To Sir With Love

A particular scent can trigger off a vivid rush of memories. It happened to me late last evening, while I was walking my dogs in the Jahanpanah city forest that is right next  to my house .This 800 acres forest , considered to be the green lungs of South Delhi is perhaps one of its  best kept secrets too.Only people in the neighborhood really know about it I feel.(

Inside the forest,is  the shrine of Jalal al-Din Chishti Auliya . Initially, this shrine was just an anonymous grave it seems. Today ,however it is seen as an important Sufi ‘mazaar’ and  has become a flourishing centre of Sufism. Devotees coming from far normally stay at the shrine for few days.In the evening, these families cook their food on wood fires in the open space around the shrine.

As I neared  the shrine  last evening, a delicious fragrance of  ghee, jaggery, fennel and mangoes  being cooked, wafted in the air. Instantly, I recognized this smell as that of  sweet mango pickle being made. It took me back to treasured memories and a treasured person. Not my grandmother or mother or aunts who are normally fondly remembered for their pickle making prowess. But my Guruji. The man who taught me music and to play the ‘Sitar’ 🙂

His name was Shri Haridas Chakraborty ,a staff artiste of AIR ( All India Radio), Cuttack, Orissa. A brilliant and accomplished musician,  he was trained in the tradition of the  “Bishnupur Gharana”  of Hindustani Classical music.( ). He was actually an engineer. He told me that he had  got two job offers once he had earned his engineering degree. One was in the TATA company and the other as a staff artiste in AIR. He was in a dilemma; whether to choose a remunerative carrier or follow his passion? So he waited in the Howrah railway station and said whichever train would come   earlier i.e to Jamshedpur or Cuttack, that would be his fate. The train to Cuttack came earlier and he boarded a lifelong journey of incredible passion …his music. There is an Urdu word called  ‘Junoon”, which would mean obsession to the point of madness. That was the relationship of my Guruji with his music.

When my Dad was posted as Superintendent of police in Cuttack, ( 1974-75), Guruji and he became very good friends, although there was a considerable age gap between them. The binding factor was music. Guruji would invariably come to our house in the late evenings. He would play the Sitar or Soorbahar and discuss about  the myriad intricacies and beauty of Hindustani classical music. My mother tells me that I would apparently listen entranced while he played, throwing major tantrums if I was told that it was long past my bedtime. Many times I would fall asleep in Guruji’s lap.

My music lessons started when I was six years old. Guruji had organized a small ceremony to invoke the blessings of Goddess Sarsawati. I don’t have many recollections of this event, but my mother says both my Dad and Guruji cried when I picked up the  small, customized Sitar and confidently stroked the strings .

A musical journey of almost 26 long years thus began.

But it was not just a teacher-student relationship that I had with Guruji. I became the daughter he didn’t have. He had three sons who were gifted musicians too.But they didn’t have the ‘junoon’ for it like their father. Guruji told me that I had the same ‘junoon’ as him . This bond was perhaps thicker than the blood-bond for him. When the ‘mizrab’ or sitar pick would cut into my fingers or my finger tips would be swollen from running them on the strings, Guruji would apply hot mustard oil on them. Then he would instruct me that I should also put a mix of turmeric and cream on my hands because he believed a woman’s hands should be feminine and pretty. When I was old enough to be able to play a regular sitar, he went to Calcutta and sat  for days with the famous sitar maker, Hiren Roy and his team, to design one for me.(

 The stories he would recount about the various great musicians and gharanas were fascinating. Sometimes I wish I had written all of them down. Or perhaps recorded his voice. But I was young and careless. I believed in endlessness. In forever.I didn’t think of  separation. I didn’t think of death.

He was an exceptionally good cook too.Come summers, and he would make his famous sweet mango pickle for me. This became a ritual and when I left home to study in Delhi, he would make sure the pickle reached me. 

Guruji was with me in my growing up years of rebellion and experimentation. By this time, I was deeply driven towards rock music. I was discovering a new sound that sliced through my brain like sonic scalpels. The Beatles,Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Sabbath etc became as important as the different gharanas in Hindustani classical music. My Dad would get furious with me because I had started to bunk ‘riyaz’ in the mornings. He  had once caught me playing ‘Kashmir’ ( Led Zeppelin)on my sitar and I remember hell had reigned for quite some time 🙂

Surprisingly, Guruji was very gentle and patient with me. He would laugh if I played one of my ‘dhoom-dhadaka’ songs , as he called it. He would remonstrate with Dad to ‘just let her be’. When I was 21 years old, he gifted me a very beautiful Bishnupuri silk saree. It was  called ‘Mayurkanthi’ signifying the  double color tones of  a peacock’s throat. ( ). He told me that I should wear it for the  the man I  would love 🙂 Well, I am normally in distress jeans..but yes I have done that 🙂

 With my university studies and later my job  outside my home state of Orissa, I was able to meet Guruji, only when I went home for holidays. We spoke on phone regularly though. By this time he had retired from his job at the radio station.His health had started failing too. He was a chain smoker and would finish off 2/3 packets of ‘beedi’ in a day. I realized that he was very lonely. His sons had married and moved to Calcutta. His wife stayed with each of them, mainly spending time with her grandchildren. 

In December 2002, Guruji came to Delhi at my insistence. At the  New Delhi, railway station I remember running to hug that beloved figure , clad in a white dhoti and kurta, frail yet strangely strong because of his glittering eyes. The ‘junoon’ was still intact. He stayed with me for a month and we traveled to Agra, Jaipur, Mathura, Brindavan to see all the tourist attractions. It was perhaps one of the happiest times for both of us. I particularly remember the day I took him to the Nizammudin Dargah( )  We soaked in the beauty of the ‘qawwali ‘ on a cold Thursday evening there. Guruji had tears in his eyes as the mesmerising voices of the qawwals  invoked the Lord, seeking eternal communion and salvation. He told me ‘music is the only way to reach God…never let it leave you’. I smiled. I knew what he was referring to. I no longer did ‘riyaz’ . The ‘junoon’ had got buried in  everyday living.

Shortly after this trip, Guruji died of a massive heart attack. My parents were there with him during the end. He left his sitar for me.

Some evenings when a restlessness invades  me , I pick up Guruji’s sitar, remove the red and gold muslin cover, and just hold it. It soothes me.And I listen to Ustad Faiyaz Khan. Guruji loved him. So do I. And of course my Dad played Raag Darbari by the great Ustad as my lullaby. 

Jimmy Page, I wish you could have met my Guruji. He was as awesome as you 🙂

And guys,  do listen to this :



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