delhi at an hotel not more than 500 meters from the Raisina Road house where my parents had been married and spent the early years. The choice of location was intentional, a symbolism signifying the surmounting of the ravages of time and political circumstance.
My father came for the wedding to Delhi. This was his first visit since 1947. Since I preceded my relatives on the trip, my soul brother Bilal Dallenbach accompanied him on the PIA flight from Karachi. Bilal came down from Zurich to bat as my best man. Bilal told me that as soon as the pilot announced that the flight had crossed over the border and was flying over Indian Punjab, my father fell into a deep and uncharacteristic silence, leaning over to gaze down from the skies at the soil and the verdant land that had borne him and his ancestors, his eyes moistened by tears inspired, undoubtedly, by memories that he had relegated to the deepest corners of his mind.
We organized a hotel suite for Abba that overlooked Raisina Road. Naturally the first thing the next morning was a trip to the house. Abba insisted on walking, and as we approached the gate his usual brisk pace slowed, as though to afford time to absorb the event and to fortify himself. The paramilitary guard outside the house, coincidentally, hailed from Haryana or Rajastan and spoke a dialect close to that of Banur. For the first time ever, I heard Abba lapse into the Banur dialect in which he explained the cause of our visit. It was a reflexive reversion since Urdu was what Abba used for as long as I could remember. The second instance at which he did this was the morning after my mother’s burial as we sat together at dawn in the garden of our Karachi home, trying to cope with the magnitude of our loss.
As is typical of such cross-border encounters in the Indo-Pakistan context, the guard immediately offered to waken the household so that we could visit the inside. To which Abba replied, with a deeply wistful look, that there was no need—the house was not and had not been our abode for decades and he had no desire to disturb anyone.
Home is primarily a circumstance created by people, atmosphere, and associations. Once these change, the physical place can no longer be regarded as “Home”. The event of migration or displacement is not so painful as is the prospect that you cannot go back.
Abba recovered wonderfully from the emotional stress, charming all and sundry in Delhi with his gravitas, elegance, wit, gentleness, and warmth.
It was not all nostalgia and moroseness. Far be it. There was mirth aplenty.
There was the mandatory visit to Nizamuddin to pay homage to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and Hazrat Amir Khusro. This happened an evening or two before the wedding and we were accompanied by a dear friend, Ansis Helmanis, Latvian-American from Boston, living in Vienna on assignment with the UN. Ansis came for the wedding and it happened to be his first visit to the subcontinent. He took all of it in stride wonderfully, being simultaneously fascinated and shell-shocked by the colour, music, sounds, smells, and the sheer weight of humanity. He participated with gusto in every gathering, ceremony, or venture into Delhi and its environs. His personality easily lent itself to the emotions of the subcontinent, leading us to conclude that he must have been borne in India in a past life.
After the homage at the graves, we wandered around Nizamuddin until dusk. On our way out we passed a shack that sold jalaybees and the desire to savour the sweets was overwhelming. So we stopped and chatted with the vendor, trying to convince him to cook us a fresh hot batch, despite the fact that he was shutting shop for the evening. It did not take much convincing for him to kindle the fire and heat up the fat filled pan in which the jalaybees were to be deep-fried as well as the pan of thick syrup in which they would be soaked to get their unique sugary taste. The vendor emphasised the favour he was doing in restarting this paraphernalia that, he said, was only because aap bahar say aiye hain [you have come from abroad]—I was dressed in a shalwar kameez and therefore identifiably Pakistani.
Thus far, Ansis paid only cursory notice to the proceedings but the ritual of the cooking focused his attention. It was only then that he noticed the grime of the place. The frying pan was pitch black, encrusted with fat and residues. The receptacle for the syrup was equally filthy and there were heaps of flies, the king-sized blue-black variety, which had settled for their nocturnal pursuits upon the wire from which the feeble light bulb was suspended. When the wire was accidentally shaken, they took flight, swarming around the shack, accentuating the lack of hygiene of the place.
All this caused Ansis to get evermore wide-eyed with trepidation. But what finally overwhelmed him was the cloth funnel through which the batter for the jalaybees was to be squeezed into ringlets in the frying pan. The cloth was a dark, murky gray and stiff as cardboard due to the grime and residue retained from past use. Ansis’ jaw dropped in disbelief—Man! Are you actually going to eat stuff cooked like this? !!!. The vendor, sensing somewhat of a lack of admiration on Ansis’ part, sheepishly smiled and apologised for the fact that the cloth had not been washed that day. I told him to dispense with the apologies since by its look the cloth had probably not been washed since Hazrat Nizamuddin’s day…
In the event, the jalaybees were cooked and put into a small paper bag fabricated from a recycled newspaper. For the first time in the trip Ansis looked visibly scared: Look, guys, I worked at the USFDA. I know that scientific research proves that some bacteria don’t die even at a thousand degrees. That place was about the filthiest bacteria farm I have ever seen. This stuff is packed in newsprint with ink that contains lead. You’ll die if you eat any of this!!!
To this I laughingly told Ansis that he would be safe since he did not need to eat the jalaybees, and that they were worth dying for, anyways.
And so we went our way, chomping the jalaybees in bliss. Ansis watched this with incredulity. A few minutes later, seeing that premature death had not overtaken us, he asked for a taste. I reminded him of his revulsion at the lack of hygiene etc. He was undeterred. I gave him a tidbit. The delicious taste so overwhelmed him that he that he grabbed the bag and demolished the whole lot of jalaybees, leaving none for us!
Thus was Ansis’ introductory lesson on sub continental street food—the filth is part of the taste and some things, when cooked at home, would not be quite as delicious when cooked in a clean environment! Ansis went on to eat at some of the grungiest and greatest street side eateries in India and Pakistan. His stomach survived and his taste buds flourished…
So, the food did not affect our well-being. The same could not be said of a new acquaintance, Sandeep (Bunty) Chawla.
Bunty was then Professor of History in Shilong University and one of the blades around Delhi, having completed his Doctorate in History from St. Stephen’s, Oxford and Delhi University. His elder brother and sister-in-law invited us for dinner that same evening as the Nizamuddin episode. The food was great, the lubrication plentiful, and the conversation lively; so the evening lasted till after 2 am. By now it was freezing outside, and Bunty’s brother designated him to drop Ansis and me at our hotel. Given the hour and the distance, I expressed the normal formality of suggesting to Bunty that we could take a taxi back rather than inconvenience him, if only he could drop us at a taxi stand. Surprisingly Bunty took the perfunctory formality literally and managed to place us in a rickshaw after several determined yet unsuccessful attempts to wean several Sardar taxi drivers from the comfort of beds warmed by coal fired heaters in open-air taxi stands.
So Ansis and I found ourselves under-clad against the freezing Delhi night in a rickety rickshaw, braced for the long ride back, huddled against the shards of piercing cold drafts that lacerated us through the many openings of the rickshaw. Not quite the stuff of which fond memories are made!
The next morning I woke up with a sharp headache and raging fever, feeling like I was down with pneumonia, a fearsome prospect confronting the Most Important Day of My Life!
Ansis went to Agra early that morning and it was not till the evening that I was able to touch base with him only to find him hoarse and equally feverish.
Our acute indisposition on his account earned Bunty the honorific “The B-----d Bunty” for several months.
Bunty came to Vienna in mid 1983 to join the UN, and embark upon a stellar career. A wary (on my part) acquaintanceship grew into a profound friendship with one of the most hospitable, generous, loyal, humorous, and intellectually challenging friends I have been privileged with. He is godfather to my younger son, and we have shared a great deal of life. On my enquiring, some years later, on his behaviour that night Bunty could not recall, come hell or high water, what prompted this transgression on his norms of hospitality. My theory is that, since at the time he was wooing his future bride, a hormonal overload had short-circuited his brain. Surprising how the source of reason speeds across anatomical boundaries when love is in the air!
But back to that time of this narrative, Bunty and his brother were enthusiastic participants in the concert that is the subject of this post.
Shujaat beginning the recitation of "Mun Kunto Maula"
And so, if you have survived the story thus far, on to the music.
Shujaat Khan is the elder of Ustaad Vilayat Khansahib’s sons, heir to a musical legacy of several generations. His great-grandfather, Imdad Khan, established a gharana of sitar players endowed with his name. His grandfather Enayat Khan was a legend who’s reputation spanned generations despite the fact that generations after his had no opportunity to hear him as there are no known available recordings. But it took the genius and perseverance of Shujaat’s father, Ustad Vilayat Khansahib, to elevate the sitar to unparalleled heights in the expression of the raaga in instrumental form.
Originally conceived by Hazrat Ameer as an instrument to accompany the vocal form, by the time of Imdad Khan, the sitar had been elevated to a principal instrument. The Imdad Khani gharana justifiably prides itself in playing the sitar in the gayaki ang (vocal continuous melodic expression) rather than the gat torah (tonal discontinuity of plucked/strummed stringed instruments).
Vilayat Khansahib was borne of two lineages, the Imdad Khan lineage of sitar players and his maternal heritage of notable vocalists. His first love affair was with vocal music but his mother insisted that he maintain his paternal legacy and stay with the sitar. He was in the fortunate position of being able to choose between two streams of Indian classical music—the vocal and the instrumental. Rather than force the choice, he developed his skills at the sitar to express the music with a fluency that matches the vocal. He also took to singing a few bars along with the sitar, short musical phrases enunciated to emphasise the melody of the raaga. The first instance we heard this was in a live tape recording my father was presented of a concert that Khansahib gave in Calcutta sometime in the seventies, when he played Shudh Kalyan supported by recitation of the phrases of the Qaul, “Mun Kunto Maula”. We found this to be utterly unique and memories of this beautiful expose were imprinted indelibly on our minds.
Most great musicians achieve their status through training and dedicated hard work. A few are gifted and endowed by the Almighty with something special that makes them God’s gift to humanity. Vilayat Khansahib was one of the few.
The most notable aspect of Khansahib’s combination of vocal and sitar expositions was his exquisite sense of balance. The vocalization never overshadowed the virtuosity of the sitar expression. This unfortunately cannot be said of many of the current generation of sitarists from the Imdad Khan gharaana, who seem to fancy themselves as singers and go on and on with mediocre or (at most) passable singing to the detriment of their real forte, which is the sitar, with the result that the audience is presented tepid vocalisations backed up by gimmicky sitar music. This is an unfortunate and unnecessary development, a concession to supposedly popular tastes.
I first heard Shujaat in 1978. He accompanied his father at a concert held in a church in Montreal. Khansahib decided to play Marwa, a particularly difficult and somewhat dry, burdened raaga. Although barely 18, Shujaat demonstrated virtuosity, following the exposition note for note, nuance by nuance, under the father’s watchful eye.
I had expressed the wish that we have a music concert after the nikkah and was therefore quite besides myself with delight to hear that a family friend of the in-laws was able to get Shujaat to play the wedding concert.
Pakistani visitors to Delhi were somewhat of a curiosity in those days and a Pakistani marrying an Indian all the more so. I was, therefore, regarded as a bit of a specimen I presume. It was probably this curiosity that prompted Shujaat, his mother and his sister to participate in all the rasams associated with the ceremony. We met at the mehndi ceremony, on the day prior to the actual wedding and the concert. This afforded an opportunity for Abba and I to get to know this magnetic and vivacious personality, to talk music and what it meant to be the son of Ustaad Vilayat Khansahib.
Shujaat was short of 23 that time and despite this being a first meeting, he gave us a glimpse of his inner soul, the turbulence of his adolescence caused by the burdens of the musical inheritance that he bore, of his aspirations for the future in embarking upon his journey as an independent artist emerging from the large shadow caste by his father.
Shujaat had an endearing mischievousness to him and he regaled us with stories of Japan and of Japanese music, all told with a touch of humour that afforded moments of light-heartedness.
Shujaat had an endearing mischievousness to him and he regaled us with stories of Japan and of Japanese music, all told with a touch of humour that afforded moments of light-heartedness.
We talked about the performance and almost inevitably our shortlist for the music were Shudh Kalyan, Hameer and Bilawal.
The actual recital was magical. Shujaat played with classical segmentation of the exposition into the alaap, jorh and jhala in Shyam Kalyan with Hameer and Bilawal played in the faster tempo at the end. The second part of the concert comprised lighter pieces. Shujaat was accompanied by Shafaat Khan, a young tabla player who has since attained considerable fame.
We almost lost this recording. The recording fellow brought along a machine that had a defective erase head and used a pre-recorded tape. Thus the original audio recording has an irritating underlay of the previously recorded music. We managed to rescue the first part of the session, lasting 45 minutes, by copying the soundtrack from the videotape of the occasion. Not the best quality of recording and in mono format. But it is better than nothing!
Shujaat played brilliantly that evening, the speed of his hands and finger work was such that the videotape has his fingers dissolving into a blur when he plays at the faster rhythms! Most remarkable in this performance is the use of the meendh (elongation of the note by stretching the string along the length of the fret/bridge on the neck of the sitar ). This seemingly simple means of accentuating a note is masterfully demonstrated as a technique perfected by the Imdad Khani gharaana and the net effect is a delightful “floating” of the note, consigning it to the air, to eternity.
If there are two words to describe the artist and his performance they are vigour and authority. The vigour came from Shujaat’s youthful energy and the authority of his exposition defies his tender years.
He recorded another version of Shyam Kalyan, almost a quarter of a century later, in his 2006 album “Hazaron Khawahishen”. That exposé has a totally different mood—gentle, complex, deliberated and full of ihteraam for the musical note as well as for the kalaam. I have listened to both versions sequentially and till today cannot make up my mind as to which I prefer, the younger Shujaat Khan who explodes with the music or the older Ustaad Shujaat Khan who treats it with a wise tenderness.—Asif Mamu