Uttar Pradesh’s little known town of Najibabad in Bijnor district, has always had a cultural life beyond the obvious

Nostalgia is an inescapable fact of life. It revives memories of whatever was precious in our past. Although I have been living in Delhi for more than four decades, I continue to fondly remember my home town Najibabad in Bijnor district of western Uttar Pradesh. It was founded in the mid-eighteenth century by Najib Khan, the Rohilla chief belonging to the umarkhel section of the Yousufzais. He later became prime minister to the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam II and came to be known as Nawab Najib-ud-Daula. He planned the town in such a way that the Hindu mohallas were kept away from the Muslim ones. Perhaps, this is the reason why even in the days of the Partition, Najibabad never experienced communal tension.

What I remember most about my hometown is its public library Saraswati Pustakalaya founded by a handful of well-meaning, educated and nationalist individuals in 1918 when spreading education was considered a part of the freedom struggle. This was the place where I acquired a passion for reading. I sorely miss the elderly Salek Chand, universally known as Karmachari Ji, who joined in 1925 and devoted 57 years of his life to looking after the library. If he thought that I was reading a book that was inappropriate for my age, he would promptly bring it to my father’s attention.

Though a small town, it had a vibrant cultural life in the 1960s and 1970s. Mehfils of Hindustani classical music as well as Hindi and Urdu poetry were held at the houses of aficionados. Our Hindi teacher Yamuna Prasad Katyayan was a great lover of music. He would tell us with obvious pride that he had once provided lehra on harmonium to Ahmed Jan Thirakwa, perhaps the greatest tabla player of the last century, when he visited Najibabad. It was from him that I heard the names of Nazakat Ali-Salamat Ali for the first time when he returned from Jalandhar after attending the famed Swami Harivallabh Sangeet Sammelan in the mid-1960s.

Master harmonium maker Dinesh Chandra Sharma had a band of committed film music lovers around him. Those days, he would make a harmonium from the scratch and it was fascinating to watch him perform multiple tasks as a carpenter, harmonium assembler and musician. People would come from far off places to get their harmoniums repaired and tuned, as there was nobody who tuned them better than him. And the situation has not changed since.

Towards the end of the 1960s, a khandsari inspector called Ram Bharadwaj was posted in Najibabad. He was a lyricist of the Kavi Sammelan variety. A warm-hearted and generous person, he soon became an integral part of the town’s cultural life. Dinesh Sharma, who could play several instruments, composed tunes for a few of his lyrics and they were sung by my elder brother Pradeep Kumar. Bharadwaj took these recordings to Bombay (now Mumbai). When he returned, that was the first time we saw a portable spool tape-recorder as he had brought recordings of some of his songs sung by none other than Muhammad Rafi under the baton of Laxmikant-Pyarelal. This was when we came to know that music directors would often compose two or three different tunes for one song and ask the singers to render them. Later, the one liked most by the director and others associated with the film would be chosen. After making several such trips to Bombay, Bharadwaj got a break and eventually penned lyrics for quite a few Hindi films. It is said that it was he who spotted Mandakini in Meerut and introduced her to Raj Kapoor.

Ram Bharadwaj’s wife belonged to Meerut and her mother was a childhood friend of my mother. So, Mrs Bharadwaj would often drop by to meet my mother. They had two sons and both were interested in music. One of them was learning to play mandolin those days. I don’t remember if it was the younger or the older one. However, after a few years, Bharadwaj was posted elsewhere and I met him for the last time in 1982 at a wedding. Sadly, like my brother Pradeep, he too died young.

However, his elder son proved to be a huge success in Bollywood, both as a music director and a filmmaker. You guessed it right. I am indeed referring to Vishal Bharadwaj.