An evening with Lali which would extend till the early hours of dawn was very often in painter S Raj Kumar’s studio apartment in Sector 15 where a few of the arty literary sorts would gather to listen to Lali. A professor of anthropological linguistics in the Punjabi University at Patiala, Lali Baba, as he was popularly known, even though his official name was Hardaljit Singh Lali, would be the star at this adda, Bengali style, in which friends get together in homes, coffee houses, parks or where you will for extended intellectual conversation. The difference in adda with Lali was that he spoke and we listened.
The arts and literature were Lali’s favourite themes and the evening would have him dwell on themes as diverse as the Kathak dance and Sitara Devi, the Partition and Saadat Hasan Manto, continuity and Marcel Proust, Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, the Guru Dutt tragedy and much else. Recalling Lali, who passed away last week, Punjabi writer and friend Surinder Sharma said: “He was the modern manifestation of the oral tradition and he took it to the zenith.”
At an informal gathering with his artist friends Raj Kumar, Raj Kishore, Sanjeev Soni and Gurmeet Singh on a rainy day over steaming cups of coffee, it was a look back with love at those amazing moments spent with this incomparable raconteur and the loss when he retreated to old age, silence and will of the family. Born to landed aristocracy, he chose the wandering life of an artist.
Bengali author Sarat Chandra is nicknamed ‘awara maseeha’ but I feel our Lali was any day the more authentic wandering ‘maseeha’ who came to the city streets seeking out the human predicament through images and expressions or in close contact with artists he admired. He had spent months in Kolkata to watch Kathak legend Sitara Devi rehearsing and also visited Mumbai streets that had figured in Manto’s stories.
This happened often at the cost of his family who would be waiting for him to return with a bag full of vegetables and he would have taken the train to not return for months. But family and fans are always at a tug of war and the truth is that the artiste blossoms only with the audience. So also it was with Lali.
Painter Raj Kumar remembers his first evening with Lali, “We sat mesmerised listening to him as he dwelt on the making of the film Mughal-e-Azam.” Personally, I have had the privilege of being a part of the privileged few around him and walked with him through the streets of his beloved Patiala by day and night. Sanjeev Soni, a lecturer at the Government College of Arts, Chandigarh, is one of the few persons who captured Lali in his narrative mood on film. “Filming Lali was not easy but I bought a camera only to retain those great moments we had spent with him,” says Soni.
Well, Lali Baba, an era in our lives is gone but there is no merit in saying goodbye, for you will remain with us as long as we do. You, as the smiling, aesthetic brown man with grey hair and many a tale to tell in your dancing hands and soft voice still walk along with us sometimes tugging your green bicycle. Let those who wish debate your art or craft but for the charmed circle, and a pretty large one you had, you were kind, humane and ever so inspiring!
(The writer is a prominent art and culture critic.)