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Flight of kindred spirits

December 04, 2018


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

FAHMIDA Riaz was a progressive poet and Annapurna Devi a classical musician. They are unlikely to have ever met but both women were united in a strong yearning to ignite our minds with their fiery talents. Fahmida flourished as a leftist writer and an outspoken feminist in a mostly adverse terrain in Pakistan. She was equally a celebrity with India’s left and liberal groups of all linguistic and cultural backgrounds, more so since the onset of the county’s rightward lurch. She was loved for her poetry and also as a sardonic raconteur of political events on both sides of the border.

Annapurna abandoned playing the surbahaar, a bass version of the sitar, in public when her marriage with fellow musician Ravi Shankar faltered, and became a recluse after their separation in 1981. Her legend though entrances connoisseurs of Hindustani classical music across the borders in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Annapurna left the world on Oct 13, at 91 after years of leading a secluded life spent mostly in her Mumbai apartment where she taught the refined grammar and nuance of her music to a handpicked disciple or two.

Fahmida was 72 when she passed away in Lahore last month after years of self-inflicted assault on her overburdened heart. Leftist politician Devi Prasad Tripahti rushed her to hospital in Delhi with chest pain on her last visit to India. Fahmida was advised to quit smoking but was evidently so involved in her trance with Jalaluddin Rumi by then that worldly prescriptions of good health were a distraction.

There was a third magician in the South Asian gene pool of soul-stirring talent who left us recently. Ustad Imrat Khan had lived much of his recent life in St Louis, in the United States, where he died on Nov 21 at 83. Like Annapurna Devi, he too was a brilliant exponent of the surbahaar with a broader stem to allow for long heart-tugging meends or gliding notes.

Here we have two musicians and a poet who transcended their religious moorings to reach out to a wider world with a transcendental mission.

Like Annapurna, Imrat played the surbahaar with a magician’s skill. Both were equally adept with the sitar too. That they belonged to different gharanas or styles of classical music was overshadowed by their mastery of the mesmeric craft. Surbahaar is played usually for long and contemplative alaaps of a raga sans percussion, and is considered a handful for faster gats even in the hands of very accomplished players.

Some scratchy recordings are available of Annapurna’s electric speed and serene prowess with the plectrum and the string. Delhi industrialist Vinay Bharatram, one of her older disciples, is quoted as recalling how uncomfortable she was with taking money for her concerts as she likened it to putting Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom, on sale. I’ve read somewhere that Annapurna Devi, born a Muslim, became a Hindu after her marriage to Ravi Shankar. Why that was necessary is puzzling since her father who prayed five times a day as a devout Muslim would rarely begin the morning without paying obeisance to goddess Kali, an avatar of Durga, as she is worshipped in his native Bengal.

And Durga was a favourite raga of Imrat whose music too had roots in pre-partition East Bengal. (Incidentally, Arshad Mehmood’s two endearing compositions of Faiz and Miraji are sung in Durga by Tina Sani and Tahira Syed respectively).

So here we have three amazing souls — two musicians and a poet — who transcended their religious moorings to reach out to a wider world with a transcendental mission. There has to be something of a tragedy in this though. Fahmida loved India as do any number of doting Pakistanis. Still or perhaps that’s why she had to struggle to secure a visa of late, which is not different from the lot of her other fellow citizens in the Modi era.

Imrat should have been at the centre of burgeoning adulation in India for his supreme craft, but like many other musicians, he found a more caring world abroad. He turned down an offer of a Padma Shri from the Indian government, hinting it was too little too late. Luckily, the ustad has trained his children with the thorough talim of his Imdadkhani gharana of music. Two sons are accomplished sitar players, while a third is an excellent exponent of the sarod.

Imrat had a close connection with Bangladesh where his forebears belonged, not unlike Annapurna Devi’s roots. Her father and guru Allaudin Khan belonged to the erstwhile East Bengal. If there is any extant recording of her music few would know of it better than her nephew Alam Khan, son of her brother, the legendary Ali Akbar Khan, who was close to her. Alam lives in California with his American mother and looks after the academy founded by Ali Akbar Khan. I consider him and Ken Zuckerman as the closest one could get to Annapurna Devi’s music because of their hard training with her brother Ali Akbar Khan.

I should recall here that I once drove Fahmida Riaz and her fellow Pakistani poet Ahmed Faraz to participate in a mushaira at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. It was during the Vajpayee government, sometime after the Kargil stand-off that Fahmida came to JNU at my behest. A young army captain whipped out a pistol and declared the soirée as anti-Hindu and therefore anti-India. Students overpowered him, while I spirited to safety the two Pakistani poets. Faraz was of the view on the way that they need not have waded into a problem that was not theirs. Fahmida took the stand —a view reflected in her novel Godavari and several poems — that the battle was a shared one.

Before my mother passed away at 97, she had threatened to die several times so that she could hear Gangubai Hangal in heaven. If that can be so, Fahmida, Annapurna and Imrat should be having a great time together while we celebrate them on terra firma.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2018