I was born in Kolkata, or what used to be called Calcutta those days, and arrived from the hospital on my parent’s arms to our home in Jatin Das Road. It was a quiet little road in South Calcutta, where we lived in a rented flat.
It continued to be my home for the first twenty three years of my life. And this meant that it was my abode during the entire course of my formal education in India, starting from kindergarten, through junior and high school, all the way to post-graduation.
We were insecure tenants, however, since house rents were visibly rising during my growing years and we were still paying a paltry sum as rent, which was the rate prevailing at the time my father moved into the flat a year before I was born. The landlord raised the rent from time to time, but, despite the increases, it continued to be hopelessly low by market standards. Unfortunately though, my father could not afford to pay more. The fault was partly his own of course, since he neglected his work on account of an incurable addiction. No, he was no drunkard, nor was he into narcotics. His addiction centered around one of the most innocent of human weaknesses. Garrulity! He was a compulsive ‘talker’ and wasted his time gossiping merrily with his acquaintances in the neighborhood quite oblivious of his professional call.
Our refusal to move out of the flat led to legal proceedings. And the law being what it was, the courts came out with verdicts in our favor and we continued to survive in that quiet little street. But life for our household was hardly quiet. Having lost the suits, the landlord resorted to strong arm tactics. He lived on the second floor of the same house where we occupied a ground floor flat. Although man made laws went against him, natural laws appeared to be on his side. And one of these happened to be the force of gravity. Realizing this all too clearly, he began to treat our residence as a garbage dump and supplied us free of charge a variety of organic and inorganic waste on a regular basis. And of course, his wife and he also made violent use of sound energy, using the choicest expletives to describe their tenant from early morning till night. Much to my embarrassment, but, as far as I could make out, to the entertainment of our neighbors.
The sound waves in question bothered me to no end, since the nature of my education stood in the way of replying back in the same language. Besides, I was never really sure where justice lay. The rent we paid was indeed far too little. I found it hard though to concentrate on my studies, waiting as I did with alarm for the sequence of abuses to commence. It was not a way of life that could make one proud.
Yet, ‘in the midst of darkness, light persists’ as Gandhi had observed.
One morning, as I was trying miserably to concentrate on my books, I heard sounds that appeared to emerge, not from the direction from which they usually did, but from my immediate neighborhood. A man was singing it seemed in the ground floor flat of the building right next to ours. I peeped out of the window and realized that the source of the music was the window immediately opposite to the one where I stood listening.
It was pure classical music and the singer was clearly no ordinary mortal. He was not merely someone who was trained in music. He was a master artiste, an accomplished vocalist practicing his art, sitting less than fifteen feet away from me. I could not see him, since he sat hidden behind the window curtain, but his clear, mellifluous voice kept me charmed for the next hour or so. And then, to my delight, the ritual continued each succeeding morning. I continued to remain immersed in his great music everyday. He offered me protection from the horrifying screams from the landlord’s flat. His music was a pain balm for my much abused ears.
Within a few days, a name plate showed up on this man’s door. And it said in no uncertain terms ‘Nasir Aminuddin Khan Dagar’. I found it hard to believe my eyes as well as my good fortune. Not many in India have been his next door neighbors! So, it was Ustad Aminuddin Khan Dagar who was treating me to his exquisite music every morning! My joy was endless as I realized this.
I was quite young at the time to think philosophically. But when I reflect on this today, I cannot help feeling that life invariably has its compensations for the pains that it inflicts on you. Of course, I never mustered enough courage to knock on his door and request him to let me sit at his feet as he did his ‘rewaz’. But I hoped for an opportunity to speak to him someday. Or, at least, hear him speak to me.
If you truly wish for something from deep within your heart, nature does come to your aid.
Our door-bell rang one afternoon and I answered it. A man I had never met stood before me. My immediate reaction was fear of course. Has this man been sent by the landlord to deliver retribution? I stared at him not knowing what to say. The look in his eyes assured me however that the man had not come with ill intentions. He smiled pleasantly and informed me that Ustad-ji had sent him over.
‘Ustad-ji?’ I asked totally confused.
‘Dagar-sab, you know,’ he explained, ‘he lives next door.’
‘Yes, of course,’ I stammered. ‘Dagar-sab wants to see us? But why? I can’t follow you sir.’
‘Oh no, no,’ the man continued. ‘He doesn’t want you to go and see him. He wants to know if he can visit you this evening. Will it be too much of a problem?’
I stood flabbergasted. ‘Am I hearing correctly?’ I thought. ‘You mean, Ustad-ji wants to come to our home? Why yes, of course, he is most welcome.’ And then I added, ‘It will be a great honor. Only I am worried that we have little to offer him. None of us here are trained in music you know …,’ my voice trailed off.
‘Actually,’ the man clarified, ‘he wants to listen to your radio.’
‘What?’ I was incredulous now. But the man explained further.
Ustad-ji doesn’t possess a radio set and All India Radio will be broadcasting him at 7 PM. He said that he had often heard the radio playing in your home. He was wondering if he could come over to listen to the programme.’
One of the greatest singers India has produced did not own a radio, leave alone a recorder, to listen to his own music! And, ironically enough, the only radio within his close reach belonged to a family that was being constantly threatened with forced eviction, lock, stock and barrel, radio included! The situation resembled a meeting between a hungry man carrying a bottle of water and a thirsty man carrying a bagful of fruits in the middle of Sahara!
Yes, Dagar-sab did arrive on time. He sat on a divan and listened to the programme, while I sat on the floor watching him spellbound. It was not too long a programme of course and it was soon time for him to leave. But before he left, he chatted with me for a little while. He said he had often heard ‘good music’ (his exact words!) being played through our radio. I felt stupidly proud of the fact that the music I listened to was ‘good’ in Ustad-ji’s opinion.
And then he informed me that his elder brother, Ustad Nasir Moinuddin Khan Dagar had passed away some months ago and that he felt like an orphan. He didn’t enjoy singing alone, because the Dagar Brothers had always sung together. He looked infinitely sad as he spoke about his brother and ended up by telling me that his brother’s spirit visited him quite regularly, or else he wouldn’t be able to keep going! I simply absorbed whatever this immensely accomplished, yet humble individual was unloading on me.
I knew even at that age that I would never forget our meeting. Ustad Nasir Aminuddin Khan Dagar had come to live in Calcutta in his capacity as the Principal of Birla College of Music I learnt later. I left India not long after this incident, so I never found out if he finally ended up buying a radio for himself.
Here is a tarana in Bageshri by the Ustad. As most of us know, the Dagar School specialized in Dhrupad, so the clipping is not a typical product. It merely demonstrates the School’s versatility. The un-copyrighted CD from which I ripped this piece says: This is probably the concluding part of a long concert, in which these short pieces were sung after … Dhrupad alap and composition.