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When life hurts or maims you, seek refuge, and hope, in music

For me, ‘perfect happiness’ is listening to the alap of an Ali Abkar Khan-Nikhil Bannerjee jugalbandhi in Manj Khamaj; for others, the voice of Bob Dylan, Lata Mangeshkar, or MS Subbulakshmi

columns Updated: Dec 31, 2017 08:36 IST
In the first week of December, I attended the 75th birthday celebrations of the classical musician Lalith J Rao. I have always had a special fondness for her music; it helped me establish a bond with my father-in-law.
In the first week of December, I attended the 75th birthday celebrations of the classical musician Lalith J Rao. I have always had a special fondness for her music; it helped me establish a bond with my father-in-law.(WikiCommons)

In the first week of December, I attended the 75th birthday celebrations of the classical musician Lalith J Rao. I have always had a special fondness for her music; it helped me establish a bond with my father-in-law. At the time I was courting the lady who is now my wife. I was what Vikram Seth would have called an ‘unsuitable boy’, with two second class degrees, no job, and no family income either. My father-in-law disapproved of me, but over the years he came around, in part, because, apart from being keen on his daughter, I was also I keen on our shastriya sangeet. The first concert I took him for was by Lalith Rao, a singer he admired for her music, and for having, like him, an advanced degree in engineering.

Shortly afterwards Lalith Rao lost her voice. It took her years to recover strength in her vocal chords, but she could never be the singer she once was. So she turned to teaching young musicians instead. When her disciples decided to celebrate her 75th birthday, she insisted it take the form of a tribute to her own guru, Ustad Khadim Hussain Khan. So, in early December, the Canara Union in Bengaluru hosted three evenings of sublime music, the last of which I attended, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9Xb8KgoosY&index=13&list=PL01ilcOJQjCEi1L2x7h4iUV_QYLT35vET). Lalith introduced each composition with an account, often witty and always moving, of how her guru taught her that particular bandish, before letting her own disciples sing it.

In the last week of December I spent time in the company of another exceptional woman artist, albeit through reading rather than listening to her. I had been gifted Claire Tomalin’s recently published A Life of One’s Own. I admired Tomalin’s biographies—which have won her a sheaf of awards—but her account of her own life equals, in readability as well as literary merit, her books on Mary Wollstonecraft, Dickens, Shelley, Jane Austen, and others.

Claire Tomalin’s father was a French scholar; her mother, an English musician. Art and culture were in her genes, yet her own path to literary distinction was strewn with difficulties. Her parents divorced when she was very young, leaving her in a succession of boarding schools. Fortunately, she had some fine teachers, including one who had lived in India and wept when Gandhi died, leaving her student to write, 70 years later, that ‘I was impressed to find that a teacher in girls’ school in England had a heart that beat for newly independent India’.

After school Claire went to Cambridge, which was bliss. However, the working world was more problematic. Because she was a woman, male publishers and editors condescended to her. And her domestic life was not without its problems either. Her husband Nick Tomalin was serially unfaithful, and beat her occasionally. They had four children, of which one was severely disabled and another committed suicide. After several stormy separations, Claire and Nick were eventually reconciled, but then he was killed by a missile while covering a war in the Middle East.

I am partial to memoirs, and read at least half-a-dozen a year. Till I read Claire Tomalin’s book, Dom Moraes’ My Son’s Father was the writer’s autobiography that I liked most (and re-read most often). Now A Life of One’s Own has surpassed it. Tomalin narrates her life’s experiences with no self-praise and absolutely no self-pity. The prose is clear, sometimes vivid, but never overheated. Her portraits of friends and family are affectionate without being sentimental. The difficulties she had with male bosses, colleagues, and rivals are recounted, but without rancour. Of a dispute with the celebrated (and sharp-tongued) writer Auberon Waugh, she says, ‘Bad feelings and vendettas are damaging to everyone involved in them.’ So true, in politics as well as in literature.

Towards the end of her book, Claire Tomalin writes that ‘my harshest regret is that our generation is not leaving the world in a better state than we found it, either politically or ecologically. Global warming and, in England, prison reform, both need urgent attention. If the nations could ... get rid of nuclear weapons, see the danger and folly of crude nationalism, empty prisons of all but the uncontrollably violent—the list is easy to make—we might see an improvement. But it may be that human nature will never allow these things to be brought about, and that the lessons of history are never learnt. The horrors brought to us by men who murder indiscriminately in the name of ideas no sane person could entertain force us to realize that peace is fragile and never to be taken for granted’.

And yet, when politics and politicians disappoint and divide, music and art can cheer and console. In the last paragraph of her quite wonderful book, Claire Tomalin quotes her hero, Samuel Pepys, who insisted that music is ‘productive of a pleasure that no state of life, public or private, secular or sacred, no difference of age or season; no temper of mind or condition... renders either improper, untimely, or unentertaining. Witness the universal gusto we see it followed with, wherever to be found’.

Claire Tomalin herself says: ‘If I had to describe perfect happiness, I might say it is hearing the first bars of the overture to The Marriage of Figaro...’. For me, ‘perfect happiness’ is listening to the alap of an Ali Abkar Khan-Nikhil Bannerjee jugalbandhi in Manj Khamaj; for others, the voice of Bob Dylan, Lata Mangeshkar, or MS Subbulakshmi. To each, his or her own singer or song; to all, the thought that when life hurts or maims you, seek refuge, and hope, in music.

Ramachandra Guha’s books include Gandhi Before India

The views expressed are personal