Like others, I've always maintained that classical music is one language that unites creeds. It may not be easy to learn but it is easy listening if we let ourselves float with its current and go where it takes us (usually to a feel-good zone). Our neighbours to the north-west do not permit our artistes to visit them. But we have always welcomed their singers here, be it Reshma, Iqbal Bano, Farida Khanum, Abida Parveen, Ghulam Ali, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan or Shafqat Amanat Ali, and showered respect and affection on them, have we not? In that spirit, however one-sided, it seems healthy, cheer-worthy and full of good hope for 'the spirit of South Asia' that Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan of Pakistan was invited to grace the Hanuman Jayanti Utsav organised last week by the Sankat Mochan temple at Tulsi Ghat, Varanasi.
Tulsi Ghat, lest we forget, is where Goswami Tulsidas finished writing the Ramcharitmanas and where he composed the Hanuman Chalisa in the 16th century. It is where miracles of positive outcome are known to happen, too many to relate here and Ustad Ghulam Ali's musical presence at Varanasi was no less than a cross-border miracle, occurring between the happy occasions of Ram Navami and Baisakhi. It's worth recalling that it was Ustadji who told us years ago that Raag Bhairavi, Raag Bhairav (or Bhairon) and Raag Kalangra provide the music in recitations of the Quran.
Another old musical miracle story with a Varanasi angle relates to the composer whom I personally venerate, Muthuswami Deekshitar, 1775-1835 ('ar' at the end is a respectful Tamil suffix like 'ji' in Hindi).
Alas, few outside the Carnatic zone know what an immensely influential cross-border cultural pioneer he was. Not only did he compose mostly in Sanskrit but he also brought in Hindustani musical elements to Carnatic music. This was a consequence of being allowed by his parents to go to Varanasi with the yogi Chidambaranath who became his spiritual master (and gifted him the Sarasvati vina that he excelled in playing).
Deekshitar also made good use of the Western music he experienced. As young men, he and his brother Baluswami frequented Fort St George (Chennai) where they heard the music of English bands. While Baluswami, encouraged by his brother, learnt the western violin and pioneered its use in Carnatic music, Deekshitar had fun composing Sanskrit lyrics for 37 Western tunes.
A Deekshitar miracle story goes that he sang Raag Amritavarshini to invoke rain on the drought-stricken Tamil village of Sattur. Amritavarshini means 'showering nectar' in Sanskrit. The raag resembles Raag Malashree in Hindustani music. Deekshitar hailed Devi as 'Ananda amritakarshini varshini', 'the One who showers the nectar of spiritual bliss'. They say that when he sang 'Salilam varshaya varshaya' (Let the rain pour), there followed such a torrent from heaven that he had to plead, "Sthambaya, sthambaya" (Do stop).
With such stories linking the land and still active in our culture can we wonder that south Asian musicians never stop pleading with us to stop fighting over externals and listen instead to the harmony that they find and share?