Serious themes buried under layers of comedy… here’s a must-read.
I first read Sheila Dhar's book about nine years ago, and thoroughly enjoyed the ambience of Old Delhi evoked by her. Reissued posthumously under a different title, I read again the anecdotes brought to life by her eye for comic detail, and enjoyed them just as much. Having read it with great pleasure for the third time now, it is clear to me that it is a classic.
In her childhood, Sheila's sprawling Mathur Kayastha family was the source of security, love from her mother, grandfather and uncle, and also humiliation because her father shunned her mother and his children. While her eminent grandfather introduced an increasing degree of western manners into the traditional ways of the family, a basic appreciation of Hindustani music and an ardent reverence for musicians was also insisted upon.
Sheila's own response to music grew not least in part due to the attention it drew from her distant father. He was a patron of the greatest classical musicians of the time and the household revolved in awe around those artists who came to stay. Sheila deftly sketches the characters of each, their idiosyncrasies, thus populating a large canvas in one's head with people one feels tender towards.
How could one not love Bundu Khan for playing his choicest music to the flowers? Or celebrate wholeheartedly Bade Ghulam Ali Khan's need for robust meat in order to fuel his robust singing? A simple hairpin reveals an entirely different facet of the great Kesarbai Kerkar, while an inebriated Bhimsen Joshi sings a phantom raga.
Raconteur of the remarkably funny situations that she seemed permanently to find herself in, Sheila energetically marshals Attenborough later Sir Richard, Joan Robinson, Indira Gandhi and even the Queen of Tonga to the central cause of her story-telling. No one is spared; her husband P.N. Dhar is portrayed as the straight man, the comic foil against which her humour sparkles and her boss Mohan Rao memorably depicted as a “one-man mob”.
When Mohan Rao confers on Attenborough the honour of an invitation to lunch at his home, through Sheila's eyes we relish the serving of food from his “parts”. “Mohan Rao appeared… with a dozen teaspoons arranged like a Japanese fan in the breast pocket of his bushshirt. He… started to pluck the teaspoons out, one at a time, handing them to everyone who was not Indian, and deliberately withholding them from those who were… Not knowing what to do with their teaspoon, each foreign recipient held it aloft like a small flag at a convention.”
Here, as well as while describing Siddheswari Devi's first trip abroad, Sheila heartily embraces the clash of Indian and western manners without the supercilious stance an anglicised Indian might adopt. Her sharp wit and skilled pen present many serious themes beneath the surface layer of comedy. Fame, patronage, finding the right guru Faiyyaz Ahmed Khan, the only too human pettiness of some musicians in contrast to the divine reach of their music, and the similarities between developing a raga and cooking an aromatic dish form part of the book's swara-redolent fabric.
Falling in love with a “many-splendoured” harmonium in New York, Sheila invited its owner-by-default to accompany her during a vocal recital. “Shahid unveiled the harmonium… His eyes were fixed expectantly on my face... I started by singing a long note to introduce the raga. Even before I could hear myself properly, Shahid burst into a volley of applause. ‘Wah, wah? Kya kehne! Kya baat hai, kya awaaz hai!' he expostulated, startling and mystifying everyone including me. Two things were clear. One, that he had no ear for music… Second, his enthusiasm had no connection with my calibre as a singer… At this point I noticed that no sound was emerging from the harmonium… his fingers lay inert on the keys… To my utter disbelief he mouthed the words, ‘I don't know how to play,' as though this was just a minor detail.” This incident led her to reflect on the organic, necessary participation of the audience with its cries of appreciation.
On turning the last page, not for the last time, one wishes one could say to Sheila, wah wah, Bahut bahut khoob!!!